Where to ski, stay and spa in the Austrian mountains this winter

With new spas, design hotels and the Run of Fame, there's never been a better time to explore Austria's Alps. We set off in the sparkling little Salzburger village of Leogang, now linked to one of the country's largest ski areas.

St Anna's Chapel, Leogang.

Photograph by Patrick Langwallner
By Nick Dalton
Published 14 Dec 2022, 08:00 GMT

It’s midwinter, and I’m doing lengths in a rooftop infinity pool in the Austrian Alps. The steaming stretch of water is 80ft long, set at eyeballing level with the craggy Leogang Rockies. It’s the jewel in Naturhotel Forsthofgut’s watery crown, an oasis of muscle-soothing calm in the little Salzburger village of Leogang. Here, nature  and water reigns supreme.

Below my lofty swimming pool, the Lakehouse area was a new Forsthofgut addition last season: a swimmer’s idyll and ice-dunking spot in winter. A Japanese-style onsen pool with water at 42C juts out from the glass lakehouse building and merging with the lake itself is a heated indoor/outdoor swimming pool and floating sauna where you can gaze at the world through the glass wall before retreating to a sprawling relaxation room filled with loungers, and yet another panoramic glass wall.

It might be the height of Alpine spa chic now, but Naturhotel Forsthofgut started out as a family farm. The original 400-year-old building is still on site, and so is the family the Schmucks. The first couple of rooms were rented out in 1960 and it became a hotel proper in 1990. After a €12m (£10.5m) lockdown makeover, behind the traditional facade today is a contemporary water and wellbeing wonderland.

Angular modern buildings were added from reclaimed wood, punctuated by steel and glass in a construction that seems to drift down the mountains. Much of the spa area is for adults only, but as generations of the Schmuck family have been born and raised here, children are pampered, too. There’s a kids’ club, a vast family pool and a fantastical 230ft-long waterslide that looks like something out of a Victorian ironworks, twirling through three floors among Amazonian greenery. Just outside the door, you’ll find all the fun of the Skicircus: Leogang is jumping off point for Austria’s second largest ski area, linked by some of the world’s most impressive lift systems.

A few paces away, I find Leogang’s nursery slopes, and Leo’s Kinderland, a fabulous children’s area run by Skiszene Altenberger ski school, with six magic carpet lifts, a ski carousel and igloo. In Austria, children are on skis as soon as they can walk, with snow-play childcare from the age of two and lessons from age three. Leogang’s slopes are some of the most tranquil around  a boon for novices. But I need something more challenging.

Naturhotel Forsthofgut's outdoor spa area blends seamlessly with the slopes.

Naturhotel Forsthofgut's outdoor spa area blends seamlessly with the slopes.

Photograph by Patrick Langwallner

I hop on the nearby Asitz gondola and soar up to the point where Leogang gives way to the central Skicircus resort of Saalbach and its lengthy valley, which is an intermediate’s paradise. In total, 168 miles of slopes crisscross Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn (its official mouthful of a name).

Some easy cruises and a chairlift later, i'm above Saalbach. From here, I take a sunny run down one side of the long valley, through Hinterglemm, then double back for the return leg. It’s an easy day out — perfect for even modest skiers as the loop can be done on blue runs. The following day, I seek out Skicircus’s most recent addition, the lakeside resort of Zell am See.

Setting off just as the lifts open, I find the long, meandering blue all the way down to the Zell am See Xpress gondola. This long-awaited link, whose opening fanfare got lost in early pandemic lockdowns, adds even more miles to Skicircus’s vast reaches, all included on the mega Ski Alpin lift pass that stretches out to Zell’s neighbouring Kaprun ski area.

There’s hardly anyone around and I’m mesmerised by the waters below, glistening in the sun. Is this Austria’s most beautiful ski resort? There’s stiff competition in this part of the world, but with its car-free cobbled streets set between lake and mountains, Zell is a picture. I ski all the way down with the slopes to myself, nipping back up to ski the Xpress route before being drawn in by music at the Asitzbahn peak.

It’s Skicircus’s White Pearl Mountain Days spring festival, which brings DJs, live music and special menus to mountain venues. At Hendl Fischerei, an elaborately carved wooden bar-restaurant akin to a hobbit den, I join one of the festival’s numerous free parties. A glass of fizz and live music (saxophone, dancers) proves an unexpected lunchtime diversion. Back at the hotel it’s Strudel Time, a jolly (and filling) take on afternoon tea, with classic apple strudel and cakes, as well as savoury and vegan options.

An outdoor pool at Forsthofgut

An outdoor pool at Forsthofgut

Photograph by Patrick Langwallner

Dinner is a three-menu choice of Alpine produce using ingredients sourced from the hotel’s 54-acre farm or within 30 miles. Subsequent days provide enough skiing to warrant an appetite-sating Japanese feast at the Forsthofgut’s lakeside Mizumi restaurant, where fare includes maki and sashimi with Leogang lake trout. There are also hearty, cheesy Austrian classics at cosy Restaurant 1617, and chef’s table fine-dining at Echt. But this being a ‘nature hotel’, Forsthofgut is always serving creative activities to tempt you back outside.

This autumn, the hotel opened a horse-riding centre offering indoor lessons and summer treks. It’s an enchanting forest-backed spot adjoining the sizeable farm. Evening walks hosted by the Schmuck family take guests out to greet the animals, making this perhaps the only hotel where grown men rush home from a day’s skiing so they can feed the deer.

How to do it

Naturhotel Forsthofgut has double rooms from €200 (£180) per night for five-night stays, including bed, breakfast, Strudel Time, and spa access.  

Futuristic-rustic chalets at Dolomit Royal.

Futuristic-rustic chalets at Dolomit Royal.

Photograph by Harald Wisthaler

Five new openings in Austria to check out this season

1. Hotel Enzian, Obergurgl
Best for: a luxury stay

Long known for its wellness area  comprising saunas, a steam bath, a solarium, water beds, an infra-red cabin, a vitamin bar and more  the family-run, adults-only Hotel Enzian has now added a rooftop swimming pool. From its perch on the resort’s smallest four-star property there is a spectacular 360-degree mountain view: the village is located at 6,500 feet with slopes topping out at 10,000 feet. There’s also a new gym and all 26 rooms have been revamped. Doubles from €240 (£210) per night, half board. 

2. Silvretta Therme, Ischgl
Best for a spectacular stay

Opening in December, this five-floor gleaming spa has a rooftop warm-water pool and a first floor ice rink that encircles the building, as well as a huge indoor adventure pool, and an 80ft-long pool for serious swimmers. More than half a dozen saunas and steam baths can be found outdoors, as well as a pool bar, an ice bar and three restaurants. The hotel runs on 100 % green electricity and is mainly heated by geothermal energy and groundwater pumps. 

3. Dolomit Royal, East Tyrol 
Best for: stylish self-catering

These futuristic-rustic buildings in East Tyrol’s Sillian-Thurntaler ski area comprise 10 apartments set within a strikingly off-kilter, angular timber frame (sleeping two to eight), while contemporary wood-tiled chalets have generously curving walls. Both options come with private saunas. It’s only a two-hour drive from Klagenfurt, with its recently launched Ryanair flights. Apartments from €80 (£70) per day (for up to four people), five-night minimum; chalets from €700 (£610) per night (up to four people), five-night minimum. 

4. Falkensteiner Hotel Montafon, Tschagguns
Best for: upscale family fun

This contemporary five-star family hotel (opening December 2022), with 130 rooms and suites, is set at the base of the slopes of the Golm resort, close to the 70-mile Silvretta Montafon circuit with 28 miles of runs. There’s a pool with water slide, a kids’ club and an Acquapura Spa. ‘Ecotainment’ includes sustainability-focused snow hikes. Three quarter board breakfast, snack lunch and buffet dinner follows the Via Alpina local produce concept. Doubles from €420 (£380) per night.

5. Run of Fame, Arlberg  
Best for: racing around the slope

This signposted ski tour races 53 miles through St Anton, St Christoph, Stuben, Lech, Zürs, Warth and Schröcken, Austria’s largest connected ski area. The route — which follows in the steps of ski pioneers and racers as well as movie stars opened quietly pre-pandemic but is now in full swing. It can (just) be accomplished in a day, clocking up 60,000ft of vertical, but do it in two and you get time to look at the mountaintop Hall of Fame and try the ski simulator. 

Published in the Winter Sports 2022/23 guide, distributed with the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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