We arrived in Soelden after heavy snow had fallen and the sky had grown as blue and clear as an Alpine lake.
Soelden is in the Oetztal region of Tyrol in the Austrian Alps. It is very popular with Europeans but comparatively unknown to North American ski and snowboard enthusiasts. That was part of the appeal for my family of three: After so many ski trips together, my wife and I craved something new.
I expect that word will quickly get out in our part of the world because, late last year, Soelden was chosen as the official European training base for the men's Alpine competitors of the U.S. Ski Team. The American champion downhill skier Bode Miller had already made Soelden a base in the Alps. (The town is his headwear sponsor.)
Soelden sits along a small river in the manner of Zermatt, and is operated in the service of winter sports, which began in 1948 when a single chairlift, which still runs, started to carry people in a single line, the wooden skis of each resting on their laps.
In January, my wife and I went up via fast gondola; there are two on opposite ends of town. With the sky bright and snow plentiful, our guide for a day, Erich Wilhelm of the Yellow Power Ski School, took us to one of two glaciers that sit in crags among the mountain peaks. We reached it by multiple lifts and a tunnel taken on skis. Our reward was that top-of-the-world feeling that you get from carving clean turns on snow-packed Alpine slopes in good weather, the snow crunching and hissing as you move.
Like all good ski guides, Erich was forgiving about the mistakes of the amateurs in his charge.
As we sat down for lunch in a warm room at Gampe Thaya, the oldest hut on the region's mountains, he explained the transformation that people like us bring to Soelden annually. "About 4,100 people live here, but there are over 300,000 visitors, mostly in winter," said Erich, who stays busy as a carpenter each summer.
As we finished a meal of traditional mountain broth, sausages and, for dessert, Kaiserschmarnn (caramelized pancakes cut into chunks and covered with confectioner's sugar), Austrian men seated themselves at our table. (In Alpine huts, there are no private tables.) An accordionist and guitarist strolled in and our tablemates accompanied them in song.
Luxurious but relaxed hotel
We had arrived soon after the start of the break for Russian New Year (Jan. 6), and there were many Russian guests at our hotel, the Central Spa Hotel Soelden. In the best Alpine tradition, the Central is luxurious but relaxed. Seated at the table to the right of ours each breakfast and dinner were a lovely young couple from Moscow, Daria and Tim, and their 5-year-old, David.
David befriended our toddler, Ryan. The two went together to the Oezti Club, where a patient woman named Gabi looked after the children of hotel guests all day.
The Central's kitchen is especially distinguished, with a flair for moderate and clever portions, always beautifully presented. That should not be surprising, given that gourmet chefs and increasingly impressive wines are two famous Austrian exports. True to its name, the hotel also has complete spa facilities, from a family pool area, to a clothing-optional sauna and steam bath area, to a no-clothes-allowed-and-that-means-you, madame, area (as my wife discovered) with a whirlpool, saunas and more. Ryan liked sitting in the reduced-size gondola propped beside the pool.
On our fifth day, the snowfall that Erich had said was coming arrived strong and steady. At my request, and over the objections of Frau Behr (as she is known in the Alps), we took a rest, shopping and having lunch in town. Russian skiers are obviously quite hearty. Many made their way to the slopes regardless of the inclement weather; they were comparatively infrequent guests in all weathers at the après ski bars and the hotel lounge, preferring an early start and an early bedtime. That attitude also characterizes Frau Behr, who usually does not let anything short of a record blizzard stop her from getting to the slopes. It does not characterize her husband, who feels that a little less skiing, a long lunch at a mountain hut, and an invigorating stretch of sauna and whirlpool time with athletic Russian women is good for the soul.
That night, explosions rumbled from the mountains, as snow was cleared to prevent avalanches. "Sprengstoff!" exclaimed Ryan, using a German word he had learned. (Explosives!)
Snowfall brings challenges
In the morning, new snow came in a steady fall, and I was pleading for another day of rest, perhaps at a nearby indoor-outdoor thermal spa called the Aqua Dome. We compromised on morning massages, followed by a discussion of options.
Tall and fit, with light Roger Daltrey curls, Paul is a native of Liverpool who came to the Alps to live for a love of the mountains. A rafting guide and an avid downhill mountain biker in summer, he trained in Innsbruck for what may signal the start of a more modulated life for a man of 43: working winters as a masseuse.
Paul was placating the complaints of my bad shoulder when he said, "I agree with your wife. I wouldn't let that snow keep me from skiing." With no Americans to consult, and with apparently every Russian and one Englishman against me, there was nothing left but to get on those skis.
Many runs were closed when we arrived (but would open throughout the day), so we skied under low skies on the lowest slopes, alongside evergreens wearing beards of white. People fell in the thick powder, including my wife, who lost her skis on a black (difficult) run. I helped her get them on and so we kept going, her leading the way. Soelden has many blue (easier) slopes and that came to our aid now. We stayed upright despite the challenge, and enjoyed ourselves.
By the time we arrived at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski in Munich, to relax in preparation for our flight home, Ryan's German had improved, and he was now telling us "I want to go skiing," which may well happen next year.
IF YOU GO
You can fly into Munich, three hours to Soelden by car, or Innsbruck, which is one hour away.
We stayed at Central Spa Hotel Soelden (www.central-soelden.at). We traveled in the January "lull" season between the holidays and the February ski furloughs that are given by school districts throughout middle Europe. During that time, rooms for two adults and a toddler, with breakfast and dinner, start at about $400. A six-day ski pass is about $255.
For more information, go to www.soelden.com and click on the English link.
ALAN AND JULIE BEHR