herald

Sunday 23 November 2014

Skiing at any time of year brings back those childhood feelings

MONDAY: The Anna Livia lounge in Dublin Airport's Terminal 2 is an improvement on its sister in Terminal 1.

Lounges are much the same, shortbread central and a 24-hour news channel prattling in the corner, and while Dublin's Anna Livia is not, in any book, a world leader, it is far ahead of what is on offer for business customers in some of the most prestigious American airports.

Flight EI356 takes us to Munich in the dark (the queue for burgers in Munich airport doesn't refer to fast food, it means citizens) and a three-hour transfer to Saalbach.

We see the first snow of the season on a motorway toilet stop. Excited.

TUESDAY: We have three resorts to see in three days, Saalbach, Zell-am-Zee and Bad Gastein. Our little group gathers to be fitted out in boots and helmets in Saalbach and mount the first lift of the season.

A welcome surprise, the old drag lift long used by Saalbach's beginners has been replaced by a proper chair lift. Soon the T-bar will be as extinct as T-Rex in the eastern Alps.

Better still, there are plans to link Saalbach's 180km of piste and Gastein's 138km of piste. It will take three to five years.

Beautiful landscape and good snow keeps spirits high, even when our Serbian ski guide Kostadinovic Nemanja takes us off piste for a formidable journey through the powder to the Spielberghaus restaurant, where our accompanying TV crew are doing some tobogganing.

Wednesday: Off to Bad Gastein, the most popular of the three resorts we visit because of the huge choice of accommodation (14,500 beds in three villages, compared with 8,000 beds in Zell-am-Zee).

I meet a 72-year-old who hikes to the top and then skis down. His late dog used to leap through the soft snow beside him, "like a dolphin".

Wednesday afternoon: Everyone takes their clothes off in the sauna in Alpentherme Gastein.

It makes for a whole set of new relationships when you meet your fellow guests at breakfast.

THURSDAY: I have found the most beautiful mountain stop in the eastern Alps.

At the Pinzgauer Hutte in Bad Gastein, host Christian Schatzer will arrange a skidoo to take you back to the lifts after some Tiroler Grostl and Kaiser Schmarm.

THURSDAY NIGHT: Off to the Hirschenhutte for a Bunratty-style dinner show.

It is thigh-slapping exuberance with lots of cowbell ringing audience participation and everyone leaves on a high.

LATER THURSDAY NIGHT: The night gets better. I am not sure why the Silver Bullet in Bad Gastein is the most happening pub in the Eastern Alps.

Others have live music, have better locations and better layouts. Nights in the Bullet seem to move at a different pace and in a different zone.

And so it was tonight, what we can remember of it.

Friday: There are 40 restaurants in the Gastein valley and we have found the very best. Bertahof restaurant does an amazing trout, and a speciality chicken stuffed with reindeer.

It is a trek out of town to get here, but well worth it.

SATURDAY: Flight EI353 home into the sunny mild winter of Dublin. The Aer Lingus service to Munich is the most important in the ski business.

Unlike Salzburg, it runs in the crucial first few weeks of the season and is a few hours on very good roads to the main Tyrolean and Strasburgerland resorts, where most Irish skiers go.

SUNDAY: What is it about skiing? The fairy lights don't come down in the resorts, so every trip to those mountains brings us back to a Christmassy childhood.

The snow is not heaped everywhere like last year, but there was one good fall in mid December and the snow-making machines that all the resorts bought after the disastrous ski season of 2006-7 have been in action to augment it.

Saalbach alone invested €1.8m in snow machines. Money well spent.

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