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Zell am See offers cozy mountain huts along its blue, red and black runs down the slopes.
Zell am See offers cozy mountain huts along its blue, red and black runs down the slopes. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
Zell am See offers cozy mountain huts along its blue, red and black runs down the slopes.
Zell am See offers cozy mountain huts along its blue, red and black runs down the slopes. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
There are many beautiful trails through the trees at Zell am See. Even the black runs are easy for the intermediate skier.
There are many beautiful trails through the trees at Zell am See. Even the black runs are easy for the intermediate skier. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
Skiing a trail through the towering snow-covered pines is a delight at Zell am See.
Skiing a trail through the towering snow-covered pines is a delight at Zell am See. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
The black Number 11 slope from Berghotel Schmittenhöherun offers a beautiful view of the picturesque ski town of Zell am See, with its church tower, old buildings and lake. Skiers get a great view of the area from any of more than 80 miles of slopes there and in neighboring Kaprun.
The black Number 11 slope from Berghotel Schmittenhöherun offers a beautiful view of the picturesque ski town of Zell am See, with its church tower, old buildings and lake. Skiers get a great view of the area from any of more than 80 miles of slopes there and in neighboring Kaprun. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)
Trays of a special concoction, vitamina potenza, line the outdoor snow bar at the Schmittenhöhe where skiers enjoy taking a break.
Trays of a special concoction, vitamina potenza, line the outdoor snow bar at the Schmittenhöhe where skiers enjoy taking a break. (Leah Larkin / Special to S&S)

There’s something different about this ski trip.

You ride the cable car to the top of the mountain in the blackness of night. No views of mountains out the windows, just eerie darkness as you slowly ascend. You and your fellow skiers are packed in the big boxlike cage with your skis and luggage on the way to a hotel at the top of the mountain.

Your destination: the Berghotel Schmittenhöhe, crowning the slopes of Zell am See, an old Austrian ski town. The mountaintop hotel is a favorite with American ski clubs, whose members can be the first on the slopes, stepping out of the hotel and into their skis, and then sailing down the mountain without a morning lift ride.

The hotel is old, funky, cozy, romantic. Pictures of the first ski hut on the site in 1868, as well as the first hotel built in the 1950s, hang on the walls. The second-floor bar is all dark wood under heavy beams. Antique skis and farm implements decorate the walls.

The rooms are simple — no telephones, televisions or hair dryers. But the atmosphere is friendly and the staff, mainly eastern European, is pleasant and helpful. The food is good too, with bacon and eggs on the breakfast buffet.

But the main attraction is the skiing. Long, long slopes ideal for cruising. Beautiful trails through a forest of statuesque, snow-laden pines. Few lift lines, even on weekends.

There are blue, red and black runs, but members of Stuttgart’s Patch Ski Club found them all relatively easy. Any intermediate skier could probably handle the black runs, which would likely be classified as red at most other resorts.

The wide black runs were smooth and well-groomed during our recent visit — mogul free. We especially liked Number 11, which offered great views of the town and lake below, and Number 14, rated “awesome” by one happy skier.

The only drawback to Number 14 is that it ends at the Schmittenhöhe Bahn — the same cable car that leads to the hotel. It’s an old cable car, one of Austria’s first, dating back to 1927, with just one car, so the lift lines can be long and slow during the day.

For an extra-long ski to the bottom, start at the top of the blue trail Number 1 to the Number 10 red run. It’s a lot of smooth sailing.

There’s more good skiing on the backside of the Schmittenhöhe. We especially enjoyed the red slopes, Numbers 20 and 23.

As with most Austrian resorts, Zell am See offers numerous cozy, old-world huts for food and refreshment on the mountain. But the place with the action is the outdoor bar and restaurant at the Berghotel Schmittenhöhe.

Every afternoon beginning at 2 there’s a party with a DJ blasting music, entertaining with lively commentary, and encouraging dancing on the bar. When the sun is out, it’s packed and rocking.

Herwig Schiefer, who calls himself “Schnaps Hans,” is both the owner of the hotel and the DJ. He explains that skiers used to eat and drink inside at the Schmittenhöhe.

“I changed that,” he says. “Formerly we always had Austrian music. But young people like rock music. They like to have fun.”

And they have fun, dancing in their ski boots or trying one of his special concoctions, vitamina potenza, melon syrup and vodka with a piece of fresh melon. Trays of the special drink line the snow bar.

“I like to see people in a good mood. It makes me happy,” Schiefer says. In the evenings, he keeps hotel patrons happy at the upstairs bar with its jovial bartender and powerful sound system. There’s even a small dance floor.

A lift ticket to ski Zell am See, the Europa Sport Region ticket, also includes the nearby slopes of Kaprun for a total of 80 miles of skiing. For a weekend, we found plenty of skiing at Zell am See, and opted not to go to Kaprun, although bus service between the two resorts is free with the lift ticket. There is also free and frequent bus service between the bottom of the Schmittenhöhe Bahn to Zell am See town center.

The town of Zell am See is quaint and picturesque with its church tower, pretty old buildings and the lake. The pedestrian zone in the center is lined with ski shops, hotels and restaurants.

Since fog and snowfall kept some of us off the slopes at times, and since there was nothing to do at the top of the mountain but ski, eat, drink and listen to loud music, many of our group regretted that we were not staying in town where we could have taken advantage of the local indoor swimming pool, not to mention the shopping opportunities.

Nonetheless, the mountain hotel has its charm. And for scenery, when there is no fog, it can’t be beat.

Leah Larkin, a member of the Society of American Travel writers, is a freelance writer living near Stuttgart, Germany.

If you go ...

he Europa Sport Region lift ticket for the slopes of both Kaprun and Zell am See costs 34.50 euros for one day, 64 euros for two days. More information at www.zellkaprun.com.

The Berghotel Schmittenhöhe charges 57 euros per person for a double room with shower, toilet and two meals per day during high season, Feb. 1 to March 13. The same during low season is 54 euros. There is a 50 percent discount for children under 6 in the same room with their parents, a 30 percent discount for children under 10. Telelephone (+43) (0) 6542-72489; fax (+43) (0) 6542-724892; e-mail: mail@berghotel-schmitten.at. Its Web site is: www.berghotel-schmitten.at

— Leah Larkin

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