Facts, Figures and Photos: Last-Minute Skiing in Austria

All the details on our ski trip to Soelden, western Austria. It wasn’t cheap, but All-Season tyres kept the costs down.

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Pretty busy on the cross-border Germany-Austria B179 Fernpass, but luckily no major delays.

Pretty busy on the cross-border Germany-Austria B179 Fernpass. Map and more photos below.

Basically, the thing that made this trip possible were our All-Season tyres.

Austrian law says tyres need M+S markings – for ‘mud and snow’ – in ‘wintry conditions’, defined as a heavy frost or with slush, ice or snow on the road.

All-Season tyres have the vital M+S marks. It means we don’t have to invest in a separate set of winter tyres which would make the whole exercise too expensive (see more on All-Season tyres here).

Also – since the cross-border B179 Fernpass was closed by snowfall the night before we left, we did try to buy snow chains too but the Austrian shop assistant said it wasn’t worth it. She was right.

Why Soelden?

The embarrassing answer is that Soelden was a location for the latest James Bond film Spectre.

A better reason is that Soelden is also site of the Otztal Glacier Road, the second highest paved road in the Alps at 2830m (9285ft) and the highest road which stays open all year (though not totally reliably).

As a regular venue on the Alpine World Cup circuit, Soelden has lots to keep the hardcore skier happy, on and off-piste.

There are two cable cars up into the mountains, each with ski routes right back into town, and further networks of ski lifts to reach the higher pistes, including the two glaciers Rettenbach and Tieffenbach (though it is quicker and easier to drive up on the glacier road which is toll free for ski pass holders, or from €18 otherwise).

Because of the glacier skiing, snow is guaranteed until May.

Aside from that, BMW holds winter training driving courses at Rettenbach. There is also the futuristic, all-glass Ice Q restaurant, two cable cars up at 3000m, which starred as a psychiatry clinic in Spectre.

Unfortunately, in general, Soelden is not great for beginners (like us). We could cope with the long blue route down into town from the southern cable car station however.

The Route.

At almost exactly 750 miles from London, it would be possible – two up – to drive to Soelden in one day.

To break it up, we stopped off at our regular haunt Maastricht on the way out, and in Brussels on the way back. The optimum way point would be somewhere in the Luxembourg-Trier region.

We left on Sunday and got home the following Saturday after three days in the mountains and 1610 miles in total.

The fastest way is through France via Reims and Metz but that would mean motorway tolls of €112 each way.

Heading via Brussels is actually slightly shorter. From Maastricht we went east on the A4 to Cologne then south on the A61 past the Nurburgring down to the A6 near Hockenheim.

To avoid the jam-prone A8 Karlsruhe-Stuttgart we stayed on the A6 past Heilbronn to the A7 and were rewarded with a brilliantly clear road all the way down to the Fernpass on the Austrian border.

There was a short queue northbound to the German border – which wasn’t there on the way back – though it was slow going southbound on Fernpass on this Monday afternoon in late February.

The good thing about Soelden is the B186 up the Otztal Valley carries on from B179 Fernpass so there are no motorways and consequently no need to buy the Austrian roads vignette.

The route back was more or less the same but on a Friday we ran into several delays, firstly due to an unnecessarily long-winded diversion to Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle, a few miles outside Fussen at the top of Fernpass, then an accident on the A8 at Stuttgart.

It was also very slow going on A61 back to Cologne in heavy afternoon traffic as the road switched from two lanes to three and back again.

In similar circumstances we’d be tempted to try the A62 and A1 past Trier then A60 over the Belgian border to Liege.

Having left Maastricht just after 9:00 we arrived in Soelden at 18:00 precisely. On the way back we left at 08:30 and arrived in Brussels after 20:00…

Hotels.

Maastricht is a regular staging post because it’s an easy three hours from the Channel. The Crowne Plaza Hotel, the only one beside the river, has a good value special offer at €97.50 including a three course dinner.

For the first time, we had to pay a €40 supplement for a river view room.

The accommodation in Soelden was the Das Central Hotel. As a full-service, five star establishment it was very, very expensive but the package included half-board meals, parking and ski passes.

Importantly, because we booked at the last minute, there was a 30% discount.

Das Central is superbly well organised with very hard working staff who attended to every detail, including bringing part finished bottles back to our permanently reserved table in the restaurant each night.

Meanwhile, the five course gourmet dinner menu was completely different every day.

The hotel ‘ski cellar’ to store boots and skis was a few steps away from the shuttle bus to either of the cable car stations, and we never waited more than a few minutes. There was a ski shop at the end of the road.

Reception organised skiing lessons with a quick phone call, prepared a fully itemised (and receipted) bill, and gave us a pot of jam and a couple of bottles of water for the journey home. Absolutely impossible to fault.

In Brussels the search for the perfect hotel goes on. After trying the too-corporate Amigo off Grand Place last year, the too-chain SAS Radisson previously, and a too-far-out B&B in Ettterbeek before that, this time we tried the high rise The Hotel, on the south east corner of the Pentagon inner ring road in the Louisa district.

It’s a very professionally run outfit, with a respected ‘slow food’ restaurant, but the overt ‘fashion’ theme is a bit naff.

However, the views are fantastic, as is the 28th floor self-service bar.

Crossing the Channel

With plenty of time to enjoy the crossing we indulged with the DFDS Dover-Dunkirk boat on the way out.

It takes two hours, thirty minutes more than Dover-Calais, but it costs the same and drops off 20 miles further up the coast which is handier for Brussels.

Booked three days in advance it cost £39, plus £8 each to use the quiet lounge with free tea, coffee and newspapers.

Interestingly, the Dover-Calais sailings were delayed by bad weather but – as has happened a few times recently – the Dunkirk boat was bang on schedule.

On the way back, with time at a premium, we used Eurotunnel. It cost £90, ten days in advance.

There was some concern about queues at the tail end of half term but – apart from being inexplicably bumped off our crossing for the next one, half an hour later – there were no problems at all.

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Soelden in south west Austria, a few miles from the Italian border. At the bottom of famous mountain passes the Otztal Glacier Road, and Timmelsjoch, only the latter of which closes in winter.

Soelden in south west Austria, a few miles from the Italian border. At the bottom of famous mountain passes the Otztal Glacier Road, and Timmelsjoch, only the latter of which closes in winter.

The Ice Q restaurant as featured in James Bond Spectre. Open every lunchtime but only on Wednesdays for dinner. Book via Das Central Hotel.

The Ice Q restaurant as featured in James Bond’s Spectre. Open every lunchtime but only on Wednesday evenings for dinner. Book via Das Central Hotel.

Nutty skiers enjoying Soelden off-piste.

Nutty skiers enjoying Soelden off-piste.

Testing our All-season tyres on the first part of Otztal Glacier Road. See more.

Testing our All-season tyres on the first part of Otztal Glacier Road.

The fairy tale beautiful Neuschwanstein Castle – built by mad King Ludwig in – a few miles from Fussen at the top of Fernpass.

The fairy tale beautiful Neuschwanstein Castle – built by mad King Ludwig of Bavaria in 1870– in Hohenschwangau, near Fussen at the top of Fernpass.

Brussels ‘Palais de Justice’, the biggest building built in the 19th century, from the 28th floor of The Hotel.

Brussels ‘Palais de Justice’, the biggest building built in the 19th century, from The Hotel.

A quick stop off at Cinquintenaire Park east of Brussels city centre, home of the Autoworld Museum.

A quick stop off at Cinquintenaire Park east of Brussels city centre, home of the Autoworld Museum.

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