Austria's Zillertal, an Alpine valley of great skiing and domestic fun

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 10:02 AM

The best view from the Hotel Theresa was not the spectacular panorama of Alpine peaks out the back (though they were truly breathtaking as I gazed at them, over my toes, from the outdoor hot pool each evening at sunset).

No, the view I couldn't get enough of was on the other side of the hotel, from a third-floor balcony overlooking the little village of Zell am Ziller. Below was a flesh-and-blood diorama of domestic life in a tiny Austrian mountain town: the Playmobil-style train that trundled by every few minutes; the timber frame barns, the wholesome Holsteins; the schoolyard full of kids who knew that with hard work they, too, could grow up to be the governor of California.

It's this twinning of down-home setting and world-class skiing that is the special charm of Austria's Zillertal, a valley in a deep fold of the Tyrolean Alps an hour south of Innsbruck. The Zillertal is a place where the keen schuss of the slopes is followed by the mellow hush of the hills, which are alive with little more than the soothing clank of cowbells and the hiss of glacier melt tumbling down the Ziller River. It's the Lost Horizon with strudel. Shangri-lederhosen.

Late on a Tuesday morning, squinting through the steam of a cup of fine Vienna-style chocolate, I watched students pour from the school, a modern building on the edge of a pasture across the road from my balcony. They had book bags and ski boots, the uniform of Zell students during the blessed snowy months.

Some had snowboards, marking the limits of tradition even in these time-forgotten crannies, and white Apple earbuds were a fixture in young Zell ears. Most of the youngsters disappeared into the winding lanes of the village, but a dozen peeled off to board the train that was pulling up to the little station in front of the hotel.

That tram defines the winter experience in the Zillertal, which is a kind of grand shopping mall of ski resorts. The train, which is free to ski-pass holders, links a string of gondola stations up and down the valley, portals to four major ski areas and three smaller ones. Within one 20-minute ride are more than 170 lifts feeding more than 630 kilometers of downhill trail. Imagine jamming Vail, Steamboat, Telluride and Whistler into a 32-mile valley and connecting them by a free and efficient public transit line. For tourists, that means the ski op of a lifetime. For Zillertal tweeners, it just means another chance to get in a few lunchtime runs before the geometry quiz.

Skiing is so big to Austrians that it is nothing at all, something you do before work or when a meeting is canceled. Keep the boots in your locker; meet for lunch on the slopes. Austrian boys take the gondola up from one village and ski down to visit Austrian girls in another. No wonder they kick our butts in the winter Olympics every four years. The Zillertal breeds skiers the way Texas grows bull riders.

I went to the Zillertal with a friend, Michael Teixido, who has been raving about the area for years. He's a research-oriented ear surgeon from Wilmington, Del., who goes to a meeting in Zell every other winter. The docs convene from countries all over the world to compare notes on Meniere's disease, an inner-ear condition I would learn about in dripping detail over the exquisite dinners they serve at the Hotel Theresa. But Michael didn't invite me for the technical talk; he knew I would be entertained by the skiing and even more by this family-run boutique inn that has helped define the uniquely Austrian spa concept known as the "wellness hotel." (More about the lavishly wet and warm apres-ski routine later, but be prepared: You'll never be satisfied with a mere hot tub again).

We flew into Munich, about 100 miles north. In theory, it's barely a two-hour drive, but a lot of Munichites weekend in Austria's Tyrol region, and Friday traffic added another two hours to the trip. But our fingers unclenched as soon as we turned the rental Audi off the main highway near Innsbruck and followed the Ziller up into its cozy valley cradle. The river runs through a Heidi-worthy setting of grassy bottomland, pastures bounded on both sides by soaring slopes that gain in drama and snow cover until their icy tips finally tickle the bottom of the stratosphere itself.

"Yoodel-ay-hi-hooo!" Michael yodeled.

"Rico-o-o-o-o-o-la!" I sang through a fist trumpet.

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