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.

Michael, driving one-handed, looked at me.

"Ricola is Swiss," he said. "This is Austria."

Fine. You want your ear surgeons to be exacting sorts. I switched to a "Sound of Music" medley.

Frankly, I was glad to be in the company of a physician. This would be my first time on serious snow since a near-death fall in Telluride two years earlier, an out-of-control slide of more than a quarter-mile down a steep sheet of black diamond ice. I wasn't at all sure how I would face my first runs on the slopes that had produced Franz Klammer.

But there was nothing intimidating about the lands at the base of these grand mountains. The houses of Zell were warm timber affairs. The town center is a warren of balconies overlooking small curving streets, shop windows displaying bread and chocolate, and cafes with sidewalk seating even in the winter.

The Hotel Theresa sits at the edge of town, a glowing low-rise a block from the river. A spa occupies a modern wing, with brightly lit windows facing the peaks above. The dining rooms, lounges and bar are in the older Alpine wing, a darker nest of carved woodwork and stag-head decor.

"Ah, Herr Doktor," said Theresa Egger as soon as we dropped our bags, remembering Michael from two years earlier. "And this must be Mr. Hendrix."

The matriarch of the Egger family, Theresa started the hotel in 1964 with just four rooms. Space and features have been added nearly every year, from massage chambers to conference facilities to countless nooks for fireside cocktails. It's a 70-room complex now, but still with a family-run, small-hotel feel. With five Eggers constantly on-site - remembering names, freshening flowers, dressing each night in traditional Alpine wear - this is innkeeping as performance art.

"This is our life. We rarely leave," said Theresa Jr., the tall brunet daughter who oversees reception. By night, in an embroidered peasant gown, she is a warm Snow White. By day, in Lycra slacks and mod sweaters, she's a cool Emma Peel. "We don't like to travel much; we really like our clean, safe valley."

The Zillertal is almost eerily tidy. The Austrian passion for order is on display at every hand, from the walls of firewood stacked with geometric exactitude outside many houses to the precision signage at every intersection.

"Everything is perfect, but that can be a little - difficult, too, sometimes," said Joe, the clerk at the Zell ski shop where I stopped to rent my gear for the week. Joe was from Munich and had married into an Austrian family. I could see where perfection could start to chafe, even for a German who kept his shop spotless. But as a tourist, I was loving it.

Michael plunged immediately into all things inner-ear, so I began my conference-spouse routine. I usually breakfasted with the other doctors' wives, discussing the day's plans over muesli and yogurt. One new friend was agonizing over a particular blue wool coat she'd found in a boutique in Mayrhofen, two tram stops away. I lodged my go-for-it vote, then headed out to ski.

The ski areas operate as a consortium, letting you buy tickets for one or all in various day-pass combinations. I went for the most flexible, the $305 Super Ski Pass, a smart card that gave me scan-and-go privileges on every gondola and lift at every ski area for five days.

For starters, I rode up to the biggest park, Zillertal Arena, which is also closest to Zell. A bus, stopping just outside the Theresa's cavernous ski storage room, dropped me at the gondola station in three minutes. I was at the top of the first run within half an hour of pushing away from the breakfast table.

The gondola network around the Zillertal is an attraction unto itself. The gondolas string around the valley like flying mass transit, skimming over treetops, crevasses and even glaciers. Some are four-seaters, some eight. Michael and I rode one up from Mayrhofen that fit about 80. It was like a flying diner.

That first ride up gave me plenty of time to judge the local norms. I saw a lot of very fast skiers on very steep slopes, blurry figures in tight Austrian tucks. And those were just the little kids. (On another day, on a course rated for racers only, I saw a skier travel faster than I have ever seen a human go who wasn't trying to get into a department store on the day after Thanksgiving.)

But I breathed easier to see plenty of moderate alternatives as well: wide and winding trails with family groups, and snowboarders enjoying less radical runs. In fact, I would find the Alps laced with all manner of trails, from training-wheel greens to suicide blacks and plenty of just-right grades in between.

Only in one place did I feel outmatched by any of the available routes down, and that was at the top of Hintertux, a glacier park at the very highest reaches of the Zillertal. I rode the gondola back down from that one, sheepish but alive.

The network is so vast, it was easy to spend all day up high, breaking for lunch at one of the warming hut restaurants where Austrian oompah-pop music (oompop!) blared over crowded decks, not touching the valley floor again until the last minutes of sunlight.

It was at day's end that the great unwinding would begin. At the heart of the Theresa's "wellness" infrastructure is a complex of pools and saunas and steam rooms so involved that you practically need a sherpa to navigate them. Here's how I progressed, once I traded ski pants for swim trunks:

Step One: a 20-minute soak in the outdoor salt pool, a 10-person heated and jetted saline tub with a killer view of the evening Alps. The extra buoyancy was amniotic bliss.

Step Two: a maniac 12-second jog, dripping wet, back across the patio in 25-degree air.

Step Three: 10 minutes in the menthol steam room. It was like relaxing in a jar of Vicks VapoRub.

Step Four: as many minutes as I could stand in the traditional cedar dry-heat sauna (usually about five).

Steps Five, Six and Seven: various combinations of the high-seat steam room, the infra-red sauna and the elegant mid-heat dry sauna with Greek busts in the niches and naked Austrians draped along the long tile bench (the interior steam complex is co-ed and clothing-free).

Step Eight: a defibrillating plunge into the outdoor Icelandic cold pool.

After that, I huddled on one of the lightly heated cushioned lounge chairs in the firelit atrium for a half-hour before dinner, wrapped in a robe and moving only as many muscles as it took to blink and sip single malt.

And the next day, I would do it all again. Ski, rinse, repeat. Now I understood why the Eggers never left this place.

One day I added one of the hotel massages to the mix. And once, I inverted steps three and four. All good.

Michael, cheerfully conscientious, was able to join me for only a few of the days. But we did make it up to the Ahorn ski area, where we drank laced hot chocolate in a very hip ice hotel called the White Lounge. We made an afternoon trip up to the medieval city center of Innsbruck. And we had some nice afternoon walks around the village.

Our favorite corner was the churchyard in the middle of town, a walled compound packed with stylized stone and iron grave markers. The Anschluss and the war that followed took an astonishing number of men from such a small community, and as defeat approached, they grew younger and younger. Some of those killed in 1945 were only 16.

But mostly Michael and I reconnected at dinner, he full of microsurgical minutiae and I full of Glenfiddich.

On one of our last nights, I was well into the Tyrolean lamb on polenta and he was still working on his curd strudel with spinach. Theresa, in Snow White mode, was pouring a 2006 Austrian cabernet, and we were chatting with a pair of doctors from Australia when one of my breakfast mates came by the table.

"I did it!" she said, twirling slightly in her new blue coat. "Don't you love it?"

"I do, I do," I said. "Good call."

She twirled off, and I found Michael giving me that Ricola look again.

"Just what do you do all day, anyway?" he asked.

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