On my last European ski trip, I caught a glance of the Tyrolean Alps and decided that would be my next skiing destination. The joining of Hotel Zhero Ischgl into SPG membership pushed me to experience my first day skiing in Austria at Silvretta Arena Ischgl, which is one of the larger ski resorts in the Tirol region of Austria. Another interesting point is that this Austrian ski resort is connected to the Swiss ski resort of Samnaun and skiers can ski both sides on one ticket.
Ischgl is located in the Paznaun Valley and that means it is not readily accessible via public transport, with no big cities in its vicinity. There is a functional village and another one called Kappl is about 10 minutes away, while the town of See is about 20 minutes away. For skiers, there are definitely plenty of choices on where to stay while visiting Ischgl. Skiers could even purchase ski passes that allow them to try out skiing at Kappl and See.
CHAIRLIFTS & GONDOLAS
As one of the largest ski areas in Austria and Europe, there are plenty of modern gondolas and high speed six-seater chairlifts. From the village, the gondolas Pardatschgratbahn, Fimbabahn and Silvrettabahn whisks skiers up in comfort, with the first 2 located around the northern end of the village and the first one visitors see when entering the valley from the highway. Silvrettabahn is located in the southern end of the villags and is my preferred way up though this area can be crowded as it departs from the village centre where most of the village accomodations are to be found. All the gondolas would have queues in the morning but they move fast and should not take more than 30 minutes during opening time.
From the top of Silvrettabahn, the Idalp station can be considered the center of the action, and it is here that skiers can marvel at the chairlift infrastructure. There are 2 8-seater chairlifts Idjochbahn and Flimjochbahn carries skiers up further to 2,760 and 2,732 meters respectively. Another 8-seater chairlift brings skiers to the Höllboden area for easy access to Palinkopf and Piz Val Gronda.
In Ischgl, 6-seater chairlifts are the norm which is amazing considering a 6-seater chairlift was installed only a few years back in Whistler. Due to the large number of chairlifts, there are plenty of terrain to cover and the queues are never long. In some instances, skiers are even spoilt for choice as there might be 2 chairlifts originating from a common base area leading to different peaks.
There are also several quad-seater chairlifts in the ski areas which sees less crowds leading to Palinkopf and Höllspitze as well as an aerial tram that leads to the top of Piz Val Gronda. Though these areas are usually not operational during bad weather conditions.
From the Samnaun side, there is really not much choices on getting to the ski area. In fact aside from a couple of T-bars for sliding use, skiers can reach the ski area through the Luftseilbahn aerial tram or the world’s first double decker Pendelbahn aerial tram. Thus skiers who value convenience are encouraged to stay over in Ischgl.
COST & VALUE
Prices start EUR49 (~$55) for a day of skiing in Ischgl, and this includes access to the gondolas in Samnaun. At this price, I found it very good value considering the state of the art chairlifts and gondola within the resort. In addition, I found much of the facilities to be in great condition with modern amenities and all the conveniences leisure skiers demand. While the Idalp station is usually quite crowded, skiers can find their own runs where there are less people and that means it has all the trappings of a big resort yet still provide that ski village feel.
Ischgl is probably not the best resort for beginners as far as large resorts go. Many of the runs for beginners (marked as blue), while wide have a significant degree of incline which might make it difficult for beginners. The best areas for beginners would probably be the wide open runs around Idalp base, such as the runs accessed by the Velillbahn. The area is also served by a T-bar and a magic carpet. I would have to say the learning area is very crowded at the Idalp base and beginners would also be constrained to the blue runs and would be discouraged from skiing all the way to the base. Most of the runs from the summit are better suited to more experienced skiers and riders.
Another area suitable for beginners is the Alp Trida section over on the Samnaun side. This ski area can be accessed via the 8-seater Flimjochbahn from Ischgl and there are even 2 ski lodges with restaurants, shops and amenities, making them a nice area for families to spend the day. Returning to Idalp from here is a bit tricky as there are some steeper sections that really new beginners to the sport might not have the experience to handle, especially when it gets snowing with low visibility.
Here, the intermediate runs are marked as red and forms the large majority of the piste. This resort was built for skiers like me, those who are able to ski slightly steeper groomed slopes and they cover the whole terrain from the top to the base village. Amongst the intermediate runs, the so called ‘Smugglers’ Run’ is a nearly 36 km route around Ischgl to Samnaun where skiers can look forward to some duty free shopping. Completing the Gold run would bring skiers from peaks like Piz Val Gronda and Palinkopf down to Samnaun and back up to Alp Trida. From there, it is up again to Greitspitze and back to Idalp. This route involves a variety of runs and is best suited for more advanced skiers and riders since the base of Samnaun is comprised of flat terrain and feels more like cross country skiing at times.
In addition, the Smuggler’s run involves some un-groomed terrain around the Piz Val Gronda and this area’s relative isolation from Idalp meant it sees less crowds and more chance of finding fresh snow packs after an overnight snowfall. I definitely had some nice runs here.
Otherwise the runs around Idjoch to Idalp and Höllboden have some fantastic views when the sky clears up. One of my favourite photos whilst skiing in Ischgl was taken along the route from Höllboden to Paznauer Thaya with a view of the majestic mountain range across from the ski run.
Some of the most challenging ski runs for advanced skiers and riders could perhaps be found around the Greitspitze. The top of the ski run can be accessed via the 6-seat Lange Wandbahn or the 6-seat Greitspitzbahn. On top of chutes and steep terrain, there are plenty of choices for those seeking thrilling rides down.
The other black-marked runs for advanced skiers can be found from the top of Palinkopf and these are groomed wide steep runs that is suitable even for more experienced intermediate level skiers. While the snow depth was not perfect when I visited, the large number of chairlifts means there is plenty of terrain to explore in the off-piste as well. There are also guides that skiers could pay to bring them to the finest ski areas for the freshest powder.
There are 2 snow parks in Ischgl, one sponsored by Jeep found between the top of Idjoch chairlift and the Idalp base. This terrain park features jumps and half pipes. The other snow park can be found near the Alp Trida Ecklift in the Samnaun side and is named as an ‘obstacle park’. As is the case in Europe, the terrain park does not form a large feature in the whole resort though they are located in the most crowded areas and are easily accessed even by beginners.
Besides a world class lift infrastructure, Ischgl features numerous on-mountain ski lodges scattered across the mountains. Generally located at the base of major chairlifts, skiers are definitely able to find one close to wherever they end up skiing during lunch time. On clear blue sky days, skiers might want to head to the Restaurant Sattel at the top of the Pendelbahn in the Samnaun side. Over in Ischgl, Restaurant Pardorama sits at the peak of the Pardatschgratbahn.
For the adventurous, Bistro Gampen sits at the bottom of Gampenbahn and is the closest ski lodge to Piz Val Gronda. There is also Restaurant Schwarzwand at the base of Palinkopf to exchange thrilling tales of the downhill on the black runs in the area.
For the rest of the day trippers, the Idalp station and lodges around Alp Trida would offer plenty of places to rest and grab a bite in between their lessons or sightseeing in the mountains. There are plenty of restaurants, bistros and cafes in these crowded areas and they also have the most ski racks and seating spaces to offer so even the crowds are not that challenging to bear with during lunch time.
While some of the older ski lodges have the antique interior in Tyrolean style, several are clad in glass and steel and have modern interior furnishings unlike that found in Ikea. The range of facilities in many of these lodges would certainly be adequate for most skiers and I am also glad to find the lavatories in these lodges to be clean and well maintained in a public setting.
FOOD & BEVERAGES
Like the large European ski resorts, Ischgl is fantastic if you like to have a nice meal in between your runs. Choose from the numerous lodges highlighted above and find a space to sit down for a proper meal. Aside from the schnitzels and classic Tyrolean gröstl, skiers can also look forward to a large variety of dishes. In some lodges, there are even salad and antipasti bars with decent prices.
For those with a sweet tooth, there are plenty of presentable cakes and sweet pastries as well. Chocolate bars and ice cream are frequently available as well.
On top of the usual bistro fare, there are several restaurants with full service on the mountains. The prices are fair for a ski resort and it is easy to get a full meal with drinks for around EUR18-20. Unlike in North America, it is rare to find drinking stations or places to fill your water bottle in the cafeterias and that means skiers should be prepared to budget extra for drinks though they have a very wide selection to choose from.
Ischgl is a medium sized village and thus have a fair amount of lodging choices for skiers to choose from. Samnaun, on the other side, is a more compact village and split into 2 areas. Of the 2 villages, I would suggest skiers who travel to stay over in Ischgl for the wider range of accommodation to choose from. Not only that, the village is expected to be more lively with plenty of dining establishments, larger grocery stores and other entertainment outlets for those who do not ski. Needless to say, Ischgl is a prettier village too with plenty of traditional Tyrolean lodges with unique wood carvings roofing.
Staying in a ski lodge in Europe tends to involve weekly stays with half board included. That means it is rare for guests to stay just one night or 2 in the region and a 3-course dinner can or would usually be included in most stays. However, I do believe there are more hotels and ski lodges that allows guests to opt out of the half board programme in Ischgl than some of the other ski resorts in France and Switzerland.
Amongst the larger ski resorts that I have visited of this size, I have to say there was a lack of luxury ski hotels in Ischgl, though there are several upmarket properties. For my visit, I stayed at Hotel Zhero which is nearer to the town of Kappl and about a 15-20 minutes drive from the village proper. Miles and points collectors would be happy to note that Hotel Zhero is one of the Design Hotels that has entered to be an SPG affiliate allowing me to receive points for my stay or redeem them for free nights. It was also fortunate to have stays in the EUR190-200 range that makes it one of the better value considering I was skiing in Europe.
With the great fortune of being able to visit numerous ski resorts around the world, I thought I have seen it all in terms of aprés-ski. Austrian ski resorts seems to do this to be a much more boisterous affair. Even on a weekday, many of the bars in town really dances it up around 5-6pm when the ski lifts close. Skiers here really cranks the party up after the skiing, and it is loud, full of tabletop action and an eye opener, such that I do suggest checking up one of the local bars after the lifts close. Just head into one of the few around the lifts and you will sure find one. As a side note, it was really cold when I visited so many of the action was indoors and not on the patio which makes it easier if you have a local to guide you along.
Alternatively, the village itself has some shops, groceries and banks though many of these facilities have closing hours near similar to the ski lift operational hours so plan ahead if you want to do some shopping. Except the grocery stores which does close a bit later closer to around 9pm so skiers could make their trip more economical by grabbing some dried foodstuffs to bring with them up the slopes or cook a simple meal for dinner.
Unfortunately on the days I was skiing in Ischgl, the views from the top was more or less obscured by the clouds since the week I was there, it was snowing. This meant the snow was good but I did not get the majestic views of the Alps. However the sky did clear up a little bit for a short while and being located deep in the valley, it was all views of snow capped mountains.
Amongst the ski resorts I have visited, the views from the summit is less than inspiring but it is still majestic and would still be appreciated for first timers to a big mountain ski resort. The lacklustre views could perhaps be the reason why this resort is not as famous compared to other more well known Alpine resorts in Europe.
Coming into the resort with less expectations, I was pleasantly surprised and based on my interactions with fellow skiers, I can understand why some skiers like Ischgl even when the famous St. Anton is not too far from here. Ischgl holds its own pretty well even amongst some of the best ski resorts in the world, and I would even say the lift infrastructure here is world leading, for I have no need to queue for most of the time. With a charming village at the base, and the ability to venture to another country on the other side, there is plenty to entice skiers but I would rather it kept a secret as long as possible.
After all, during my week in the area, I split my time between St. Anton and Ischgl and found myself to enjoy both resorts and that is saying a lot. As to why it may seems so, look forward to my review of the ski resort of St. Anton that I would post soon!