To introduce readers about Lech and Zürs, these are 2 separate village/towns located in the Vorarlberg region. However combined with St. Anton, Stuben and St. Christoph they form Ski Arlberg, one of the largest ski areas in Austria and Europe. Though essentially one huge ski area, Lech and Zürs are different enough and quite a distance from St. Anton that it warrants a separate review.
Getting to Lech and Zürs is a bit more troublesome since they do not have a train station unlike St. Anton and driving there requires crossing the winding Arlberg pass mountain road that might at times be overwhelmed with snow. Thus they are less accessible with most visitors either driving themselves into the ski towns or relying on buses and taxis. Regular buses are free for skiers connecting the towns of St. Anton, Lech and Zürs.
For skiers with good stamina, Zürs is about 40-50 minutes away by taking the Galzig gondola from St. Anton and through the Flexenbahn connection. It is by no means the shortest ski routes with several chairlifts and cable car rides required but the scenery and on-piste skiing is as good as one could get in a ski resort.
One thing to note is that skiers would find it easy to ski from Lech to Zürs but not the other way around. From Zürs to Lech, there is a cross-country ski route which indicates its is not groomed or checked for obstacles and becomes more like off-piste skiing. As such, it is only to be undertaken by more experienced and advanced skiers. However buses are quite frequent and connects both the centre of Lech and Zürs conveniently.
CHAIRLIFTS & GONDOLAS
Lech and Zürs feels more like a traditional ski resort with less cable car systems than St. Anton. Chairlifts are the mainstay here. In fact, before the Trittkopfbahn was built, the ski area of Zürs did not even have a cable car. Over in Lech, there is the Rüfikopf I and II that carries skiers to the top of Rüfikopf. It is also the summit from where skiers can head back to Zürs. And the second cable car is the Bergbahnen Oberlech that goes to the mid-mountain allowing skiers to access the smaller village of Oberlech.
A lack of cable car does not mean they lack infrastructure as they do have plenty of chairlifts. In Lech, there is the Schlegelkopf chairlifts that run in parallel which should see the main crowds as it brings skiers to the Schlegelkopf Restaurant.
From Schlegelkopf, the 6-seater Kriegerhorn chairlift leads to the top of Lech at 2,173m, which is mild compared to the other peaks in Arlberg. However the highest capacity chairlift in the Lech ski area is 8-seater Steinmähder chairlift that links Zuger Horn to Zuger Hochlicht at 2,377m. There are several other smaller capacity chairlifts and 2 cable car systems that links Lech with Warth and Schröcken ski area that I did not have the chance to visit. For the majority of skiers, it is possible to ski all the way to Warth and Schröcken and take the bus back to St. Anton at the end of the day. To do the round-trip via skiing requires fast skiing and really no time to enjoy the sights along the way.
In Zürs, the 6-seater Hexenboden chairlift links the village with the Hexenboden summit at 2,223m while the neighbouring 6-seater Trittalp chairlift is between the route from Rüfikopf to St. Anton. On the other side of the valley, the quad-chairlift Zürsersee and Seekopf brings skiers up to the panoramic Restaurant Seekopf and access to more skiing terrain. In fact from here, advanced skiers could ride down ski-routes (off-piste) into Lech.
New for 2016/2017, the Trittkopfbahn is the only gondola around Zürs but it opens up the impressive peak at Trittkopf and allows cable car transfers to Stuben and St. Christoph, easing the way for skiers to ski St. Anton while staying in Zürs. The impressive thing to note is that in Europe most of the landings at the disembarkation for major chairlifts are sometimes sheltered. This makes it easier for skiers and snowboarders to get off as the ground is more likely to be flat and free from loose snow or obstacles. There are also bubble covers over the major chairlifts that shields skiers on the way up making it more comfortable overall!
COST & VALUE
Lift passes for the whole Arlberg region is the same as St. Anton at EUR52 (~$60) for one day. At these prices, I would consider it one of the best value anywhere in the world considering you get access to a lot of chairlifts/gondolas/cable cars. Little savings on the multiple day tickets also mean skiers need not worry about skiing on consecutive days and instead take a break in between.
Beside the Rüfikopf cable car in Lech there are several T-bars that allows beginners to practice on the mild slopes and for those learning how to ski to get up and running fast. The base is near the lodges and separate away from the bulk of skiers making it a conducive area for learning.
For progressive beginners, the mild slopes underneath the Schlegelkopf chairlift leading to the village are easy and wide enough to maneuver. This makes Lech a wonderful resort for beginners and families with children who are learning.
There are similar T-bars in Zürs for beginners and learners but the limited village facilities and steeper slopes meant it is less appealing to families.
The bottom half of Lech is very mild and thus not challenging for intermediate skiers. For better skiers, they probably get more fun out of the piste around Zuger Hochlicht. Even the slopes from Kriegerhorn are quite average and can be marked as easy blue runs.
Advanced intermediate skiers might prefer to head to Zürs where the Balmen piste provides impressive views from Trittkopf all the way into the village. This is one of my favourite trails in the whole of the Arlberg region and there is even some off-piste runs from the Trittkopf into the village if one is up to it.
More intermediate ski trails branch out from the Seekopf restaurant over on the other side of the mountain accessed from the Seekopf and Zürsersee chairlift. And finally, there is the long piste from Muggengrat back to the village.
Between Lech and Zürs, there seems to be more choices for intermediate skiers in Zürs if you are at the more advanced stage. Though if you are a starting intermediate skier, you would prefer the gentler terrain of Lech. Whatever the case, both ski areas provide plenty to enjoy in terms of sights and snow.
Skiers would not find marked black diamond runs in Lech or Zürs but they do have ski-routes or off-piste trails marked in black on the map. In its place, the off-piste trails marked red could be considered the equal of black runs in North America. However, being ungroomed, there is the unmarked obstacles and loose snow that skiers need to be wary of when traversing these trails.
Aside from the huge off-piste terrain in the bowl at the top of Trittkopf, there is the backcountry trails off the blue-marked Madlochalm piste and from the top of the Madloch double chairlift that can bring skiers to Lech from Zürs.
And while Lech might sound like a family friendly resort, there are steep terrains from the Kriegerhorn and the top of Rotschrofen double chairlift that is for experts only.
On the whole, the gentler slopes in Lech makes it a prime spot for groomers as well as a terrain park for beginners. There is a nice area with bars and jumps for park rats underneath Schlegelkopf chairlift. This is a moderately nice space but small when one compares it to the diverse terrain parks in North America.
Mountain lodges are again an appealing side of skiing in Europe and it is no different in Lech and Zürs. At the newly renovated Restaurant Schlegelkopf, patio seating spaces are lined with fur while the interior is warmed with fireplaces. Another modern ski lodge is Der Wolf located not far from the 6-seater Petersboden chairlift.
For a more traditional Tirolean style ski lodge, there is the Kriegeralpe nearer to the Hasensprung 6-seater chairlift accessible as well from the top of Kriegerhorn. Meanwhile in Zürs, the ski lodges with dining facilities on the mountain are over on the top of Seekopf chairlift, and the Trittalm Bergrestaurant at the bottom of the Trittalp chairlift. There is also the restaurant at the top of Rüfikopf aerial tram that can provide nice views of the area.
Lodges here seems to be a bit more luxurious than those around St. Anton and would appeal to families since there seems to be less crowds and more thus more space.
FOOD & BEVERAGES
While many of the lodges offer similar Austrian food like spaetzle and a variety of wursts, Restuarant Schlegelkopf have a more international selection that comprises of sushis and lobster bisque.
Naturally the more luxurious Schlegelkof and international fare there would cost more but it is still a reasonable premium. Expect to pay around EUR20 and above for main courses and around EUR8-15 for appetizers/soups/salads. For the other ski lodges, prices are actually closer to St. Anton and that is good value if you like meat and potatoes. Again, I would say prices in the ski resorts are what one could expect in upscale bistros in town and the food quality is fair value as well. With the addition of a nicely furnished space and comfortable sit-down ambience, dining up in the mountains is one highlight of skiing in Europe.
Lech and Zürs are home to some high-end luxury hotels due to its marketing towards a higher end clientele and families. In Zürs, there is Thurnher’s Alpenhof which is part of the Leading Hotels of the World. In Lech, Kristiania and Severin’s Alpine Retreat are both part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, though they are not the most centrally located hotels in Lech.
Aside from luxury hotels, there are numerous pension hotels common to the Austrian and Swiss ski villages providing more economical lodgings for skiers. However, with a more secluded location in the valley, many of the lodging in Lech and Zürs are usually occupied on a ‘ski-week’ basis where skiers normally stay from Saturday to Saturday for a week. Many of these lodgings also provide half-board and it is usually more difficult to find lodgings for less than a week here. Thus skiers only wanting to stay less than a week had better book a few months earlier before the season start (around April/May for the winter) or look to visit during the low or shoulder season before Christmas or after late March.
Otherwise, skiers wanting to ski in Lech and Zürs can stay in St. Anton or the other neighbouring villages. There are paid parking in the villages at a reasonable cost of EUR7 in St. Anton though those wanting to save on parking fees can find free parking in the smaller ski villages of Stuben and St. Christoph. It is also easier to find parking in Zürs compared to Lech where there are sheltered parkades for a fee. Guests staying at the larger hotels should be able to park at the hotel’s lots for free though each lodging have limited parking lots and they are on a first come, first served basis.
Since I did not stay overnight in Lech and Zürs, I did not partake in the aprés in either villages. However considering many of the ski lodges have half board and there are more families in both villages, I expect the scene to be less rowdy. Zürs being a small village does not seem to have any large pubs on its main street, while the drinking most probably goes on with dinner in the finer restaurants of Lech.
However Lech offers plenty more compared to St. Anton as a winter destination for non-skiers. There are nature guided walks that allows visitors to interact with local wildlife like deers, an off-road snow driving experience provided in partnership with Mercedes Benz, plenty of hiking trails open for the winter, indoor winter sports centre and a toboggan run from Oberlech to Lech that opens till 10pm daily. The myriad of activities makes it plenty for visitors to do aside from spending it at the slopes and that makes it a very family friendly destination.
With the peaks around both mountains topping out at less than 2,800m (Valluga in St. Anton has its peak at 2,811m) the views from the top does not differ much St. Anton. Little definitive landmarks and a lack of unique summits meant that the views are not always as breathtaking especially if one is a frequent visitor to other Alpine destinations.
Personally I find the views most majestic over from Trittkopf with the mountains around Zürs forming an imposing sight across from the bowl around the cable car. Otherwise taking the Rüfikopf gondola up to the summit can be rewarding on a clear day with the village of Lech visible as one rides the gondola up.
Both these villages lack the steeps of St. Anton and is not as accessible for visitors who arrive via public transport. However it does not make them less fun, as they cater to a very different skier. The well groomed runs and luxurious lodges in the village and on the mountains can make skiing a very comfortable affair, especially for families. And they can still put a smile on a skiers’ face after a few days of skiing the steeps when all they want is perhaps to cruise in style, followed with gourmet food. When one is having a ski vacation, they just want to relax, and that is the whole point of visiting these 2 villages to ski!