November 03 2011
When the millennium dawned, the gemütlich Austrian ski village of Kitzbühel was dead in the water. Led by Roman Abramovich, the oligarchs who had wintered there in the 1990s had defected to Courchevel 1850; likewise the Saudi princes. For them, it was a no-brainer: the French resort had modern lifts and Michelin stars; Kitzbühel had geriatric T-bars and rib-sticking food inspired by generations of Tyrolean peasants. It also had picturesque medieval walls enclosing period hotels and café-bars painted in soft pastels overlooking paved streets, but see if those über-rich guys cared.
Then again, places don’t survive for 700 years without the ability to reinvent themselves. As a one-time copper mining centre, Kitzbühel is accustomed to the ups and downs of financial rollercoasters, and once again it is proving its ability to bounce back. After just a decade, its lift system has undergone an overhaul that’s made it as sophisticated as any in the Alps; it has a raft of new five-star hotels; and its young chefs are on the Michelin map (or were, until the French bible cancelled its 2010 Austrian edition).
Kitzbühel’s trump card in the regeneration game is the Hahnenkamm World Cup downhill, a killer that will hold the ski world in thrall from January 20 to 22 2012. The infamous Streif course, slicked to glinting ice for the occasion, plunges into a stadium finish close to the town centre. The Austrians, who know a thing or two about the festive effects of massed cowbells, put on a street party that inspires 100,000 spectators to heights of frenzy and euphoria – the kind of event that triggers an influx of big bucks.
The ski area has 170km of runs served by 55 lifts covering several mountains and two valleys. Kitzbühel has always had connections with Kirchberg, its larger neighbour, and the hamlets of Aschau and Aurach, but getting to Pass Thurn, nearly 500m higher and therefore more snow-sure, required an unglamorous bus or taxi ride. That changed in 2004 with the opening of the £10m 3S horizontal gondola, which effortlessly crosses the intervening chasm – and the revolution was under way.
Nowadays, Kitzbühel’s slopes hum with eight- or 10-man chairs boasting heated seats and shields against hostile weather. With three exceptions, those T-bars, so loathed by beginners, are history. In early 2011, a gondola replaced the notoriously slow Maierl chairs from Kirchberg, speeding up access to wide blue and red slopes suited to intermediate cruisers and beginners looking to go places at the end of their first week. And the brand-new Ochsalmbahn chair above it leads into the predominantly blue runs on Pengelstein, and the 3S link to the steeper north-facing slopes on Pass Thurn.
Just down the road, the Ski Welt, Austria’s largest circus, offers a further 279km of pistes linking Ellmau, Söll, Westendorf, Brixen and half a dozen others. The Kitzbühel Alps All-Star pass has even wider horizons, extending over 1,081km of runs, including Saalbach-Hinterglemm and Zell am See-Kaprun.
With so much gleaming new technology on display, Kitzbühel’s once-notorious queues are pretty much history. Comprehensive snow-making and sophisticated grooming provide what nature on occasion won’t: in April sunshine in 2011, at the end of what was widely considered the worst winter for skiing in the Alps for 30 years, conditions here were excellent with all the upper slopes open and heart-warmingly deserted.
Kitzbühel has several traditional hotels within the ancient walls, including Franz Klammer’s favourite Zur Tenne, and the Relais & Châteaux Hotel Tennerhof outside them. But reinvention requires much more than favourites. With Munich only two hours’ drive away, it stands to reason that the initial upgrade was German.
If Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz had been built in the early 21st century, it might resemble the grandiose A-Rosa, overlooking an artificial lake on the outskirts of town. The hotel’s sense of grandeur is disproportionate to its size, and the approach – through a tunnel decorated with enormous red roses – ends in a parking garage. All very mid-Noughties but, happily, matters have already moved on. At the Rosengarten Hotel, a couple of minutes’ drive from the Maierl gondola in Kirchberg, a brilliant restaurant has inspired a very sleek boutique hotel to match. Simon Taxacher is a 34-year-old wunderkind chef who learnt to cook the perfect wiener schnitzel – no easy task – as a lad in the family three-star hotel next door. When he was 17, he gave up skiing to avoid injury and headed instead for top kitchens in Salzburg, Germany and Switzerland, gradually developing a style inspired by the French Mediterranean. On his return in 2000, he opened the Rosengarten restaurant, winning his second Michelin star in 2009. One proof of his dedication is that the restaurant is closed unless he’s there to cook.
As is my duty, I sit down to his seven-course dégustation menu. This is fine dining as theatre, tables set in spaces graced with spotlit orchids, dark floor-to-ceiling strand curtains by turns concealing and revealing soft-footed waiters as they choreograph the meal. Taxacher’s strength is his complexity, his skill in combining ingredients in tantalising ways.
The hotel, which opened in December 2010, has 26 rooms, awash in sunny cream tones touched with yellow and bathrooms in aquamarine glass. Colours that encourage rest and relaxation, yes, but the food motif is ever-present. My suite is Alba – white truffle – and there are colour blown-up images of the delicacy on the walls. (The same holds for Beluga and Saffron down the hall.)
I move on reluctantly, but the welcome at the Kempinski Hotel Das Tirol in Jochberg, just on the other side of Kitzbühel, is warm enough to distract me from its blocky exterior. This is a 148-room behemoth with conference facilities and an enormous spa, but it offers genuine five-star comfort, albeit in what some may find to be slightly oppressive red and yellow ochre tones. Aimed at the German market, but embraced by the Crown Prince of Thailand (in residence with an entourage of 40 during my stay), it has a T-bar link to the Wagsätt chair. Turn left at the top, and you can track right up to the Resterhöhe, a ridge of a mountain with a lot of options for all skiers of all levels above Pass Thurn. Turn right across the 3S gondola divide, and you’re soon on Steinbergkogel’s tough north-facing blacks, with easy onward connections to the Hahnenkamm. Tackle the Streif if you dare – and if it’s open – but there are two rewarding red alternatives into downtown Kitz, the launch point for the snowboarder-oriented Kitzbüheler Horn with its impressive snow park. Return to the Steinbergkogel and you’re at the top of the two best powder runs in the area. Both wind down through a peaceful forested valley towards the Kempinski Hotel Das Tirol. It’s this combination that arguably makes Jochberg the perfect base for the keenest of skiers.
Dining out in this attractive village is also rewarding. In 2009, Andreas Wahrstätter, chef at the Schwarzer Adler, trained under the three-rosette Austrian legend Eckart Witzigmann from Aubergine in Munich, and nowadays his cooking matches his genial personality. Wahrstatter’s food is Tyrolean with spin – robust dishes such as oxtail and mash, or roast venison with Madeira sauce and dumplings. His ingredients are straightforward, and his tables are decorated with white candles and flowers. Prudent diners wear their napkins tucked into their collars because with such generous portions there is much that can go wrong.
The Grand Tirolia Golf and Ski Resort here includes the 18-hole Eichenheim course, designed by Kyle Phillips of Kingsbarns fame. But its USP in winter is its proximity to the Kitzbühel and Jochberg ski lifts, both just five minutes away. The hotel is medium-sized; 82 spacious rooms and suites with curved balconies, pine-panelled walls and low-slung Italian furniture. It’s all very chic, even if the electronic controls and television in the bathroom are a bit puzzling. In the battle of the spas, always a keen one in wellness-obsessed Austria, the Tirolia is the outright winner, with a taupe and turquoise décor that’s at once cosy and extremely cool. There is a hammam, a plunge pool and showers of various temperatures and experiences, plus nine treatment rooms, as well as rows of Power Plates and pilates Reformers in the slick gym.
In the Kitzbühel battle of the chefs, Bavarian-born Bobby Bräuer rules at his Petit Tirolia restaurant. He too learnt his trade under Witzigmann, earning his own Michelin star in Munich before he moved here in 2008. In contrast to Taxacher, Bräuer is a simplifier; he sources his produce locally, selecting subsidiary spices and flavours to enhance his central ingredients in innovative ways.
So far, so very sleek and modern, but knightly chivalry is also represented in Kitzbühel’s brave new five-star world. Schloss Münichau, a white fairytale castle with red trim in the hamlet of Reith outside town, was built 600 years ago. It’s been through many transformations, but in December of last year, it reopened as a luxurious 30-room inn furnished in the Tirolean hunting style, with original stained glass and lots of antlers. The family chapel still caters for the religious-minded.
The restaurant offers another stellar chef, 31-year-old Thomas Dreher, who earned early Michelin status at the Hotel Tennerhof before moving on last year. He loves to prepare venison and picks his own mushrooms and elderflowers in the forest. It was the Crown Prince of Thailand’s top choice at dinnertime.
Insufficiently eccentric? The Stanglwirt at Ellmau on the Ski Welt is a 400-year-old family farmhouse with additions that include 36 aromatic Swiss pine suites that opened in 2009. It also has indoor tennis courts, a reef shark in an aquarium in the grotto spa’s chill-out zone and a help-yourself bottle of schnapps in a corner cupboard in the lift. Not to mention the Kuhstall Stube where, as the name suggests, cows and diners stare at each other through plate glass in a converted barn. Hay or beef? Even Courchevel can’t match that.