Welcome to the final link in the chain connecting the five finest resorts with the finest skiing in Austria. Taken together – as they can be for the very first time this season – St Anton, St Christoph, Stuben, Zürs and Lech cover the full range of ski-joy expectation, on the slopes and off them. In Rauz, a remote car park high on the Arlberg Pass Road above St Anton, big snowflakes coat builders’ mudflats with fresh powder. Above, virgin gondolas with tinted panoramic sides swing on their pristine cable; a new escalator leads into the heart of the gleaming Flexenbahn base station. Then it’s up in a glass lift to the cabins themselves – 10-person capsules with black leather heated seats, no expense spared. Keep an eye out for ibex and chamois in the isolated Flexental valley below on the 1.8km journey to Zwischenstation (midstation) Trittkopf. Step out six minutes later, clip in and ski down to Zürs and on to Lech. “No more queuing in the cold, no more sweaty bus rides,” as Andrew Dunn – ski supremo at travel firm Scott Dunn – succinctly puts it.
Looping the loop with no road transport is an enduring Arlberg dream. In essence, the area is chalk and cheese. St Anton and St Christoph are in Tirol, Lech, Zürs and Stuben in Vorarlberg. St Anton is adrenaline central, the magnificent descents on the Valluga North too rugged to piste or patrol, the clubs on the pedestrian main drag too buzzy to leave before kick-out time. Lech is a haven of privileged mindfulness rivalling Courchevel in the Alpine five-star-hotels stakes. St Christoph, home to the Hospiz where 14th-century samaritans took in such stranded travellers as survived blizzards on the pass, and Zürs, small and treeless, are elite outposts, while Stuben remains convincingly olde worlde.
The Flexenbahn gondola is the key to the €45m project that turned dream into reality over six summer months in 2016. The new 1.9km Trittkopfbahn from Zürs meets it at the Trittkopf midstation, the starting point for a third gondola to Bergstation Trittkopf, which connects with an intermediate piste down to Zürs. A fourth gondola, Albonabahn II, joins Rauz to Albona on Stuben’s premium north-facing slopes. And Albonabahn I, when it is completed, will replace the icy, geriatric double chair out of the village.
As a St Antoner emeritus, I have skied many of the off-piste classics, including the back of the Valluga down to Zürs, a glorious run with a “fall and you die” start that means only those accompanied by a guide are allowed to take skis on the 15-man cable car to the top. I’d always imagined that a gondola from Zürs to the top of the Valluga would be the logical Arlberg link, but taming the terrain to construct safe pistes would require seriously disruptive landscaping – just possible in the Rockies, but not in Austria, where the Green Alternative party has been powerful since its inception in 1986.
Instead, the Arlberg has unveiled its Run of Fame: 65km from the top of Rendl in St Anton, via Galzig, Zürs and Lech, to remote Warth and back without adding a single environmentally hostile run. The new loop is more of a zigzag than a smooth Sella Ronda circle and, with no piste from Zürs back to Rauz, everyone has to take the Flexenbahn in both directions – but the truth is it does the job and then some. It misses out St Anton’s extreme Valluga runs, but makes for a joyful everyman cruise, starting on the intermediate runs of Rendl and ending on Lech’s mellow groomers: elegance personified, with heated-seat chairlifts and impeccable piste preparation. (Hyperactive snow users can always ramp it up with knee-jerkers over on the Kandahar bumps, or a loop through Gampen and Kapall to Nasserein at the St Anton end.)
The nexus is the Trittkopf midstation, home to the Hall of Fame, a permanent exhibition celebrating the people who made the Arlberg great. Foremost among them is Hannes Schneider, a star in the early 20th century (when racing was strictly walk up and find the quickest way down) who established the elegant Arlberg technique in the Alps. In 1939, after a spell in prison for supporting Jewish friends during the Nazi era, he went west to set up his ski school in New Hampshire. There’s also a longstanding museum in St Anton at a villa that was built for German industrialist Bernhard Trier in 1912 (and its restaurant’s food is excellent).
Providing hospitality for those who can pay upwards of €300,000 for a week’s accommodation – which quite a few who frequent the area can – has become something of a niche around here. A chalet so sumptuous that owners dare to market it as the most expensive in the world? A seven-suite hotel the size of a large country house? Or a hybrid suite-based hotel with a private residence, allowing reclusives to strip to Lycra in their own gym, then mingle in Armani in the bar? All these and more are available in the Arlberg – including a couple of very lovely conventional hotels. Just name your price.
My CV now confirms me as the inaugural dinner guest at Severin’s – The Alpine Retreat, the newest five-star S (for “superior”) hotel in Lech, which was putting on its finishing touches during my late-November stay. I sat down with my German hosts for roasted meats and pâtés and rich red wine in the dining-room-in-waiting. Originally conceived as the Blumen Haus Lech by its British owner Andrew Flowers, the hotel changed hands (and name) shortly before it opened last year. Its new owners, the Gustav Zech Foundation from Bremen, took possession of a very ambitious building site just a few weeks before my arrival; the guests who followed me were anticipating a perfect Christmas.
Severin’s falls into the hybrid category, featuring nine suites and a 423sq m residence with four bedrooms. Guests have their own private pool and gym, plus competing rights for a standout master suite, with a raised whirlpool on a screened rooftop terrace. Expect ancient and modern blending tastefully: 150-year-old timber harvested from derelict barns frames groupings of slick furnishings from Minotti. The new owners had the good fortune to sign up Stephan Kreigelstein, winner of a Michelin star at Omnia in Zermatt, at short notice to head up the kitchen. Art is a major feature, the walls hung with originals selected by two Viennese curators, some of it quietly for sale (fancy that Roy Lichtenstein? It’s yours for €500,000).
Severin’s closest competitor in the Lech goldfish bowl is eight-room and two-suite Aurelio, built by oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Married to the daughter of Boris Yeltsin’s former chief of staff, the laid-back entrepreneur is widely liked, but profitable contracts are in his DNA. As the owner of Basic Element and president of the Rusal aluminium company, he is worth around $4.4bn – a smidgen of which has been rewardingly spent on Aurelio, a ski-in, ski-out hybrid overlooking Lech where he spends large amounts of time on the mountain each winter.
The decor, by Tino Zervudachi of Belgravia-based Mlinaric, Henry and Zervudachi, is of the timber and antler school, but minus any trace of frippery: not a chair with a heart punched out of its back in sight. The passion of the Salzburger chef is to gather wild mountain mushrooms and herbs and distil them for aromas to flavour his dishes. Kids love the resident alpacas Hiero, Domingo and little black Yaki – willing participants in daily group walks through the village.
In the suites-only category, the outright Arlberg winner is the Tannenhof in Nasserein – a town that was formerly St Anton’s seasonaires’ dormitory and is now an ever-smarter satellite, thanks to the lift up to Gampen. In 2011, Axel Bach and Judith Volker sold their Italian estate to buy a medium-size early-20th-century hotel, raze it to the ground and replace it with a palace containing just seven suites, each a masterpiece of elegance and comfort using stone and timber from the original Tyrolean building, as well as importing a 400-year-old dining room ceiling from Ischgl. British chef James Baron, declared Austrian Chef of the Year by the 2017 Grand Restaurant & Hotel Guide after his first season here, deploys his skills in the kitchen (the restaurant is open to the public). Guests retire to the snooker room after dinner for digestifs poured from cut‑glass decanters as they line up their shots.
Chalet Artemis, one of the flagships of the Scott Dunn empire, is just around the corner. Thirty years ago, Andrew Dunn upped British chalet party expectations with then-revolutionary touches such as morning tea served in bed and champagne breakfasts. In the 2000s, he channelled his experiences into the “perfect” chalet that opulent decade seemed to be calling for (framed Greco artefacts on the walls, a cinema with a popcorn machine in the basement). The inverted design has six double bedrooms named after Greek gods on the lower floors, and the living spaces up top. The dining room has a wine wall with 300 bottles and access to a terrace with spectacular views, a combo that can prove hard to part with.
Its closest competitor is Chalet N, on Oberlech’s billionaires’ alley, owned by René Benko, a 39-year-old wunderkind who made a precocious property fortune and used it to buy the Karstadt department stores in Germany. Clad in mature timber and stone, Chalet N can justify its claim to be the world’s most expensive villa rental (€297,000 for a peak week, €490,000 over Christmas and New Year). As I soaked in my veined black marble bath among cast-silver stags and profusions of white orchids, I felt as close as I ever have, or probably will, to Marilyn Monroe (though admittedly very far from the quieter tastes that once prevailed in these parts).
Überhaus, on the same strip, is a British domain run by Verbier-based Bramble Ski and owned by financier Richard Campbell-Breeden, one of Goldman Sachs’ head men in Asia until he resigned last September. You can take 125-year-old snooker tables and high-thread-count Egyptian sheets for granted, but the Dustin Yellin sculpture in the sitting room signifies the hand of a discerning art collector; Campbell-Breeden adds in works from leading galleries one by one, forming a collection that suggests a sybarite with a twist of wit – as does the fitness room, with a glass ceiling directly below the hot tub, so guests breaking a sweat have an intimate view of friends at play.
To capitalise on St Anton’s legendary nightlife, there is the new Andino Bergwelten-Hotel, an Alpine-Andean fusion devised by Alejandra Wasle, the owner’s Peruvian wife. Her warm welcome and imported wool textiles in vibrant colours provide a cheery base that’s handily accessible to the main drag. Guests can while away evenings listening to the singer-guitarist over cocktails in minimalist Murrmel, dining gastronomically at Hazienda and dancing in the Horny Bull – the riotous replacement for the famous Kandahar – all within 100m of the hotel.
Back in Lech, Fux, owned by Peter Strolz (of the bespoke ski boot family), is a standout for its contemporary architecture and sense of fun. A steakhouse serving bison and ostrich makes a healthy (if incongruous) change from Tiroler wurst and Wiener schnitzel, and smokers love the cigar bar. Like Harry Potter’s magic bus, the James shuttle looms up in the middle of the night to transport party folk back from clubs – K.Club and Archiv in Lech, Vernissage in Zürs – to their billets for a modest €4.50 a head.
As the Arlberg settles into its new oneness, Martin Ebster, managing director of the St Anton Tourist Office, has the last word. “In the bad old days, we ran 120 buses a day between Alpe Rauz and Lech; think of the pollution. Now our guests can enjoy the magic of our mountains without leaving the slopes.” But eyes are already turning towards Rendl mountain, the proposed starting point for an even more ambitious link to Kappl in the Paznaun Valley. Biggest, it seems, is still not quite big enough.