The four-resort Skicircus – which includes the grand old ski area of Saalbach – has undergone a radical transformation, writes editor Richard Bath.
Why would I ski here?
“Skicircus” is basically shorthand for a conglomeration of four alpine towns – Saalbach, Hinterglemm, Leogang, and Fieberbrunn – which together make up the ninth biggest ski region in the world. Its Sunday name of “Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, so from here on, it’ll henceforth be known as simple old Saalbach. Between them the four resorts (and the outlying Tyrolean ski areas of Hochfilzen, St Jakob in Haus, St Ulrich am Pillersee and Waidring) have 70 lifts and 270km of pistes, so there’s something for everyone. The lift system has been radically improved, making for a better quality ski experience, and new flights into Salzburg – especially British Airways’ CityFlyer from London City Airport – make it more accessible than ever.
Saalbach and nearby Hinterglemm are the liveliest and most authentically alpine environments, with nice centres to stroll around. The family resort of Fieberbrunn is great for beginners but also hosts the Freeride World Tour each year, so has some excellent off-piste. Saalfelden Leogang, which has by far the most beds of the four villages, is more chilled, more modern and more luxurious, and is right next to the lifts. In the summer the whole area is a mecca for mountain bikers.
The Home of Lassig:
Ah, Lassig. For those of you who’ve been subjected to The Lion King, this is the Saalbach version to Hakuna Matata! It’s all about happiness: whether you find that in a balls-out descent of an icy black run, carving down some reds, skiing in convoy with the family, or taking a four-hour lunch, the idea is that Saalbach has something to make everyone happy.
The bad news is that at barely 1,000m Saalbach is quite low, but the great news is that as long as there’s enough snow then it’s a great cruisy resort in which good intermediates in particular can bomb around red runs to your heart’s content all week. The ski area is so big that you never need to go up and down the same piste twice, and I enjoyed practising my carving on the wide and steepish reds, getting plenty of miles under my belt.
The Hochalm peak and the Kohlmais area were perfect for chilling and carving, while the Nordabfahrt, which drops 1000m from the top of the 2020 Schattberg Ost back to Saalbach, was ostensibly a black but in benign snow conditions was a lovely final descent of the day. But it’s not just decent intermediates that will like Saalbach: there are nursery slopes in all four resorts, and no shortage of wide blue runs, while the hard-core adrenaline monkeys can head off to the more challenging blacks on the north face of either the Zwölferkogel peak or Schattberg peak.
Saalbach is not known primarily as an off-piste area but there are huge opportunities for the brave and the bold. The powder above the tree line is celebrated, while the freeriding on the Reiterkogel peak and in the slopes around Fieberbrunn and Wildseeloder is outstanding.
As for the Nordic disciplines, there’s a Nordic Park at Lake Ritzensee in Saalfelden Leogang, not to mention an ice rink. There’s also a skicross course above the village of Vorderglemm, while the Triassic Funline in Snowpark Steinplatte is 1.5km of fun. There are also 140km of walking and snowshoeing trails.
One final thing to bear in mind is the huge investment in the lift system, which makes getting around the area incredibly easy. Not only are most of the gondolas and lifts new, big and fast, most of the lifts also boast heated padded seats (oh joy!) and a bad-weather shield that comes down automatically when it gets genuinely Baltic.
For the easily bored or borderline psychotic, any trip to Saalbach can be enlivened by attempting The Challenge (www.saalbach.com/thechallenge). This is the rather prosaic name for a ski circuit of 12,400 metres of altitude, 32 lifts and 65kms of skiing that’s undertaken in one day (it should take decent skiers seven hours, plus lunch in one of the many alluring on-mountain restaurants on the way). The resort claims that The Challenge “overshadows the Sellaronda, the White Ring and the King’s Tour (Konigstour)” – which is some claim. You’ll need to check there’s enough snow cover but otherwise the level of difficulty doesn’t appear to be too severe (60% blue, 35% red, and 5% black) and there’s a prize draw for finishers in which the luckiest of the three winners walks away with a one-week stay for two, including ski passes.
Ski passes and gear:
The Alpin Card (www.alpincard.at) not only entitles you to ski at the four villages centred around Saalbach, but you also get to ski the Schmittenholne in Zell am See and the Kitzsteinhorn Kaprun. This extends the skiable area to 408kms and 121 lifts. For this season, six days costs €338 for an adult, €253.50 for a teenager (born 2004-2006), and €169 for a child (2007-2016). Children born 2017 and later ski for free, while at Easter children born 2007 and later also ski for free. All passes are valid from 3pm on the previous day.
If you’re going to ski like a mad person, you could look at the Superskicard (www.superskicard.com). This single pass gives you access to 22 ski regions, 85 ski resorts, 934 cable cars and lifts, 2,780km of pistes and 779 lodges and mountain restaurants. A flexible pass for ten days costs €645 for adults, €479 for teenagers, and €318 for children.
As with many resorts in Austria, if one parent rents gear, the kids get theirs for free. We rented our gear from Sport Mitterer (www.sportmitterer.at) at the Asitzbahn valley station in Leogang and got excellent English-speaking service.
Similarly, we had guides/instructors from the Skizene Altenberger (www.skiszene.at), and despite head ski instructor Roli Pichler challenging my technique as he honed my carving (“feet close together Richard!”) it was a genuinely improving experience.
We were in town in the very first week of the season, so the apres-ski hadn’t really got going. However, Saalbach is one of the liveliest apres-ski spots in the Austrian Alps, so not really one for the family. There are any number of bars and clubs in Saalbach that will allow you to party through til the wee sma’ hours if that’s your thing. You can party on even later in Hinterglemm, with The Nightliner bus service connecting the two villages until late evening and until 2.30am on Saturday nights.
Family-friendly Fieberbrunn is not a party resort, although it has several bars. It also has an adventure pool complex, ice-skating rink, floodlit half-pipe and tobogganing, sleigh rides, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, a coaster ride, and hiking. In season, it has llama trekking through the snow, which children from 10 and above can do.
We stayed in Leogang, where most of the night-time activity is in-hotel. We did, however, have one memorable early evening mini-excursion where we took a horse-drawn carriage through the Schwarzleo valley to the site of an old gold mine that’s been turned into small artisan market, complete with mulled wine bars. I’d highly recommend this, especially if you have children.
Eating and drinking:
There are 70 places to eat on the mountain, with something for all budgets, so there’s no excuse for going hungry. There were, however, two culinary highlights of our stay. The first was a traditional “hut-essen” dinner at Priesteregg (www.priesteregg.at), the restaurant serving a ridiculously swanky collection of traditional chalets, where we slapped thin-sliced steaks and pieces of lamb on a hot griddle shaped like a bell, and waited until they were cooked.
The second absurdly decadent culinary experience was at a legendary on-mountain institution called the Hendlfisherei (www.hendl-fischerei.at). Perched on the side of a mountain, it looks like a wooden and glass spaceship, and can only be accessed by passing through its ground-floor Champagne bar. From there we went upstairs and, having sadly missed the ostrich egg omelette for breakfast, had its speciality of warm smoked trout followed by spatchcocked BBQ chicken. Marvellous mountain food and not ridiculously pricey (half a chicken was €13.90).
Where to stay:
We stayed in the quiet village of Leogang at the ski-in ski-out Naturhotel Forsthofgut (www.forsthofgut.at), a luxurious spa hotel that has recently undergone a massive renovation and expansion. The facilities were peerless, whether it was the two restaurants, huge 5700m sq spa (complete with three swimming pools, guy, endless saunas, steam baths and whirlpool, etc), or the two cocktail bars. There’s also free childcare and a riding stables. The rooms were also vast, and mine came with a bunk room for kids and a balcony. Dinner was excellent, and a breakfast of bircher muesli was the perfect slow-release fuel for a day’s skiing.
The best way to get to the resort is to travel to London and take British Airways’ new direct CityFlyer service to Salzburg from London City Airport, with flights starting from little more than £50 each way. From there it’s only an hour and a quarter to Saalbach, making it one of the easiest transfers of all. Alternatively, if you’re in no rush and value your euros, take the train from Salzburg to Zell Am Zee and then take a bus or taxi the final 12 miles.
If you’re determined to take a direct flight from Scotland, the best bet is Easyjet from Edinburgh to Munich, which is two and a half hours from Saalbach. It is possible to travel by train from Munich, but it’s far easier and quicker to hire a car.
Once in the resort, there are free ski shuttle buses, which are regular and reliable.
We liked: The sheer scale of the ski area, the outstanding advanced intermediate skiing, and the quality of the food.
We didn’t like: Until you get used to the layout, it’s so large it can be a bit disorientating.
Getting there: I flew from London City Airport with British Airways (www.britishairways.com/).
Airport Transfers: There are multiple companies, but as a guide www.salzburg-ski-transfer.com charge E203 per person each way from Salzburg to Saalbach.
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