A ski trip to Lech is like a journey back to the sport's early days. With wooden chalets, horse-drawn carriages, and cable cars carrying skiers to mountaintops, the place exudes a charm that's a far cry from the Gore-Tex-clad, vertical-hungry vibe of so many North American resorts.
Located about 120 miles from Zurich in a region of Austria known as the Arlberg, Lech's ski area first opened in 1937. But you don't come here just for a history lesson. Lech sits on the western side of the country and is one of the first resorts to get nailed by storms as they pass over the Alps — which means some of the finest skiing anywhere. About 40 percent of the resort consists of groomed beginner and intermediate terrain. But traverse a little farther off the lift and you'll find more than 124 miles of empty, powder-stuffed bowls. "What the Arlberg is known for is its off-piste terrain," says pro skier Lorraine Huber, a Lech native whose family has lived in the area for hundreds of years. "You could spend two lifetimes skiing here every day and you still would have new zones to discover." Compared with the U.S., boundary ropes, signage, and avalanche-control work are minimal, so it's best to hire a guide and carry backcountry safety gear. "You have to know what you're doing," says Huber, "but there is a lot of freedom."
A typical day starts with a tram ride to the 8,000-foot summit, and then a scenic descent to a neighboring valley via wide-open bowls. You can ride new lifts all day long and still not see the entire mountain. Lech also is home to Austria's only resort-based heli-skiing — book a flight to one of two nearby peaks and you can ride untracked snow for less than $550.
For a break, stop in a mountaintop hut for espresso and kaiserschmarrn, a sweet, chopped-up pancake with raisins and stewed plums that has fueled Austrian skiers for generations. For dinner, treat yourself to käsespätzle, Austria's version of macaroni and cheese. Then end your day by going back in time again, listening to a Tyrolean brass band dressed in lederhosen in the Rüfiplatz, the village's main square.
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