Every winter, the town of St Anton am Arlberg in Austria’s Tyrolean Alps becomes a mecca for skiers and snowboarders. Rated as one of Europe’s top resorts, winter sports fans come from around the world to take advantage of its fantastic pistes and the serious après-ski partying after hours. But what happens when the snow melts and the skiers head home? When the 10,000+ visitors leave and the town is left to its 2680 permanent residents? Despite my love of the mountains in winter, like many skiers I’d never been to a ski resort off-season. So when we were planning our European rail trip, St Anton – with its train station on the main route across Austria – seemed the perfect stop for a couple of days of summer in the mountains.
The journey up into the Arlberg valley keeps you in suspense, as a series of tunnels means you only get brief flashes of the scenery. So when we emerged out of the station we were hit by a wall of colour. By mid-July the snow on the mountains has almost totally disappeared, so instead of being covered in the blanket of white I’m used to, the mountains were a palette of shades of green instead. St Anton is a classic pretty Alpine town, with rows of traditional wooden buildings at the base of the slopes and a meltwater stream running through the valley. With so many hotels and chalets to cater for the winter visitors, a lot close in summer, but where they don’t you can often grab a bargain. Many of St Anton’s shops and restaurants stay open all year too – though at this time of year you might want to swap the usual ski resort Glühwein for a more seasonal Hugo Spritz (with elderflower cordial, prosecco, sparkling water and fresh mint).
But the big draw for summer visitors to St Anton is the same as for the winter ones – the mountains. It was my mum’s birthday while we were in town so we took her up into the mountains to celebrate with lunch with a view. Three of the ski lifts from the centre of St Anton are open during the summer (with different ones running on different days) so we took the Galzigbahn cable car up to the first lift station at 2085 metres high, where the restaurant is open over the summer. Getting into a ski lift without wearing five layers, shuffling in ski boots and carrying skis was a whole different experience. It gave me more time to check out the panoramic views of the Arlberg valley opening out below us – not that the birthday girl appreciated this bit, she’s not a fan of heights so kept her eyes firmly shut until we got to the top!
Once safely up the mountain and fortified by a huge plate of rosti (and a few medicinal glasses of wine to help my mum get over the trauma) we walked off lunch on one of the many mountain pathways. The mountains around St Anton are dotted with yellow signposts, each marked with the numbers for different walking routes. You can get a booklet from the tourist office with details of the routes, which cover over 300 kilometres altogether. You can do anything from our lazy half-hour circuit across a meadow of wildflowers, right up to a serious multi-day trip staying in mountains huts along the way. And if you want to cover more ground, there’s also a whole network of mountain biking routes around the area, or you can get the train to one of the surrounding towns and then cycle or walk back to St Anton.
If that all sounds a bit too much like hard work – or you need to soothe aching muscles – then like many mountain resorts, St Anton has a ‘wellness centre’. Although it sounds dubiously medical, it’s actually what German-speaking countries call a spa, so you’re more likely to find a pool and sauna than ice baths and colonics. In winter you’d probably want to take advantage of the heated whirlpools and jacuzzis, but on a sunny July day the outdoor pool was lined with sunloungers and packed with people. For most Brits, a ski resort might not be the obvious place for a summer holiday, but many Europeans head for the mountains every year. And having tried it out I can see why – you’ve got beautiful scenery, lots to do outdoors (however energetic you feel), an escape from the summer city heat, but without the crowds you’d get on the coast.
St Anton’s ski lifts are open next summer from 24 June to 27 September 2015. A trip on one lift cost €15,50 in 2014 for a return ticket, rising to €25,50 to go up the three lifts to the highest point. You can also get a special Hiking Pass which covers all the lifts (starting at €33 for three days) and a St Anton Card which covers the lifts and access to the pool and spa complex (from €48,00 for three days). Arlberg-well is open 9am–9pm over the summer and entry costs €6,50 (or €3,50 after 6pm).
Have you ever taken a summer holiday in the mountains?