With its spangled trees and snow-coveerd wooden eaves, come twilight, the tiny Tyrolean town of Ischgl looks more like Narnia than an Austrian ski resort. Yet, step inside one of the timber-framed bars and you’ll find very real revellers getting stuck into the local beer, soundtracked by cheerfully cheesy dance or a bit of Bon Jovi. It might look like a fairytale town at first sight but it boasts a rip-roaringly rock n’ roll underbelly – and an après ski scene to match.
I’d arrived after a three-hour drive from Zurich, one of the resort’s nearest airports. The route had taken us past soaring snow-capped peaks, through lengthy neon-lit tunnels and down through narrow valleys while chill winds gusted past outside. By the time I reached Ischgl, I was more than ready for some glühwein and the Hotel Ballunspitze was more than happy to oblige. Its pine-clad bar, decked with kitschy trinkets, was a welcome refuge from the cold, and perfect for planning the following day’s assault on the slopes.
The next morning, after a scenic trip up to the slopes on the Silvrettabahn cable car, my own attack on the mountain began – and ended – approximately ten seconds after reaching the top of the nursery slope. Despite perfect conditions and bright blue skies, my inept ski skills kept me on my backside for most of the first morning. At least, I comforted myself, my Ray Bans looked cool. Luckily for my bruised posterior, help was at hand and his name was Othmar.
A veteran teacher from the Schneesportakademie, Othmar proved the secret weapon in my skiing arsenal. A grey-bearded Father Christmas lookalike, he patiently explained again and again why leaning down is (counter-intuitively) essential and held my hand as I wobbled down the slope like Bambi on ice-skates. By the end of the first afternoon, I could stand and slide without toppling over. Next year, he assured me, I’d be tackling the black runs. While I didn’t share his confidence on the ski front, there was one Ischgl tradition I could tackle with aplomb – the après ski.
While Ischgl might not have the party reputation of nearby St Anton, it certainly knows how to roll up its sleeves and get stuck in. We started with a visit to Trofana Alm, an old-fashioned bar that came highly recommended, but beat a hasty retreat after finding it packed to the rafters with sweating skiers, mugs of beer clutched tight to their chests. Across the square, steaming cups of glühwein in hand, we breathed a chilly sigh of relief before heading to another local favourite, Niki’s Stadl where entertainment, in the shape of a video featuring a faux sheikh dancing with a camel, verged on the bizarre. Short on style it might have been but for good kitsch fun, it was perfect.
Nursing a hangover and a twinging pair of calf muscles, I was less than thrilled to wake to a blizzard the next morning. But all was not lost: with the ever-patient Othmar on hand to help, powdery snow meant slow going on the slopes and three chilly hours later, I’d managed to make it through the morning without ever coming into unwanted contact with the icy ground. By lunchtime, the sun was peeping through the clouds, bathing the spectacular scenery visible from mountain restaurant Pardorama’s plate glass windows in a golden glow.
The view was equally good from Panorama, a nearby restaurant with a confusingly similar name, later that night. Open during the day and occasionally in the evening, it specialises in typical Tyrolean fare, including Rindsuppe – a beef broth flecked with herbs and sliced pancake that appears on the menu of just about every restaurant in town. It might sound odd but it seemed to go down well with fellow diners, among them Canadian rockers Nickelback who had performed earlier in the evening. Back down in Ischgl, the band was proving popular with residents and appeared on the playlist, to collective mirth, at Freestyle, a packed nightspot close to the imposing Hotel Elizabeth. A few whiskies later and I was more than ready for bed.
Hungover yet again (clearly an occupational hazard of hanging out with the ski set), I headed back to the slopes for my final morning with Othmar. Confident in my limited abilities, he insisted on taking me up a steeper slope, the Sonnebahn, for a swift geography lesson and to ski down what looked to me like a scary drop. Arm-in-arm, we pushed off from the top before he let me go, letting me slide, at what felt like terrifying speed, down the sparkling run. Overtaken first by a snowboarder and then by a small boy, I started to relax. I might not have been fast but I was off the nursery slopes – and my bottom – at last!
Ischgl, although small, has made its name by thinking big. Two years ago, the town hit the headlines after splashing out a million euros on fake snow after the real thing didn’t appear in time, but it makes the news for its big name concerts more often. Held at the beginning and end of the ski season, the town has enjoyed performances from Elton John, Katy Perry and Nickelback in recent years, while Robbie Williams has been announced for the May event. See ischgl.com for more information. But there’s more to après ski Ischgl style than veteran musicians. Head to the Schloss-Lounge for a style fix served up with excellent cocktails, or for a more ineimate experience, the Romantikahütte does good champagne in a cosy setting.
NEED TO KNOW…
RIH stayed at the Hotel Ballunspitze where rooms start at €119 (approximately £98) per person per night including breakfast. See ballunspitze.com for more information and to book. Flights to Innsbruck with British Airways start at £98 return from London Gatwick. See ba.com for more information. Alternatively, Swiss offer daily flights from London to Zurich from £150 return. See swiss.com for more. For more on skiing in Ischgl, see ischgl.com.