When we teamed up with Gear Patrol to offer a winner and their guest a chance at a ski trip to Lech am Arlberg, Austria, we knew we had to tap Alps & Meters Alpinist James Jung to give us the insider's guide. James is the bloke behind the instragram feed @theapresski, and always knows the best place to post up for a drink or two after a day on the slopes. We've yet to meet someone as enthusiastic (or knowledgeable) about the region. Read on for James' tips, and head to the giveaway page to enter to win a business class, four-day ski trip to the region.
People often ask me where they should ski in Europe, and I always give them the same answer: The Arlberg — five connected villages straddling the Tirol and the Vorarlberg regions of Austria.
I’m biased. My father hails from a nearby mountain town. And while he spent the bulk of his career running ski schools here in America, he instilled a love of the old country in me. As a kid, I ski raced all over New England, and I've had some of the best powder days of my life in places like Alta and Whistler. And yet I'll always opt for a ski trip to the Alps, even if the snow conditions can be a bit riskier than at some of the powder havens out west. I guess it's the sense of history—the old towns with their narrow streets and church spires, the huts fragrant with cheese and speck, the veteran instructors who yodel while they ski without even the slightest hint of irony—that does it for me.
Think of it like baseball. Would you rather catch a game in a gleaming new stadium (perhaps one named for its corporate sponsor) or immerse yourself in the timeless atmospheres of Wrigley Field or Fenway?
And nothing to me feels as timeless as the Arlberg. This is, after all, where the modern incarnation of the sport was first introduced to the world. Local boy Hannes Schneider—son of a cheese maker—hoofed it from his home in Stuben (more on that place later), over the mountains and into St. Anton (the biggest town in the Arlberg) in the early 1900s to open the world's first ski school. Schneider and his friends had been tweaking accepted skiing technique from the upright position pioneered by Scandinavians into something much more aggressive, with their knees bent, their bodies crouched, and their weight pitched forward. It allowed them to tear down the steep surrounding peaks with far more speed and agility than anyone had previously managed. Schneider, unlike some of his colleagues, believed that this technique could be taught to anyone. He dubbed it the Arlberg Technique, a teaching method that takes students from the snowplow to parallel turns. If that sounds familiar it's because it is—the Arlberg Technique is still taught in ski schools the world over. Soon enough, everyone was flocking to St. Anton—royals, industrialists, even wealthy Americans—and the Arlberg was firmly put on the map.
By the 1960s, it'd become a destination of the jet set, with Porsches pulled up in front of glamorous hotels, sprawling sun terraces thick with an international crowd of leisure enthusiasts. But—thanks to the big winter snowstorms and endless off-piste terrain—It remained, first and foremost, a favorite among hardcore skiers.
Today, you'll find a similar vibe and the same epic terrain; terrain that has been optimized by one of the largest and most modern lift systems in the world. Last season, the entire Arlberg was finally connected thanks to the new Flexenbahn, a series of gondolas linking Stuben to Zürs — meaning the entire sprawling resort can be skied in a single day (and on a single ticket) without the need to hail a cab or take a bus between towns.
Skiing from village to village makes for—pardon the schmaltzy sincerity—a totally magical experience. As I mentioned, there are five towns comprising the Arlberg, and each has its unique flavor. St. Anton is big and bustling, with large hotels, thumping après bars (many of which are up on the hill, necessitating a drunken, somewhat precarious schuss back into town) and popular among ski bums and bachelor parties. Go there if you're young and single and want to ski the steep, side-country chutes that menacingly hang over town.
At the top of the Arlberg Pass sits St. Christoph—a family-friendly hamlet that's home to the Hospiz Hotel (think The Overlook from The Shining minus the creepy twins) and the Hospiz Alm, arguably the most popular lunch spot in the region (get the spätzle and a glass of Grüner). On the other side of the pass you'll find Stuben am Arlberg. With its onion-domed church, tiny main square, and old fixed-grip double chair (the legendary Albonabahn 1, which whisks you over pine trees and avalanche barriers into some of the best powder skiing in the world), Stuben is the most unassuming and overlooked town in the Arlberg. That, however, is due to change thanks to the aforementioned Flexenbahn, which has made the village somewhat of a nexus point in the region. Stuben is slowly— if not somewhat begrudgingly—modernizing while keeping an eye on its past. For a luxe experience, rent out Hannes Schneider's childhood home, a six-bedroom timber-shingled chalet that's been updated with a sauna, pool, and its own private chef.
On the other side of the vertiginous Flexen Pass sit Zürs and Lech, the two poshest places to stay in the Arlberg. Zürs is a cluster of traditional chalet hotels—white stucco, dark wooden balconies, red shutters—hugging the roadside between high, treeless peaks. You can ski both sides of the valley here, down long, undulating runs and into bowls deep with powder that—on a good winter—seems to last for weeks. This is classic, high alpine Austria at its best. It’s a vibe the local hoteliers and ski instructors have been cultivating for years, meaning you’ll discover something similar to what Dick Barrymore encountered when visiting Zürs for his 1967 film The Last of the Ski Bums. As they did then, skiers congregate for lunch in town, at the outdoor bars and restaurants of hotels. But I love Tritt-Alpe, a mid-mountain hut typically slumped under snow where taxidermy lines the walls and the lederhosen-wearing wait staff ferry steins of beers and wood platters of cured meats out onto the sun terrace.
From the top of Zürs’ western-facing Madloch-Joch, you can take a two-and-a-half mile run down into Zug (another hamlet and where I’ll be buying some secluded real estate if I ever run into a windfall of money). From there, it’s a quick double chair up into Lech. As soon you get off, you’ll be greeted by the mellow house music sounds of Balmalp, a sleek timber hut whose balcony is cantilevered over the side of a cliff. Grab a drink (champagne flows liberally here) or tuck into a wood fired pizza alongside the sun-worshipping, table-dancing glitterati—it’s a perfect entry point to Lech’s decadent but laid-back vibe.
If St. Anton offers the steeps of Jackson Hole, and Stuben and Zürs the powder of Little Cottonwood Canyon, then Lech is the Arlberg’s version of Beaver Creek or Deer Valley, without the cookie cutter condos. Here you’ll find rolling slopes perfect for cruising that take you from alpine bowls into wooded trails. Lech is a two-tiered town, meaning by the end of the day you’ll first ski through Oberlech—a swath of slope-side hotels offering après-ski on their terraces—and finally into Lech proper. Bisected by a gargling little river and flanked by traditional Austrian hotels and shops, Lech’s main street is—for my money—the most picturesque in all of ski country. In comparison to St. Anton, which is wedged into a tightly notched valley, the landscape here is broader, more open, and the sun seems to last longer. Grab an Aperol Spritz outside the Hotel Krone, a bauhaus-style refuge that draws a lively post-ski crowd, or hit the family-owned Strolz, a Madison Avenue worthy ski shop whose owners have been making their namesake custom ski boots for generations. Lech is as well heeled as St. Moritz, Gstaad and Aspen, and yet it somehow feels less pretentious. Maybe it has to do with the 15th century church tower rising above town, or the surrounding pastures and hillsides that transition to farmland come summer.
For all its charm and luxury and history, it’s the skiing that makes the Arlberg my favorite place in the Alps. The terrain truly does feel endless—from narrow chutes to wide-open valleys, untouched tree runs to rolling corduroy. The side-country is particularly inviting—it’s huge and easily accessible from most of the lifts. It’s also dangerous. While I was over there last spring reporting a story for SKI Magazine, there were multiple slides and two deaths. If you venture off-piste, rent an airbag, get a guide and listen to everything they say.
The only other danger? Once you ski here there’s a good chance you won’t want to ski anywhere else.