Kitzbühel – The Complete All Rounder

STORY BY Patrick Thorne 16th August 2017

One of the best known names in world skiing, Kitzbühel has one of the most illustrious pasts – and presents – in downhill ski racing and an incredible heritage as a winter resort destination for those of us not brave enough to throw ourselves down the course of the infamous annual Hahnenkamm race.

If you just roll up to Kitzbühel on your ski holiday, as I did, you’ve made a good choice.  The local ski area has about 110 miles of ski runs which you can access from half-a-dozen or more spots in and around the resort, but which are now all inter-connected up top by more than 50 lifts including some of the world’s fastest, most comfortable and effective queue-gobbling lifts on the planet.

You’ll probably be impressed by the ski area and its lifts therefore (one of which holds the world record for crossing at the highest level above the valley floor, some 400 metres up), but it’s the town itself that is the resort’s trump card for most visitors.

The pedestrianised medieval resort centre is something very special, drawing tourists year-round to witness its ancient buildings and painted frescoes.  It’s home to an enticing mixture of boutique shops, quirky restaurants and stylish cafes in buildings which in some cases date back to the 14th century.

If you’re looking for a ski resort with character, choice and as good-sized ski area, Kitzbühel is it.

Kitzbühel

The Skiing

Kitzbühel is most famous for the annual Hahnenkamm downhill world cup ski race each January which plunges down the mountainside at 85 degrees.  The race is the biggest single sporting event in Austria, summer or winter, attracting 50,000 or more to the resort to watch it and tens of millions more to TV screens around the world.  Raced 77 times since the early 1930s, a Hahnenkamm win for a racer is equivalent too, perhaps better than a Winter Olympic Downhill victory.

But really Kitzbühel, unlike some of the other world famous resorts such as St Anton, or Chamonix or Val d’Isere, doesn’t really have a reputation for its tough skiing.  Of course there’s plenty of it, but most of the groomed terrain in the local Wilder Kaiser mountains is suited to intermediates, even the Hahnenkamm’s race course is specially created by linking a number of runs through normally closed sections each year, and so it disappears as a race course once the race has been run and a few die-hards have booked their  chance to ski it themselves afterwards.

(Dave Ryding wins Britain’s first World Cup medal this century at the 2017 Hahnenkamm)

The ski area itself is divided in to three sectors, all inter-linked, including the Kitzbüheler Horn, the larger Hahnenkamm and the smaller Bichlalm which is promoted as a freeride option complete with snowcat operation.  One popular option is a 35km (22 mile) one-day marked ‘Ski Safari’ route that takes you right around the whole area.

If the 179km of piste locally doesn’t sound like enough (it should be for a week for most of us) the area pass covers many neighbouring ski resorts a short bus ride away, in total they offer more than 1,000km of ski runs on the Kitzbühel Alps All Star Card. Closest is the SkiWelt, one of Austria’s three largest ski areas with some 280km of runs – it’s ski area almost touches Kitzbühel’s.

Skiing the Horn on a snowy day

One thing you should be aware of in Kitzbühel is the snow.  The resort’s highest slopes at 2000m above sea level are amongst the lowest of all the major ski destinations in Europe.  That may not be great news in this era of a warming climate and the resort was singled out by journalists a little over a decade ago when a major international report mentioned that low altitude ski areas would increasingly suffer as the decades went on through this century.

So far Kitzbühel has come out fighting, actually extending its ski season to usually open some high terrain in late October each year using snow farming and clever snowmaking to open runs when most other areas can’t.  It has published data going back decades showing it is getting about as much snow as it ever did and it also has extensive snowmaking.

But it can’t be denied that when I visited in February this year, it was raining and the snow wasn’t in great shape.  Then again, I was unlucky enough to visit in a warm spell, across the Alps and Kitzbühel wasn’t the only one suffering.

The Resort

Whilst its outskirts appear much the same as any large Austrian mountain village, the medieval town centre is something special and makes Kitzbühel a great choice if you have non-skiers in your party or indeed fancy a more laid-back winter holiday where skiing isn’t the be-all and end-all.

There’s a great choice of cafes and restaurants – from affordable organic cafes up to gourmet dining – both chic and modern and traditional in one of those ancient and authentic buildings.  Even for a coffee stop you’ll have no problem finding a hand-made expresso or soya latte here. Shoppers, too, will be delighted by the wide choice of enticing shops and boutiques, including many that have been in the town for generations.  It’s not only ski shops either, there are jewellers, fashion boutiques, a lingerie store, tailors, shoe shops, a great book shop and many more.

It’s also worth noting that there’s plenty to do in Kitzbühel besides either downhill snow-sports or rather sedentary eating, drinking and shopping. The resort’s impressive Aquaarena indoor pool complex features a 25m competition pool, leisure pool and spas facilities including sauna, steambath and hammam. There are lots more spa centres around the resort including in many of the four and five-star hotels here. There’s also the Mercedes-Benz Sportpark for ice skating and curling whilst the SALEWA KletterKitz climbing gym features an 850m² climbing area that rises up to a height of 17 metres.  Then there’s indoor tennis, toboggan runs, even a casino, the list goes on.

Where to Stay

Staying in the comfortable four-star Hotel Jagerwirt during my most recent stay in Kitzbühel. The hotel is a long-standing favourite with Brits, partly due to the warm welcome from the friendly and efficient staff and partly due to the big buffet dinners, amongst other things.

Facilities include an indoor pool and a great spa with sauna, steam room and relaxation area. There’s also a popular bar (warning to non-smokers/good news for smokers: people still smoke in bars in the Tirol) where you can buy one of the world’s biggest burgers if the fancy takes you.

The Hotel Jagerwirt is well located with both ski lifts and the heart of the resort just a short walk away (the ski bus stops right outside if you don’t want the 10 minute walk).

Crystal Ski Holidays (www.crystalski.co.uk; 020 8610 3123) offers a week’s half board at the four-star Hotel Jagerwirt in Kitzbühel from £557 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers (price given is for departure on 16 December 2017). Direct flights available from all major UK airports.

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