Last week we made our last trip of the 2013-2014 ski season to Solden, Austria. While I was nervous about what the ski conditions would be like the last week of the official ‘winter season,’ I’m so glad we took it. Generally speaking the weather conditions were good. And while this trip focused around physical exercise I found it to be incredibly relaxing.
This was a Saturday to Saturday trip largely organized by husband who booked through the Thomas Cook (which chartered the plane) in conjunction with Neilson Holidays (who provided the in resort services). After extensive online research he decided that Solden offered the right balance of: enough altitude to offer good snow coverage (even in late March), size & challenge of the mountain, and price. And we came away from the vacation perfectly happy to continue skiing there for years to come. But my suspicion is that the ‘itch’ to try somewhere new will take hold next year.
Skiing in Solden
I’ll cut right to the chase, that was the point of the vacation. Unlike our trip to Garmish-Partenkirchen, we didn’t have any side trips planned. We arrived around noon on Saturday, giving us the rest of day to get the lay of the land, make arrangements; and then six days of continuous skiing.
Solden is like many European ski resorts. There is about one piste (slope) into town, which can get quite crowded around 4pm and doesn’t have great conditions as the weather gets warmer. So it is common to take the gondola from town up the mountain and then on to more lifts before the skiing starts for the day; and then the gondola down at the end of the day.
On Sunday, we awoke to about two inches of snowfall in town, which would continue for the rest of the day and leave another 6 inches in town. Depending on where on the mountain you were, the storm left between a foot and a half and three feet of snow. The one thing you never complain about on a ski vacation in snow. But since a lot of the snow fell during the day it did severely limit visibility our first day; which had the psychological effect of making me nervous about where I was going. The storm also closed some of the higher parts of the mountain, and condensed the number of people on the lower slopes, making me further nervous about running into people, or getting run into.
As for our ski legs (which we hadn’t used in a month and a half)? The first two days were the toughest (the fresh powder while nice, probably increased our workout), with a little bit of soreness on the third day and no problems the rest of the week. And while I mentioned that the mountain felt crowded during the storm, that was really just in comparison to the rest of the week. We hardly ever had to wait more than 5 minutes for a lift, and were often the only two on an eight person lift. It was more crowded when we’d stop for lunch. Over the course of six days we skied just under 150 miles, with our daily mileage much higher at the end of the week than at the beginning.
Our lift ticket was a plastic card (think hotel key card), that not only allowed us to access the lifts, but kept a record of what lifts you went on each day. Using your ticket number you can go online and track your days. At least in Solden, there were also machines that would print you out a report, like the one below. Though that day’s ski data isn’t usually available immediately.
Solden is also one of the mountains that partners with BMW Mountains that offered both photo finishes AND a parallel ski slalom course
Also, watch me smoke my husband on the slopes!
After lunch on our last day of skiing in Solden, my husband adjusted our bindings and we switched skis. He wanted to try a more slalom style ski than his all-mountain skis. He seemed to like them in principal, but found them way to short. It is also his excuse for why I beat him in the slalom race!
All in all, we had a fantastic time cruising the pistes at Solden. With the exception of the first day, it was sunny and we could lunch outside with our jackets unzipped. We were particularly fond of skiing the glacier, but would recommend going there first thing in the morning. While on the pistes I’d occasionally have to watch were I was skiing, I’d get distracted by the scenery!
Skiing in Obergurgl
On Thursday, we took the regional bus about 20 minutes south (and higher up in the mountains) to Obergurgl bordering Italy. And based on what I observed it seemed to be the more popular resort with Brits. The majority of people on our Neilson bus were staying in Obergurgl. And I noticed much more English being spoken at the mountain.
We found the public bus system very easy to figure out for getting to and from Obergurgl. We assume the bus was included with our lift passes because neither driver asked us to pay. But a few passengers that got on did show some form of id (they were the ones not carrying skis). It is, however, important to check your time tables. The bus we wanted to catch was before our ski lockers actually opened (but the store clerks let us sneak in a bit early). However, all that worry was in vain, since the lifts at Hochgurgl (one peak of the Obergurgl resort) didn’t start until 9am. Our Solden ski passes (because we paid for upgrade of one day skiing in Obergurgl) worked on their lifts seamlessly.
When we got to the top of Hochgurgl it was enveloped in fog and there was zero visability. What was further confusing that only the uphill side of the pistes were marked; not the edge of the mountain, you know the part you could fall off of (just saying). Due to the lack of visibility, and not knowing where the mountain edge was, I did have a slight fall. But what was more nerve wracking was the fact that as I was getting up a piste groomer was coming at me (and I’m in a white and blue ski jacket in fog). Don’t worry, I was able to get out of the way. So, needless to say Hochgurgl didn’t make a great first impression.
To get away from the fog, we took the transverse gondola over to the main part of Obergurgl, which was still perfectly sunny. The pistes there were very wide and open. I could see it being a good learn to ski mountain, but even before the end of the day, we felt like we had done the mountain and were glad that we chose Solden for the majority of our skiing.
Eating & Drinking in Solden
Solden is a ski resort known for it’s aprés-ski & night light. I can’t give too thorough of a review of it since my husband and I favored naprés-ski (that’s where you drink a beer in your hotel room and take a nap after skiing). Most of the aprés-ski places operate from 3pm-7pm. We found it a little strange that last call was 7pm, but then someone explained that many of the party establishments in town are owned by a handful of people; and they close one place expecting you to go home and change out of your ski clothes and come back. I also cynically thought that it also allowed them to stealth-fully rise the prices from one establishment to the next as it got later in the evening.
We did find one bar, that was more bar than nightclub and frequented by locals. However, I can’t for the life of me remember its name (it was a fun night) or find it searching online. But it is near the Freizeit Arena and has a decorative keg ‘sticking’ through the side of the building. There is also a sign on the door in German that from what we could determine was its opening hours, which is generally around 8pm (sometimes 7pm or 9pm), really whenever the owner felt like it.
As for restaurants in town, we found that with the exception of a few fine dining places, the prices were fairly moderate. Solden being close to the Italian border, the dining choices were primarily pizzerias & traditional Austria food. Fortunately, we like both! (Plus the requisite kebab shop.) We tried 3 pizzerias and found them all pretty much on par in terms of quality and price. So I wouldn’t stress out to much about which one to go to. For Austrian food the place that stuck out for us was the restaurant attached to the hotel next to ours: Grauer Bar. Most nights restaurants were able to seat us immediately, so it wasn’t a town that I felt like reservations were necessary.
On the mountain we found the cafeterias owned my the resort to be good and offer a range of options. There are also several ski huts on the mountain our favorite of which (and rated #1 on TripAdvisor) was Gampe Thaya. This place has a large sun terrace for out door dining; but it is quite popular, so I would recommend and early lunch around 11am, or if it is Thursday-Saturday making a reservation.
The mountain also hosts several events in the afternoons and evenings. Tuesday evenings there is a traditional Austrian band and dancers from 4:30-9pm. We were also one week early for Solden’s end of winter season electronic dance music festival on the mountain featuring Showtek & Martin Solveig.
Non Skiing Activities
In winter there isn’t much besides skiing and bars. There is probably a playground somewhere in town, but I don’t know for certain. And you can buy a non-skiing ticket for the gondola for you wanted to go up an hang out on the mountain, but it seemed expensive (I heard €30 – but I could be wrong about that). Your main option is the Freizeit Arena, which has a family pool, sauna, tennis court gym, and outdoor skating when the weather permits it. Most hotels in town partner with the Freizeit Arena to offer their guests free admission, but you can always purchase admission on your own.
We rented our skis from Sporthutte Fiegl at the base of the Glaischkogl Tal Gondola and included use of a ski locker for the week, so we didn’t have to carry our equipment through town. It is about €30 to rent a locker, had we brought our skis. Most hotels have lockers, but you would still have to carry them to and from the gondola each day. The thing that I liked most about these lockers was that you place your boots and mittens on open plastic tubes, and overnight dry air is pumped through them to dry out your gear. The lockers open using your lift pass, so it is one less thing to carry around. Our ski shop didn’t open until 8:15am in the morning, but we found that if you get there as they are opening up the store they are more than happy to let you go down to the locker room.
We were looking to do this ski holiday cheaper than the last one. So our hotel. Pension Waldheim, was at the edge of town (but only a 5 minute walk to one of the two gondolas) so we still found it to be conveniently located. It was about a 15-20 minute walk into town for dinner, but that still didn’t bother us. The rooms at Pension Waldheim all include a balcony (which we used as our beer fridge) and were very clean; the mattresses could have been a little bit firmer. Our hotel included breakfast, but didn’t include an option for half-pension (includes dinner). When we were booking the hotels that did offer a half-pension option were about €80 more a night. So we figured as long our dinner each night was less than €80 we’d save money. Generally speaking our total expenses for the day (lunch, dinner, and drinks) were right around €80.
Using a Holiday Company
The holiday that we booked was available through both the Thomas Cook & Neilson Holiday website for the same price. For the services that we used Thomas Cook operated the plane that we took to and from Innsbruck, and Neilson handled things in Solden, so most of our direct experience was with Neilson. My husband and I tend to be independent travelers making a lot of most of our own arrangements (it is usually cheaper), so this review is only a partial explanation of what Neilson offers.
Thomas Cook gives each person a free checked bag each; but that did not include skis, which was fine with us. My skis are about 15 years old and were one of the first generation ‘cut’ skis, and ski design has come a long way since then. And my husband had a pair of beginner skis and was looking to try something in the intermediate range. We did bring our boots, and put them in a regular duffle bag. Thomas Cook didn’t seem to care since they were under the max weight, and weren’t an irregular size.
Upon arrival in Innsbruck, we picked up our bags and there were several Neilson reps outside arrivals to direct us to which bus would take us Solden. Within about 45 minutes of landing our bus departed for Solden & Obergurgl. On the bus were two Neilson reps (one for each resort) that were available for questions, or book lift tickets & ski rentals if you hadn’t done that already, and give you an introductory packet. Since the price for them booking our lift tickets was the same as buying them at ticket office, we opted to pay through Neilson and have them deliver our passes to our hotel that afternoon. However, we found their package ski rentals to be a little bit pricier than what we had researched we could get in town and passed on that.
By going with Neilson you get the reps cell phone, if you have any questions. I did text him once on the trip to ask about when the bus would pick us up to take us back to the airport, which was answered within 5 minutes. But if I had just waited another day, a letter explaining all that was left in our hotel room the afternoon before we departed.
Our introductory packet included a schedule of weekly events, if you wanted to meet up and ski with the rep informally. There was also a day that a bus would take you to Obergurgl (for €10 more you could buy a ski pass that gave you a day at the other resort) for skiing and apres-ski, for an additional fee (probably covers the bus and maybe some drinks?). Even though we skied at Obergurgl the same day that Neilson offered the bus, we went separately, since we could use the regional bus system for no additional cost. And this way we could ski on our own schedule.
While we didn’t use many of the Neilson services, that was just our choice, we were still pleased with them. At no point in time did we feel pressure to hire skis through them or to participate in the activities on offer. Ski passes include a €2.50 deposit, which you can get back if you return them. Just like getting you the ski passes, Neilson is happy to do this for you and front you the deposit up front. Or you can just give the passes to your resort rep as an informal ‘tip.’ Which is something we wished we’d know ahead of time, before we returned our passes (again, that independent traveler mindset).
Despite being tired from skiing all day, we had a thoroughly relaxing ski holiday!
So far Solden is the largest ski resort that I have been to, and definitely offered a range of terrain for all abilities. It is a popular spot with off-piste skiers because of parts of the glacier (which also has plenty of easy cruising runs). But the intermediate skier would be very happy with the mix of more challenging runs and easy cruisers. There are also plenty of spots & ski schools for the beginner skier, but it is just less of the mountain (which is true for anyone learning to ski).