Gastein and Grossarl are a pair of gorgeous and very different winter destinations barely an hour’s drive from the divine easy-to-access Austrian city of Salzburg and its airport with regular flights. And they are home to three ski areas, all very close together.
Bad Gastein/Bad Hofgastein
Gastein is the big one, linking the classic spa town of Bad Gastein (all grand belle epoque buildings along with a waterfall thundering into the gorge that through the middle) and Bad Hofgastein (more modern and busier but still with Austrian charm).
Right at the end of the valley, along a narrow road, between river and rocky wall, is Sportgastein; no town just a lone ski area with the valley’s highest pistes.
Near the valley’s entrance is the little village of Dorfgastein, quieter yet with slopes bounding over to the Grossarl valley and the picturesque village of Grossarl, with its bundle of upmarket. All are on the Ski Amade lift pass which covers 760km of piste across five neighbouring regions.
There’s 200km of pistes across the three ski areas, all only a few minutes apart by free bus. The Bad Gastein/Bad Hofgastein area has runs across several peaks reaching 2,251m, high (and snowsure) compared to many Austrian.
The skiing is excellent, mostly easy-going reds with a few blues, the occasional black and lots of off-piste, much of it through the trees, and with regular views over town and valley.
Good intermediates will love Bad Hofgastein’s H1, a twisting 10km run from top to town. This season catch the clanky old funicular up from the Hof – already the Schlossalmbahn gondola, with its base station, is rising in town and from December will head straight for the summit.
Sportgastein is smaller but more dramatic with Ski Amade’s high point, 2,686km Kreuzkogel, with 360-degree views, but is equally good for intermediates with plenty of tree-lined runs.
Dorfgastein/Grossarl, which itself tops 2,000m, is relaxed and family-friendly but with plenty of skiing for all levels. A smooth piste dashes down the ridge that divides the two valleys giving lovely views in each direction and you can easily ski either way, with gondolas back up. Food is exceptional in all three areas with a collection of Ski-Toque huts, mountain offering signature dishes from top Austrian chefs.
If you do two things
Take breakfast at the top of Sportgastein: on long legs, looking like a creature from the Worlds, metal dodecahedron, which once was a lifties’ lookout.
Now you can book a breakfast (max 15 people) with sparkling and early lift access – a wealth of meats, cheeses and fizz with a mountain man whizzing up scrambled eggs on a tiny hot plate. €45 but an unforgettable treat. And from March the peak boasts the Alps’ highest farmers’ market.
Go ski touring (sliding uphill on special skis then skiing down). Most Grossarl (including the Grossarler Hof) are in a programme that offers a free day’s guiding (snowshoeing too). Simply rent skis and boots, (costs about £25). We were ferried to the Ellmau side valley then spent the morning hypnotically moving up through trees and dappled sunlight to a deserted mountainside where we sat and ate our lunch (all part of the deal from) and pondered the beauty of our twin valleys.