Feature After years of extensive improvements, the Austrian resort has reclaimed its place among Europe's top skiing destinations.
Kitzbühel makes a comeback as a skiing destination
By mid-morning on the fourth Saturday in January, the nerves of the world's best downhillers are stretched to breaking point. They shiver in their formfit catsuits at the top of the Streif race track while their trainers rub their thighs to keep them warm. Below them: three kilometres of seriously steep ice. Within minutes they'll explode down it, reaching speeds of 140kph before hitting the massed cowbell serenade at the finish less than two minutes later. Kitzbühel's legendary Hahnenkamm, the toughest of all professional downhill ski races, is about to begin. No matter how fit, no matter how brave, this is no ordinary day at the office.
In ski-crazy Austria, the race is the highlight of a party weekend that attracts 100,000 people. Many resorts couldn't handle such numbers, but Kitzbühel loves its time in the limelight, setting out its stalls and providing a proper Tyrolean "oompah" welcome. In the 13th century it was a walled city, and today's cobbled pedestrian centre retains a medieval feel. The original buildings have been replaced by hotels, restaurants and shops with colourful facades, but trotting through the arches in a horse and carriage is still absolutely the right introduction to one of Austria's most picturesque resorts.
As the 21st century dawned, however, Kitzbühel was in crisis. It lies at 800m, dangerously low in poor snow years, and skiing the higher, more dependable slopes at Pass Thurn and Jochberg meant taking a taxi or a crowded bus. In 2004, a €10.5 million (Dh50.5 million) investment in the 3S Aerial Tramway kick-started essential regeneration. It is a spectacular ride - vertigo sufferers should avoid the glass-bottomed car. More importantly, it is the key component in an efficiently linked network.
Until this year, the improvements were a work in progress, but the replacement gondola and fast chairs linking Kitzbühel to Kirchberg, its sister resort, means that the area now has all its ducks in a row. With the notorious queues consigned to history, Kitz, as it's affectionately known, can reclaim its rightful spot among Europe's top resorts.
To get the best out of the extensive Kitzbühel Alps, you need to define your goals. For the majority, the local ski pass covering 55 lifts and 170km of pistes provides enough variety for a week, but kilometre crunchers should consider the Kitzbüheler Alpen All Star pass covering seven areas, among them the multi-resort Ski Welt, readily accessed by bus. For deranged kilometre accumulators, the Salzburg Super Ski pass takes in the whole province.
When you look up at the mountain on your first morning, you'll see the Streif towering above the town. When it's open to the public, the racing ice is replaced by savage bumps, often with treacherous pockets of soft snow concealing the true nature of the challenge, thus making it strictly for the insane. The rest of the world takes one of the parallel "Family Streif" red runs to return to base.
Most of Kitzbühel's slopes are actually pretty mellow, perhaps too much so for black-piste heroes. The boulevards down to Kirchberg and neighbouring Aschau are blue cruisers, an encouraging switch to wider horizons after days on the nursery slopes. More ambitious skiers use the 3S to access the red runs at Jochberg and the snow-sure ridge above Pass Thurn.
The black runs cluster on the Steinbergkogel, also the launch point for the aptly named Giggling powder descent. In good conditions, expect it to deliver what it says on the packet, although the parallel off piste to Jochberg is even more rewarding. Likewise the mountain lunches: leave room for kaiserschmarrn, a pancake and plum pudding served hot, crispy and thickly frosted with icing sugar. Check out the menu at the Schroll hotel above Kirchberg and the Sonnbuhel, a restaurant near the top of the Hahnenkamm.
Where public investment led, private money followed, much of it channelled into the five-star hotels that underpin Kitzbühel's reviving fortunes. The benchmark is the Relais & Chateaux Tennerhof, once a farmhouse and now an eclectic mix of architectural styles. The interiors are romantic to say the least, with hearts punched out of the backs of chairs, painted four-poster beds, floral curtains, and hunting trophies on the walls. The food reflects the faux rusticity: Michelin-standard lobster soup, roasted goose liver, saddle of deer with potato-boletus roll and chocolate gateau. All of which should easily supply enough calories to generate the energy required for the slopes.
The Tennerhof is on a human scale whereas the A-Rosa Grand Spa Resort, built with German money on a neighbouring lake, is a luxury cocoon with, inevitably, a massive spa. Presumably, there are people who love it, although it's hard to imagine choosing to stay in a modern eight-storey block when almost all of the alternatives are so much more attractive. These certainly include Schloss Lebenberg, rather inconveniently perched on a hilltop but recently upgraded to five star status after a complete refurbishment, and the four-star Rasmushof, an overgrown chalet offering a warm family welcome. If being central is your priority, look no further than the stylish Zur Tenne in the walled town within a stone's throw of Kitz's vibrant night life. The Londoner, loved by generations of partying Brits, is its pulsing heart, but there are more refined cafes, cocktail bars and restaurants to suit all moods. Showboaters opt for karaoke in the Light Bar, while the top clubs are currently Python, Take Five and Dancing Royal.
If all this makes you long for peace and quiet, the good news is that the outlying villages are muscling in on luxury. The hamlet of Jochberg is dominated, even overwhelmed, by the sumptuous Royal Spa Kitzbühel Hotel. In Kirchberg, the Rosengarten, next door to the celebrated restaurant of the same name, opened on December 9. Both are owned by Simon Taxcher, the wunderkind chef who won a second Michelin star for his Austrian take on French-Mediterranean cuisine in 2009 at the tender age of 31. Predictably, his 26-room boutique raises the bar by replacing Kitz schmaltz with clean lines and minimalist decor. Factor in Kirchberg's new lifts and the village suddenly becomes a more enticing place to stay. Roman Abramovich loves it. So might you.
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Munich cost from Dh3,195, including taxes. From Munich airport to Kitzbühel, the train takes about three hours and costs €58 (Dh289) return (www.oebb.at)
The hotel The “ski and gourmet break” package at the Relais & Chateaux Tennerhof (www.relaischateaux.com; 00 43 5356 63181) costs from €778 (Dh3,717) for four nights, based on two people sharing, with breakfast, two five-course gourmet dinners (one in the Michelin-starred restaurant), and a three-day lift pass, per person