Dominic Ebenbichler  /  Reuters
People walk their dogs in a field covered with season's first snow in the western Austrian city of Innsbruck Nov. 21, 2005.
By Travel columnist
updated 12/15/2005 7:25:45 PM ET 2005-12-16T00:25:45

Austria is the home of modern skiing. The Arlberg method of ski instruction originated here, and Austria claims more downhill ski champions than any other country in the world. It is the country that wrote the book on après-ski and the winter lifestyle, which may explain why more than 12 million visitors descend on Austrian hotels each winter season.

Here is a serving of three very different Austrian ski and snowboard destinations, all within about an hour’s drive of one another. One is a major city, one is a quiet downhill and cross-country resort, and the third is a perfect Alpine village tucked in a steep mountain valley.

Innsbruck is no quaint ski village. Capital of the Austrian Tyrol, it is a city of more than 130,000 residents that has dozens of cultural attractions. Though it is surrounded by a group of excellent snow resorts and has twice hosted the Winter Olympic Games (1964 and 1976), skiing is not even the dominant force in the city, which makes it all the more interesting to visit.

Lying in the valley of the emerald-green Inn River, Innsbruck has been a crossroads of civilizations for centuries. The bridge from which the city gets its name has linked the north and south of Europe since the days of the ancient Romans, who regularly used the Brenner Pass, and new train lines make it a major junction on the east-west railway through the Alps and central Europe. There are silver mines here, too, which made the region a rich and busy commercial center.

For nearly a thousand years, this was the center of the Holy Roman Empire, and when you look at a map of Innsbruck it is easy to see where the castle walls once stood. Colorfully restored buildings give the old town center a cheerful yet medieval feel. Old inn and shop signs still hang on the walls, arcades still shelter travelers from storms, traditional restaurants serve patrons as they did in Mozart’s day and shops still line the cobblestone streets.

If you stay in the city you will have a longish ride to the lifts, but you can ski seven nearby areas and can also strike out for a day to St. Anton or Kitzbühel. The shuttle bus system has been perfected over the years, and it makes getting to the slopes quick and easy. There is also a good tram and bus system up to Igls, Hungerburgbahn and winter hiking trails.

With a major university and lots of cultural history — castles, cathedrals, palaces and the like — Innsbruck offers many sightseeing opportunities, and most of them are within a 10-minute walk of the city center. It also has a great deal of beauty and charm, with the Inn River flowing through the city and good strolling in the old town center.

Those looking for fine dining and good cafes will not be disappointed. Those looking for rollicking- good, all-night dancing and drinking can find it here, too. The city is also a good family destination, with lots of affordable restaurants and activities for kids, including a zoo, gondolas and trains going up into the mountains.

If you have your mind set on wild skiing and late-night partying, you are in the wrong place. But if you’ve come to get away from it all, you have found just the right spot.

Seefeld is an purpose-built resort that was developed long before modern architecture came into fashion and even before ski lifts made downhill skiing an end in itself. It was created more than 50 years ago as a place to get away from the pressure of everyday life and work. It is still a place to relax and to refresh one’s spirit.

The village has been laid out with almost no through traffic and with a town center where vacationers meet, talk, have a coffee or drink, and enjoy events. The chalets are nouveau-Alpine with lots of peaked roofs and wooden balconies, but without the large barns that dotted the original Alpine landscape.

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Seefeld doesn’t present itself as a go-for-broke downhill ski and snowboarding resort. It is a resort where relaxation is de rigueur on the slopes and off. Enjoyment, not excitement, is the aim.

This resort is the capital of cross-country skiing in Austria, and many claim that it is one of the premier spots for skinny skiing in the world. Indeed, the cross-country and biathlon Olympic competitions have been held here twice when the rest of the winter games were headquartered in Innsbruck.

Seefeld also offers kilometer after kilometer of walking trails and plenty of activities for families. With all the cross-country terrain, walking trails, mellow slopes and delightful dining opportunities, most visitors and their families succeed in leaving the outside world behind, if only for a few days.

Nearby Garmisch, in Germany, provides additional skiing and activities. For culture and shopping (and more skiing, if you choose), Innsbruck is only 20 minutes away by car and about an hour away by a spectacular train ride. The Brenner Pass, which crosses into Italy, is less than an hour’s drive from Seefeld, opening other opportunities for shopping and dining.

Mayrhofen is one of the most beautifully situated resorts in Austria. Towering mountains surround the town, which lies in a wide valley. This is not a place one would happen upon by accident. In fact, the only villages farther up the mountain pass lead to dead-end glaciers. No, if you arrive in Mayrhofen, you probably intend to stay a while, and the locals will do their best to make it a pleasant stay.

The village, about a 15-minute walk across, could be a Hollywood set. The church steeple towers over wooden facades and balconies on whitewashed mountain houses. Konditoreien display tempting pastries; dress shops showcase the latest Tyrolean fashions, which still hark back to traditional styles; bakeries emit mouthwatering smells of fresh bread; dogs chase each other; restaurant candles glow through hazy windows; and hearty laughter echoes from gasthäuser.

The road south to Hintertux glacier rises steeply through narrow gaps in the mountains. After passing through 10-kilometer-long Tuxertal valley (which is connected by lifts with Mayrhofen), you’ll reach the glacier, which is isolated at the end of the road. The glacier provides year-round skiing and is crisscrossed by one of Europe’s most modern ski-lift systems.

Five main ski regions are connected to Mayrhofen: Penken, Ahorn, Horberg/Gerent, Rastkogel and Eggalm. They tend to keep their snow longer than most Austrian resorts because of their altitude (about 1,800 to 2,500 meters). However, little of the skiable snow reaches down to the town of Mayrhofen, which lies at an altitude of only 630 meters above sea level. This is a resort where the ski runs are high above the town and skiers usually come back to town by gondola or by bus from one of the higher-altitude villages.

English is spoken by most natives, but most visitors to Mayrhofen come from Germany and the Netherlands. There is also a big contingent of Brits and Australians and an occasional American to be found here. In February, Austrians on holiday are Mayrhofen’s biggest customers. Check before making vacation plans so you don’t hit a busy week.

So, take your pick. Go for Innsbruck, a big city with big skiing and riding, kick and glide through the fields surrounding quiet Seefeld, or discover a tiny Austrian village surrounded by dramatic mountains in Mayrhofen. You can’t lose. Austrian skiing really is some of the best in the world.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.

Charles Leocha is the author of “Ski Snowboard Europe” (World Leisure, $21.95).


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