We all stay quiet in the back of the transfer bus, admiring the breathtaking landscape. It's my first trip to the Austrian Alps and already, I know I'll be coming back.
We – a group of beginners and experienced skiers - are on our way to Sölden, a village of 3,000 people in the Öztal area and one of the best-known ski resorts in the Alps. Located at an altitude of 1377 meters, Sölden's season kicks in as early as September and the snow stays on the ground until late May.
Full of excitement, I peer out the window as the car takes us between mountains and rivers, eventually reaching the picturesque village of Sölden in the Ötztal valley, which includes the hamlets of Hochsölden, Zwieselstein and Vent.
Altogether, there are 148 kilometres of immaculate, perfectly groomed ski runs here, so it's unsurprising that this is home for the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup every October.
When arriving at the completely re-furbished Hotel Bergland we are being greeted by owner Sigi Grüner. He and his wife Elisabeth have taken the business to new heights in recent years, knocking down their 60-year-old, 3-star family hotel to build a breathtaking 4- star superior upgrade with a top floor spa overlooking the Alps.
“My wife and I sat down, thinking about all the things we want when going on holiday. This is the result”, says Sigi.
The building truly is impressive and, unsurprisingly, the hotel's new 86 rooms are proving popular with guests from all over the world, who come to relax and be pampered between the excitement of skiing and the snowboarding.
“I believe this area will become even more popular in the future as Sölden still has so much soul to it. It is very warm, welcoming and personal,”
Welcoming – and beautiful, I realise during our first day in the slopes. Covered in sunscreen, we leave our jackets at the hotel; it's 13 degrees outside but I still find myself on a glacier, which provides perfect skiing conditions. Thanks to our unfeasibly tanned local ski instructor, me and my fellow rookie skier soon get more and more confident in our skiing.
Conveniently - especially for beginners like us - there are four different ski schools to choose from in Sölden and you're able to get an instructor in most languages. The slopes are mainly for professionals looking for a challenge, but also for people like myself, who just want to learn to ski while keeping our dignity intact.
"Something that's also very special with Sölden is that there is no queuing for the lifts," says Katrin Grasser from the Austrian Tourist Office, and no wonder; the area's ten mountain lifts have an hourly capacity of 20,000 people.
“While you can wait up to half an hour at some resorts during high season, you'll wait a maximum of ten minutes here. At less busy times of the season you will have no wait at all,” she explains.
The latest investment when it comes to the lifts is the €38-million Gaislachkoglbahn gondola. A perfect blend of fascinating architecture and innovative technology, it whisks you past three stations at an incredible speed before reaching one of Sölden's BIG 3 viewing platforms at 3040 metres. Standing up there, it's hard to leave.
In the winter, Sölden is packed with entertainment and the nightlife is right on your doorstep. The village is full of after-ski bar-clubs, and every Wednesday from late December until mid March you find a "Stars & Fire Night Emotions" night skiing event.
Other regular events include the popular World Cup Oktoberfest and - most spectacular of all – the Hannibal Show. This fascinating piece of alpine choreography involved 150 local ski instructors, a handful of snow-grooming machines (representing elephants), aircraft and countless actors.
Participant Chris Schnöller after the show, he explains how important it is to the community.
“Everyone works together and none of us are getting paid for doing this. We just all want to do something different for the tourists - I'm very proud to be a part of it,” he explains.
Chris is also marketing manager for Area 47 - an extraordinary outdoor adventure playground which is opened through the summer season, ideal for families with adventurous teenagers. Here you can enjoy rafting, climbing and cave trekking among other things as well as a lot of fun in amazing water slides. The idea is to spend us much time outside as possible and embrace nature - you won't even find a TV in the huts available for over-night stays.
“We had a band coming here for a gig and they had requested a fancy hotel but when they arrived they wanted a hut instead. They were truly impressed. There's something special about being this close to nature,” Chris says.
Apart from the slopes, the fresh air, the entertainment, the nightlife, the hotels, the lifts and of course, the cold beer, I come to notice that the Austrian food lives up to its excellent reputation. Here you can choose from a wide range of comfy mountain huts in traditional Ötztal style and spacious free-flow restaurants spread all over the ski area. There are meals and dishes to suit all tastes: regional specialties, as well as international cuisine.
On our final day, my friend and I spend countless hours on a new, more difficult slope. Zig-zagging our way down, the knock-kneed rookie of a few days previously has given way to the next Anja Pärson - in my own mind at least. It must be thanks to our tanned ski instructor, who is rumoured to be ‘the best ski instructor between Obergurgl and Texas'.
When it's finally time to go for dinner I object, even though I'm starving. We do, however, meet up with the rest of the group at Hohe Mut Alm – a sunny mountain restaurant at 2670m above sea level with terrific views of no less than 21 glaciers. Enjoying typical Tirolean delights on the panoramic sunbathing terrace up in the mountain, things can't get any better.
“Guys, I believe this has been one of my best days– if not the best day, ever,” I say to the more experienced bunch of the group, holding a pint of ice cold beer towards the clear blue sky. “No more beach holidays for me!” They all laugh. “This is it,” they say. “Now you're hooked for life.” I believe they are right.
Article sponsored by the Austrian Tourist Ofice