Notice how there's no one there? The day before we arrived, there were 20 people on the entire slope. The fact that it remains so blissfully uncrowded is a minor miracle.
When I was a teenager, I joined a group of friends on a skiing expedition to Maine. While I’m convinced that my companions were born on an inclined plane with large pieces of plastic strapped to their feet, my own ski legs were of the more wobbly sort. After much goading, I boarded a cablecar to the top of a mountain that looked more and more forbidding the farther up we got. I stayed upright for a whopping total of 30 seconds before plunging into a ditch and being hauled down to the base by an irate instructor on one of those emergency sleds.
No, I wasn’t hurt—just terrified and a bit sheepish.
As someone who lacks coordination on non-slippery surfaces, I’ve always approached winter sports with what I consider to be a healthy fear of mortality. While others nimbly swish down triple-black diamonds, you’re more likely to see seven-year-olds whizzing past me on moderate trails.
Even the drive in is stunning.
Which is why I was more than a little on edge three years ago when I flew from Bangkok to Austria for my first attempt at downhill skiing in years. Living in a tropical climate, I had assumed I was safe from such madness. The chance for adventure though—one that would ultimately lead me to move to Europe for good a year later—outweighed any semblance of common sense. So I boarded a plane, arrived bleary-eyed and Bambi-legged at 7am in Munich, and drove straight for the Tyrolean Alps.
A funny thing happened on that extended weekend: I loved it. Unlike the U.S.’s perpetually crowded slopes, Kaunertal rarely has more than a few hundred visitors spread over long, luxuriously broad runs. The snow is pure powder, the scenery is ruthlessly gorgeous, and the lines are nonexistent. From the highest point, you can straddle the Italian-Austrian with endless views of mountains in all directions. Best of all, at the end of the day, there’s nothing quite like a steaming mug of Glühwein—that magical alchemy of cheap wine, spices and sugar that’s so much more than the sum of its parts—to make you feel giddy and slightly delirious.
A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to return to this very special place. I still cruise down the slopes a notch above granny-speed, but I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.
Staring into the Italian Dolomites.
Where to Eat and Stay
A note of warning: if you’re looking for mounds of sugar-snow and cozy alpine villages, Kaunertal is perfect for you. If you’re hoping for a booming après-ski scene, celebrity spotting and fine dining, this might not be your jam. The nearby town of Feichten has some of the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet, but it’s pretty quiet after 6pm. During the high season (February-April), there is a modest après-ski tent with the requisite German Schlager and Zappa Dello, a local dive bar in the town of Feichten, gets a bit rowdy. The rest of the time, both the town and the slope offer a quieter sort of charm.
For dinner, I’m particularly fond of the quirky restaurant at the Hotel Gletscherblick, where the owner cheerfully informs patrons that he shot their dinner with his own hands. The taxidermied goats and other animals only add to the deeply weird ambiance. Less eccentric is the restaurant at the Hotel Kirchenwirt, which offers both international and Austrian staples. Kaiserschmarrn (chopped-up pancake with fruit preserves that tastes much better than it sounds) isn’t on the menu, but the staff will happily whip it up upon request.
As for where to stay, there are a number of lodges in town, but your best bet is to rent a Ferienwohnung (vacation home). Modern, spacious apartments with cedar and traditional alpine furnishings can be found for only €40-60 per night, versus more than €150 for a hotel.
Nuts and Bolts
Going up in the morning.
Day passes run from €31 in low-season to €37 in high. Depending on the weather conditions, the lifts run daily from 9am-4pm. The Kaunertal Glacier Road, the fifth highest paved road in the Alps, is scenic, but treacherous. If you’re planning on driving yourself, winter tires and four-wheel-drive are essential. For the less brave of heart, there’s a free shuttle service that makes the 45-minute ascent and descent.
First run of the day.