Mark Nicholls heads to an Austrian glacier for an early start to the ski season.
As many of Europe’s ski resorts look to the heavens in the hope of an early snowfall, the slopes of the Stubai Glacier are already alive with skiers.
A mere 45 minutes from Innsbruck, it is Austria’s largest glacier skiing region with 110km of pistes across 35 downhill runs.
And now access to the slopes has taken on a new dimension with the opening of the most expensive lift ski system ever built.
Costing a cool 68m euros, the 3S Eisgratbahn can whisk 3,000 skiers an hour up to the Stubei Glacier and when it opened on a glorious ski day in late October became the fastest and longest gondola of its type in the Alps.
With 48 cabins, costing €250,000 each and capable of carrying 32 skiers at a time at speeds of up to 25kph (seven metres a second), it combines Tirolean efficiency with impressive lift station architecture and technology.
The new lift is 4.7km long and at 600m longer than the bi-cable lift it replaced, it can cover the distance from the valley at 1697m above sea level to the mountain top station at 2885m in about 11 minutes.
The snow conditions have been excellent in the early stages of the season with a wide range of runs and more have become accessible as the winter progresses and the temperature falls.
The longest run is 10km from the Wildspitz mountain station (3,210m) at the Top of Tyrol right down to the valley station, a 1500m difference in altitude. Additionally, a new 3.8km downhill ski run is being created as part of the new lift project, from the middle station (2291m) to the valley.
More than 8,000 skiers used the new tri-cable 3S Eisgratbahn on the opening day, with little sign of queues on a lift powered from renewable energy sources and the emphasis firmly placed on comfort and style with the cabins having free wifi and offering spectacular all-round views.
Within the Stubai Valley are the five main villages of Fulpmes, Telfes, Mieders, Schönberg and Neustift, which is the best known and most visited, thanks primarily to its proximity to the glacier.
It is also where the Relais & Chateaux Hotel Jagdhof is situated, a short mini-bus shuttle from the 3S Eisgratbahn.
Family-owned, it was first opened by Leo and Margaret Pfutscheller as a cafe in 1956 but over the decades has evolved into a fabulous five-star destination, now run by Armin Pfutscheller and his wife Christina.
It retains that timeless feel of many traditional Austrian hotels with its warm wood panelling and ambience, and the 70 luxurious bedrooms, suites and apartments are superbly furnished in the classic Tirolean style.
The 3,000 square metre spa is simply wonderful and can almost tempt you off the slopes early with its indoor and outdoor pools, hot tubs and an array of different saunas, steam rooms and treatment areas.
Inevitably, the food at the Jagdhof is sublime. The Hubertus Stube restaurant, overseen by chef Boris Meyer, specialises in Tirolean specialities of fresh fish, venison and game from the hotel’s own farm and hunting.
And in the cellar is a veritable treasure house of wines. Hosting candle-lit tasting sessions, it stores around 20,000 bottles with 1,100 different wines and some that are particularly rare and valuable, including one specific bottle of red worth €27,000.
As the ski season gets under way, the appeal of the Stubei Glacier is simple: great skiing while many other resorts are still waiting for the first snow falls of the winter…and the slopes are still open in June!
FACTFILE: 5-star Relais & Châteaux SPA-HOTEL Jagdhof.
Rates from €212-512 pppn; 4 nights + 3-day Stubai ski pass & €100 SPA voucher from €766 pp. Visit www.hotel-jagdhof.at/en.html Price for seven-day Stubai ski pass: Adults (€273), children (€136.50), teens (€192), seniors (€233).