It is perhaps strange that it was only on my fifteenth visit to Austria that I finally paid a visit to one of the Tyrol’s most iconic resorts, St. Anton am Arlberg.
Situated in the far west of the Tyrol and very much on the cusp of the much lesser known Vorarlberg, St. Anton is world-renowned for its hedonistic approach to the winter sports scene, where an unsettling mix of boozed up Brits, Russians and Germans and ultra challenging and unforgiving terrain often results in the direst of consequences. If ever there was a need for a resort to breathalyze its visitors before they hurl themselves down some of the most precipitous slopes in world skiing, St. Anton should be at the very vanguard of such legislation. It is perhaps with this bibulous impression I have always had of it that has persuaded me to head to other high-level resorts such as Obergurgl, where the village is far sleepier and less of a monument to those Alpine mainstays: Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam and Jack Daniels.
Having already ventured a few weeks previously to Obergurgl and the wider Oetztal area, I had sufficiently been beaten by the weather to find a resort of lesser altitude but one that still offered me the challenges I crave, whilst also rewarding the uphill slog with panoramas that are probably unsurpassed in Europe, although sympathizers with the Zermatt-Matterhorn region may beg to differ.
Being over 2000 feet lower at village level than Obergurgl, there is a greater reliance in St. Anton on its cableways to make up the not insignificant difference in altitude, in order to reach the beginning of the more challenging day walks and hut-to-hut multi-day treks. Thankfully, St. Anton is wonderfully endowed with a range of cable-cars and chairlifts enabling even the most modest of walkers, or, those merely seeking to capture the stunning alpine vistas for posterity to commune with the mountains; a journey which takes only a few minutes thanks to the Rendl, Galzig, Gampen and Kapall lifts offers a far preferable alternative to what would amount to three hours of uphill walking hell.
Being out of season – St. Anton, like Obergurgl, Lech, Galtuer and Ischgl regard their winter seasons as their peak period – the lifts had at times a strange schedule of not running everyday, resulting in no lifts operating some days but all on others, similar to the Hochgurglbahn that ferries passengers to the Top Mountain Star and the Wurmkogel. If you are unlucky to have a bad weather week in Austria this can become a frustration, especially if the few blue-sky days you receive are ones when the lifts aren’t running. It must though be stated that being out of season resorts such as St. Anton do not have an obligation to run its lifts, especially when the revenue it will receive from patrons will be dwarfed by the tourist euros earned in the winter from skiers willing to pay the eye-watering amounts charged for week-long lift passes. To put it into context, for a four day lift pass I was charged €40 for the use of all St.Anton’s lifts, with €5 of that returned to me once the period had elapsed should I return the credit-card style passcard back to the ticket office. The value of this deal is outstanding, particularly when one return journey on the three-stage ascent/descent to and from the highest point in the area, the Valluga, is close to €30. I cannot therefore recommend enough the purchase of a lift-pass, a veritable passport to the myriad alpine riches that St. Anton is so fortunate to have.
When judging the viability of returning to a resort I have previously stayed in, I separate the village/town/valley from the hiking opportunities available when staying there. I am not a fan of the town St. Anton has become, especially when having visited its excellent museum which highlighted St. Anton’s humble beginnings through to the leviathan it has become today. The town is pristine, as one would expect from an Austrian settlement so reliant upon tourism, especially one as so outwouldly affluent as this. It has though burgeoned exponentially from its original site at Nasserein to the overdeveloped cash cow now sponsored by Mammon. I find growth at a geometric rate to be more forgivable if the properties are all designed in a typically Tyrolean manner but similar to the Josl in Obergurgl, there are now too many modern, sleek and minimalist edifices which offended my traditionalist eye. To compound these optical abominations I was alarmed to note that the choice of name being opted for by several accommodation proprietors is firmly leaning towards the international, English-speaking and therefore non-Austrian market, with epithets such as Anthony’s Life & Style Hotel. Whilst not wishing to pejoratively comment on the service and standard of the aforementioned establishment (I have never stayed there, nor do I know anyone who has) I was not, to put it politely, overwhelmed by the modernist architecture; having such an anglicized name just added insult to injury. With its profusion of sports shops, boutiques and cafes, the main street felt like any other well-to-do ski resort which again, isn’t a criticism but I just didn’t take to the town, the atmosphere more reminiscent of the cynical, money-obsessed society that we have become. I have always known that the Tyrol is incredibly adept at extracting money from tourists’ pockets and in many ways, this can only be expected. For a village/town setting I do though prefer a mixture of a rural economy (farming, timber) juxtaposed with a pragmatic, less opportunistic approach to tourism; in other words, a healthy mix. This helps an area to project the sense that it is authentic and keeping it real, rather than being a manufactured town for the purposes of tourism. I am not saying St. Anton is the latter but it certainly isn’t the former. In my mind it definitely sits uncomfortably in between,
Preferring lodgings with names like the Alte and Neu Post, it is of course not enough to judge tourist accommodation merely by its name. I was therefore fortunate that my stay was in the Hotel Post, a building that dominates St. Anton’s main street but an establishment that places a heavy emphasis on personal service, impeccable cleanliness and spacious rooms, even for single travellers. British guests, so accustomed at home to surly, braindead receptionists, waiters that almost throw the food at you and accommodation unfamiliar with the salient points of vacuums and dusters all remark at how well Austrian accommodation providers “do things”. The Austrians will though shrug their shoulders at such praise. Efficiency and a customer-focused level of professionalism is part of their national character and comes very much as standard.
Would I therefore revisit St. Anton for the town itself? No. It is perhaps thankful that the hiking on offer stood up to scrutiny and provided all that I could’ve have wanted, and more. It is a given that without the available cableways I wouldn’t have been able to walk as extensively as I did but however you access the starting points of the many challenging day and multi-day treks available, the end undeniably justifies the means. This area in my opinion offers unrivalled walking when compared to any region of Alpine Europe, assuming the traveller is of an intermediate or advanced standard. Aside from the path alongside the Rosanna Ache this area does not cater for uncertain, nervous novices or those who blanch at exposed ridges or the general vertiginous nature of the terrain. St. Anton is serviced by the mainline railway, although it offers unfortunate reminders of the shortcomings of the British railways by not having a staffed ticket office in the summer months. Travellers are instead expected to use a multilingual touch screen machine to purchase their tickets. For the frequent rainy days the area receives and as an aid to walkers who find themselves out of the depths the train is a reliable get-out-of-jail card, offering frequent journeys to many areas in the Vorarlberg, as well as Switzerland, Germany and Innsbruck, the Tyrol’s regional capital.
The walking on offer very much for me outweighed the subjective shortcomings of the town of St. Anton. One particularly day-hike highlight was the six hour round-trip of walking from the Rendl top-station to the Darmstaedter Huette, an impressive hut found in archetypal alpine wilderness and framed by a raw, savage but beautifully snowcapped backdrop. This is walking for the coinnoseur and a must for any competent hiker. Again, without the use of one of St. Anton’s cableways it wouldn’t have been possible without adding an extra few hours walking time onto an already arduous schedule, This really for me is the crux of the matter. If ones negative thoughts about the town itself can quickly be literally and metaphorically left behind by complete unfettered immersion into the stunning scenery, this surely makes communing with such an environment all the more sweeter still.