Saalbach’s Romantic Mountain Retreat

This charming Austrian resort is a mix of stubborn tradition and enthusiastic modernity that make it an irresistible choice for a winter holiday

Cosy and traditional - The Pfefferalm | Photo: Christian Cummings

Skiing in Saalbach | Photo: Christian Cummings

The view over Saalbach from Hotel Eva Paradise | Photo: Christian Cummings

I kicked the new snow off our boots and laid the skis against the dark wood of the Pfefferalm hut. Inside an open fire was crackling in the corner.

Some of the wood smoke had escaped the chimney and was spreading a pungent mist across the room.

Through the haze I could just make out the familiar figure of the landlord, Alois Riedlsperger, who was sitting on a stone ledge feeding the fire, his bushy beard flourishing below reddened cheeks, and a tall feather protruded from his Alpine hat.

I felt like I’d walked onto the set of an Austrian period drama.

Indeed, nestled on a mountain pasture amid the dark woods above Hinterglemm, the Pfefferalm hut was built in 1717 and revels in its own hardy history.

In its dark interior, old farming tools are nailed to the wall and wooden milking buckets sit on a ledge just below the low ceiling.

The tables are carved roughly from dark wood, the mulled wine comes in porcelain jugs and the cheese dumplings are served steaming in blackened pans.

It feels like an anachronism – the sort of Alpine scene that Hemingway wrote of in his short-stories, the romantic mountain pit-stop that my grandfather may have encountered in the between the wars when, for an Englishman, trips to the Alps were thought wild and exotic.

Yet don’t tell Riedlsberger. The Pfefferalm’s landlord claims to be the inspiration behind a global internet phenomenon.

If you believe his story, in 2003 he once played host to a teenaged Mark Zuckerberg, who was fascinated by the collage of faded old ski-pass photos that guests had stuck to the one wall of the hut on their final day.

Riedlsperger, with a twinkle in his eye, claims this wall of photos, which he calls the “Schikårt’n-Schädel-Partie” inspired the young guest to create his photo based networking site Facebook.

If the story smacks more of Glühwein-inspired fantasy than fact, you at least have to admit that Riedlsperger chose the better name.

It is this interesting cocktail of stubborn tradition and enthusiastic modernity that makes Saalbach-Hinterglemm one of my favourite destinations in the Alps.

Cosy and traditional - The Pfefferalm | Photo Christian Cummings

Cosy and traditional – The Pfefferalm | Photo Christian Cummins

There are a number of huts that, like the Pfefferalm, seem like time capsules, but outside on the slopes the resort boasts one of the most speedy and modern lift networks in the world.

Since 2000 Saalbach-Hinterglemm has invested 257million euros in updating its lifts and snowmaking capabilities. Draglifts have been culled in favour of heated-seat chairlifts and others that were deemed too slow have made way for shiny new gondolas.

The 200km of runs are now served by 55 lifts and many of them are equipped with free wireless internet.

If going into the Pfefferalm seems like peering into skiing’s past, emerging back out again seems like being thrust into the sport’s brash but exciting future.

Indeed Saalbach-Hinterglemm is courting the Internet generation.

The season gets off with a bang in Saalbach with the season opening Bergfestival, an all-night alternative music party that begins with big open-air concerts on the village square soon after the lifts shut.

The following weekend the Rave On Snow dance party brings a different part crowd to an event that is strung across the mountain peaks, a hedonistic high-altitude dance marathon that has helped spread the resort’s fame across the continent.

There’s also a Freeride Camp in early January and, open every night, a floodlit snow-park near the village of Hinterglemm.

Yet, much more than the razzle and dazzle of modern life, it is the good old trees that keep me coming back to heavily forested slopes of Saalbach-Hinterglemm.

Under blue skies in Saalbach you can ski with long views to the rounded Kitzbühel Alps in one direction, while the jagged peaks of the Hohe Tauern massif loom in the background.

Skiing in Saalbach | Photo: Christian Cummings

Skiing in Saalbach | Photo: Christian Cummins

But unlike most other places I`ve visited, I enjoy the skiing just as much in Saalbach-Hinterglemm on the inevitable bad weather spells.

One these days the fir and pine forests that line many of 200km of piste are heavily laden-with snow, providing both a fairy-tale stage-set for your skiing and, because of the contrast, good visibility all day long.

It is at such times that a stop in another timber hut, the 19th century-built Thurneralm above Saalbach, seems to encapsulate the romance of ski trips.

Many a snowy afternoon, I`ve lurked in there with my ski fanatic father. We sit by the open fire while the windows steam up and the snow piles up on the ledges outside, covering the day’s tracks on the now emptying slopes.

We’ll sit there with faces flushed by the cold, sipping tall wheat beer as the winter light begins to fade, knowing we have one precious last run together down the village in the near silence of new snow. These are my favourite memories of skiing.

There’s plenty of skiing in Saalbach. The resort is set around a magical ring of peaks, each around 2,000m high which creates an amphitheatre of runs that invite you to embark on a panoramic circuit which you can ski in either direction.

Part of the tour includes a magnificent run from the Schattberg, the resort’s highest point, down to the Schönleitenbahn at the bottom of the valley by the village of Vorderglemm. It is a sweeping, flowing panoramic run that glides through the forest and invites speed and exuberance.

You can also test your courage down the run that was used by the ski legends when Saalbach-Hinterglemm hosted the 1991 World Championships, or, more gently, cruise down the long track to Leogang which curves round clusters of farmer’s hay barns.

After all that skiing, you’ll of course need to restore your tissues at night. Saalbach-Hinterglemm has accommodation to fit all tastes and budgets.

Once, when I was guiding a school group, we stayed in a hostel run by a bad-tempered Santa Claus look-alike.

Another year, we stayed in a working farmhouse halfway up the slopes called the Pension Ederbauer, where we could smell the cows in the barn and even help out with the milking.

Dinner was a couple of beers chilled from the balcony with the snow outside lit bright by the moonlight. We skied over the fields to get home and, in the morning, we whizzed down a summer hiking path lined with barbed wire and straight onto the piste.

But now that I have grown older and softer (and like to be spoiled), I have developed an absolute favourite spot in Saalbach.

The view over Saalbach from Hotel Eva Paradise | Photo: Christian Cummings

The view over Saalbach from Hotel Eva Paradise | Photo: Christian Cummins

The Hotel Eva Paradise ( is ideally placed, less than two minutes’ walk to two major connecting lifts, and the rooms boast views over the perfect onion-domed church tower to the steep mountain-face of the Schattberg, host of Saalbach’s steepest and most challenging run.

The hotel lobby and bar are panelled with wood in the traditional style but the seats are upholstered in vivid shades orange and violet and the staff is young, friendly and unaffected.

The hotel unashamedly promotes romance. Tough timber lines the floors of its large rooms, and the massive beds are made up each morning with a half dozen pillows and cushions.  It’s a hotel for lovers – and the dinners, served by the ever-charming Milan, are to die for. It’s a real tip.

Modernity and tradition – it is not an easy trick to pull off.

But Saalbach Hinterglemm has done it with aplomb.

I will always go back.

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