AUSTRIAN SKI ADVENTURE Part 3: Start Planning Now!
by Dick Domey, Former US Olympic Biathlon Team Coach

During our ten days cross-country skiing in Austria we shared breakfast with middle-aged skiers from The Netherlands, France, Austria, and a number from Germany. This older European skier tends to be quiet in the evening and retire at 9:30 p.m. and rise at 8:30 a.m. or later. Our evenings were spent in long suppers, writing, and reading good books. Many of the inns have their own small libraries, all in French or German. We often traded books with other English speakers we met in our travels.

At night in the total silence of the house we could hear the murmur of the spring and brook. That and the great nightly stein of beer, accounted for the early morning trip down the creaky stairs. This was the type of tranquility that exhausted skiers deserve. In the mornings we would awaken to the bells of the horse sleighs as they headed from the barns to the village for another day's work. But best of all, the ski trail connecting us to the rest of the world passed less than a hundred meters behind the house. We had found a place in paradise!

Before I continue to tell about the skiing and the area, let me make several recommendations.

1. Starting today! Save or borrow your money for a trip to Austria for cross-country skiing.

2. Don't let the lack of the language stop you.

3. Don't wait until you retire. Do it as soon as possible.

4. Choose an area that specializes in cross-country. While downhill areas do have some tracks available, you deserve the best and that comes in areas which cater to the leisurely cross-country skier.

4. Make reservations.

5. Don't take equipment with you.

How do you make reservations from the U.S. for hotels, inns and apartments when you don't know the names or the prices? Easy! So easy as to be embarrassing. The U.S. cross-country ski areas could take a lesson. You choose a village or town that is known for its skiing and you simply write to the Tourist Bureau telling them of your desires.

They will immediately send you (Yes, even to the U.S.) a brochure listing all the accommodations ranging from four-star hotels to the family with a single room for rent. The brochure might be in German or French, but even so, the abbreviations are in English and numbers are a universal language, making them quite easy to read with the help of a phrase book or dictionary. The pamphlet will include the mailing address and telephone number of all local establishments, their price ranges, the dates they are open for the winter and summer seasons, and the total listing of their amenities. Each day the bureau circulates to the establishments in its area the names and addresses of all who write. The inn will write to you if their openings coincide with your desired dates. Reservations for the high season of Christmas and February must be made five to six months in advance, but for the rest of the season four to six weeks should be sufficient.

Prices in 1987 ranged from our low of 130 Austrian Shillings ($11) per person with breakfast in a family home, which are really small inns, to the fashionable, modern, big-name, four-star hotels at over $100 per night per person. Apartments are available from $50 and up. They are the best bargains if there are four or more in the party as you save on lodging as well as by cooking. Speaking of meals, accommodations can be found which offer rooms with continental breakfast only, or breakfast and supper which is called half pension, or with all meals which is full pension.

Our letters were answered by inns in France and Switzerland which listed the price, the dates available, what meals were included in the price and even told us if there were other English speaking guests planning to be there at that time. The tourist industry in Europe is well organized and appreciates any interest. Their motto, often displayed in the business district is, "The tourist is our life. We exist to serve you." (In German, of course.)

We liked the option of trying a different small restaurant each night and found we could get excellent meals with the house wine or a good German beer for around $20 for both of us. Ever mindful of our budgets, we often bought our lunches of wine, wurst, cheese and bread at the local market and took them in our packs for the trail. Other times we splurged by stopping at one of the numerous small country inns along the way for a light meal or for my favorite dish, the Hungarian "gulasch suppe," a steamy, spicy broth served with bread.

Now what about equipment? Prior to leaving the U.S. for the year we sent our winter clothes and ski boots ahead of us. The boots were unnecessary. We found rental boots were available in every size, style and make imaginable. These were not the worn out dogs we have seen in many U.S. rental shops, but were new Solomon, Trak and other well-known brands. Skis, boots and poles can be rented for $5-7 per day. The waxable Fischer, Blizzard and Karhu, Edsbyn, Rossignol and Kneisel rental skis were in excellent condition. The waxless were available in all brands, in scales, steps or chemical. They were not in as good shape. As I could see later on the trail, the better skiers all took their skis off when crossing a road or even slightly graveled parking lot, but the waxless skiers tended to mush along across anything.

We won't talk about the condition of rental equipment in France other than it wasn't to the quality of the Austrians. But the French hospitality was personal and gracious. We would recommend considering buying boots, poles and skis to take home if you need them. As we were in ski country in Austria, German, Switzerland and France toward the end of the season we saw prices had dropped to 1/2 of their normal U.S. sale prices. If I had been coming directly home, several new pairs of skis would also have made the journey. The round trip postage on the boots we took would have paid the rental for twelve days.

Those skiers at the trail heads in Seefeld were starting out on what I believe may well be one of the world's greatest cross-country ski areas. Unlike many of the downhill areas I have seen, these hundreds of skiers did not constitute a crowd or a line up. At that one trailhead, eight individual trails (loipe) wandered into the mountains and among the villages. The loipe ranged from easy, meaning absolutely flat, to tough Olympic quality; they had been the tracks for the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympic Games.

Each of these trails had from two to eight separate tracks. The Seefeld trailhead allowed skiers to start from the very center of the village at the Olympic Center, to ski trails from five to twenty six kilometers in length, and to end right back where they started near their hotel. These Seefeld loipe connected with the trail system throughout the Leautasch valley and even into Scharnitz across the border Germany. By the way, trails which cross roads are plainly marked and skiers do have the right of way.

And the trails are all free: no ticket is necessary. The tourist tax pays for the constant upkeep. You say we have trails like that in the U.S.? Yes, you're absolutely right, but few with 200 kilometers of perfectly maintained trails with directional signs every 250 meters and few that pass through tiny villages, wind past picturesque inns, cafes, gasthofs and hotels even on the remote parts of the trail. The signs all cordially invite you to stop for coffee, tea, beer, wine or lunch. The word picturesque only vaguely hints at the beauty and charm of the area. I like bushwacking in the remote regions of the U.S. and you can do that here, but for track skiing in its greatest glory give me Austria.

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