I am in a ‘Heidi’ landscape—Alpine meadows, benign cows with bells, mountain streams and picture-postcard villages with geranium-lined window boxes. People here had lived a simple life working as mountain farmers for centuries before it became the ‘cradle of skiing’. St. Anton am Arlberg is just an hour from Innsbruck, Austria, and was where Hannes Schneider, the father of modern skiing, perfected the modern downhill skiing technique most people use today, and established the first ski school. “St. Anton is like the Wimbledon of skiing—an iconic place where you should ski at least once in your lifetime,” says my friend Wilma Himmelfreundpointner from the tourism office. The mountains are the centre of life here and in the DNA of every Tyrolean—after all, this is the region that produced pioneers like Reinhold Messner who climbed the Everest without oxygen. Wilma tells me how she stores her skis in her office and in the lunch break just takes off into the mountains for a quick ski.
Our hotel, the Himmelhof, is a family-run hotel, with rustic wooden rooms, four poster beds and a folksy ambience—the couple who own the hotel have used reclaimed material from old chalets and barns with painted wardrobes and wrought iron fittings. Housed in a spectacular glass building designed by the Tyrolean architect Georg Driendl is the world’s first Ferris wheel gondola called the Galzigbahn. The gondola takes me to the top of the mountain to start an Alpine flower trek with my guide Marlies Ehart. Fragrant wild flowers and more than 25 kinds of orchids blanket the slopes as we amble our way down, to the constant soundtrack of cow bells. Marlies points out the yellow flashes of arnica that is used in homeopathy as well as the rare orange lily. I learn to recognise the purple and pink sprigs of lupin and the magenta Alpine rose as well as the tiny blue gentian. Marlies encourages me to smell some of the herbs and taste others—pointing out the uses that they can be put to, from medicines to distilling schnapps.
Come evening, we head to the Tyrolean evening which reminds me of the Sound of Music. It is essentially a family affair with the local head of tourism yodeling and dancing on stage, perky children performing an act with tuned cow bells, and an appreciative audience seated in front of long tables with steins of beer in their hands. With a lot of thigh-slapping by men in lederhosen, instruments like the zither and Alpenhorn well as expert yodeling and even a woodchopper’s dance, this is an evening to remember.
Over the next few days, I soak in the mountain ambience of the town with small streams like satin ribbons between valleys, timbered houses and church steeples. I feast on the farm-to-table cuisine at cozy mountain huts like Senn’s Hutte and Nessleralm, run by families that serve home-cooked food with the freshest of ingredients—I try Tyrolean staples like Spinatknödel (spinach dumplings) and Kässpätzle (gnocchi pasta with cheese and fried onions). I take a three-stage cable car ride to the Valluga peak at 2,650 metres for a panoramic sweep of the glaciers and craggy Austrian Alps. To explore the town’s history, I visit the Arlberg Kandahar House with wood panelling and marble fireplaces, which now houses the St. Anton Ski and Folk Museum and a swish restaurant aptly named, The Museum. This wooden heritage house was used as the backdrop for the chick flick Chalet Girl. This museum showcases local cultural traditions and the town’s development into a premier ski resort. I see pictures of the the Weisser Rausch (White Thrill) race in April when 500 international skiers, boarders plunge themselves from the Valluga peak in a mass start for a break-neck nine-kilometre run to the valley.
I appreciate the fact that every meal is followed by a workout. I trek through the picturesque Muhltobelweg—a forested path following a stream and a gorge with rustic wooden walkways. I explore the Wunder Wander Weg, an innovative one-kilometre trail through the mountains and forests carved out into areas like the Herb garden, the Bee hotel and Alpine park as well as a tree house made with more than a thousand willow branches for an airborne adventure. It’s an educative experience for adults and children with signboards showcasing the diversity of the forest’s flora and fauna.
I unravel the development of the town as a ski resort by visiting the Arlberg Hospiz, a luxury hotel in the neighbouring, high-altitude hamlet of St. Christoph, the haunt of celebrities from Vladimir Putin to King Juan Carlos. This hotel, which oozes history, was where the famous Arlberg Ski Club was launched in 1901, by six friends. The list of members of the club reads like a who’s who of skiing: there’s a single Indian too on the list. I learn that the Hospiz Alm was started as a free shelter for travellers in 1386, who visited this notoriously stormy pass. My visit ends at the ancient wine cellar at the hotel filled with outsized bottles of vintage wines from Napoleonic times, where noted wine experts hold meetings.