When a Norwegian engineer slid downhill on two primitive planks to work at the future Arlberg railway tunnel in the winter of 1880, he would never have imagined that he was laying the foundation of a legendary resort. Back then skis were a common means of transportation in snowy Scandinavia, but almost unheard of in Arlberg - or anywhere else in Austria for that matter, as unbelievable as that may sound today.
Cosmopolitan and cozy, for jet-setters and powder enthusiasts
More than 130 years later the Arlberg region is known all over the world as a mecca for Alpine skiing - athough some argue that this mecca lies in a different part of Austria. In Lilienfeld in Lower Austria a local named Matthias Zdarsky developed a new technique that left behind the century-old Scandinavian traditions in the 1890s and organized the world's first slalom race in 1905.
Be that as it may, Arlberg definitely is the birthplace of modern mass-ski tourism and, until today, one of its centers: The region features two of the world's top ski resorts, St. Anton and Lech, that bring together jet-setters and powder enthusiasts, cosmopolitanism and Austrian coziness.
The two villages of St. Anton at 1,300 meters and Lech at 1,450 meters are situated on the border between the Austrian regions of Tyrol and Vorarlberg. People here had lived a simple life working as mountain farmers for centuries, but after the ski came to Arlberg, things began to change quickly. The locals discovered their passion for powder soon after. In January 1901 six men did a ski tour from St. Anton to nearby St. Christoph, where they spent a cheerful evening that ended in the founding of the Arlberg Ski Club, an organization that stills exists today, consisting of more than 7,200 members in 50 countries.
From Afghanistan to Tyrol - the Kandahar race
In 1904 the first "General Ski Race" took place at Arlberg, and the racing tradition has been kept alive ever since. "Without the racing sport, Arlberg would have remained a simple Alpine pasture," Peter Mall, chief organizer of the international Arlberg Kandahar Race, said when the event celebrated its 85th anniversary in January 2013.
The tradition of this legendary challenge began in 1928: Back then, local ski club members teamed up with members of the British Kandahar ski club named after Lord Robert, Earl of Kandahar (who had received this title for his merits in Afghanistan) to organize an international ski competition. In March 1928, 45 racers competed in the combined slalom and downhill race for the first time. One year later there were already 130 of them competing. Until the introduction of the Alpine Ski World Cup in 1967, St. Anton's Kandahar race was one of the top events in the winter sports calendar. The race track was remodeled for the Ski World Championship in 2001. It is still used for World Cups and is one of Arlberg's most demanding runs for experienced alpine skiers.
No less legendary than the Kandahar are the Weisser Ring and Weisser Rausch races. The Weisser Ring (White Ring) is one of the world's longest ski races. Each year in January, one thousand racers, amateurs and pros alike, head to the 22-kilometer circuit to complete it as fast as possible. At the Weisser Rausch (White Thrill) race in April 500 international skiers, boarders and telemarkers plunge themselves from the Vallugagrat in a mass start for a nine-kilometer run to the valley.
Where the idea of ski school was born
Winter sports mass tourism began at Arlberg when the first ski school in Zürs, located near Lech, was founded in 1906. In the following year 17-year old ski-legend-to-be Hannes Schneider became the first ski instructor in St. Anton, and it was him as well who was responsible for another "world premiere" almost 15 years later: In the winter of 1921/1922 Schneider was the first to divide tourists into groups according to their skills and teach them how to ski using certain guidelines - and hence invented the concept of ski courses.
Schneider was also the first to ski downhill in a squatting position and to do turns by shifting his body weight. As he came to fame as a ski-racer and the protagonist of several high-grossing ski movies such as Der Weisse Rausch in 1931, more and more foreigners came to Arlberg to learn his technique, and the tourism industry grew more and more important. In 1937, Austria's first modern T-bar and the first cable car were opened at Arlberg.
Many things about those days and how the region became a tourist area can be learned today at the St. Anton Arlberg Museum that has recently been modernized and redesigned.
For today's skiers, Arlberg's present-day qualities are way more important than its grand past. The snow inside and outside the boundaries of Lech and St. Anton is legendary. Snow is guaranteed from late November until late April, thanks to seven meters of average snowfall each winter and, of course, more than 200 snowmaking machines.
The region's 280 kilometers of groomed slopes are enough to allow you to ski all day without ever having to ski the same slope twice, and die-hard ski freaks find demanding challenges not only on the Kandahar run, but also on the Schindlerkar slope and the Gampberg run.
But Arlberg's real gem is its backcountry terrain: deep powder enthusiasts rejoice over 180 kilometers of diverse off-piste routes. "Skiing is a huge part of everyone's life here," Lech native and professional freerider Lorraine Huber said in the 2010 Warren Miller freeride movie Wintervention. "The terrain here for a freerider is a huge playground, and the special thing of that whole region is that you can ski from village to village."
Besides, Lech-Zürs and Arlberg, or more exactly the tops of Mehlsack (2,652 meters) and Schneetäli (2,450 meters) are the only places in Austria where you can go heli-skiing or heli-boarding, since they stopped offering helicopter rides for freeriders in other places due to environmental reasons.
A place for the upper crust of ski tourists
While ordinary visitors are content with après-ski at one of the numerous bars, Arlberg also has treats to offer for the most hard-to-please among its visitors. The region features the highest concentration of Gault Millau toque awarded restaurants in Austria: four in St. Anton alone, including the Verwallstube in a cozy ski cabin on Galzig mountain. Many of the one thousand hotels, guesthouses and holiday apartments are top-class luxury accommodations; in Lech, for example, one in four hotel beds is found in five-star or four-star superior hotels.
It's no wonder that in The Edge of Reason Bridget Jones was invited to a ski trip to Lech, of all places, by her posh lawyer-boyfriend Mark Darcy. Members of the British Royal Family have been spotted in Lech numerous times, as well as Princess Victoria of Sweden, members of the Princely Family of Monaco or numerous European stars and starlets. St. Anton was also the place where Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands learned to ski as a youth.
A family place despite all
Despite having been a favorite of the upper echelon of winter tourist destinations for decades, Arlberg is still a place for ordinary tourists, many of them families as well. More than two thirds of the guests are regulars who come to Arlberg every year because they have made friends with the landlords, the innkeepers or the ski instructors, according to Lech Zürs Tourism.
There are around a dozen five-star hotels in the region, but still the cheapest rooms are available for around 30 euros (40 US dollars) a night, including breakfast. A day's ski pass costs 45 to 47 euros (59 to 61 US dollars), but in the season's two final weeks the lift prices drop by 25 percent, and children born in 2005 or later only pay 10 euros (13 US dollars) for an all-season lift pass.
The slopes of Arlberg are ideal for families, despite their demanding runs for the experienced, around 40 percent of Arlberg's slopes, all of them meticulously groomed, many of them very wide, are suitable for beginners.
If you ask regular guests, many of them will say that St. Anton, Lech, and Zürs have managed to keep their traditional Austrian charm that you want to experience on your ordinary family vacation in the snow, despite having been a "winter sports myth" for more than a century now.