The boutique Austrian ski resort of St. Johann in Tirol is little-known to British skiers who are more familiar with its bigger neighbours, Kitzbuhel, Ellmau & Soll, but St. Johann has its own unique characteristics that make it a perfect choice for families, beginners and intermediates.
For a number of years there has been talk of linking the self-enclosed resort slopes of St. Johann with the Kitzbuhel ski area, but local politics have so far got in the way. Those aspirations have re-surfaced again recently, with a new Scandinavian company investing in the lift company. However, although if it did go ahead it would open up St Johann to a new market of mixed ability ski parties, enabling the experienced skiers to go over to Kitzbuhel for the black run excitement they crave, part of me hopes it doesn’t happen.
I was in St. Johann just recently, and I rather fell for the place. I like the way it is a small and self-contained, single mountain ski area. It gives it a small town community feel and a clear identity.
That’s helped by it being a ‘real’ town with colourful old Tirolean buildings in the centre – think: elaborate frescos and wooden balconies – not just a purpose-built ski resort. There are lots of good bars and restaurants and because they cater for locals too, the prices are not quite as exhorbitant as in a purpose-built ski resort.
If you are eating in town, try the rather quirky restaurant at the top of what looks like an airfield control tower, at the independent, family-run Huber Brewery. Good food, fun location.
I’ll also mention here my guest house, Hotel Gasthof zur Schöne Aussicht (trans: “Hotel Good View”) which is in pole position on the piste overlooking the town and the base area and comes with simple ski-in/ski-out convenience!
The main lift from the base area is a two-stage gondola that takes you to the summit of Harschbichl at 1700m. From here, it being a single mountain resort area, all the pistes can be reached – simples!
Summit Harschbichl – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
And there’s nothing to frighten intermediate skiers from here. St. Johann’s pistes are nearly all Blue (Beginner) or Red (Intermediate). There is only one Black (Advanced) run.
It’s ideal for those who want to take it easy, like me, or family groups who want to take it at the pace of the weakest skiers. The pistes are mostly wide & open, and are well-groomed and topped up with snow makers.
This was important when I was there at the end of January because there hadn’t been much fresh snow for a while and the temperatures were high. As a result, the streets in the town centre were snow free, the cross-country ski enthusiasts (cross-country is HUGE around here) were all trudging up the resort pistes because it was the only snow around, and Oskar Reisenbauer, St. Johann’s Head of Marketing was tearing his hair out as peak season (Feb & Feb half-term) was approaching.
Thankfully, just after I left Mafeking St. Johann was relieved, and they had a large dump of snow. (Conditions as I write are near perfect. 92cm at lower levels, cold clear blue skies and more snow forecast for the weekend)
It highlights an important point about Austrian resorts in general. Some of them are at low altitudes compared to the big ski resorts in the French Alps (Eg. Courcheval 1850, Meribel 1500). St Johann is 670m. Kitzbuhel is 760m, but doesn’t necessarily mean they are unreliable for snow. Local climate conditions and temperatures in the eastern Alps, can mean they have the same level of snow reliability as higher resorts in the western Alps.
The other thing that makes it ideal for those who want to take it gently is the number of on-slope eateries. As Kathy, my ski instructor explained, it’s easy to take a break:
“St. Johann is the best resort for that because there are 19 restaurants on the mountain. It’s so easy to stop for 10-15mins and then get going again”.
She’s right. The mountain is littered with them. Ideal, if your idea of skiing is ski-relax-ski-relax! And in St. Johann, you don’t have to feel guilty because you’re sitting with your coffee, practically alone on a terrace mid-morning, with shoals of enthusiast advanced skiers hurtling past. In St Johann, nobody is hurtling past and you’re not alone!
NB: I was hosted by The Austrian National Tourist Office and Kitzbuheler Alpen (St. Johann in Tirol, Oberndorf, Kirchdorf & Erpfendorf) but my views are my own.