It’s 7.19am and an unmistakable blast is followed by the thunderous noise of snow moving down the mountain. Somebody’s letting off dynamite. And then silence. Another blast and the same crunching cacophony. Three or four blasts later, the Alpine silence returns.
Controlled explosions are an everyday occurrence in the Alps, triggering avalanches that send excess snow safely down the mountain onto the pistes before they’re prepared for the day. The overnight snowfall is a boon, given that it’s mid-March. And it’s still falling.
High pressure in Spain and low pressure in the UK means the weather is changeable during my trip — sunny on landing and departure, rain and snow in between. But I’ll take challenging skiing conditions over no snow, any day, especially with a five-star refuge to hand.
It may be located in St Anton, but the guest experience at the Hotel Tannenhof is a far cry from the resort’s ‘ski hard, play hard’ reputation. The kitchen of this serene Alpine bolthole is presided over by British chef James Baron, named Austrian Chef of the Year 2017 by the Grand Restaurant & Hotel Guide in only his first year at the hotel.
The 10-course taster menu, each paired with a wine from the cellar’s 400-strong list, is testament to his skill. The ‘culinary journey through the Alps’ theme might sound contrived, but there’s nothing gimmicky about each course — showcasing everything from crab (Nice) and pear (Lindau) to snail caviar (Vienna) and goat’s cheese (St Gallen), each daintily created dish is beautifully presented and exquisite tasting. Baron’s focus on Alpine food is far from restrictive; as the chef stresses, the Alps stretch from Nice to Vienna, so there’s a lot of variety in both produce and culinary style.
“My food is, in its conception, relatively uncomplicated,” Baron explains. “Within our concept of ‘creative Alpine cuisine’, we try to replace products like lemon and lime with regional equivalents such as sorrel, cornel cherries or verjus — all of which are naturally sour.
“The Alpine dining experience that we’re evolving for our guests in the Tannenhof must be connected to the roots and traditions of Tyrol, but with an innovative and dynamic edge.”
It’s the sort of simple yet luxurious stuff that befits a landmark Alpine hotel. With just seven suites — there were 25 rooms in the original 1925 property before a multi-million-pound renovation in 2011 — it takes Tannenhof luxury to a whole other level. And with 26 staff to just 16 guests, its emphasis on service is another of its highlights. An effortless, no-fuss ethic pervades — reflected in the suites, which are a classic blend of traditional Alpine features with a modern finish; all muted colours and slick, smart technology. Exactly the kind of place you want to ensconce yourself.
The bathroom boasts a standalone tub, while the lounge area is crowned with a contemporary wood-burning fire and complimentary minibar, making it devilishly hard to leave. The rather spectacular pool, likewise, delivers perfect Alpine atmosphere, with mountain vistas filling the floor-to-ceiling windows. And after a hard day’s skiing there can be few better places to unwind — of course, you’ve got to actually get some skiing in first. Our Swedish-born instructor, Magnus, starts us off on the quieter side of St Anton, in Rendl, where fresh powder, low cloud level and a black run ensured I quickly found my ski legs.
St Anton has a reputation for challenging skiing — not so much because of the gradient of its slopes, but because of the width of its pistes — but recent developments have expanded its already considerable offering. As of last December, three new cable-car systems connect all the ski resorts on the Arlberg — the mountain range between Vorarlberg and Tyrol. With 190 miles of marked runs and 87 lift and cable-car networks, St Anton is now linked with the resorts of Stuben, Zürs, Lech, Warth and Schröcken. The €45m (£40m) investment makes it the largest interconnected ski area in Austria.
And importantly for St Anton, the new one-mile Flexenbahn connects the eastern half of the Arlberg with the northern half — a link that’s been talked about for nearly a century. We make a very quick, and almost controlled, seven-mile run before heading up the other (interconnected) side of the mountain, which is — no doubt due to the continuing heavy snow fall — also quiet; very much a bonus when you’re on a short trip.
We manage another 15 miles, but come 3pm, with snow shrouding the mountaintop runs and rain spattering our faces further down the slopes, we make for the bars. St Anton’s infamous après-ski is undoubtedly fun, and definitely for the hardcore, but there’s only so much euro pop (and schnapps) I can take. So back to the warmth and welcome of Hotel Tannenhof for the luxury, comfort and cuisine. And as the sun shone over the valley the next day, I again awoke to the sound of dynamite.
Three nights at the Hotel Tannenhof costs from £2,895pp on a full-board basis. The price includes a cooking course, nine-course menu, wine tasting, ski pass and transfers.
Published in the Winter Sports 2017 guide, free with the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)