You’re a powder addict that loves nothing better than racing down the blacks and sloping off-piste every now and then. But your friend or partner either isn’t as confident or loves the snow but doesn’t ski at all. What to do and where to go for a winter holiday? For a diverse group of skiers and non-skiers, Zell am See-Kaprun is the place to be.
From mountain to glacier skiing at up to 3,000 metres, to fun on the beautiful expanse of Lake Zell, and all the attractions of a small city, Zell am See-Kaprun certainly has something for everyone in your holiday party.
My winter-sports loving friend Shelley and I recently took a trip across Austria taking in four of its ski regions.
Don’t miss our Zillertal ski resort guide, and look at Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Leogang and Fieberbrunn – our own Skicircus challenge, our luxury travel tips for an Austrian ski break, plus more on the way on Carinthia
A skier for more than 12 years, with a penchant for racy red runs and gutsy blacks, Shelley has skied across Europe, North America and even in New Zealand. Here’s her Zell am See ski resort guide…
Get on the slopes in Zell am See-Kaprun
Need to know: Zell am See-Kaprun
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Zell am See-Kaprun resort ski guide
Zell am See-Kaprun is regarded as one of the most attractive ski regions in Austria and it is easy to see why especially when you are standing on top of the Schmittenhöhe surveying a panoramic view with peaks drifting into a valley accented by a glistening lake. Or, if you’re up on Kaprun’s glacier, Kitzsteinhorn breathing in lungfuls of cool, clean air as well as truly awesome views of the country’s highest peaks.
There are more than 138 kilometres of pistes to explore in Zell am See-Kaprun, which is a huge area. It’s not as big as Skicircus where we had skied the day before, but there are ambitious plans to link Zell am See-Kaprun to Skicircus, which will make the area enormous.
Work has already started with the addition of the Zell-Am-See Xpress cable car and red run 21 Tannweldabfahrt which takes you to the new mid-mountain station. It makes for a fantastic run down the backside of Schmittenhöhe, which we did it early one morning when there was barely anyone around – millionaires skiing at its very best.
Along with the Zell am See Xpress link another connection is planned on Maiskogel, a small mountain in Kaprun suited to families, which will then link up to the glacier at Kitzsteinhorn opening up both areas.
Get on the glacier
I first put my skis to these Salburgerland slopes on Kitzsteinhorn. My guide, Heidi, and I started on pistes from the mid-station, the Alpincenter at 2,450 metres, but it is possible to head on up to around 3,000 metres. Up there, in the territory of ski tourers, the air is thin but the adrenaline is high. But for those that prefer to stay on the piste, there’s a shuttle taking you a few metres down the mountain to more relaxed slopes.
Where I was skiing the slopes were wide and open and allowed for large carving turns. The runs were predominately red and blue and so it is a great place to develop your skill.
For the more expert skiers though there was the challenge of the Black Mamba – a run 1,000 metres in length and with a gradient of 63%, along with five specially marked freeride routes.
Heidi, a snowboard instructor, loved Kitzsteinhorn for its freeride opportunities and also the snow park.
The snow park on Kitzsteinhorn is a really big selling point and home to a Superpipe, the Easy Park, Central Park, Railgarden and the Glacier Park all of which boast numerous rails, tubes, boxes and kickers on which all levels of riders can learn tricks and enhance their skills.
Whilst not understanding the cut of their jib, watching the riders perform tricks, which they make look so easy is an enjoyable experience and something you can do from the ICE Camp.
New for the 2018 season, the ICE Camp, is a world of ice comprising three igloos complete with artworks and a bar in the middle. We stopped by for a schnapps served in an ice glass. It is a wonderful place to pause for a break on the slopes.
A visit to Kitzsteinhorn is not complete though without a trip up to Gipfelwelt 3000. Also a great attraction for non-skiers, the summit station is at 3,029 metres.
From the panorama platform known as the Top of Salzburg it feels like you are on top of the world. It offers outstanding views across the heart of the Eastern Alps.
But Gipfelwelt 3000 is an attraction in itself with opportunities to learn about the wildlife found in the NationalPark Hohe Tauern that encompasses the Kitzsteinhorn glacier at a 180-degree cinema, and a chance to walk right through the glacier itself, The 360-metre long tunnel at a 25% gradient where you can learn about the glacier along the way.
At the other end is the Nationalpark Gallery a panoramic platform with magnificent views of the Kaprun valley, Zell-am-See and the summit of the Limestone Alps, a region with 30 peaks soaring over 3,000 metres high on display.
It’s a fascinating, educational and with the majestic mountain views – a breath-taking experience all rolled into one, and a great way to finish off a day on the glacier before either getting the gondola or having a good long ski down to the valley.
Smitten with Schmitten
The next day my skis hit the slopes back in Zell am See on the mountain that rises up to give the city the perfect backdrop.
Schmittenhöhe is a great place to ski, with beautiful views all around. Whilst the lake view is impressive, its hard not to be drawn again to the Leoganger Steinberge which I skied back in Skicircus. It is a majestic mountain and such a beautiful view even if from a different angle.
We skied around the Schmittenhöhe taking in its glorious pistes from the CityXpress lift all the way down to the Sonnkogelbahn. Sonnkogel with its wide cruisey tree-lined red runs makes for a fantastic morning’s skiing, and as its name suggests, it was basking in sunshine the whole time we were there.
The highlight of the day’s ski trip though was when we made our way over to the Pinzgauer Hütte. This great little hut can be skied to from the bottom of the Kappellenbahn chair.
It’s a short run down a tree-lined path which opens out when you get to the hut. With spices that tantalised the taste buds, I enjoyed the best mug of homemade glühwein I have ever tasted, before striking views of the Maiskogel mountain and Kitzsteinhorn glacier in the distance.
The ‘piste de resistancé’ however, was how we made our way back to the lift. At the Skidoo Haltestelle (Skidoo stop) we waited for our lift to arrive, then donned our skis and board as we were pulled along behind a skidoo as skiers whizzed downhill past us. Just a few minutes later we were back up on the piste and found our lift up to lunch.
Lunch was at the SchnapsHans bar at the top of the Schmittenhöhebahn, whose sun terrace was a perfect spot to soak up the rays before Schmitten’s spectacular mountain views. The music here is varied from rock to R&B, soul and blues to dance music and the atmosphere is what life on the mountains is all about.
From here, at the top of Schmitten you can take the Trass race slope (black run 14) back into town, it is one of the longest black pistes in Salzburgerland and is a genuine thrill.
Lakeside chill and bright city nights
More thrills are to be found back in town though. Gorgeous Zell am See has plenty to offer for a day off the pistes. Set beside the huge Lake Zell, it is a rewarding looking at one of nature’s finest offerings – a mirror-lake backed by mountain peaks.
It’s a chance to breathe in the fresh mountain air and relax in a tranquil setting. And with a quaint traffic-free city centre Zell am See is a great place to explore the shops and bars and also immerse yourself in the city’s après culture.
No Austrian ski trip is complete without sampling some cheesy Europop. The dulcet sounds of Olaf Hemming’s Cowboy und Indiana (complete with actions) and more notably DJ Otzi’s Hey Baby are like Christmas songs – a lot of fun to enjoy once a year, and are usually thumping out of umbrella bars at the top and bottom of the slopes.
More recently (yes they still make this music!) a song about Johnny Depp is the tune of the season, and like it or loathe it, you can’t avoid this earworm.
Don’t let it put you off though, this is just the start of the evening in Zell am See, socialising with new skiing and boarding buddies.
Back in town though we enjoyed a much more civilised time drinking outside the Gin House wrapped in cosy blankets watching the world go by before heading to one of the city’s popular hangouts Insider/Outsider bar for drinks and a dance. Other recommended bars for après are the legendary Villa Crazy Daisy which is part of the original Zell-am-See nightlife with live music and Diele.
On a Tuesday, Thursday and Friday night you can go night skiing from December until early March. Head to the Ebenbergbahn and slope number 17 to enjoy perfectly groomed floodlit slopes, all of which is included in the standard lift ticket.
On Wednesday nights in Zell am See they put on a ski show by the CityXpress Cable Car. With fire, lights and lasers, professional skiers and boarders make tricks whilst you can enjoy the après scene. The ski show is very indicative of Zell am See’s social scene – this is a city which runs a whole range of festivals and events throughout the year, so you’re bound to find something going on during your stay.
Zell am See-Kaprun is a rare find – a ski resort that truly offers something for everyone and some fantastically unusual experiences for every winter holiday.
Where to stay in Zell am See-Kaprun
As a city, Zell am See and the neighouring town of Kaprun have plenty of great accommodation options. Our hotel, the four-star Sporthotel Alpin couldn’t have been better placed for hitting Schmitten. It sits at the top of the town – a five-minute walk from the centre and just around the corner from the CityXpress lift. It is also right at the site of the midweek ski show so you’re in prime position to have dinner then venture out to watch the show and have drinks at its umbrella bar.
It has modern rooms, with spacious walk-in showers in the bathrooms and balconies. There are also connecting room options offering plenty of space, and socialising as well as privacy for families and groups. Plus the hotel has a pool, spa and restaurant serving great food – all important when you’re staying at an Austrian hotel as half board options are common and usually a very good choice.
For an option with plenty of opportunities for time in the spa consider Tauern Hotel & Spa, out in the countryside close to Kaprun. With panoramic rooms overlooking the mountain, a dramatic indoor-outdoor hotel swimming pool and spa that oversees Kitzsteinhorn glacier, and delicious restaurant, that would be enough to fill up any post ski time.
But it also has the extensive Tauern Spa attached with 12 saunas and steam rooms, and a great range of swimming pools for working up a sweat or chilling out – the choice is yours.
If however Tauern Spa Hotel is a little too far out of Zell am See for you, or out of your budget, many hotels in the area have an agreement through which their guests can use the large spa as a day visitor.
Look out for our next Austrian ski resort guide – we’re heading south to Carinthia for a winter ski, ice and wellness escape.