Marketed as the sunny side of Austria’s Alps, that description didn’t quite ring true when we arrived at the last stop on our #AustrianWinter tour. But luck doesn’t always favour the bold, and with an average of 457 hours of sunshine between November and March, we wouldn’t dispute the Carinthia ski region and it’s usual claim to the sunshine crown.
Add to that, Carinthia did not disappoint with its wealth of activities both on and off the slopes, regardless of the weather.
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 check out our guide to Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Leogang and Fieberbrunn – our own Skicircus challenge, a city, lake and mountains resort guide to Zell am See-Kaprun, plus luxury travel tips for an Austrian ski break.
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 Carinthia ski region guide…
Sarah had been lucky enough to visit Weissensee, one of Carinthia’s many expansive lakes in the summertime, but as we took the road that sloped down from the mountains and skirted along the edge of the lake we were both excited to be in the region for the first time in winter.
Carinthia is seen as the Austrian region blessed with a relaxed nature, in part due to its southern location away from the hustle and bustle of Austria’s bigger cities and well-known ski regions, and its closeness to countries that have a more Mediterranean way of life. But this carefree, traditionally warm and sunny region also has plenty of winter cool, as there are a number of great Carinthian ski resorts in the mountains that rise up to back its lakes.
We stayed at the Seehotel Enzian in Neusach just past the village of Techendorf on the north shore of Weissensee, famous for appearing in the 1987 James Bond movie “The Living Daylights”. I have to admit to being in awe at how beautiful the surroundings were, whilst I am used to staying in mountains with dramatic scenery, the lakeside location offered up a new backdrop that was simply breath taking. The tranquillity of it all adds a new dynamic to a winter holiday, one that skiers, snow-boarders and non-skiers alike can enjoy, and this would prove to a perfect fit because that lake is also known for its spa and wellness attractions.
Carinthia mixes up a winter of ski, skate and spa
Need to know: Nassfeld in the Carinthia ski region
Click to see Nassfeld piste map
Click for the weather in the Nassfeld Hermagor
Check conditions on Nassfeld webcams
Hitting the slopes in Nassfeld
The ski resort of Nassfeld was about 40 minutes drive from our location on the lake. We parked the car at Tröpolach where we met with local, Lukas, my guide for the day from the Schnee Sport Schule Nassfeld. The Millennium Express cable car took us from 910 metres to the top of the Kofelplatz-Madritsche, just shy of 2,000 metres. At the top we left Sarah to sample the cuisine at the KofelAlm and went to see what this family friendly ski resort had to offer.
And family friendly it is, along the way we stopped to chat to Lukas’s father, who works on the lifts, and also his sister, who was also enjoying a day out on the slopes with friends. Nassfeld ski resort caters for intermediates best, but with around 110 kilometres of pistes to ski, there really is something for everyone. About 60% of its terrain is red slopes, followed by 35% blue and 5% black. It also has a large freeride area so experts can be entertained. Beginners are not left out either as there is a large beginners’ area which can be found at the second station of the Millennium Express. Learn your craft here before progressing to the lovely wide red runs that this resort offers.
First on my agenda was to ski to Italy! I’d heard this was something you could do in Nassfeld and there’s always a novelty to visiting yet another country when on your travels.
Really the top of the Millennium Express sits just a short distance from Italy, but we skied down red 21 to the border and the lake at Passo Pramollo where you could stop for a quick cappuccino or bombardino to get a taste of Italy and fuel your morning’s skiing.
Back on the slopes I had to employ a little imagination. The views from Nassfeld’s various peaks are said to be magnificent. From there you can see the mountains of Italy and Slovenia and on a really clear day you should be able to see the Adriatic Sea at Trieste. But this wasn’t one of those days, and as we could barely see a hand in front of us at times we decided to keep moving and tour the resort instead.
We made our way to the Gartnerkofel chair which took us to one of Lukas’s favourite slopes, red 1 (FIS abfahrt), a race piste that has a mixture of steeper sections and undulating terrain. As an ex-racer, this really suited him and he flew down it. Unfortunately, due to the white out we were experiencing, I could only feel my way down the piste, but it certainly felt good!
Fortunately, as there are many tree-lined runs in Nassfeld it was possible to stay mainly in the trees where the visibility was better. I also asked Lukas to show me some of the other fun slopes that were available just in case it’s not a day for munching up the miles.
We went down The Snake, a fun slope that gives you a taste of skier and boarder cross, you can even choose your photo at the end of the slope for a memento of day. Next Lukas took me to the parallel slalom course. “Let’s race,” I said. God only knows why I’d think taking on an Austrian former racer would be a good idea. But channelling my inner Lindsey Vonn, we took to the start. Lukas was unsurprisingly first out the gate and first to finish. It felt like I was flying down at lightning speed but the reality of the clock suggested otherwise. Nonetheless it was really great fun and racing against friends or family will create new winter memories as well as rivalries.
When it came to the speed slope, I let Lucas show me how it was done, so as not to be further embarrassed. He achieved an impressive 74kph, but this impressed him far less than it did me.
Meeting up with Sarah for lunch of traditional Austrian mountain food at the KofelAlm Lukas also told us about the annual ski race that takes place every January – Schlag das ASS, which is the longest ski race in the world at over 25 kilometres in length and 6,400 metres of altitude. Hundreds of competitors take part in this event in which you aim to ski the distance in the quickest time possible.
Race or spa?
Off the slopes and back to Weissensee Sarah and I split up again. As she enjoyed some peace and tranquillity at the hotel spa, I met up with Christopher from the tourist board for a trip up to the Naggler Alm, a mountain hut up from Weissensee’s own ski area before throwing ourselves down a four kilometre toboggan run.
The skiing area here is very small but perfect if you have small children and don’t require the variety of slopes over at Nassfeld. At the Naggler Alm we treated ourselves to the most perfect hot chocolate and whipped cream, something I only ever seem to indulge in when on in the mountains as to me it’s skiing in a mug. We were soon off on our toboggans and set off down the track in twilight. I usually do toboggan runs in the dark, but being able to see a little more clearly brought the fun right into view. We were whooping and hollering as we sped down the mountain.
I really enjoy a good toboggan run, even though I don’t really know how to drive one. Christopher was there to give me hints and tips but it felt a bit kamikaze at times as I veered too close to the edge of the mountain, this is when you become quick to break with your feet!
As a perfect contrast as I got back to the hotel, Sarah was all blissed out as she regaled me with details of the Seehotel Enzian’s lakeside spa. With a sauna and steam room in a building right on by the lake you can sweat it out, and then the hardy can run outside and jump into the hole the hotel has made in the icy lake. With clear, clean, drinking quality water, Weissensee is one of nature’s greatest plunge pools.
That evening, we had a delicious meal at the hotel before making for its cosy bar, which with its wooden interiors felt like a mini ski lodge. There we drank schnapps and beers, played a traditional Austrian mountain game of Hammerschlagen, gleefully driving nails into a tree stump, and were entertained by the barman who has an incredible range of magic tricks.
Where ice is nice
Our second day in Weisensee offered up a very unique and wonderful experience. At six and a half square kilometres and located at an altitude of 930 metres, Weissensee freezes reliably for approximately 80 days a year, which has turned it into one of the best places to ice skate in Austria.
We met up with Norbert Jank, the Eismeister, or Master of the Ice, tasked with maintaining and grooming the ice on the lake’s surface as well as keeping a check on safety for all those that use it. Norbert put chainsaw to ice to cut a block out of the lake to as part of his routine checks on the depth of the ice. It was easily a foot or more, but what was most fascinating was how clear the water was – that pure drinking water we’d been told about.
The lake has up to 25 kilometres of groomed skating rinks and a 400-metre rink for speed skating. So put aside your pretty white boots and any ideas of figure skating your way to glory. On the lake speed is all that matters.
The lake hosts huge sporting events where competitors cover 50, 100 and 200 kilometres respectively, including the Austrian Speed Skating Marathon Championships.
We were never going to compete with the whizzy locals, but it didn’t stop Sarah and I embracing it, taking to the ice with a “when in Rome” joie de vivre.
The last time I skated was probably about 20 years ago at the local ice rink where my preferred stopping method was to crash into the side of the rink. Lakes don’t have sides, therefore it was imperative we understood how we could stop as novices. This we were told was to adopt the pizza method (or snow plough) as in skiing, which worked perfectly. But we didn’t have enough time to progress to a hockey stop like the professionals.
What was also new to us was that speed skates are hinged at the toe, allowing the heel to move freely as in cross-country skiing.
Whilst we had also tried our hand at that sport in Skicircus, I was very nervous about how this was going to feel on ice. I needn’t have worried, whilst it did feel slightly different, once you got your groove on and into the skating motion, it felt much the same as traditional ice skates used in hockey or figure skating.
I enjoyed the motion of skating on a frozen lake, taking in the beauty of my surroundings and breathing in the crisp fresh air, what better way to spend a Sunday morning? The locals come here to exercise and we even saw ladies pushing prams around the ice, much as we would go for a walk after Sunday lunch and it made me consider that just like skiing in Austria, this is another very inclusive winter sport.
Where to stay in Weissensee
We stayed at the four-star Seehotel Enzian beside the lake. It has a spa, restaurant and a cosy, intimate bar.
Don’t miss the first destination in our Austrian Winter adventure where we mixed terrific pistes with tasty plates in the Zillertal Valley.
This Carinthia ski guide is the result of a project with Austrian Tourism. As always, all thoughts and images are our own.