The soaring spire of the village church pricks the skyline with needlestick precision. It is the highest, most slender, in the Salzburg Pinzgau region at 76m and when we arrive in the picturesque alpine village of Maria Alm, it brushes a sky heavy with snow.
We are in the western reaches of the massive Ski amadé region, the largest in Austria with 760km of groomed pistes and spread over five ski areas.
Hochkönig, which includes Maria Alm and the sister villages of Dienten and Mühlbach, is part of Ski amadé, and one of the more intimate aspects of the area. Offering exhilarating runs and a variety of terrain, the opening of a new lift system for this season now means it has direct access to the wider Ski amadé area.
Our group had dropped in towards the middle of January, just as this part of Austria was experiencing its heaviest and most prolonged snow falls for years, covering the pistes with fresh powder…and setting things up nicely for a prolonged ski season.
We’d checked in to the newly-opened Sepp Hotel, adult-only boutique style accommodation, owned and run by the enthusiastic Sepp Schwaiger. It is the counterpart and modern embodiment of the family’s main Eder Hotel in the centre of the village and sits a short step from the slopes and the Sonnbergbahn and Natrunbahn lifts which offer a gateway to the Ski amadé.
For this trip, we are exploring the Hochkönig area, its slopes and the culinary experience it offers.
Some 70km from Salzburg and located in the middle of the mountains of the Steinernen Meer, it hosts 120km of downhill ski slopes, 40km of cross-country trails, 85km of winter hiking paths, floodlit toboggan runs and opportunities for night skiing, snow shoeing or ski touring.
A highlight is the Königstour, which with its 35km of slopes, six summits and 7,500 vertical metres is regarded as one of the most spectacular ski tours in the Alps and can be started at any point in Maria Alm, Dienten and Mühlbach.
Taking its name from the mountain which dominates the villages, it is the backdrop to this corner of Ski amadé, which has not only created a reputation for its size, but also in the way it has embraced technology to aid its skiers.
The Ski amadé Guide App for Smartphones, for example, has features such as photo realistic 3D maps and includes information such as huts, webcam pictures, tips about sights, lift opening times and ski routes. A Tracking Tool on the App allows users to see how many kilometres they have skied with speed and altitude metres recorded from the ski day.
Easy to use, it has webcams, info on which lifts and slopes are open, where the ski huts are and the weather.
Yet while this is an attractive ski paradise, those charged with driving the Ski amadé ethos forward recognise that there is more to a winter holiday than simply taking to the slopes.
Dr Christoph Eisinger, is managing director of the ski area, and whilst the emphasis is on tradition and cuisine, it is very much a data-driven resort, reflecting the ethos of apps and connectivity.
“We know that most skiers on our slopes make an average of 10 runs a day,” he said, “which means we have to work to keep them entertained for the time they are not skiing.”
That is where the foodie ethos comes in with many of the huts that grace the slopes offering an Austrian culinary experience.
“Hochkönig is an authentic region with a strong culinary theme and lots of huts on the mountain serve traditional food,” he explained, “and we are also bringing some very good wines to them.”
The focus is on a blend of local specialities, modern cuisine and fine wines, where the repertoire ranges from Kaiserschmarrn with damsons to Schweinsbraten pork with dumplings. You’ll also be able to enjoy Tirolergrostl and Kasnudeln as well as favourites such as Wienerschnitzel.
But also look out for an innovative culinary twist along the way, particularly if you drop by the new Tom Almhutte on the mountain at the top of the new Natrunbahn lift. Owned and run by Tom, brother of Sepp, one of the specialties is a taster menu of five course, each served with an individual cocktail as accompaniment.
With a modern, welcoming ambience, the food is Austrian to the core with prawns, pear soup, venison meatloaf, beef tenderloin with parmesan soufflé, and a dessert of Pinzgauer purée with blueberry rice.
Yet it is not just on the slopes where you can enjoy the finest Austrian cuisine and produce. There are hotels, bars restaurants in the village and an active alpine farmers’ market. But over the last decade Ski amadé – which offers a nod to the great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in its branding – is a region that has arguably developed more than any other Austrian ski region over the last decade with new lifts, including the one that now offers Maria Alm direct access to the rest of the region and the four other ski areas of Salzburger Sportwelt, Schladming Dachstein, Gastein, and Grossarltal, with one pass to cover all.
After our day skiing and wining and dining on the slopes, we retreated to our wonderful, discreet boutique hotel, which not only carries the name of the owner, but also reflects his personality and ethos.
A new-build which opened in September 2018, it has the authenticity of an historic alpine cabin, lined with recycled wood; this is a hotel that says welcome.
The bar area is cosy and warm, even with the doors open to offer views of the infinity pool. Swim in it, feel the chill on your forehead as the warmth of the water embraces your body, and for those who dare, skip through the snowy path to the sauna, which is housed in a 1950s Airstream caravan. Hanging over the edge of the hotel roof three storeys up, “Don’t Panic” is the bold message on the underside.
An architect by training, Sepp designed every aspect of the building and oversaw construction of the 40-room hotel which took place within the space of one year. “We work hard to create a relaxed environment for our guests,” explained Sepp. “The hotel is for over-21s, we have a bar and an open kitchen and dining area. One of our ideas is for the brunch concept – serving breakfast from 6.30am to 1:00pm, for those who want to relax a little more and sleep in.”
Dinner every evening sees a different culinary style: from Sepp’s Austrian dinner of traditional food such as Wienerschnitzel, to surf and turf, sushi, and Nepalese to Italian. There are a few other quirks too: the lift is converted from an old ski gondola, there is a 100-year-old olive tree in the atrium and various styles of room from the “sporty” – where guests can store their ski equipment or bikes for example within their own space – to the “cosy,” “woody” and “roomy”, plus a couple of luxury suites.
Maria Alm is a beautiful Austrian village and a gateway to an impressive ski area. It’s at its stunning best when covered in a pristine layer of thick snow, and has a welcoming, culinary, ambience where you’ll never go hungry for long!
Salzburg airport is served by regular flights from several UK airports.
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls and Hochkoenig Tourismus