Wednesday , February 1 2023

‘Our magical cabin’: a fairytale ski hut in the Austrian Alps

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The night was as dark as the bottom of a well when I pushed open the old timber door, releasing a wraith-like furl of steam into the frost-glittered air. Shoving my wet feet into my snowboots, I stepped out and walked naked across creaky-fresh snow beneath a full moon.

Fir and pine silhouettes towered all around, a silent forest filing up into the blueish mountainsides. I stretched my arms towards the lunar light like some sort of pagan worshipper, feeling the icy sting of the air working its invigorating magic.

This wasn’t some moonbathing ritual at a fancy new forest spa, but my own no-frills version – stepping outside after a shower for some DIY cold therapy – the kind of liberating activity one can engage in when staying in an isolated hideaway.

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In reality this was not so isolated, though it had that feel, for just over the mountains to the north was the ski resort of Kitzbühel, dubbed the “Aspen of the Alps” for its glitz.

Though I felt the pull of its legendary pistes, champagne bars, five-star service and even après ski were not what I wanted. When I go snowboarding these days I want to explore the mountains like a rambler would in summer, going all over them, into their folds and “connecting with nature”, leaving crowded pistes behind. Some of my best experiences have been riding through forest, fast in powder between trees, but also taking time to pause, sit on a rock, smell the piney scents and listen to the slow drip-drip of meltwater in a landscape muffled by snow.

The hut is set in deep forest.
The hut is set in deep forest. Photograph: Gemma Bowes

I wanted that same feeling from the accommodation too. We Brits have taken to cabin stays for summer and autumn. Why not for that most cookie-cutter of holidays, the ski trip?

Such places are not so easy to find in a holiday market dominated by the bright-clatter norms of chalets and hotels in big resorts, but a useful website, almliesl.com, lists Austria’s rustic wilderness cabins. It was here I pinpointed the Josef Kreidl Hutte, an off-grid former hunting lodge outside Jochberg, a satellite resort connected by ski lifts to Kitzbühel, and popular with Austrian and Bavarian families who like its friendly lessons, low prices and community vibe. This appealed to us too, coming with two young children in the early stages of learning to ski. Plus, it was relatively affordable, even during the usually extortionate February half-term.

The view on the ski route back to the Josef Kreidl Hütte.
The view on the ski route back to the Josef Kreidl Hütte. Photograph: Gemma Bowes

That the hut was not easy to reach was a factor, and our journey from Jochberg began with a blizzard-frenzied struggle in the dark, trying to fit snow chains to the wrong sort of hire car (a 4×4 is advised). Eventually we were rescued by the 74-year-old caretaker of the cabin, Franz Poll, and his adult son, who led us two miles up what was essentially a backcountry ski run (a few confused skiers whizzed past), passing small cliffs, deep snowdrifts and frozen waterfalls as fat flakes piled on the windscreen.

Crossing a bridge over a tumbling river we came at last to our lovely cabin. Kindly Franz, a proper ski dude with knitted cap and white pony tail, busied around with a torch, lighting the gas wall-lamps, digging kindling from a basket and wood from a log cupboard to light the big stone stove in the centre of the living space, with kitchen, benches and hooks for drying clothes. My “spa” (shower room) was next door, and steep stairs led into the gabled loft room, with five single beds lined up as if a small party of dwarves were expected.

This was no slick Scandi design cabin, but the real deal. The tiny gas fridge had space only for essentials, so we stuck beers and lollies into the snow outside, and the kids plucked icicles from the overhanging roof for drinks. No TV, no wifi either – we couldn’t even charge our phones as the wrong sort of hire car had the wrong sort of sockets. But being without electricity creates a special feeling: free from buzz and static, the very air felt calmer and quieter, older.

The setting came into its own next morning when we skied down the track to the road, where the lifts were only 500 metres away. For the kids it proved a little skiddy and lumpy, so we did end up using the car. Parking was free, as were the beginner lifts, where each morning we helped the children practise, then refuelled with frankfurters, salads and fizzy herb-scented Almdudler at the Hausleit’n Stub’n cafe at the foot of the kids’ slope. Handily next to the ski school office and meeting point, it became a hub for parents, who drank coffee in the sun as children came and went.

The author’s children perfecting their skiing technique at the Jochberg beginners slopes.
The author’s children perfecting their skiing technique at the Jochberg beginners slopes. Photograph: Gemma Bowes

Our youngest had great fun in his afternoon lessons, learning to “pizza”, “aeroplane” and ride to the top by himself, while we took our daughter off to tackle more challenging blues. We stuck mainly to Jochberg’s easy slopes but could access the wider KitzSki area’s 145 miles of runs. We all went over to Kitzbühel for the kids to try their first fun park, hitting every bump and baby jump with a cheer. The Kitz 3S-Bahn cable car took us there, running for almost two and a half miles between two ski areas on either side of the Saukaser Valley, where our cabin was hidden below, 400 metres above ground at points (it was the highest cable car in Europe for a time).

We considered trying Kitzbühel’s restaurants, or going bowling, but it felt like a waste when our magical cabin was waiting for us, so we rode the bus home. One night, after visiting Jochberg’s impressive Church of Saint Wolfgang, we did have dinner out next door at Schwarzer Adler, a posh hotel restaurant doing posh schnitzel and späetzle, with bejewelled cattle skulls on the walls. It was fine, fabulous even, but we preferred our cosy evenings at home. Naked moonbathing aside, these were spent cooking by the warm glow of the gas wall-lamps, sitting out with a beer under the stars, and lighting candles to play games. No one set their hair on fire, though I worried about it, and while the kids’ overall verdict on cabin living was that they “missed light switches”, I knew this quiet life was doing us good.

The hut’s cosy, traditional interior.
The hut’s cosy, traditional interior. Photograph: Gemma Bowes

Franz stopped by one night with his younger, 13-year-old son, who chattered in perfect English about his passions: airsoft, his older girlfriend and manga. We learned that as well as being a ski bum and all-round mountain man, taking care of cabins in winter and cows in summer, Franz had previously been a shoemaker, turning out luxury leather numbers for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger. A shoemaker running a little wooden cabin in the woods? All we needed were a few elves and a wicked witch and the fairytale would be complete.

We could have happily slept there for a hundred years, too, but our time was running out, and we had one big mission to complete.

Centre of Kitzbühel.
Centre of Kitzbühel. Photograph: Ian Dagnall/Alamy

By the end of the week the kids seemed challenge-ready, so we rode lifts up to Kitzbühel and skied a path down into our valley and to an unpisted track that led (we hoped) to the cabin. So deep was the snow, the lower windows of chalets we passed were buried, and we swooshed through silence and mercurial light under giant trees whose branches looked as if they’d been dipped in foamy bath bubbles.

Had we not had the little ones with us, we could have had the time of our lives in the powder-filled bowls above the cabin, but hey, a reason to go back. And it was a thrill to see the children managing tremendously well, ploughing through the drifts without falling or complaining until finally, rounding a bend between pines, our little hut came into sight.

“How did we get here??!” gasped the youngest. We had done it. We’d skied home. A fairytale ending.

The trip was provided by the Tirol tourist board, Kitzbühel, and the Austrian National Tourist Office. The Josef Kreidl Hütte costs from €79 a night and sleeps five; booked at almliesl.com, which has about 170 cabins and huts to rent, mainly in the Austrian Alps. Six-day lift passes for Kitzbühel from €275 adults and €137 childrenfree). Intersport provided ski rental

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