Settled in the 13th century, the village of Lech is halved by a fast-running river and hemmed in by a pair of brawny mountain ridges that, until relatively recently, were known to shed and moult avalanches and bury the town in deep snow. Times changed in the 20th century, when people from all over Europe began to flock to Arlberg to make use of its broad and beautiful mountainscape, and Lech became a haven for the well-heeled. Situated on the opposite side of a sprawling ridge from St Anton in the far west of Austria and just a quick drive from the airports in Innsbruck and Zurich, it’s not uncommon to see Ferraris catching G-force around hairpin turns on its high-altitude roads in the summer and, in the winter, it’s replete with four-wheel drive Porsche SUVs and Range Rovers. The resort town was famously a favourite of Princess Diana, who would often come with Harry and William, as well as the Dutch royal family and Monaco’s Princess Caroline of Hanover.
Even the ski rental operation, Strolz, is absurdly high-tech and high-spec, resembling the type of supercar showroom you might see on Berkeley Square. For anyone with a soft spot for ski and snowboarding apparel, you’ll be like a kid in a candy shop, as it has all the bells and whistles of a Roald Dahl chocolate factory. And, while we’re on the subject of edible treats, Lech is a veritable constellation of Michelin stars and Gault-Millau accolades. So far, so posh. However, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a town that wears its wealth lightly, and prioritises big fun in the great outdoors above all else.
Where to stay
Character, you say? Family-run Hotel Kristiania is brimming with it: the chocolate box facade of the building is straight out of the Brothers Grimm. Upon entering we were immediately feted with a champagne reception next to the crackling hearth of an open fire by the hotel’s ineffably chic owner, Gertrud Schneider. Dripping with bright jewellery, statement earrings and rude health, Schneider explains that she inherited the residence from her father, Othmar Schneider, Austria’s first Olympic Gold Medallist skier. Visiting the hotel feels very much like being welcomed into her home, albeit a private residence with all the finery that you might expect from a Bezos. Hotel Kristiania’s 17 rooms all have a distinct character and alpine-chic vibe with antiques, moody lighting, rich fabrics, artworks and often a little balcony, inviting you to open the windows, let in a breath of wintry air, and peer out over the village and valley. The hospitality here is unconventional, and that’s a big part of the draw. Hotel Kristiania is not the type of place to stand on ceremony. Staff pull out all the stops to make sure your stay is as memorable as possible, with quirky touches such as a literary concierge to help you to select the perfect post-piste read; champagne picnics in the snow; and an art gallery in a garage (run in partnership with Vienna institution Sturm & Schober) where we are invited to have an impromptu jam session on a drum kit and live mic. The watchword here is fun, and you can count on Schneider and company to do everything within their capabilities to enable that. Just make sure to pack your aspirin, because there’s a fair chance you’ll wake up with a post-slope hangover.
What to do
Christoph Schöch Photography G
Ski and snowboard
Yes, of course we are recommending you hit the slopes. We were hardly going to suggest a beach day. Though the altitude at Lech isn’t nearly as high as some of its towering alpine neighbours (we’re looking at you, Val Thorens), the snow in the region, due to the microclimate that it inhabits, is known to be some of the best in Austria. We were very lucky to get an express delivery of champagne powder on our final day on the mountain, complete with bluebird skies and frosty vibes. We strapped on avalanche transceivers and jumped off-piste to spray rooster-tails all day in supercooled snow that came up to our knees. If you prefer to stay on resort terrain, the groomers are world-class. There are 88 uber-quick lifts which will get you above the tree line in no time flat, almost 200 miles of slopes that cater equally to beginners or veteran shredders, and a €45 million gondola, the Flexenbahn, which connects Lech to its neighbour St Anton.
It’s the end of the day. You’ve been carving piste and powder for hours in the freezing cold. The last thing you’re going to want to do is climb up to Oberlech and jump on a toboggan, getting out-manoeuvred and overtaken by resident twelve-year-old bobsled virtuosos. Right? Well, think again. Tobogganing is very easily one of the highlights of Lech. Guests are invited to grab a brightly-coloured plastic sledge, lift their legs to avoid getting snagged on the snowy decline, say a quiet prayer to the mountain gods, and descend at speed down a course that’s more than a kilometre in length and just as thoughtfully groomed as the resort itself. There’s no experience or age barrier, and it’s a common occurrence to hear grown men and women scream in excitement as they catch air over rollers.
Artists love Lech. They’re attracted to the mountain town like moths to the flame. If you’re visiting, you’d be remiss not to hike up to James Turrell’s Skyspace Lech art installation. Remember when Kanye was controversial, but not quite that controversial? His Sunday Services were largely inspired by Turrell, an artist that he’s reportedly obsessed with. Making your way through shoulder-level snow, and cottages that look like they might stand up on chicken legs and wander off Baba Yaga style, you’ll arrive at a hulking bunker-esque building. Turrell designed the art installation in 2014, specifically with the surrounding scenery in mind. There’s space for up to 15 people to sit along the circular black granite bench and gawp as the room is saturated with different colours of light. The entire experience feels profoundly extra-terrestrial. It’s an mystical way to punctuate a day on the slopes.
Not feeling the lift queues, but still looking to get out of town and thread your way through beautiful alpine landscapes, with a bit of cardio thrown in for good measure? Nordic skiing is a great option and, once you get the hang of it, an utterly relaxing means of transport. Think evergreens powdered with ivory white snow, precipitous cliffs and broad valleys, all to the mellifluous sound of the Lech river which runs between its namesake town and the smaller village of Zug. There are over 17 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, which are all free to use. Not sure you’re quite ready yet to strike out on your own? We can’t recommend instructor Uli Alber enough. Along with pilates, which she also teaches, she’ll make sure you’re whipped into shape in no time flat. Oops, did you forget to pack your trusty nordic skis, boots and poles? Saunter over to Strolz Filomena for ski fitting and rental.
Where to Eat
Hitting the pistes is well-known for stirring up powerful appetites, and visitors to Hotel Kristiania are well catered for in every regard. Are you the type of person that likes to expansive, pull-out-all-the-stops supper? Das Restaurant Kristiania is led by Malcolm Praun and serves up innovative Argentine-inspired cuisine. Consider yourself an oenophile? You’re in Lech, er, luck. Hotel Kristiania’s traditional cellar packs in 7,000 bottles of wine. Want a classic cocktail? Neck it fireside in Kaminzimmer. That’s Chimney Room, in case you haven’t brushed up on your A-Level German. Enjoying an artful breakfast service with hot black coffee poured into hand-thrown cups is a great way to start the day, particularly when you’re lining your stomach with smoked trout and roe on a bed of crisp rosti.
Rote Wand Chef’s Table
Lech is not a destination that shies away from fine dining and this is very much case in point at the Rote Wand Chef’s Table, which is situated in what formerly served as the town’s schoolhouse, built in the salad days of 1780. Head chef Julian Stieger has worked at NYC’s Eleven Madison Park and Copenhagen’s Geranium, both of which boast three Michelin stars, as well as Vienna’s two-starred Steirereck. If you’re looking for bucket list dining, book Rote Wand Chef’s Table well in advance. Where to Drink The Yurt Well, this is a bit odd: a traditional Mongolian yurt, in the centre of a town famous for its haute-couture hotels, serving low-intervention wines and Japanese gin to a soundtrack of soul and techno. But, like many things in Lech, eccentric is a good thing, and pitching up in a tent for a little Dutch courage during lunchtime may be just what the doctor ordered.