For our first ski holiday together we decided to go to Zell am See-Kaprun in Austria. It's been a brilliant week with mostly great snow and we even got to enjoy some of the side country. We spent a week loading up on Kaiserschmarrn' carbs and getting the best possible goggle tan while making sure to get the first lift up to the mountains each morning. We booked a seven night stay at Hotel zum Hirschen in Zell am See through Crystal. After flying into Salzburg we were driven directly to Zell and picked up again a week later from the hotel. The beauty of this arrangement was that everything was ready for us including liftpasses, ski rental paperwork, you name it. A low effort solution if that's what you are looking for.
Zell am See-Kaprun divides up into three parts: Zell am See - the main resort, Kaprun - a smaller resort about 20 minutes away on the bus, and Kitzsteinhorn - the glacier resort which is on the same lift pass, about 30 minutes on the bus. Just over and behind the Zell region mountains are the Saalbach-Hinterglemm resorts which as of now are not yet connected to Zell but would truly expand the skiable area.
Zell am See
We spent most of our time in Zell am See where - very conveniently - it had snowed the week before. In the mornings we walked up to the City Xpress gondola and worked our way up. We warmed up on a completely empty Red 2 usually, then continued our way across towards Schmittenhöhe for the morning.
On this side of the mountain Red 21 is a beautiful long and undisturbed run and you also shouldn't miss Red 12. Red 21 and itinerary X4 is also where this resort will probably be connected to Saalbach in the next few years. We learned this the hard way when we took some tree skiing shots off the side of red 21, then continued on the itinerary route which we assumed would get us back to the lift. Instead, we found ourselves in a winter wonderland and a village that has an hourly bus back to Zell. If you find yourself in the same situation: it is worth it for the landscape!
If you stick to the piste then you get treated to a very new gondola that fits ten, and if you are patient then you might even be lucky enough to sit on the Jukeboxx gondola that lets you blast your own music. We never waited that long though because we had Chia Charge bars to eat and Instagram stories to upload, but the idea is great!
For lunch, one of the nicest spots we found was the Pinzgauer Hütte. This is a short ski away from the piste but when you are all filled up on your favourite Austrian dishes and drank a Skiwasser then you can get dragged back by a Skidoo. It's totally worth it for the ride!
After lunch we explored the other half of the mountain and eventually headed back home. Black 11 - the main run leading to the valley - was a bit icy and is very low contrast in the afternoon but it's a run that's absolutely worth it for the views overlooking the town of Zell and the lake.
Zell am See itself offers enough routes to comfortably ski for a few days but after a week it might get a bit boring. There are fun runs, a freestyle park and a film-your-own-slalom course but other than that our highlights were definitely:
- Red 21 - probably the most beautiful run of the resort
- The Jukeboxx gondola, if you are patient, could be a fun experience
- Lunch at Pinzgauer Hütte and being dragged back by a Skidoo
Originally, we had planned to also go to Kaprun but as it is quite small and we didn't end up returning to Kitzsteinhorn for a second day we ended up skipping it. So, as I said we only spent one day up on the Kitzsteinhorn glacier.
What might be a five minute drive in a car from Zell turned out to be closer to 30 minutes on a bus. This does take you pretty much straight to the first gondola though, from where you can work your way up the mountain again.
Being a glacier, Kitzsteinhorn has much fewer trees and wider pistes. It also has a much higher likelihood of snow which is great when all you've got is a few short days - a reason for us to choose this resort. It does, however, also mean that you will want to put on an extra layer, maybe bring a buff. Another thing to consider is your eyewear. From about mid day a large portion of the pistes were in the shade. Low contrast can be a bit tricky if you aren't prepared for it.
What I found interesting was the set up of the resorts. Two lifts got you up from the valley, a bit further on though you could choose between a gondola and a chair lift which were on the same line but the chair would only go half the distance. I have to say I've never seen anything like this before. It is handy though.
In terms of pistes, we enjoyed most of this resort a lot. Red 2 and 8a are both fun, wide, and open runs while Black 5a and b are short but offer fantastic views. There is also the Black Mamba which I didn't attempt but looked fun.
Zell and the Lake
Aside from the ski resort, Zell am See is an adorable little town. As we were conveniently based in the very centre we could walk to the lifts, the closest grocery shop (Billa), as well as the lake in a few short minutes. As with any ski resort the prices here are steep. We opted for snacks and drinks (local Stiegl beer) on the room most nights, but saw a good selection of Aprés Ski bars for both younger and older visitors.
We were lucky that while we were there, the Zeller lake was judged safe to be crossed on foot as the ice layer had frozen thick enough. That was a phenomenal experience. It's very strange to stand on a completely flat surface when you are surrounded by mountains on every side. Apparently, the lake hasn't been opened in a decade and only stayed open for a few days but if you do get to walk on it make sure to try it out!
Other than that, Zell will have activities on offer for most interests. You could go to the pool if your accomodation does not have one or take part in activities such as wildlife feeding or snowshoeing. It's the same as most ski resorts will probably offer.
Hotel zum Hirschen
Our hotel was located very conveniently. It was clean and comfortable and especially the dinners were very good. Would we go here again? Probably not. Zum Hirschen currently does not offer internet access on the rooms and in large parts of the common areas. The breakfast was fine but not great and we both felt a bit annoyed with and rushed by the much too attentive service at dinner time. Also, it sometimes came across as though restaurant guests were treated as a priority - probably because unlike us they had not paid yet.
All in all though, we had a nice room, the bathroom was brand new which was a big plus, it was nice and quiet and we enjoyed the little time we actually spent in the hotel. After all, we were here to go skiing, not to lounge around. And, to be fair, taking a little break from the online world probably wasn't too bad either. We had brought some English films on a laptop and fell asleep early anyway.
Zell am See and Kitzsteinhorn was a fun resort and we had an absolute blast. If you are flexible, it makes sense to check when the school holidays of the neighbouring countries (especially Germany) are because this way you can avoid the crowds. Late January or early February is probably a safe time to come skiing here and you do always have the glacier to fall back on. Zell am See Kaprun is perfect for a week and people of all skill levels especially if you are planning to stay on pistes for most of your trip.
If you are looking for a local alternative, Saalbach Hinterglemm might be a good shout but we can't vouch for that. By the 2018/2019 season I can imagine these two resorts might already be connected making it a huge skiable area. Alternatively, if you ski a lot and are confident, maybe try to get a day at Saalbach booked onto your skipass.
All in all, ski holidays will almost never be cheap. Our priorities were having an easy transfer, a relatively affordable trip and as much time on the slopes as possible. We made sure to be on the mountain for the first lift and got some good skiing in in the first hours of the day. This way we had fantastic conditions and while there was a bit of artificial snow towards the end of the week we both had a fantastic week away.
If you have been to Zell or are considering going there we would love to hear your thoughts. We'd also love to know if you have any recommendations for us in terms of future ski trips that we could do? Leave them in the comments!