It sounds like a delivery service for muesli. But I first heard about the Alpen Express late one night, when geekily pouring over a well-thumbed copy of the European Rail Timetable. Virtually unknown in the UK, this sleeper train takes skiers from Holland and Germany and deposits them in the Austrian Alps the next morning.
Every Friday, from mid-December until mid-March this train accesses more than 100 Austrian ski resorts across several regions. By travelling this way, skiers get an extra day on the slopes at each end of the ski holiday, effectively turning six days’ skiing into eight. And for those that want to party, there’s a disco carriage on board too.
I fell asleep wondering what the Alpen Express experience might be like…
Fast forward several months and I find myself at London’s St Pancras station with a band of fellow ski journalists for a press trip organised by Austrian Tourism, ready to board a Eurostar bound for Amsterdam, from where we’d catch the Alpen Express.
Sipping coffee on the Eurostar as the scenery sped by, it was clear that no one had a clue what to expect on board the Alpen Express. We arrived at 4pm (European time) in Amsterdam, three hours before the Alpen Express departs. Rather than explore town, we opted for a slap-up meal at the station. On platform 2B there’s a restaurant called Grand Café Restaurant 1e Klas, which for hungry souls is just what the doctor ordered. The portions are generous, the decor impressive and there’s a white parrot called Elvis who sits above the bar.
Accommodation on the Alpen Express is in six, five and three-berth couchettes. If you’ve got a lot of ski gear and luggage, six people in a couchette might be a struggle; indeed, we played suitcase Tetris for a bit, trying to fit things in.
Walking down the corridor, I marvelled at how the Dutch seemed to manage this with ease, slotting luggage in and then getting on with the serious business of enjoying the journey. Many were already ensconced in card games — or perhaps drinking games that involved cards.
There seemed to be a real mix of people too, with some families, groups of friends, couples spanning many age groups.
We headed for the disco carriage, but on arriving, my heart sank a little. It was about 8pm, but there was no one in there, apart from our group and the bar staff. We ordered beers, which were surprisingly well-priced, and hung around under the impressive purple disco lighting, which felt a bit wasted as the beams hit the empty dance floor.
But just as I was beginning to write off the disco carriage as a failure, a couple entered the carriage, soon followed by a group of friends, and then another group. The place started filling up, the atmosphere building and soon it was nicely full.
The DJ’ played a lot of Austrian après ski stuff – some of it horrendous – with a bit of ABBA and 70s disco thrown in for relief. What impressed was not the music, but the vibe. People were really friendly, everyone smiling and it was easy to get into conversation with fellow travellers. Indeed, by about 10pm the entire disco bar was doing the conga. If the ghost of Russ Abbott had suddenly appeared, I wouldn’t have been surprised. We stayed till nearly midnight (the bar shuts at 12:30), smiling and chuckling all the way back to our couchette.
The thing about night trains is that some people sleep better than others, especially the first time. The gentle rocking of the train certainly helps, but in an unfamiliar environment you are unlikely to get the deepest sleep.
At 7am, we woke to peer out the window at a scenic landscape — blanketed in white by an overnight snowfall. Thirty minutes later, we were clambering out at Wörgl station, just 20 minutes by taxi from our destination, the ski resort of Hopfgarten, one of the villages in the massive SkiWelt.
At Wörgl, the Alpen Express splits, heading towards Bludenz in one direction and Bischofhofen in the other. The train calls at a real ‘who’s who’ of Austrian resorts such as Kitzbühel, St Anton and Zell am See.
The Skiwelt, however, is the first ski area accessed by trains heading south from Germany into the Tirol, and it’s vast and impressive. The terrain has 284km of interlinked runs, encompassing the resorts of Soll, Ellmau and Itter, too. The same morning we’d arrived by train, we found ourselves carving on quiet slopes, past trees heaving under the weight of the dump of snow. You can go for hours and hours here never needing to ski the same run twice.
The mountain restaurants are something to write home about, too. At the top of Hohe Salve, the Gipfelalm actually rotates like a spit-roast chicken through 360 degrees through the course of a meal. And the views over the Wilderkaiser mountain range are some of the finest vistas in the Alps.
And the Kaiser Lounge, above Ellmau, is another great choice, with a diverse menu and cheese dumplings that will power your afternoon skiing — as long as you can prise yourself away from your seat. In Söll, after another epic day on the slopes, the friendly après-ski atmosphere at the Moonlight Bar reminded us of the good times on the Alpen Express. It felt as if Austria’s ski slopes had become a whole lot closer.
Daniel’s group stayed at the Hohe Salve Sportresort hotel.
Use the Alpen Express website to book your journeys, including the Eurostar to Amsterdam, or Eurostar and ICE to Cologne, where the Alpen Express also calls. Independent guidance on how to travel to ski resorts by train is available at www.snowcarbon.co.uk (Daniel’s website).
Off peak, prices start at £230 from London to Austria return via Amsterdam or £220 return via Cologne, with a place in six-berth couchette on the Alpen Express.