One moment you’re driving east from Innsbruck along the busy Inn Valley through the heart of the Austrian Tirol – and then you take a right-hand turn off the autobahn. Immediately ahead of you, set in the face of a towering wall of rock, suddenly looms the entrance to a tunnel.
This is no ordinary tunnel. It’s a magic tunnel.
It takes only about two or three minutes to drive through it – but when you emerge at the other end you are in a world of wonder and delight. You are in the Zillertal, a valley that is packed to the brim with fabulous ski resorts and more than 500 kilometres of runs and 180 lifts.
Signs bearing images of skiers and ski-lifts point this way and that. Fugen, Hochfugen and Kaltenbach as you enter the valley, Hippach and Mayrhofen straight ahead, with Finkenberg and Lanersbach further on as the road winds up to the Hintertux glacier. In all the excitement it would be easy to pass the little town of Zell am Ziller and barely notice it. This would be a mistake. For Zell is at the centre of the largest network of slopes in the valley, the Zillertal Arena.
It’s a surprise to many that it is more extensive than Mayrhofen, which has a higher profile name among Brits. And Zell is actually a larger town than Mayrhofen, with a purposeful working atmosphere.
I didn’t make the mistake of passing by, and instead made a beeline for the Posthotel, a boutique, luxurious designer haven of expansive high-tech rooms and gourmet food (and a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World). Rooms at the front overlook the Thomas the Tank Engine narrow gauge railway that runs for 32 kilometres along the valley from Jenbach to Mayrhofen, those at the back have views to the ski slopes. Some rooms stretch from front to back and have views of both. As mine did.
The ski-bus stops right outside the hotel and the two gondolas that soar up to the heart of the Zillertal Arena are a three-minute ride away.
The Zillertal Arena was created at the start of this century by linking the slopes of Zell with those of the resorts of Gerlos and Konigsleiten.
Exploring the linked area gives a proper sense of going on a journey of discovery on skis or board. The route from Zell to Gerlos for example passes over several peaks, and has a wild, back-of-beyond feel. And while the surroundings feel adventurous, the slopes are well within the compass of intermediates.
Once at Gerlos you realise just how much there is to the Zillertal Arena. There are wide sunny slopes above the village on the Zell side. Gerlos straddles the road that leads up to the Gerlos Pass, and on to the famous and dramatic Krimml waterfalls. On the far side of Gerlos, on partly-wooded slopes above a dam, are the somewhat steeper runs of Konigsleiten in Pinzgau. The full Arena tour takes you, at its furthest extent, to Hochkrimml.
This is all a landscape of stunning spectacle and drama. And even at the start of the season the marked runs were in excellent shape – we even had a bluebird day of wall-to-wall sunshine with a modicum of new snow thrown in for good measure.
It comes as a surprise to many that the Zillertal Arena, served by 52 lifts, shades the Mayrhofen-Lanersbach area in size – albeit with 143 kilometres of runs to 142. Not that it matters either way, because all the resorts in the Ziller Valley are easily reached from the centrally-located Zell – from Fugen, Hochfugen and Kaltenbach to the Hintertux glacier at its head, which has skiing 365 days a year.
We tried out the brand new Stuanmandl gondola, designed to speed the link back to Zell from Gerlos. By the beginning of next season a further new gondola will streamline the connection entirely, replacing a very long, two-stage dog-leg chair notorious for chilly experiences. And one of the best things about the fabulous Zillertal Arena – it’s under an hour from Innsbruck Airport (served by British Airways and EasyJet) with no twisting mountain roads to contend with. Just keep an eye out for the Magic Tunnel.
Rob got his ski rental from the excellent Intersport Strasser shop right beside the Rosenalmbahn gondola station. Intersport are happy to let you switch skis as often as you like during your stay, either to suit snow conditions or just to try different models.
Browse Rob Freeman’s other ski blogs and resort features here.