Saalfelden Leogang: On the Saalbach Hinterglemm Ski Circus
By William C. Triplett
Even for the impatient, some things are worth waiting for. I had a group ski trip to Austria scheduled for late March in 2020. Just weeks before I was to go, some weird virus goes on a global rampage, making more than a few countries close their borders and a lot of people cancel any plans that put them anywhere near the radius of a human exhale. The trip pushed back to December, and then again into 2021, and when it still didn’t happen – and I doubted it ever would – the trip was back on for March 2022. Fourth time lucky!
One morning last winter, I finally arrived in Saalfelden Leogang in the province of Salzburg. Any disappointment I’d been feeling for two years utterly disappeared amid the beauty of an alpine village that, as I’ve found at other resorts in Austria, is a stylish mix of old and new. Traditional chalet-style wooden buildings nestle comfortably amid modern structures of steel and glass, much of it slope-side, with a picturesque river – the Leoganger Ache – flowing through town, and all of it ringed with those fabled alps.
I had come a couple days ahead of the rest of the group so that I could do some exploring on my own. Or rather, relaxing and skiing on my own. I took advantage of Leogang’s signature emphasis on wellness – people come here to unwind and recover from busy lives as much as to schuss. Indoor pools, outdoor thermal pools, saunas, massages, yoga rooms, quiet rooms as well as full spa services are available in many hotels. A nap, a quick massage, and a couple gentle laps in the heated infinity pool surrounded by snowbanks eased my case of jetlag pretty well.
The next morning, under a cloudless blue sky, I was on an eight-seater gondola taking me to other lifts that would connect me to the Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn, a 270-kilometer (168 miles) network of pistes catering to all levels of ability, though intermediates definitely have the most to choose from. Still, expert runs add up to a respectable 18 kilometers, and they’re challenging enough to play host to World Cup ski races.
Interestingly, though, intermediate trails (marked red) are definitely steeper and tighter at times than their counterparts at many other resorts. Ditto the blues – easy trails. I found this out fairly quickly when I hit a blue piste for a simple shake-out run and had to do noticeably more work than I’d expected. Intermediates looking to up their game couldn’t do much better than coming here. And if you’re a cross-country skier, the area has some 38 kilometers of trails available.
The mercury was at about 30. I stayed in the Steinbergbahn area long enough to get a feel for the hard-pack, and just about then a slight crowd started to build. I moved deeper into the circus and discovered a lot of wide boulevards of corduroy, largely empty and offering some stunning vistas of the surrounding alps. After several runs off Greater Asitz mountain, which overlooks Leogang, I stopped at one of the roughly 60 huts that that can be found throughout the ski circus. It was about 11:30, and the sun-bathed terrace overlooking a long stretch of a big groomer only had a few people seated.
I sat at a bench, looked at the menu, and saw that only cash was accepted. I dug into all my pockets and found I had just enough to buy a glass of Gruner Veltliner. Perfect prelude to lunch, I thought, rationalizing a glass a wine before it’s even noontime.
I lounged in the sun, taking sips between glimpses of skiers whisking by below. Later, I skied to another hut that took credit cards, had a delicious, freshly made cheese dumpling along with a mixed salad, and thought: For an opening day, I’ve had plenty of fun. Besides, I was looking forward to another dip in the infinity pool. I headed on down a seemingly endless loping trail that took me back to the start of the gondola I’d been on that morning.
The following day, the rest of the group arrived, and, fronted by a guide, we ventured deep into the ski circus. I was impressed by an eight-seater chair until I later rode a ten-seater. Both moved quickly. On the lifts, it looked like an endless snowscape in every direction, streaked with trails, dotted with huts and restaurants and the occasional farm. There was even a schnaps distillery. Again, the bluebird skies returned, and it didn’t take long to feel happily lost in ski-wonderland. Most of us found plenty to work with on the blue and red trails, while others took on the black runs. A woman in our group had a distance tracker; by the time we called it a day, we had covered 37 kilometers.
In the afternoon, though, temps pushed above 40 degrees, and, with the brilliant sunshine, the snow on the southern facing slopes started churning into mashed potatoes. Given that most of the skiing here is below 6,600 feet and we were effectively into spring, it just comes with the territory. But the north-facing slopes were holding up well. I personally don’t hold up well in mashed potatoes, so I found as many north slopes as possible. (I later found out that in the middle of winter when temperatures and snow are more reliable, this is hardly an issue.)
In the following days, it was easy – and pleasant – enough for me to ski the mornings when conditions were excellent and then, as things softened up in the afternoon, to head back down for some wellness. But not before lunch on the mountain. And lunch on the mountain can be a simple meal or, if you’re so inclined, a gourmet experience. One day we were indeed so inclined, and found ourselves at Wieseralm restaurant, eating oysters on the half-shell and drinking champagne just for starters and then proceeding to even finer dining for the next two hours.
Leogang has its share of four-star accommodations, and I managed to experience two hotels – first at the Salzburger Hof during my couple days flying solo, and then several nights at Die Riederalm, just short walk away, where all of us bunked. Both had a casual, understated elegance that was warm and welcoming. At both, I indulged in the sauna as well as the thermal pools and also spent an hour or so one afternoon robed in the grotto catching up on some reading with a cup of hot tea.
Dining was impressive at both, with two menus offering various selections each night, one a standard menu, the other vegetarian. Die Riederalm also featured a gourmet restaurant led by a chef who was recently awarded three toques from Gault Millau and is a member of the Jeunes Restaurateurs d’Europe. The one dinner we had there was extraordinary: nine courses, each presented imaginatively – some even theatrically – and everything from regional sources. We also had an array of Austrian wines, the best of which, if you love wine but have never tried them, are a must.
Another restaurant we went to – Priesteregg – is also a star on the quite active local culinary scene. This mountain chalet with its wooden interior and rustic atmosphere and family owners was full of alpine down-homey-ness. We sat on cushioned chairs and benches around a sort of picnic table as the servers brought fresh ingredients that, if you wanted, you could cook yourself on burners at the table. Or, like me, you could order smoked trout (from a nearby stream, of course) and leave the cooking to others.
I’ve had the good fortune to ski maybe a half-dozen or more resorts in Austria and several others in Switzerland, Germany and France. There are tons more I haven’t skied, of course, but even talking with skiers who live in Europe and who’ve been all over, the Saalfelden Hinterglemm ski circus is special, particularly when you add up everything that goes with it – the wellness, the dining, even the site-seeing if you want. It’s the proverbial whole that’s far greater than the sum of its parts, and if that’s not a skiing experience worth waiting for, I don’t know what is.
(Booking advice: January and February tend to have the best conditions, but if you can move quickly, you might try waiting until whenever the immediate forecast looks ideal and book then.)
William C. Triplett is a playwright and the former DC bureau chief for Variety. Triplett has written about various destinations, from Scotland’s Inverness and Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon and the Beatles’ old haunts in Hamburg. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Baltimore Sun, and Capital Style.