The Home Slopes of an Austrian Ski Legend
Whether you want to be taken out on the slopes by local Olympic legend Franz Klammer or snow shoe on untouched trails, Bad Kleinkirchheim is a gem of a resort
Article by Mark Nicholls
Carinthia has a noble, almost legendary, resonance to it. The origins of the name – the English translation for the southern Austrian state of Kärnten – remain uncertain but what is undisputed is its renown as the country’s sunniest state. As we arrived in the resort of Bad Kleinkirchheim for a spot of pre-Christmas skiing, the sun – as expected – was high in the clear blue sky.
Set in the Nockberge Mountains, Bad Kleinkirchheim is certainly home for one ski legend, Franz Klammer. The feted 1976 Olympic downhill champion remains a strong ambassador for the region and regularly leads early morning ski sessions where experienced skiers can get to know the “Kärnten – Franz Klammer”, the World Cup slope which carries his name, and pick up a few tips and anecdotes along the way.
I arrived in Austria’s southernmost state amid the Nockberge Mountains in mid-December with my daughter Sarah to find a good helping of snow on the ground, even though it was right at the start of the season. The slopes on the St Oswald side were already in pretty good shape, with the pistes above Bad Kleinkirchheim (BKK) opening in the days before Christmas for a season that runs through until early April. Easily accessible with a good lift system and a family focus, we spent the days skiing blacks, reds and blues on the St Oswald side, taking the Biosphärenparkbahn Brunnach valley station lift and crossing to Spitzeck and Wiesenernock – all at 1,900m-plus, while across the valley, the Kaiserburgbahn will take you up a little higher on the BKK side to the Kaiserburg at 2,055 metres above sea level.
In total the resort has 103 kilometres of skiing supported with 24 lift systems, including variations covering all levels of difficulty, with 18km of easy pistes, 77km of intermediate, and 8km of black runs.
Our guide, ski instructor Markus Reicher, explained: “What is so appealing about Bad Kleinkirchheim is that it is very much a family area – we have everything for beginners, intermediates and more advanced skiers. “The runs are mostly blue and red, though we have blacks and off-piste areas, and there are chill-out zones where you can enjoy the sunshine at the top of a lift and laze in a deckchair, or when it is cold there are small huts that you can go into to warm up.”
For me, having upgraded my ski attire, the early season runs offered the opportunity to try out my new ski jacket and ski trousers from sports retailer Decathlon. I’d become the proud owner of a beautiful blue Wed’ze Ski-P 900 Men’s Piste Ski Jacket (£139.99) to go with my Wed’ze Ski-P PA 900 Men’s Downhill Ski Trousers (£79.99), which on a pleasantly warm morning offered breathability with inside leg ventilation zips but was cut in such a way that enable free movement on the slopes. The polyester and elasthane fabric of the trousers feature zipped ankles and a fleece lining for warmth, whilst offering protection from windy weather conditions. The trousers also wick away perspiration to maintain a comfortable temperature. All very practical.
Personally speaking, I’m a long-standing fan of skiing in Austria: it’s always competitively priced, the resorts are varied and offer a range of runs for all standards of skier and the accommodation is first class and much of that is down to the fact that many of the hotels are family run with a natural alpine ambience, good food and comfortable rooms.
And the four-star Hotel Kolmhof in the centre of BKK where we stayed was no exception. The resort is easy to reach from the UK: easyJet flies into the regional capital Klagenfurt from London Gatwick on Wednesdays and Saturdays with a 50km transfer to the slope. In addition, there are regular flights from several other UK airports to Salzburg, which is about two hours’ drive away.
Food is always a big factor in Austria with good restaurants in the resort, plus bars for a spot of apres-ski, and more than 20 lodges on the mountains offering a range of food including Carinthian specialities, such as the Karntner Kasnudeln (large ravioli stuffed with cheese).
Selected lodges offer special ski food menus throughout the winter for connoisseurs and while Sarah and I love a bowl of goulash soup when in the mountains, the location of Carinthia close to Slovenia and the Italian boarder in southern Austria also sees a somewhat Mediterranean feel filter through into the cuisine. And I for one have no objection to that!
But as not everyone loves to ski all day, there are spa options and the apres-ski spa is something the Austrians do so well.
Most hotels have a wellness area but if you are feeling a little more adventurous, then there is the Thermal Römerbad, set over 12,000 square metres and three floors with an impressive and range of therapeutic saunas and pools. The “Romanum” lower floor has a real Roman flair; the “Noricum” at the second level reflects the countryside of the gentle Nockberge mountains, with Swiss pine logs and herbal fragrances in the thermal landscape; while the third level, “Maximum”, offers a comprehensive sauna world with views of the surrounding mountains.
Set at the foot of the Klammer World Cup downhill slope, you can swim indoors, or head outdoors and bathe in the warmth of the pool while watching skiers on the final stages of their runs down from Strohsack. Close by the Hotel Kolmhof is the St Katherein Spa, with its various pools and saunas and more of a family ambience and an 86m long water slide.
There’s so much else to do as well during a winter break, especially if not all members of the family are skiers.
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Sarah and I started with a pony and trap tour of BKK one afternoon, and then later in our stay teamed up with ski school boss Wolfgang Kreiner who led us on a wonderful three-hour snow shoe tour through deep, fresh snow in the Nockberge Mountains following trails high above BKK. The route took us through the trees above Bad Kleinkirchheim on a path that sits between 1,700 – 2,000m above sea level, rising and falling along the way. As you take the route – typically about 6km – Wolfgang points out locations of interest and the views and also spots animal tracks that can be typically fox, deer or bird life and if you are lucky you’ll see some of the larger beasts stalking across the mountainside. And as it was Christmas, we saw eight reindeer follow a contour.Snow shoeing is great exercise and offers a different perspective of the ski environ and the chance to enjoy the thrill of wading through knee-high fresh snow.
It’s not all downhill skiing either – there’s plenty of tracks to have a go at cross country skiing, experience night skiing, the opportunity for toboggan runs, winter hiking, ice skating on the nearby Lake Brennsee, and new for this year, snow tubing.