The first thing people mention when they talk about St. Anton is the rowdy après-ski scene. "Rowdy in Austria's top ski resort means spending three to six hours with 1,000 of your fellow skiers at a standing-room-only outdoor bar that's not quite at the bottom of the mountain, tossing back Austrian beer followed by fruity schnapps while singing loudly to thumping Euro disco hits. While it's true that this is a signature St. Anton experience, it's also true that crooning loudly to a techno version of John Denver's "Country Roads" with your new British and German best friends is only a fraction of the St. Anton story - and not an entirely representative one at that.
Skiing from village to village among the treeless expanses of the high Alps is nearer to the essence of the Arlberg zeitgeist. Hiring an Austrian ski instructor to guide you around the expanses goes to its very heart: St. Anton is home to the world's first ski school, opened in 1921. Stopping midday to eat gnocchi-like spà¤tzle or sweet, saucy Kaiserschmarrn, riding up an ultra-modern, heated, eight-seat chairlift, dropping down into a hamlet where snowbanks touch the rooftops of pastel-colored buildings and finally gliding to the back door of your small, family-run inn - this is classic St. Anton. Whether you're sleeping in a 270-year-old farmhouse or a steel-and-glass slopeside lodge, the arc of the day is much the same. People talk of it as a place to party, but at its core, St. Anton is a place to ski.
St. Anton is the epicenter of a varied, interconnected ski area that includes St. Christoph, Lech, Zürs, the Stuben Glacier, St. Jakob and more, known as the Arlberg. The Arlberg claims a startling amount of terrain - nine times as much as Vail. The diversity enables skiers of different sensibilities to find what they like, from Lech's impeccably groomed intermediate boulevards to Rendl's trees to St. Anton proper's big moguls or the wide-open spaces of Kapall and Valluga.
Most skiers stick to the region's 211 miles of trails, taking buses to more far-flung ski centers like tony Lech and Zürs, where the slopes are easier to ski and often less crowded. But adventurers willing to hire mountain guides can cover the same ground entirely on skis, skidding carefully off the 9,222-foot summit of Valluga (the region's highest lift-served point) then bounding down big mountain faces before gliding through the serene white spaces of the Austrian backcountry, eventually emerging onto the refined slopes of Zürs. Such guided ski safaris are a signature specialty of the Arlberg region, well within the reach of confident intermediates and above.
Off the slopes, most folks retreat to their inn's "wellness centre, where going au naturel in the diverse array of co-ed saunas and steam rooms is expected. (Even teeny bikinis are not allowed.) Then it's time for a hearty Austrian dinner, usually eaten at your hotel or chalet, at the same assigned table where you eat breakfast and dinner all week. (The typical way to visit St. Anton is to come for a full week - Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday - and to take breakfast and dinner at the hotel.) Those craving a little more tabletop dancing head back out, but many are too tired from all that skiing and choose instead to sip nightcaps in their hotel's bar before slipping under the immaculate white down comforters that cover virtually every Tyrolean bed.
PLANNING THE PERFECT TRIP TO ST. ANTON
This historic Austrian village turned world-class ski resort mixes Tyrolean tradition with forward-thinking innovation. More than 9,000 guest beds are divided among 500 chalets, inns and hotels, most of which are family run. Amenities are geared to skiers (as opposed to nonskiing shoppers), yet the dining scene is rich enough that cosmopolitan foodies who've booked their lodgings à la carte can try a different great restaurant each night of the week.
St. Anton is best for confident intermediates and above. It's wise to hire an instructor as a tour guide for the first day or two, but choose a certified mountain guide if you plan to head off-piste - even slightly off-piste (skischool-arlberg.com).
Ski the north face of Valluga then glide through the wilds to the refined slopes of Zürs with guide Andy Vronak (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Aparthotel Anton, a chic postmodern slopeside lodge (from $196, hotelanton.com); Himmlhof, a boutique hotel in the center of town (from $98, himmlhof.com); Hotel Post, an elegant full-service classic (from $125, hotel-post.co.at); Hotel Schwarzer Adler, for historic slopeside luxury (from $142, schwarzeradler.com). Prices are per person and include breakfast.
On Mountain: Galzig Restaurant, for a two-hour gourmet Tyrolean lunch; Hospiz Alm, famous for its ribs, wine cellar and slopeside outdoor deck scene.
In Town: Museum Restaurant, gourmet Tyrolean in a historic building that's also the ski museum; ben.venuto, open-kitchen Tyrolean fusion in a contemporary steel-and-glass space.
MooserWirt; Krazy Kanguruh; Hotel Post; Anton
The spring skiing here is excellent; book a trip for late March or early April.
Fly to Zurich and take a direct train to St. Anton. The two-and-a-half hour trip departs four times daily. Local bus access is included with your lift ticket.