Less than an hour from cosmopolitan Innsbruck, in a rustic section of the Tirol, sits one of Europe's rising ski regions. Little known by Americans, the Zillertal Alps are popular with young Europeans for their epic skiing, casual attitude and because the lodging and dining is less costly than at better-known Austrian resorts. Here the residents smile and say hello with genuine warmth, and hoteliers understand the art of providing fine service to visitors, even if you're not staying in a five-star hotel.
Of the dozen small villages in the region, Mayrhofen is the largest, the liveliest and the ideal homebase for visiting skiers. It's located at the south end of the 18.6-mile-long Ziller Valley, and four gorge-like upland valleys fan out from there. Strolling along the town's streets, you'll pass a store window bedecked with Loden coats and lederhosen (for tourists) next to one filled with housewares (for locals). Aromas of century-old dishes such as milk soup, Kasspatzln and other Austrian fare fill the streets at lunchtime. Take a seat at a rough table in a 400-year-old house, and you'll feel downright local. But then while sweating in the sauna or relaxing on a lounge chair at the contemporary Swimming Paradise Center, the air is filled with a babel of various languages. Mayrhofen¿indeed the entire Zillertal region¿is tourist-friendly, but not created for tourists.
With a Zillertaler Super Skipass, you can ski all of the 147 lifts in the region and take any of the connecting buses or trains. Skiers often start the day in one village and take a bus home from another. You can meander from one mountain peak to another on long and open slopes, with stops to sunbathe at mountaintop restaurants. The villages of Mayrhofen, Finkenberg and Schwendau connect via 30 lifts, forming one vast skiable area. While exploring it, stop for lunch at Josef's Bio Hutte near the DSB Tappenalm lift. At the relic of a cabin, skiers sit at picnic tables and fuel up on carbo-heavy rostkartoffln, a delicious combination of potatoes, eggs and spices. While this ski complex alone could eat up days of your vacation, there are two other not-to-miss sections of mountainside in the valley.
The region's biggest complex is the Zillertal Arena, which links the small villages of Zell am Ziller (four miles from Mayrhofen by bus), Gerlos and Konigsleiten. Here, 42 lifts access terrain that encompasses above-treeline skiing, long runs to remote lifts, steep chutes and the boarders' haven by Gerlos, where rock-and-roll blares from trailside speakers. The route from Zell am Ziller to Gerlos includes a cruiser through the Wilde Krimml, a ruggedly beautiful wilderness area. You can stick to the groomed trail, or forge your own way to hike-to cliffs with steep chutes.
Then there is the Hintertux glacier, best experienced on a clear day. While it's primarily intermediate terrain up top, the eye-widening view of the ice-tipped Dolomite mountains is worth the trip alone. Sitting in a deck chair set on a mountaintop snowbank, watch the sun's rays outline a collage of snow-covered peaks and wind-scoured rock slabs.