Amazing ski feats need amazing footwear, discovers Gill Martin
SKIING sums up heavenly visions of fresh crisp mountain air, brilliant blue skies, glinting snowflakes, the aroma of pine trees... handsome instructors. On the downside there's the boot room, a hellish place where each day must begin as you squeeze socked feet into creaky, unforgiving footwear that seems to have shrunk overnight.
The Austrians love their meat, from veal escalopes to goulash soups. How the waiting staff squeeze into their laced-up dirndl dresses and lederhosen is a mystery of the mountains
If ever a word summed up too many of these torture chambers it would be Stygian: dark and dim, dank and shadowy not to mention smelly with the odour of a thousand sweaty feet. Unfailingly grumpy assistants' scowls suggest they'd much rather be out boarding than dealing with demanding clients trying to force themselves into hire boots.
So to discover a fragrant palace of a ski hire shop which could pass as an art gallery, dripping with enormous chandeliers, sheepskin throws over plush sofas, smiling assistants treating you like Cinderella looking for the perfect fit is my idea of paradise.
Welcome to the Strolz shop, jewel in the crown of Princess Diana's favourite resort of Lech in the Austrian Alps. Glass lifts whisk you between floors (no need to clump up and down stairs) where gleaming rows of top of the range, colourful and new(ish) boots await fitting by helpful staff for whom nothing is too much trouble.
No wonder this is the chosen resort for royals from Holland and Spain, Jordan and Monaco and a smattering of proper celebs, A-listers such as Claudia Schiffer. They love Lech with its picturesque river, onion dome churches and traditional architecture, horse-drawn carriages and array of tempting shops.
This is a beautiful town for beautiful people with beautiful bank balances who could afford the one and a half million euro artwork on the walls of the Strolz shop.
Ticking none of the above boxes but boasting comfortable shiny boots, I was raring to have a ball on the welcoming slopes of the Arlberg, cradle of Alpine skiing and now bigger and better than ever.
Thanks to the new 45 million Euro cableway and lifts all the resorts on the Arlberg can be reached on skis, making it the largest ski area in Austria and among the world's Big Five.
It took five years for these wonders of technology to get the go-ahead, but it's worth the wait. Gone are the tedious and polluting bus rides of the past now that the lifts take the strain to open up an impressive 305 kms of continuous skiing throughout Zürs – Fergie's favourite – Lech and St Anton.
Snow cannons spraying artificial snow provided enough cover for us to enjoy skiing under the eagle eye of our Croatian instructor, dubbed Eddie the Eager for his enthusiasm as he showed off his winter 'office,' spectacular jagged mountains of the Tirol and Arlberg.
His mission: to transform a group of so-so skiers with bad habits into a slick team of so-much-better skiers. And decked out in our super smart Strolz equipment we certainly looked the part.
The joy of whooshing down immaculately groomed and flattering slopes – thanks to massive piste bashers that turn the snow surface to corduroy – was matched by delight at finding cosy mountain restaurants. Calorie counting went to hell as we downed hot chocolate and rum and whipped cream for elevenses and huge helpings of Tiroler gröstl, a carb-heavy meal of fried potatoes with black pudding and bacon for lunch.
Vegetarians beware: the Austrians love their meat, from veal escalopes to goulash soups. How the waiting staff squeeze into their laced-up dirndl dresses and lederhosen is a mystery of the mountains.
Posh nosh, oysters and champagne, are on offer at a price and attract a sprinkling of the rich and famous. The Schlegelkopf bar and restaurant, by the lift of the same name, offers surprising Asian cuisine and fine wines.
But my favourite was the more modest Hus 8 in the village. It looks like a gingerbread house, and boasts a warren of tiny dining rooms where cheese soup, fondues and apple strudel are not to be missed.
Our four star chalet atmosphere hotel was no slouch on the food front. We feasted on energy-boosting breakfasts and comforting afternoon teas at the four star Hotel Theodul, newly acquired by UK based tour operator VIP (www.vip-chalets.com). And when we weren't refuelling we relaxed and splashed in spa heaven.
And each morning we luxuriated in the comforts of the Strolz boot room.
VIP ski vacations start from €1,106, including flights ex London Gatwick with a reduction on holiday price for individual travel, private transfers can be arranged. VIP packages include transfer, en suite half board, daily afternoon tea, gourmet dinners at Hotel Theodul in Lech and VIP dedicated chalet service assistance (www.vip-chalets.com). Six day area lift pass €260; ski hire €147, boots €72 from www.strolz.at