LECH, Austria — Cable cars and chairlifts stitch paths to most of the snow-white summits you can see from the center of Lech. Serious skiing is this village's reason for being.
To get here, follow Princess Caroline of Monaco, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands or Charles, Prince of Wales, through the avalanche-proof tunnels of Austria's Arlberg region. Lech is a regular stop on the winter itineraries of the royal families.
I signed up for ski school the day I got here. I'm no novice, but on a terrain this large a ski instructor makes a great tour guide.
The area contains 185 kilometers of piste , the European term for ski runs. Groomed slopes spread from Lech through the nearby towns of Zurs, Zug and St. Anton.
Nine people were in my ski group. Pity me: All were commoners. One woman, however, was suffering from a serious case of princess envy; she had a different ski suit for every day of the week.
Her trendy garb was in stark contrast to the village. The architecture here is strictly Hansel and Gretel--chalets with peaked roofs and carved balconies, nothing higher than four stories.
Our instructor, Beatte Schneider, was a striking brunette, fluent in English. "So! First we make a nice proper line! Then we will go!"
The mountains around Lech rise to 8,530 feet; trees are virtually nonexistent.
Schneider took us over every possible slope condition on the descent (four miles) from the top of the Rufikopf cable car (7,637 feet) to nearby Zurs.
At a mountain restaurant on the way, Schneider ordered cheese strudel with vanilla sauce. When in Lech do as the Lech veterans do; this dessert was sweet enough to turn Attila the Hun into Mother Teresa.
We arrived in Zurs via the Hexenboden (Witch's Floor) piste , which lived up to its name. To return, we followed a different run, the Madlochjoch, and a variety of the 69 lifts that connect Lech, Zurs and the suburbs of Zug and Oberlech.
Oberlech is like a giant reflector spotted with T-shirted sunbathers. It basks on a southern slope, a steep 2,300 feet above the center of Lech.
Early Bird Gets a Seat
"If we arrive just a bit before noon we are guaranteed a seat on a terrace," said Schneider.
If you stay at one of the 10 hotels in Oberlech, you'll be able to ski from the moment you leave the lobby. After dark, public transport to downtown Lech is by cable car, which runs long into the night.
Dining in Lech has a lot to do with hotels; between Lech and Oberlech there are only a handful of independent eateries. "Most Europeans book half-board--breakfast and dinner included," says Peter Burger, president of the Lech Tourist Board. "Americans are the wanderers. They like to try a different place every night."
Burger's grandfather established the family's four-star Hotel Berghof, which attracts a large American following. Lech, he says, has devised safeguards to maintain its storybook character.
"For an outsider to start a business here is almost impossible. Only members of the five or six original families are allowed to build hotels or restaurants."
Guy Ortlieb, a Frenchman who runs the Hotel Montana in Oberlech, is an exception to the rule; he married a local girl. Ortlieb's dining room is reputed to serve some of the best fish one can eat on an Alp.
In Lech anything that doesn't fit the Alpine character is discreetly hidden away. The tennis center is underground, as is the village's only parking garage; it's concealed below a 14th-Century church with an onion-domed spire.
Highest Peak in Area
Serious mogul jumpers test themselves on Mt. Valluga. At 9,135 feet, it's the highest peak in the area. The summit is close to Lech but the base is 12 miles away at the village of St. Anton.
Emigres from Aspen call it Stanton. To everyone else it's Saint Anton.
At 4 o'clock in the afternoon a loaded Howitzer won't keep people away from the Tannbergerhof Hotel. Skiers stand five thick next to the outdoor bar. The row of Porsches parked against the sidewalk is the only thing that keeps the crowd from spilling into the street.
"If you want to learn German," said Detleff, a member of my ski group, "the first thing you have to know is how to say the number nine."
"Why nine?" I asked.
"So you can order us nine vodka feige. "
Vodka feige is the most popular drink in town, not because of the way it tastes but rather the way it toasts.
You don't raise your glass; it stays on the table until you're ready to gulp. The vodka is garnished with a pickled fig (feige) on a swizzle stick.
Swallow the fig. Down the vodka. Break the swizzle stick and, quick, throw it back into your glass. Whew! Last one to finish buys the next round.
Two internationally renowned hotels are in the area. In Lech, the Gasthof Post features many rooms with canopied beds. Fruit, schnapps and cookies await you on the bureau.
Charming Alpine Pension