Austrian ski secret too good to keep

All last summer, friends commented on the rainbow-colored banner, pinned up on my bulletin board, that asks, "Wedelst Du auch in Ischgl?" Ski enthusiasts, even friends who are devotees of European slopes, would take a second look and ask, "You wedeled where?m What in the world is Ischgl?"

At first, I just answered with a sphinxlike smile of nostalgia, reluctant to let out the secret, little known to Americans, of a vast range of rugged peaks and snow bowls in the Austrian Tyrol, which dwarfs many other, better-known skiing meccas.

Its attitude practically guarantees good conditions when other European resorts have spotty snow, and there is marvelous spring skiing long after Kitzbuhel or Innsbruck have gone slushy. It's a place where you can ski down one valley, already high in the mountains above the tiny town called Ischgl, take another lift up the opposite slope, and plummet down a shimmering snow bowl -- in Switzerland. (No passport is needed, just a handful of Swiss francs for lunch at the bottom of the bowl).

But it's time to share this delightful "secret"; it would be almost cruel not to, judging by the long faces on the skiers in many resorts this season as they skid over ice and rocks.

Ischgl is a medieval town gone modern, but gracefully so. It lies in the Paznaun Valley on one of the most beautiful Alpine roads in Europe. It was founded, centuries ago, as a village perched on a small island in a glacial lake; the lake was drained to create farmlands, and cows graze there even today. The bustling town is still perched high on the hilltop that gave it its name: Ischgl, meaning island. Cows still walk home to their barns in the present town , which is sprouting modern ski chalets and inns, and skiers rub shoulders with native families, now prosperous land developers, as well.

All this gives the town a warm, village atmosphere, rather than the aura of one big ski boutique. On an average winter morning, a stream of skiers clumps down the sloping, crooked side streets to the cable-car terminal at the foot of the mountain, while black- shawled women and bewhiskered Tyrolean men labor up a steep path toward the graceful spires church that dominates the island-hill. As a family's private service procession went past early one morning, skiers stood respectfully aside, some even taking off their ski caps. Down another side street, a farmer's goat leaned its head comically out of a hole cut in the barn wall, nibbling at a pile of grain in a trough below.

The accommodations range from quaint to modern. More than 3,000 beds are available for visitors in inns, Gasthauser, pensions, and even in private homes, and more are being added each year. Prices are reasonable, with some attractice , simple inns and hotels running as low as $20 to $30 a day even in high season. Entertainment ranges from folksy Tyrolean bands and enthusiastic polka dancing, popular with local valley people, to sophisticated discotheques (also popular with local citizens). There is also skating, tobogganing, sleigh riding, and cross-country skiing. Swimming pools and saunas are available at some hotels, and there are public pools as well.

Skiing has become the family business for this town, and many local residents are getting into the act. But Kurt Eberl, head of the tourist bureau in Ischgl and president of the valley's development corporation, emphasizes that the planning board is moving carefully, as the area's popularity grows. He and his neighbors want the valley to keep its distinctive charm, not become suburbanized sprawl of ski lodgings.

The Olympian mountain range itself can accommodate more and more skiers, as new lift lines are added, without seeming crowded; that's the beauty of European skiing, magnified here. There was occasionally a wait in lift lines (it was late in spring, after a sparse year for European snow in general, and Ischgl was one of the new places that still had excellent conditions). But once up the Idalp and soaring through light, fluffy snow -- even deep powder on some trails -- you could be alone for minutes at a time.

And Mr. Eberl, acting as trail guide just then, was his country's own best advocate. Poised at the top of the slope, stamping in anticipation of another swooping run, he shouted to us, "Diese ist mein Weld!" ("This is my world!"), in sheer unself-conscious high spirits, and then was gone again, kicking up a sheet of sparkling crystals.

Half an hour late we took another lift to the Idioch, even higher, and over the crest was still another endless vista of white peaks -- Switzerland. Then we were flying down a wall of snow, with the ridges of Greitspitz and Flimspitz, 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet) high, to our right and left, plummeting to the bottom of this snow-bowl valley (still 2,300 meters high) and a destination of a sunny lunch-station terrace, where we sat in shirt sleeves, munching Swiss bread , sausage, cheese, and chocolate. You can ski all sides of the snow bowl, sampling packed powder, more fluff in the ravines, and grainy corn snow on other slopes, depending on various slopes' exposure to wind and sun.

Ischgl offers vacation package rates and various special rates for a few days , weeks, or the whole season. A week's ski ticket in high season runs 1,140 Austrian schillings (about $94, depending on the current strength of the dollar) , or $13.50 a day, which compares favorably with other areas. Off-season, a week's ticket runs about $80, or just over $11 a day. Not bad for Mt. Olympus.

The conditions were still alluring when we went off to sample another plum of an Austrian skiing experience -- the dramatic Kitsteinhorn Glacier, soaring 3, 204 meters in the Kaprun region, more toward the center of Austria. there, one takes a cog railway train up through a tunnel bored through the rock face of the mountain, then a gondola lift up the knife edge of the peak. A spooky, trundling walk through another short tunnel brings you to a windy lodge, where -- with a sharp intake of breath on your part -- all of Austria seems to lie spread out below you. You lean out over the knife-edged ridge of the peak and see that the trail drops down along the glacier for several hundred precipitous meters to the wider acres of snow below, the glacier spreading out on the mountain's shoulder. You close your eyes, push off -- and take flight.

But all this is to divert you from the secret Elysian Fields above the medieval island, the modern village of Ischgl. I've exhausted my magnanimous streak; any more details will have to come from the Austrian Tourist Board.

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