Even nonskiers have fun at Garmisch

Here is the ideal Alpine resort for laid-back skiers - I might even say for nonskiing ``skiers.'' Such a recommendation usually would suggest one of those spas with more gem"utlichkeit than mountain. But that is not the case at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

After all, this is the site of the 1936 Olympic winter games, of the 1978 World Skiing Championships, and of West Germany's highest mountain.

You can burrow deep inside the famous Zugspitze on what seems like a near-vertical rack railway until you emerge at Germany's highest hotel above 7.5 square kilometers of glacier playgrounds. (A second tunnel going directly to the slopes of the Zugspitze is to open this season.) Or you can ride a cable car to the very pinnacle of the craggy, 9,719-foot Zugspitze, where you must ride other cable cars down to start skiing.

And the Zugspitze is only one of six ski areas that ring Garmisch. Together, they offer some 68 miles of runs on vertical drops of as much as a mile (though not descended on one run). Cable cars and lifts total 52. Does this sound like a nonskier's paradise?

Ah, but those who have tested the charms of invitingly sophisticated Garmisch know what I mean.

To begin with, this long-time Bavarian oasis, only a long hour's drive south of Munich, lies in the heart of some of Germany's greatest sightseeing. The storybook castles of King Ludwig II, the serenely beautiful monastery of Ettal, the pastoral village of Oberammergau, site of probably the world's most famous Passion play - all are close by Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

True, these are summer attractions, but that is not the entire story.

To come upon the hushed Ettal cloaked in the mantle of softly falling snow, or to look out from Ludwig's bedroom at Linderhoff, only to see a cross-country skier striding across an arched bridge on one of the palace's lovely arbor walks - these are wintertime experiences that open a new appreciation of the mountains of Bavaria.

It is unfortunate that the recent hotel fire in Garmisch may have discouraged some skiers from experiencing this beauty.

And if you are a cross-country skier, to take that long prepared track that parallels the road down from Oberammergau is to immerse yourself in a snowcapped Richard Wagner opera landscape. What a site for a cross-country marathon, which is a major attraction every February!

Of course, it can be cold out in the Bavarian countryside in winter. But both the air and sights are stimulating and make the evening warmth of Garmisch that much more inviting.

The city itself, which is really two communities - Garmisch and Partenkirchen - has a special snow-clad urbane quality in winter. Shop windows are decorated with Christmas lights and filled with whatever is fashionable and expensive.

In February, the town's permanent population of 27,000 swells to 40,000, and most, if not all, of its 10,000 hotel and guest house beds become occupied by winter vacationers.

One reason is that there is so much to do, aside from skiing. Sleigh riding, ice skating, and Alpine curling at the Olympic Ice Stadium; swimming at the $10 million ``Alpsitz Wellenbad'' in a huge indoor pool, which has artificial waves, or in a heated outdoor pool; and, of course, shopping - these are all good for working up the necessary appetite to do justice to Bavarian food.

There is also tea and disco dancing across the street from the invitingly romantic Clausings Posthotel.

You must spend an evening at a premier Bavarian restuarant, and Partenkirchen's Gasthof Fraundorfer is the best. It has nightly folk dancing and perhaps the finest Bavarian food in the state.

For those who wish to end the evening at Garmisch's sedate new casino, remember this is one of the few places in the region that in winter requires coat and tie.

Other diversions aside, the skiing is not to be missed. Our first day was spent in and out of clouds and swirling snow as we blindly skied our way around the Alpspitz region.

At one point I looked up and there was the 1936 downhill course - steep as an elevator shaft and barely 12 skis wide. After almost losing a ski in the unpacked powder on Garmisch's Kandahar downhill run, I repaired with our instructor and several others to a wooded area, where we prepared for the last run with plum cake buried in whipped cream.

The next day brought brilliant sunshine and frigid temperatures. We headed up to the sprawling snowfields of the Zugspitze.

This is like skiing on top of the world.

Football-field-wide undulating slopes - pick the steepness you want - are surrounded by rock cornices.

Here climbers, hikers, and hang-gliders all do their thing. No wonder this is the rest and recreation capital of United States military forces in Europe (some 1,200 beds in five hotels that cost servicemen usually less than $10 a day).

As for the rest of Garmisch's accommodations, they run the gamut from little gasthofs to hotels popular with groups, such as the Oberm"uhle, to the newly reopened and elegant Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl.

There is even a very untypical Holiday Inn.

You can stay overnight on the Zugspitze itself at the Schneefernerhaus, which must be a candidate for ``hotel with the best view in Europe.''

Or you can follow our lead and stay at a small, first-class family hotel like the Bernreiderhof. Its intimate, tasteful style, in my book, is the ultimate Garmisch.

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