France or Austria, Austria or France? At least for Brits that's always been the main choice when it comes to ski holidays. Both destinations have seen ebbs and flows in the waves of seasonaires and tourists that come to pay homage to their slopes; in the 70s the traditional Austrian holiday started to lose business to the rise of the mega resorts in France, purpose built for doorstep skiing and boasting linked pistes in the hundreds out kilometers.
Recently though the trend seems to be shifting back to Austria with vibrant festivals, cheap beers and immaculate parks and pistes beckoning the hordes. Both still dominate the UK holiday market with France puling in an estimated 34.8% market share last year, compared to Österreich's 28.2%, but which is better?
What better to kick off a level and unbiased debate than to ask the locals? Polly Baker has seasoned for many years in both France and Austria, more recently the latter, so is perfect to take the side of the Austrians.
Alright, pipe down Pierre. Regrettably you may have the cheese and trampagne, but I raise you schnitzel and schnapps. I’ve done more seasons than my liver likes to count, and two winters ago I traded tartiflette for käsespätzle and here is why:
List all of the French pros you will but the fact remains that Austrian parks are bursting with global talent. Austria’s early and late season glacier parks are unrivalled, Olympic teams were training at Hintertux from October. This year’s set up in Stubai was the setting for Jamie Nicholls’ first triple and even saw Shaun White abandon his private park in Australia to practise his signature boot grabs.
And what nutrition does Austria offer these stellar athletes? Sausage. And lots of it. In Mayrhofen you can roll straight out of the Penkenbahn and into ‘Gasser’, the legendary butchers shop, and they will hook you up with all manner of meat slapped lovingly in a bun for next to nothing prices. And for later? Well, we’re not packing trampagne for 70 cent a bottle, but we do have beer for 40 cent a tin, Stroh 80, and every breed of schnapps under the sun. That should get you nice and sozzled.
It is true that in the majority of areas in Austria you can’t ski straight to your doorstep and have to take a gondola ride home, but this comes with its perks. It lends itself to lazy seasonaires, you can leave your house half-dressed and take the time to organise yourself while gaining altitude (it’s really more efficient). Plus living down in the valley makes everything way more accessible than living in a twee French resort twenty hairpins up the side of a mountain. This accessibility is key, and the main reason I now spend my winters in Austria rather than France. My lift pass (which is over 150 euros cheaper than that in the Portes Du Soleil) gives me access to over eighty resorts in the Tirol region. This means that if I get bored of riding the parks on my doorstep, or fancy some different terrain, I can jump in the car and I am within a two hour radius of, Stubai, Steinplatte, Nordkette, Solden, Kitzbuhel… the list goes on. I can ride them all for free, and I can ride them from 1st October to the middle of May. Stick that in your cheese and eat it, France.
Austria does run on German efficiency, so yes the mountain is well maintained. However, to say that having quality park and pistes breeds boring riding? Ease up there turbo. Boring is every time there is a bad weather day finding yourself heading to the same old spots. Now I dig parks like the Stash, they certainly have their place, but it totally sucks the adventure out of a poor weather day. What about building your own features, or hitting those street rails you’ve been eyeing up for weeks? Riders in Austria definitely seem to have more stoke for that kind of thing, maybe it's the industrious cultural backdrop.
Ultimately though, what Austria has is a distinct lack of French people. Our locals are lovely, chatty and happy to have us. We don’t have the Gendarme crawling up our back for getting rowdy in the street; in fact it is positively encouraged. New Years Eve is effectively a free-for-all, do-it-yourself firework display in the street, where throwing bangers at people is standard practice. So if you like the ‘couldn’t give a fuck’ attitude, Austrian health and safety has it in abundance. But one of the greatest things about Austria is the multi-national catchment area it has for attracting awesome people. I now have friends from Austria, Germany, Sweden, Holland, Australia, Belgium, Estonia… It isn’t just the British that have found love for the Austrian mountains; it’s a magnet for people seeking Park, Powder and Party from across the globe.
So, bin-off your bad-tempered Boulanger, and tickle your taste buds elsewhere. Variety is the spice of life and Austria has it by the truckload.