Once upon a time, après-ski meant a cup of hot chocolate and a chat about the day’s best descents. Possibly there would be glühwein, a slice of sachertorte or strudel, perhaps a game of canasta.
But in 1974 a young Swedish economics student dropped out of university, ran away to the Austrian Alps and got a job at a bar beside a ski run above the pretty village of St Anton. His name was Gunnar Munthe and at his bar, the Krazy Kanguruh, he presided over the evolution of a new kind of après-ski, turning a once-genteel activity into something loud, raucous and debauched. Soon the “KK” was infamous for its scenes of afternoon bacchanalia: a heaving crowd singing along to pumping rock music and dancing on the tables in their ski boots, the walls dripping with sweat, waitresses moving through the throng and dispensing shots of spirits straight into the skiers’ wide-open mouths. At the centre was Munthe, the ringmaster, whipping up the crowd and encouraging women to strip to their bras to win a bottle of champagne.
For Eugen Scalet, an impoverished young sheep farmer who lived on the other side of the ski run, it must have been something of an eye-opener. When his father died in 1987, Scalet decided the only way to get the family out of debt would be to turn his back on farming and join in the après-ski fun. He sent the sheep away to a relative in eastern Tirol, put tables and benches in the barn beside the family’s chalet and booked some live bands.
Scalet has never looked back – his bar, the Mooserwirt, has gradually grown into one of the most famous in Austria, eclipsing even the KK. It employs 65 staff and gets through at least 2,500 litres of beer every afternoon; four days a week a truck is sent from the brewery to climb the steep, snowy access road to resupply it. Scalet claims to sell more beer per sq metre of floor space than anywhere else in the country (despite being halfway up a mountain and closing at 8pm every day) and, in cellars beneath the dancing ski boots, a 37km network of plastic pipes ensures that the booze keeps on flowing.
And so, with the KK on one side and the Mooserwirt on the other, St Anton’s blue piste number one has become the après-ski capital of the world. The piste is the main route down from the mountain to the village, so the last run of the day almost invariably involves a decision whether to turn left to the KK or right to the Mooserwirt. Both have their own rituals and traditions, and for years little has changed at either – along with a handful of other bars nearby, they seem to have existed in a sort of eternal party bubble. Every winter’s afternoon, at precisely 3.30pm, the electrically operated blinds at the Mooserwirt begin to lower and “The Final Countdown” booms out from the speakers, heralding the start of the day’s après-ski session. Music comes from 62-year-old DJ Gerhard who, except for one 12-day period of illness, has played at the Mooserwirt every day since 1994 and rarely changes his repertoire.
There’s something reassuring about returning after a year’s absence to find the same song playing, Gerhard waving to the crowd from the same balcony, wearing the same hat. On the terrace beneath, revellers clasp the same drinks, most of which they wouldn’t dream of ordering anywhere else – favourites include heisse witwe (or “hot widow”, a warm concoction of plum liqueur and cream), the flugel (red berry vodka and Red Bull) and the “Jäger cow” (Jägermeister and milk). After a couple of hours of drinking, singing and dancing, it’s time for that other great St Anton ritual: the drunken descent down the piste to the village. Confused revellers try to strap on their skis back to front; expert powderhounds are reduced to nervous snowploughing; the piste soon becomes dotted with fallen skiers who can’t stop giggling.
This winter, though, change has finally come to St Anton. The exuberant antics – which, whether on the grounds of health and safety or simply style, do not exist to anything like the same degree in the US, France, Switzerland or Italy – have helped earn St Anton a global reputation as a party town and not everyone is pleased. Some villagers fear the tone is lowered rather too far by the nightly spectacle of several hundred inebriated skiers pouring into the high street after skiing down from the Mooserwirt and KK. There have been accidents, even fatalities. Moreover, residents worry that the partying overshadows the resort’s other merits – its traditional village centre, its family-run hotels, cosy mountain restaurants, spa and wellness centre and, above all, its sensational skiing.
In order to focus attention away from heisse witwes and their attendant high-jinks, the village authorities are trying to encourage a move upmarket. Tight planning regulations have been relaxed to permit the construction of new hotels but only those with a four- or five-star rating. The result is that this winter, while other ski resorts hunker down to weather the economic storm, St Anton has no fewer than five new luxury hotels. The Tannenhof is the most lavish, the m3 is central and spacious, the 74-year-old Valluga has been completely renovated and upgraded, and Anthony’s (due to be finished next winter) will boast rooftop hot tubs with views over the slopes. But attracting most attention is the new enterprise from Eugen Scalet – a hotel attached to the Mooserwirt.
On paper it sounds as if this might be skiing’s most rock ‘n’ roll address, a place for those who want to continue the party after the Mooserwirt winds up, with the added bonus of avoiding the perilous ski home. But the reality is more surprising – the Mooser Hotel is actually rather serene and luxurious, a place to unwind rather than party, somewhere perfectly in tune with the new, more sophisticated St Anton.
The discreet entrance is on the far side of the building from the bar’s big terrace and booming speakers, and the balconies of the bedrooms look out over the pistes or a wooded gorge, rather than the dance floor.
The big surprise is how quiet the rooms are – sitting with the window open you can hear the rushing waters of the Mühltobelbach, but not the chanting of the après-ski crowd. The decor is high-tech and high-end. White walls, bed linens and sheepskin rugs contrast with brightly coloured statement pieces of furniture or lighting from designers such as Moroso and Foscarini. Motion sensors detect if you get up in the night and turn on low-level lights to guide you to the bathroom. There are 55-inch TVs, free minibars, Fatboy beanbags and Zirben-Klimaboxes, which use pine shavings to purify the air.
Upstairs, the area that was the Scalets’ family apartment has been converted into a sleek glass-walled restaurant and bar, with views of the village below. Best of all is the ground-floor spa, which features the usual steam rooms and saunas plus a wonderful indoor/outdoor swimming pool. Sitting amongst the rising steam, staring at the snow-laden trees while being gently massaged by jets of warm water, it’s hard to believe you are still at the Mooserwirt.
Built at a cost of €12m, the hotel has just 17 bedrooms, giving it a calm, intimate atmosphere. Staff know your name and there will never be a crush in the sauna. The downside is that securing a room may be tricky. Try booking via Kaluma, the tour operator I travelled with, whose staff have lived in St Anton for more than a decade so have close links with hoteliers and a knack of finding rooms.
There is change afoot across the way at the KK too. Munthe has retired to run the Reselehof, a small hotel down in the village, and ski racer Mario Matt has taken over and carried out an extensive refurbishment. In the village, the Funky Chicken, a favourite post-Mooserwirt nightclub, has been demolished to make way for a plush US-themed steakhouse and pizzeria, both part of the Anthony’s hotel development, while the Murrmel, a stylish new bar, hints at the way St Anton après-ski might be going. Tourist board officials are even trying to get bars and restaurants to follow a no-ski-boots-after-8pm policy, designed to get the après-ski crowd from the Mooserwirt and KK to go home, change, and hopefully sober up before they hit the town.
Those who fear that all this signals the end of the party in St Anton shouldn’t worry just yet. I visited in early December, when the resort was still quiet, but after a smart dinner with the deputy director of the tourist board, I walked out on to the high street to find a group of Dutch tourists scaling a massive signpost, singing merrily, bottles of Jägermeister in hand. St Anton may be broadening its appeal to a more upmarket clientele but die-hard après-skiers can be sure they’ll find more than just hot chocolate and canasta.
High-altitude highlights: More Austrian après-ski hotspots
Ischgl One valley away from St Anton, Ischgl is another strong contender for the title of Alpine party capital. As well as the slightly alarming motto: “Relax. If you can ...”, it boasts an outpost of Ibizan superclub Pacha and hosts mountain-top concerts by big names such as Elton John, Lionel Richie and The Killers. There are plans to build a ski lift to link the Ischgl and St Anton valleys, creating an area that would be hard to beat for both skiing and après. www.ischgl.com
Mayrhofen In the Zillertal, east of Innsbruck, Mayrhofen has long been known for its appetite for après-ski, both at its mountain huts and the numerous bars along the main street. But it was the arrival of the annual Snowbombing festival in 2005 that brought the village to the attention of a far wider party-hungry clientele. Snowbombing is a week-long music festival that takes over the resort and is famous for staging gigs and parties in unlikely settings including forest clearings and a high-altitude igloo. This year’s festival runs from April 9 to 14; acts include Snoop Dogg and Fatboy Slim. www.mayrhofen.at; www.snowbombing.com
Saalbach Saalbach kicks off the season with the Rave on Snow festival in December but the pretty village centre is busy with revellers every afternoon until Easter. Save some energy for the 200km of pistes. www.saalbach.com
Söelden As well as 151km of pistes and two glaciers, Söelden boasts 45 après-ski bars and eight discos (despite having only 4,000 residents). www.soelden.at
Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor
Tom Robbins was a guest of Kaluma Ski (www.kalumatravel.co.uk), which can arrange stays at the Mooser Hotel from £130 per person per night. Seven-night packages including half-board, flights from London, transfers and Kaluma’s in-resort concierge service cost from £1,260. For ski instruction, see www.antonclassic.com and www.pistetopowder.com. For more on St Anton, visit www.stantonamarlberg.com and www.visittirol.co.uk