Kühtai – Austria
Austria’s Kühtai, a village at 2020 metres, has plenty of perfectly good accommodation but Helen Hayes chooses to step outside – really outside – her comfort zone by sleeping in an igloo.
There are many perfectly good hotels in Kühtai, a purpose-built ski resort about 45 minutes’ drive from that cultural and fun hotspot, Innsbruck. In fact we are staying in a very good property – a two-bedroom apartment at the AlpinLodges with everything, including a private sauna. We can even ski straight to the lounge room door.
So some would think it very strange to give up said accommodation in favour of sleeping in an igloo at the Kühtai Igloo Village. But life is short and it’s all about experiences, so we suck it up, try not to think about the cold, and arrange to stay our last night in a room made of ice.
We make the most of our days in this gorgeous mountain village, hotels and restaurants and ski shops lining the one street like sentinels. On both sides of the road, the snow-covered slopes reached skywards; highways to heaven whether you’re riding up in one of the chairlifts, or skiing or snowboarding down from the heights.
Whether you go up the Kaiserbahn, the Hochalterbahn, the Dreisenbahn or Hohemutbahn, or one of the t-bars, the view from the top is spectacular; craggy peaks poking through cloaks of ice on all sides as far as the eye can see. A wonderful place to stop a while is the Zum Kaiser Maximilian hut, with cosy tables indoors, not so cosy tables outside on the deck, or deckchairs complete with blankets on the snow outside for those who like to grab a bit of sun with their strudel.
Graf Ferdinand Haus, on the other side of the village, is equally as satisfying, especially the Tyrolean dumplings and the kaiserschmarrn – sort of like cut up pancakes drizzled with icing sugar and topped with stewed apple or plums. Then there’s the very upscale and fit-for-a-Count meals at the Jagdschloss, an historic hunting lodge transformed into a hotel by Count Christian of Stolberg-Stolberg. Count Christian is the great-great grandson of Emperor Franz Joseph 1 and Empress Elisabeth of Austria but is very hands-on with the property – often having a drink or a chat with guests. We run into him on the sunny terrace and he shows us some very old images of when there was nothing else in the area except for the hunting lodge. Certainly no street lined with hotels. And certainly no igloos.
But there are igloos now and as the night draws closer, we receive a checklist on what to bring to our icy abode. We are to check in at the bar at 5pm, bring “sturdy shoes, two-to-three pairs of winter socks, spare underwear, long underwear and waterproof clothing.” We also have to ensure we don’t have “cardiac or circulation problems”. How extreme is this going to be?
We check the forecast and are a little aghast to find that the temperature is expected to drop to -18°C. I throw in extra socks. And another beanie. And handwarmers.
After another perfect day frolicking on Kuhtai’s beautifully groomed slopes, always pausing at the crest of the last hill to marvel at the village below our feet, we sadly give back our rented ski gear and stroll across to the Igloo Village bar. The cheerful guide explains how everything works to the slightly scared guests, including a couple of families.
There are 12 igloos for guests and two larger igloos – one for the bar and one for the restaurant. The igloos are all built anew every season, and each has its own ice sculpture. He says that the temperature inside will be around 0°, which is pretty good considering how cold it will be outside. He shows us the expedition sleeping bags that we will all have, assuring us they are more than warm enough. He then holds up a fleece bag, which he says we have to crawl into first. Surprisingly, he then states firmly that it’s important to sleep in just one layer of clothing – thermal underwear – because otherwise the body can overheat and the sweat can turn icy. Who’d have thought? He then finishes by advising us all not to drink too much as even though the bathroom/shower block is heated, it’s not much fun crawling out of a warm sleeping bag to trudge through freezing cold snow to go to the loo. Duly noted.
We are all given our bags, a headlamp, a remote for our igloo lamp and a key. We are in igloo number eight and are amazed to find that we have a wooden door to our cool suite. Inside, a platform houses a goretex-covered mattress, topped with sheepskins. We set up our sleeping bags on top, under the watchful eyes of a rather large owl, carved into the back wall. The remote lamp changes colour, casting a disco-light show on our owl. Bizarre.
The bar – with wood-chip covered floor and sheepskin-topped stools – is jumping with some loud music, more flashing lights and friendly staff serving drinks. We order and when we say we do want ice with that, she scrapes it directly off the wall into the glass. That is cool. Very cool. She then offers shots of schnappes in glasses made of ice – another first for us Antipodean city slickers. Dinner follows, and while about as far from a Michelin star as you can get, it is hot and served in an igloo. You can’t be too fussy!
After dinner and some more drinks – we are slow learners – everyone straps on snowshoes around the outdoor fire and pops on headlamps for a walk through the trees up to the Graf Ferdinand hut. It is eerie and quiet as we slip through the shadows under a perfect starlit sky, but once at the top, we swap our shoes for traditional sleds and whiz down the trail, using our heels as brakes and rudders.
All this activity warms us up, which holds us in good stead in the now well below zero night air. We slip back to our igloo nest, peeling layers off and then wriggling into the fleece, and then the sleeping bag. Headlamps are off and we are in the dark. In the cold. My nose is the worst, so I burrow further down and pull the drawstring tighter around my head. It is quite comfortable and so cosy. In fact it is so toasty that I need to loosen the bag a bit before I combust. I toss my beanie aside and fall asleep.
Those drinks in the bar make their presence felt, and I psyche myself up to crawl out of my hotbed, find ski pants, jacket, boots and torch, and go out. Into the depths of the freezing, icy, finger-clenching cold. Crunching through the snow I pause and look at the northern sky, at constellations and stars not familiar but equally as beautiful. The lights are almost all out in the village, and the snowguns are quiet. It is just me, the snow, my foggy breath and the universe. And it is spectacular.
The rest of the night goes by in a dreamless sleep, so much so that we sleep in for the first time on our holiday. We say goodbye to our frosty villa and head next door to the Alpenrose Hotel, where we are tuck into a post-igloo breakfast – piping hot and plentiful.
January is an excellent time to go to Kuhtai for a ski holiday. There are no crowds and the accommodation is excellent value for money. There are also great lift and lesson deals.
Igloo Village Kuhtai: igloo-village.at/en
Innsbruck Tourism: innsbruck.info
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