The Ischgl dilemma - party late or ski early? Many visitors manage both!
By Arnie Wilson
One of the most remarkable characteristics of the great Austrian skiing champion Hermann Maier was - and doubtless still is - his extraordinary ability to burn the candle at both ends, if you'll excuse the cliché. I (sort of) witnessed this for myself when I happened to be staying in the Hotel Portillo, Chile, while he was there with some of his team-mates in the Austrian national ski squad, training during the Northern Hemisphere's summer. Although I wasn't in the hotel disco at the time, a mutual friend and member of the Argentinean ski team told me that Maier danced almost till dawn, was almost carried into the hotel lift and then helped into his room by other team mates waiting at the relevant floor. And yet he was out on the slopes bright and early the next morning. Why am I telling you this? Because Maier is ideal Ischgl material. By which I mean the Austrian ski resort is one of the most celebrated party towns and ski resorts in the Alps - where people with Maier's joie de vivre (or Lebensfreude to use the German equivalent) - somehow cope with ebullient late nights at discos and nightclubs and exhilarating early mornings high in the mountains on snow.
Visitors enjoying mountaintop lunches in (or rather above) Ischgl have included Bill Clinton and Naomi Campbell. And it was in Ischgl that the celebrated British chef Heston Blumenthal re-discovered his passion for skiing (and possibly for partying) - and if you think I'm name dropping I've hardly started. Because in keeping with its partying image, for 20 years Ischgl has kicked off each winter - and brought down the curtain at the end of each season too - with a concert by world-famous artists.
A boisterous but beautiful Tyrolean village tucked away in the steep-sided Paznaun Valley close to the Swiss border, Ischgl is one of the best providers of user-friendly skiing in the Austrian Alps. The traffic-free centre, dotted with bars, also provides some riotous nightlife.
Centuries ago, when Ischgl's Swiss neighbour Samnaun was cut off from the rest of Switzerland, the villagers struck a deal allowing them huge tax concessions. This inevitably created a smugglers' paradise, and the story goes that one villager from the Austrian side of the border, using the traditional excuse of crossing into Switzerland for "a day's hunting" bought a consignment of cigarettes, went straight to Innsbruck without even stopping to sleep, sold the cigarettes for five times what he had paid for them, and, after further trade-offs, returned to Ischgl with a live ox.
Those very same slopes across which smugglers made their stealthy journeys are now a happy hunting ground for skiers and snowboarders who like their runs big, wide and handsome. Not to mention snowsure. Most of Ischgl's slopes are above 2000 metres (6560 feet) so snow conditions are usually good.
Ischgl's runs are sometimes bewilderingly numerous, some seemingly endless, with stirring scenery. One of them continues all the way down across the border into Samnaun, a popular destination for skiers who often take lunch there and return with rucksacks full of duty-free goods and souvenirs. These provide the principal source of revenue for the Swiss resort.
Ischgl is not the place to go to for a quiet time. The resort is popular with Bavarian skiers who tend to turn the village into an unofficial extension of the Munich beer festival in the various bars. The rustic Kitzloch, where skiers and snowboarders dance on the chairs and even hang from the beams to find some space, is almost invariably packed to the gunnels. At the Elisabeth Eisbar, you might well witness girls dancing on the counter or huge wooden beer vats. Many skiers start to party without bothering to take their ski-boots off, and the decibels produced by the various drinking schools would hold almost its own in a football stadium. One minute they are in good voice at one pub or another, only to be drowned out by revellers at a hotel bar nearby.
Then, almost like an oral version of the Mexican wave, there is a roar from the direction of the Kuhstall (cowshed) which almost drowns the singing at the Sporthotel bar and the Feuer & Eis bar. But all is not lost - there are quieter bars where you can enjoy a nightcap or two, far from the madding crowd. The Gasthaus Alt Dorf Café has cows munching away and/or being milked on the floor below. You can watch them through a window, seemingly a picture of contentment. With any luck, you will feel much the same.
The Tirolean village has always tended to concentrate on big events to secure publicity rather than advertising and participation in ski shows or joint initiatives with other resorts. Concerts and celebrations and the odd spectacular fireworks displays punctuate the calendar throughout Ischgl's season.
Stars to have closed the ski season in the past with a top-of-the mountain concert have included Tina Turner, Sir Elton John (twice), Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, Sting, Bob Dylan, Enrique Iglesias, Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams. James Blunt kicked off last winter's proceedings with a superb opening concert. And the coming winter of 2015-16 will be opened by Supertramp on November 28. Sorry - I simply must stop dropping names. But it's hard not to in Ischgl.