The Tyrol region of the Austrian Alps is one of the most beautiful places I have visited. Our February trip to the Skicircus – a cluster of four villages connected by a complex system of ski lifts and gondolas – was our third visit to this region, however, it was our first to the Skicircus. Our previous Austrian ski holidays had been to St Anton am Arlberg (those posts are here, here and here).
The Skicircus is one of the largest ski areas in Austria. Its 270 km of slopes connect the ski resort towns of Saalbach, Hinterglemm, Leogang, and Fieberbrunn.
Hinterglemm and Saalbach are located in the same valley. Hinterglemm is the calmer village of the two and is known for being family-friendly. They are connected by a free shuttle bus as well as the slopes (but only when the upper ski lifts and gondolas are running!).
Leogang and Fieberbrunn are located in another valley and are accessible by slopes (again, only when the upper lifts and gondolas are running) and car/taxi from Saalbach and Hinterglemm.
It’s been nearly two months since we were sipping weissbier at 6,876 ft / 2,096 m but it feels like two years ago. So much has changed in a matter of months due to COVID-19.
When we departed for our ski holiday, COVID-19 wasn’t a “thing” in Europe yet. I remember rumblings of a few reported cases in Italy but, overall, there was no heightened awareness.
In fact, there was so little concern about COVID-19 in Austria and Europe that the organizers of the Audi FIS Ski World Cup 2020 moved the competition from China to the Skicircus (specifically, Hinterglemm) due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China.
The competition took place during our holiday. We watched the event organizers set up the race track in multiple winter storms over the course of three days. I honestly did not think they were going to make the deadline but they made it and the competition was a success!
Below are a couple of photos I took of the track as they were “building” it. The most surprising thing to me was the number of people it took to build the track. There were hundreds of people manually shoveling snow so that the blue boundary lines were visible (the strong wind were blowing the snow everywhere!).
Fast forward two months from our ski holiday and data is showing that the European superspreaders of COVID-19 possibly spawned from Ischgl, another Austrian ski resort located about three hours west of the Skicircus. It has been reported that a bartender at a popular après-ski bar in Ischgl continued to work whilst being knowingly infected. The first cases in several European countries have been linked to tourists who visited Ischgl during that time period.
Getting to/from the Skicircus
We landed in Salzburg, Austria mid-day on February 7th. We deplaned in the middle of the tarmac and then smashed into a packed bus for a short ride to the terminal – something that would not happen in today’s times.
Logistically, it is a pain in the butt to get to the Skicircus. I suppose this is to be expected considering it is in the middle of the Austrian Alps, however, since it was so easy to get to/from St Anton, I assumed the same would be true for the Skicircus.
As it turns out, we were spoilt with the train connections between St Anton and major cities like Zurich and Salzburg. There is a train station near the Skicircus but it would have been a 30+ minute taxi ride from the train station to our hotel (not worth it).
The closest airports to the Skicircus are Munich and Salzburg. As mentioned previously, we decided to fly into Salzburg, and from there, it’s a 100+ minute car or bus journey from Salzburg to the Skicircus, depending on traffic.
Since it was only Peter and me, the most economical option was to take the Holiday Shuttle from the Salzburg airport to our hotel. We paid 89€ ($100) per roundtrip ticket – so not exactly economical but still half of the price of a private transfer.
Protip: If you’ve got 4+ people in your party, then I recommend booking a private transfer because it will be equal to or cheaper than the Holiday Shuttle and it will be much faster.
The biggest issue with the Holiday Shuttle is its rigid and infrequent schedule. There are only about six buses that depart Salzburg airport per day and you don’t want to cut your flight arrival time too close to the bus departure time because if your flight is late or your baggage is delayed, you will be screwed.
Our Salzburg flight-bus layover was about three hours and this was the shortest layover we could manufacture based on flight arrival times and shuttle departure times. Three hours is not quite enough time to make a trip into Salzburg but it is too much time to sit and stare at nothing.
Protip: Luggage can be stored at the Salzburg airport if you decide to take a mini day trip into Salzburg. The price is 8€ per piece and the luggage storage area is in the same area as the area where passengers check-in oversized luggage. This can be a very lengthy process (it took us 20 minutes). If there is a queue, ask people in the queue if they are waiting to check-in oversized luggage or store bags and if they state that they are checking in their bags, then skip the queue and go to the desk near the x-ray machine.
Aside from the lengthy layover, the bus experience was great. It departed on time, the driver was friendly and didn’t text whilst driving, and we were dropped off at our hotel’s front steps. The downside to our bus ride was that it was in the dark and we were not able to look at the quaint mountain villages along the route.
When we arrived in Saalbach, the bus driver parked the bus at the “bus station” (really just a huge parking lot on the side of the road) and explained that we would be transferred to smaller shuttle buses (minivans) based on our final destinations.
Alpin Juwel hotel
Approximately 10 minutes after leaving the Saalbach bus station, we arrived at our hotel, the Alpin Juwel (pronounced “al-pin you-el”). This was the view from our suite:
Note: There are some mixed reviews online about the smoking situation in the bar at Alpin Juwel. It is non-smoking, however, there is a smoking area outside and the smoke sometimes filters in through the wooden windows. This is only an issue for the two tables located near the outdoor smoking area (unfortunately, our assigned dinner table was one of these two tables).
We stayed on half board which included breakfast (buffet and omelet bar options), cake “happy hour” and dinner (buffet and 3-course set menu options). We were not too keen on having to pay for half board but it was a requirement of the booking so we were stuck in that regard. Going into our holiday, we thought that we would eat dinner at the hotel’s restaurant on our first night and then dine at local restaurants for the remainder of our stay but the food at the Alpin Juwel was so damn good that we never had the desire to eat anywhere else.
Additionally, unlike other ski resorts we have been to, all of the restaurants in Hinterglemm are actually hotel restaurants. Independent, free-standing, restaurants don’t exist in Hinterglemm.
Another great thing about the Alpin Juwel is the ski and boot room. The ski and boot room is located on the ground floor (reception is a short lift ride up a few floors). Every hotel room has an individual locker which is opened with a swipe of the room key card. The full-length lockers have hooks, shelves and something I had never seen before – heated ski boot pegs. It was incredibly nice to be able to leave our boots, helmets, skis, gloves, etc. in our locker and not have to lug them to/from our room.
The downside to the Alpin Juwel is that it is not ski-in/out nor is it on the piste. It is actually smashed on the hillside between other hotels and private homes. It is a five-minute walk along narrow and busy roads to the nearest lifts from the hotel. Walking to/from the lifts is actually part of a bigger problem with the Skicircus in general.
We quickly came to realize that the four villages of the Skicircus, though technically connected by lifts and gondolas, are actually not 100 percent connected, even when all lifts and gondolas are running (a rarity!). It was common for us to need to remove our skis, walk through the village of Saalbach or Hinterglemm and then put our skis back on once reaching the lift/gondola. More on this in the next post.