With its wood-panelled restaurants, huge fireplace – sitting beneath one of the largest chimneys in Europe – and traditional Alpine decor, it’s easy to sees reminders of the Arlberg’s 625-year heritage at every turn. But linger a little longer and this immaculate Austrian resort in the picture-perfect town of St Christoph am Arlberg reveals another – subterranean – side.
I am referring to a recently opened exhibition space and concert hall, which has been built into the rocks beneath the hotel – the rooftop of which (the only part visible from street level) – has been set up as a relaxing sun terrace that runs the length of the main restaurant. It’s kind of like descending into a Bond villain’s lair – probably even more so when the area is carpeted with sparkling snow – however, visitors to the high-altitude art gallery are more likely to hear classical and contemporary symphonies being performed than overhear any sinister plans being plotted. And there’s not a fluffy cat or laser-beam-wearing shark in sight.
What you will find are fabulous acoustics in the wood and concrete 200-seat concert hall and conversation-starting installations taking up residence in ‘the cathedral’ – an imposing nine-metre-high space that changes up every six months and is Arlberg’s answer to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
Whether you are here in summer – as we were, when the surrounding mountains are carpeted with wildflowers and you have to fight every instinct to break into a few bars of Do-Re-Mi – or winter, descending to this underground cultural attraction reveals a world far removed with the kitsch cosy of the hotel above ground. Down here it’s all smart sophistication, which include a bar dotted with black-and-white images of musical greats and a huge artist studio that allows creatives to create for seasonal stints.
Downstairs for drinking
Also underground, but in older digs, are the hotel’s famed wine cellars. There’s the really old one (built in 1386) – the longest inhabitant of which is an 1865 bottle of Sauternes – where a wooden table that runs down the middle of the wrought-iron storage cages and sees tastings take place every Thursday during winter.
On any given night you might find yourself sipping on home-grown reds, taking part in a battle of the rieslings staged between Austria and Germany, or sampling a selection of international pinot noir.
Be sure not to drink too many glasses before testing out this tongue twister – in more modern cellar (built in 1988) you will find the ‘biggest Bordeaux big bottle’ collection outside of France. It’s grown over recent years (a second room was added in 2005) and there are plans to open a third room soon to house the expanding collection of specially created offerings from some of the region’s top wine producers – in fact, space is at such a premium that many bottles are carefully suspended from the ceiling.
From three-litre double magnums to nine-litre Salmanazars and 18-lite (the biggest of the big bottles) Melchiors. And the price of the collection – in case you are feeling thirsty – around 7million between the two rooms.
Many bottles are signed in gold pen by the lucky owners and have been put away for a special birthday or anniversary, or simply for a snowy day. Upstairs in the Chimney Restaurant you could splash out on a bottle of your own, or opt for the more wallet-friendly and very delicious Brotherhood Reisling from Kremstahl.
Food in five fabulous venues
So when you come in from a hard day’s hiking, where to eat? Options include the Hospiz Alm Restaurant (a short walk from the main building), the Skiclub Arlberg Stube, the Tiroler Wirtshaus (a traditional Tyrolean style pub) or in the Kaminhalle (that’s the one with the chimney, which provides perfect fireside hot chocolate opportunities, whatever the weather).
It’s in these surrounds that we eat simple but stunning Austrian dishes including bacon strip soup, Wiener Schnitzel with buttery, herby new potatoes and finish off with Topfenknödel for dessert – a sweet meets savoury dumpling serves with a tart plum stew. For more on the food, and a few top tips for eating in the surrounding region, click here.
Sleep and spa, and hit the slopes
Just as there is a mix of places to eat, there are different kinds of accommodation too – we stayed in the main hotel in a great suite with plenty of traditional touches, but also morden art flourishes – amazingly, the combination works, and the antique wooden furniture and marble bathrooms are beautifully presented, and rooms offer great views of the surrounding mountains. Then there’s also the excusive Skyfall suites, apartments at the Hospiz Alm Residence and luxurious arlberg1800 suites.
The huge relaxation space of the 2,000sqm spa was flooded with light when we visited, but I’m sure it gets pretty busy in winter too, when the apres-ski crowd head to one of the treatment rooms to rest and revive weary legs – when you can only navigate a blue run by adopting the snow-plough position for the whole way down, as is my predicament, you are likely to have some pretty tight thighs. Thankfully, there are heaps of the activities are year round thanks to the towns Alpine surrounds – winter sees snowshoeing, sledding (self propelled or drawn by horses) and ice skating (in addition to the downhill and cross-country slopes) while summer turns the area into a walking paradise (either through the surrounding valleys or by taking a cable car up to a nearby summit), while water enthusiasts are given the option on rafting, canyoning and tubing.