Few things are more agreeable than crunching through snow, beneath pine trees glittering with ice and fairy lights, towards an age-blackened chalet whose windows are oblong yellow invitations in the cold night. Warm air hugs you as you enter, a waitress in a dirndl takes your coat. Floorboards groan. You settle into a red chair in front of a fireplace fit for an ogre and tuck into Tafelspitz, with its warming beef slices in hot broth. Dessert is Kaiserschmarren, a mountain of chopped, raisin-studded pancakes dusted with snowy icing sugar, and accompanied by an avalanche of stewed plums.
Kaiserschmarren, reputedly a favourite of Emperor Franz Josef, is a beloved staple of the Austrian table, often eaten as a meal in itself. It's a firm dessert favourite with diners in St Anton's Restaurant Museum, where, between courses, you can nip upstairs and discover how the Sankt Anton am Arlberg (St Anton) region pioneered winter sports in the early 20th century, and gave its name to the Arlberg downhill skiing technique adopted by generations of Europeans.
You could say the modern sport of skiing was invented here. Now St Anton is the biggest of several ski resorts draped across the mountains of western Austria amid a spider web of 87 ski lifts and 305-kilometres of groomed runs. Last year, the spectacular Flexenbahn gondola closed the final gap when it linked St Anton to Lech, creating one of the world's top-five ski resorts for size.
Among the extravagance of ski options is the 40-mile Run of Fame, named for the Arlberg region's ski pioneers celebrated on signage along the way. The interlinked runs stretch across the entire Arlberg ski area between St Anton and Warth. Most people tackle it over two days, but the recklessly sporty could challenge themselves to conquer it in a single day, as local ski instructors do.
The Arlberg is a place for serious skiers, so it's no surprise restaurants across the ski region tempt you to gluttony with hearty stomach-warmers designed to assuage sporting hunger. The food is sometimes as super-sized as the ski area. The alpine ham, egg and potato fry-up Gröstl is served in giant iron skillets. Schnitzel the circumference of a Frisbee droops over the edge of plates. That still doesn't stop diners finishing off with Germknödel dumplings plump as snow globes, stuffed with jam and sprinkled with poppy seeds.
In Lech, the blackened 1760 chalet Hus No. 8 dishes up an entire roast duck with red cabbage, but even the local Walser potato soup is a meal. On the ski slope, rustic and convivial Rud-Alpe has giant servings of Würstel sausages and boiled dumplings. To truly indulge in Austrian stereotypes, hop in a horse-drawn carriage and head up into the forest to Gasthaus Älpele, where you can sit in a cuckoo-clock interior and have fondue followed by – yes – Kaiserschmarren, flambeed in rum for extra indulgence.
Lech is a family-oriented resort with a reputation for quiet glamour rather than exuberant glitz. People come for the elegant family-run hotels, fine dining and superlative skiing.
Snow conditions are among Europe's best, with a reliable season running from mid-December to early April. Ski towards intimate village Zürs and the Zürser Täli provides a five-kilometre swoop, where you might sometimes be knee-deep in powder snow. Even better is the famous 22-kilometre White Ring of interconnected runs, which starts right above town atop the 2360-metre Rüfikopf cable car.
Although the traditional dishes that originated in the Arlberg's alpine farms provide great sustenance after a hard day's skiing, serious gastronomes won't be disappointed either. Lech claims the highest density of hatted restaurants of any ski resort in the world. The latest addition is the revamp of the restaurant at Relais & Châteaux-branded Hotel Gasthof Post, where bright young chef David Wagger turns heads with reworked classic dishes such as trout (which comes with beetroot risotto and wasabi foam) or venison ragout (with a brioche souffle).
Otto Wagner Restaurant similarly embraces both worlds. It can conjure up the classics but isn't afraid to challenge diners with dishes such as a dessert of chocolate terrine with red-turnip sorbet. You'll find it in Kristiania Lech, a hotel that mixes contemporary art with deer antlers and efficiency with quirky charm.
Even on the slopes you can find fine dining. At Verwallstube at the top of the 2085-metre Galzig cable car above St Christophe, you can settle in for white-linen and waiter service in a restaurant awarded two Gault & Millau toques. It runs from a duet of foie gras and extraordinary duck cappuccino soup to mains such as a sumptuous bouillabaisse or simply fried Dover sole. It sets Austria's stereotypes on its head. There isn't a cowbell or singing nun within a yodel of this chic snowbound eerie – nor Kaiserschmarren on the menu either, though you'll be happy to settle for matcha cheesecake with spiced chocolate.
The tiniest of the Arlberg's resorts, St Christoph, is quite the spot for gourmets. In particular Hospiz Alm is legendary for its sun-soaked ski terraces and its upmarket pike-perch fillet and roast duck. But the cellar holds the trump card: a world-class wine collection especially notable for Bordeaux wines and large-format bottles. If you're after an 15-litre Nebuchadnezzar of Chateau Cheval Blanc, mortgage the house.
St Christoph is the aristocratic uncle to the brash teenager that is St Anton down the road. It's Austria's top resort for snowboarders and free-riders and has magnificent runs for intermediate and advanced skiers, culminating in the swoops below the 2812-metre Valluga peak. The town skis hard and plays hard, with a renowned apres-ski scene at slope-side bars such as Mooserwirt, whose suave, minimalist attached hotel could hardly be a greater contrast to its music-pumping, crowd-pulsing bar decks. In the hotel restaurant, the beef fillet burger is topped with roasted foie gras, truffle cream and pear chutney.
The ski resort famous for its party spirit has, however, acquired a new sophistication of late, with restaurants to match. Try Alte Stube in the 400-year old Hotel Schwarzer Adler for Gault & Millau-awarded Tyrolean cuisine, or go ultra-modern at Hotel Tannenhof, where British chef James Baron has three toques for his creative pairings (veal with mandarin, beef tartare with goose liver) and desserts described as a "true revelation". You won't get shredded Kaiserschmarren pancakes, but you'll be mighty satisfied.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy the Austrian National Tourist Office.
Hotel Schwarzer Adler in St Anton's old-town centre has excellent restaurants, an impressive wine cellar and a wellness centre. See schwarzeradler.com
Hotel Kristiania in Lech combines Austrian cosiness with chic, contemporary styling. Impeccable service includes a ski valet, butler and ski nanny. See kristiania.at
St Anton's Restaurant Museum, museum-restaurant.at
Hus No. 8, hus8.at
Gasthaus Älpele, aelpele-lech.at
Hotel Gasthof Post, postlech.com
Otto Wagner Restaurant, kristiania.at
Hospiz Alm, arlberg1800resort.at
Alte Stube, schwarzeradler.com
Hotel Tannenhof, hoteltannenhof.net