There's always been a case for winter sports in the Arlberg. A short drive up the valley from Innsbruck, the massif in the Austrian Alps has the best slopes, the most character and the finest hotels in the region. If you want hardcore challenges and last-man-standing nightlife, it's St Anton. If you prefer a sumptuous retreat in a winter wonderland, opt for Lech. If you like a more grassroots vibe, head to Stuben.
Until recently, these Arlberg classics were divided by a bad ski-lift system. Now, thanks to massive investment in the heart of the area, they're fully integrated. Bus or taxi links are history. Jump into the ski loop known as the Run of Fame at any point on its 87-kilometre circuit to cruise until you drop. OK, it's not as seamless as France's Three Valleys, but state-of-the-art gondolas form the body of the octopus and the tentacles stretch out to resorts and random hamlets in wilderness snowscapes. Whatever you need, you'll find it here.
Ever since its early days as a ski resort, St Anton has played it tough. When the first cable car between the village and Galzig, the mid-mountain focus, opened in the 1930s, top bragging rights came from beating it back to the village. The Valluga, the highest peak in the Arlberg at 2,809 metres, overlooks gnarly black runs, now regraded as itinerary runs, which means you tackle them at your own risk. Many do, and the bonus is they're not skied out in a day after fresh snow. There's no shortage of marked pistes – some of the best are found on Rendl on the north-facing side of the valley – but don't be lured into complacency. This area has enough angst to catch you out.
St Anton matches the terrain. Its pedestrianised main street is dominated by venerable hotels, the Post, the Alte Post and the Schwarzer Adler, all revamped to deliver Austria's signature charm along with 21st-century pampering. Try the Hazienda for a classy dinner, the Galzig Bistrobar for a convivial Italian meal, then hit the clubs: the Postkeller and the Piccadilly Live Music Bar stay open late.
The Mooser Hotel, halfway up the final slope, has a different agenda. In rooms and suites stacked up on six floors, the air is scented by Swiss pine climate boxes and the balconies are furnished with bean bags for communing with nature. The Ooben penthouse restaurant has superb tafelspitz (boiled meat with horseradish) and the steaming swimming pool, isolated among rock faces and virgin forest, is a haven. This is all the more startling because a secret door in the hotel leads into the pounding heart of the MooserWirt, arguably the loudest and most profitable apres ski bar in the Alps.
A kindly – or possibly avaricious – swineherd opened the Hospiz as a refuge for travellers caught in blizzards on the Arlberg pass in the 14th century. These days the Arlberg Hospiz Hotel is a magnificent five-star hideaway in the hamlet of St Christoph. The blue cruiser from Galzig ends at its front door, but a swerve to the right takes you to the hotel's sister property, the Hospiz Alm. After a rustic feast of Tiroler groestl (a meat, potato and egg fry-up) or kaesespaetzle (cheesy pasta) for lunch, the marble slide to the toilets is a bit of a blast.
A statue of renowned ski instructor Hannes Schneider – complete with 1930s' garb and long plank skis – is the highlight of an orientational stroll around Stuben's church. The village hero brought fame to the Arlberg, first as a racer, then for teaching techniques that were adopted throughout the skiing world. His opposition to Nazi policies also meant he had to escape to the US. Skiers who can handle resorts with a whiff of cow dung will enjoy Stuben, both for its lack of glitz and its ready access to the Albona slopes, which are chilly, snowsure and rewardingly empty. Veer away from the traditional ambience to eat in the Fuxbau, with its buzzy vibe, gossamer stemware, home-made spelt bread and unforgettable black walnut, caramel and sig (condensed milk) ice cream.
With the shiny gondola at Rauz allowing visitors to reach the other half of the Arlberg in double quick time, fast forward to Zurs, above the tree line on the Flexen pass, and Lech, nestled in the valley beyond. In Zurs, expansive slopes on both sides of the valley are efficiently presented but sterile, especially compared to Lech. As befits oligarch central, chair lifts with heated seats whisper above woodland glades and runs groomed to soothe the most fearful snow users. The easy, three-hour White Ring route takes in both resorts.
A river runs through the village, a stone church perfectly perched on the riverbank and a covered wooden bridge providing shelter for two black horses. When primed with carrots, Hanni and Liszt emerge for sledge excursions to the picturesque Zug valley. Lech guests stroll rather than stride, showcasing designer skiwear they have no wish to risk in snow drifts.
Choosing where to stay on a luxury ticket is tricky. In the Gasthof Post, guests are greeted with mocktails in the lobby and afternoon tea in the drawing room. The exterior is decoratively painted, as befits a yesteryear post bus stop that has expanded into a Lech institution. This is the flagship of the Moosbrugger family empire that includes the Bergschlossel boutique hotel and Base Camp Bar in St Anton. The Post is run with charm and style by the irrepressible Florian. And if you're lucky, his mate, Stefan, will perform a virtuoso concert on the grand piano.
As Lech expanded, it moved uphill to Oberlech, a snowy street with terraces that are packed out for lunch on fine days, and higher still to billionaires' chalet alley. All the properties are serviced by a network of underground roads, but guests must leave their vehicles in the valley. They can take a taxi out of hours, but the Oberlech cable car, which is open from 7am until midnight, handles most of the traffic.If you're an animal lover, it's the Aurelio, which is equally welcoming, but in a more contemporary way.
It's owned by Oleg Deripaska, Russian President Vladimir Putin's regular ski companion at his mountain property near Sochi. Does Deripaska, who spends time at Aurelio with his family, have the president on his guest list? Manager Axel Pfefferkorn is too discreet to say. But he loves Hierro, Domingo and Yaki, two resident white alpacas and one baby black. Share a joke with Pfefferkorn and he'll lead them out for a cuddle and a photo shoot against the picturesque village backdrop.
Chalet N paved the way, marketing itself as the most expensive ski chalet in the world when it opened. Soaking in a black-veined marble tub among silver stags and white orchids is very Hollywood, especially in the Tina Turner suite. She's a friend of owner Rene Benko, the Austrian wunderkind who bought a chain of German department stores before his 30th birthday and used his spare cash to build "the perfect chalet" before his 40th. Its nearest rival, geographically at least, is Uberhaus, a British-influenced spot with a snooker table, which is 125 years old, and an array of modern art.
If such luxury feels too far removed from Alpine roots, stroll upward in the sunset towards a snow hump on the horizon. On arrival, it's revealed as Skyspace, an egg-shaped chamber where visitors can gaze at the sky through the open oval roof, then beat the evening chill with yoga moves as the snow flutters down through a kaleidoscope of fairy lights. It's very cleansing, very Zen.