Not many European ski resorts open in November, and as for as I know Ischgl is the only resort without a glacier to regularly open this early. Also Ischgl doesn’t just meekly open, it does so with a bang by hosting a concert and filling every bed in the valley. I was fortunate to have one of those beds, to review Ischgl opening weekend, and to find out what a November snowboarding holiday in this Tirolean gem is really like.
The Ischgl Top of the Mountain Concert began in 1995 when Elton John closed the winter season. Since then big names such as Robbie Williams, Maria Carey, Rihanna, Kylie, The Killers and Nickelback have graced the stage,and the Ischgl concerts have become an institution in the ski industry. This year’s big name opener was James Blunt, in my mind not as appealing as The Killers but infinitely better than Maria Carey.
November snowboarding holiday in Ischgl
But I was not heading to Ischgl to listen to ‘You’re Beautiful’ and throw my pants at Bluntser, I was there for the snowboarding. I have never been on a November snowboarding holiday, and both times I have been in December have seen poor snow. Despite a big dump in early November the temp had been in double figures ever since so I was not expecting great conditions.
Arriving into town didn’t dampen my concern as there was no snow to be seen. However a stream of fully kitted up skiers and snowboarders exiting the gondola with smiles on their faces certainly lifted the spirits – as did a pint in Kuhstall (The Cow Shed). The atmosphere was banging but we only stayed for one as we had to check-in to the Hotel Ballunspitze in Galtuer – Ischgl was fully booked so we stayed ten minutes up the road.
The next day we were up bright and early and on the bus to Ischgl at 8:30. We took the Silvrettabahn gondola up from the centre of Ischgl to over 2300m – a gain in altitude of just under a kilometre. Snow started to appear just after midstation at around 1700m, so with pistes in Ischgl reaching over 2800m we knew there would be plenty of the white stuff to play in. Our guide, Hannes Walser, told us that roughly 80km of Ischgl’s 238km was open, which for a warm November is certainly impressive.
Hannes took us on a whistle stop tour of the Ischgl ski area including the three peaks of Viderjoch, Greitspitze and Palinkopf. Visibility was not great and the snow ranged from a bit icy to a bit slushy but we covered a lot of ground and even took on a couple of off-piste runs, under strict instructions from Hannes to take it very easy (due to low snow depth), that had nice snow although a slightly crusty top. We had a lot of fun and legs were tired when we stopped for lunch at the Idalp Panorama.
After lunch we played around the Velillbahn area where part of the snowpark was already open. According to Hannes, the park normally has over 100 features split into beginner, intermediate and advanced – there are also two other freestyle areas. For the beginning of November there were a few boardercross style rollers, followed by a beginner box, a couple of easy tubes, a rather serious looking rail and two rainbow boxes. For my first day snowboarding this season I was pleased to hit the rollers, boxes and tubes without any incidents – I stayed away from the rail.
Day two dawned with clear skies but a foggy head – more on that later. Again we covered a lot of miles before lunch but with visibility so much better I was able to spot lips to start trying some tricks and to treat Ischgl to some fast riding. We spent some time around the black runs from the top of Palinkopf which although at first are steep – our guide said one was 70 degrees – are not the hardest blacks I have ridden. Like most of the runs in Ischgl they are wide and perfectly groomed which makes them easier to ride.
On the final day of our November snowboarding holiday in Ischgl we spent a lot of time riding in a large mixed group. This meant slowing down and adding a little more freestyle. I was pleased to hit a few 360s jumping back onto the piste over little lips and got a couple of grabs in on straight airs. To me it felt like I was almost riding at the level I reached at the end of last season. To finish the holiday we went through the park again this time with a little more swagger, of course with pride comes a fall and I stacked it on a rainbow box and confirmed why I wear a helmet snowboarding.
Based purely on the riding experience I highly recommend a November snowboarding holiday in Ischgl. Not everything is open and the conditions feel more like spring than winter but to have 80km of slopes to play in while most resorts are still closed is a real treat. The lift pass includes the concert ticket and is decent value at €88 for two days or €203 six.
Review Ischgl opening weekend: Concert and Après
Over the last 20 years Ischgl has cultivated a reputation as a party town. The regular concerts help, but the real partying goes on every night all season. As my first time in Ischgl I was not quite prepared for just how banging the nightlife is or how hard the Austrians, Swiss and Germans party.
Central to the Ischgl Après scene is the early evening umpha bars that are full to the rafters of skiers and snowboarders stamping and drinking along to a cross between cheesy Euro-pop, ‘traditional’ Austrian party classics and British music that is normally confined to kids’ parties. On the face of it this sounds terrible but it works and is impossible not to stomp and sing along.
Bars that do this very well are the Trofana Alm, Niki’s Stadl and Kuhstall – I am sure there are more but I only had time to visit three. They open from around three, are heaving by five and by eight are converted to restaurants – with the exception of Kuhstall – for dinner service. Don’t worry though they open again at around eleven as nightclubs and stay open until far too late. For something a little different the Golden Eagle plays rock and has a more relaxed feel.
The Après has an incredible atmosphere, and some of the bars we visited were so packed it took ten minutes to move ten metres. Kuhstall in particular got a lot of custom from our group, it is a massive bar with a large outside area and goes a long way back behind the small frontage. There is also a lower floor which is a good place to head to if you want a little more space, but be careful it is easy to stay until 5am.
Although in general Austria is cheaper than France and Switzerland Ischgl is one of the most expensive Austrian resorts and a night out does not come cheap, expect to spend around €4-5 for a small beer. Apart from being on the pricey side my only other gripe was that smoking is tolerated indoors, it is banned just like in the UK but they don’t do anything about it so everything stinks of smoke. But these are small prices to pay for what is probably the best Après ski atmosphere I have experienced.
My relationship with James Blunt goes back to 2005 when he was still fairly new on the scene and was an afternoon act on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. I was hungover, laying in the sunshine with my now wife and a pint of cider. As such I have a soft spot for the Bluntmeister as clearly he was singing about my future wife and I on that hazy day nearly a decade ago.
This time round I was hungover again, but rather than laying in a sunny field with my love I was standing in a cold car park with some snowboarding buddies. Also rather than being mellow and romantic James Blunt was fairly rocky and uplifting. He engaged the crowd very well, played to the audience, did a little crowd surfing and even had the two Blunt haters I was with screaming and clapping like young girls. All in all a great concert and and if you asked the 20,000 people in attendance to review Ischgl opening weekend I think they would agree with James Blunt’s closing comment ‘Ischgl. You’re Beautiful’.
Accommodation: Review Hotel Ballunspitze
The four star Hotel Ballunspitze in Galtuer is about ten minutes up the Paznaun Valley from Ischgl. In comparison to Ischgl it is a sleepy local village, although it has its own ski area it was closed like most of those in Europe. Galtuer is the best of both worlds as you could have a quiet family holiday here never visiting Ischgl or use it as a base to ski and party in Ischgl saving yourself a fortune.
My room was nicely decorated – although I heard that the hotel is in the process of being renovated and my room is yet to be done – with nice furniture, TV and everything you would expect from a four star. The bed, an Austrian twin, was very comfy – I just wish I could have spent longer in it. The bathroom was decent with a very powerful shower that helped relieve aches and pains after a hard day riding.
The buffet breakfast has a good mix of hot and cold options and the build your own muesli is so good it requires bigger bowls. We also had dinner in the hotel on two evenings with a fantastic three course meal, plus unlimited access to a very good salad and starter bar. In the Hotel is was less than €4 for a large beer.
Although I did not experience it the hotel has a wellness centre including a 30 degree pool, sauna, steam room and offers various holistic and therapeutic services. The hotel is also a Kinderhotel with excellent childcare facilities including a five metre climbing wall, soft play and separate areas for babies, toddlers and older kids. Childcare is available 9am to 9pm and includes ferrying the kids to and from ski school.
Erna Low offer 7 night half board package holidays to the Hotel Ballunspitze from £820 per person, this include flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and shared transfer: www.ernalow.co.uk. They also have a range of other options in the area including the luxurious four star superior Elizabeth Arthotel in Ischgl from £1364 per person – we had dinner there and a tour of the hotel, with interesting artwork adorning the walls, stunning food and gorgeous rooms I am not sure why it is not a five star.
Eating out during Ischgl opening weekend
On the mountain we ate in the Idalp Panorama on the first day. The food was lovely but a three course lunch was overdoing it a bit for me – bindings still needed to be done up in the afternoon. On days two and three we had lunch at the Pardorama Restaurant which sits at the top of the new €40 million Pardatschgratbahn Gondola, a visit here is well recommended as the views are spectacular and the food very good.
On one of the evenings that we did not eat at the hotel we again dined at the Pardorama Restaurant. Catching the Pardatschgratbahn Gondola at night is a lovely experience as you sit on the heated seats watching a twinkling Ischgl drop away below. With a 1250m gain over 3.5km in about 10 minutes this is the longest tricable gondola in the world. The three cables means it can safely operate in almost any weather and it even uses the friction it creates to power the heated seats.
Fancy gondola rides aside the Pardorama Restaurant is well worth visiting. We enjoyed the four course set menu which included a range of tasty Austrian mountain dishes. Almost as good as the food was the entertainment. The traditional Tirolean band Paznauner Klang went around the tables keeping everyone entertained and by the end of the night we couldn’t resist dancing along.
On our final evening in Ischgl we ate at the Elizabeth Arthotel. Before dinner we were given a guided tour by the owner who talked to us about the various pieces of art that were owned by her family, some of which are for sale. Although not all the art was to my taste it certainly lends an air of elegance to what is already a luxurious hotel. The food certainly didn’t let the surroundings down, with great presentation blending subtle and robust flavours perfectly and we couldn’t have asked for a nicer meal to end this November snowboarding holiday.
Review Ischgl opening weekend: Conclusions
This year with conditions completely against them Ischgl opened with 80km of immaculately groomed piste – which is a highly impressive feat when most resorts are still closed. With 17,000 lift passes sold for the opening weekend the town was heaving and in full on party mode. The revellers embraced James Blunt as one of their own and the Après ski atmosphere was probably the best I have ever experienced.
To conclude, if I review Ischgl opening weekend keeping front of mind that it was a November snowboarding holiday – then all I can say is get yourself to Ischgl in the height of the season and you won’t be disappointed.
Major tour operators going to Ischgl include Erna Low, Inghams, Ski Total and Crystal Ski. Erna Low offer 7 night half board at the Hotel Ballunspitze from £820 per person inc. flights and transfer: www.ernalow.co.uk/austria/tirol/ischgl/. For more information about Ischgl please visit the tourist board’s website: www.ischgl.com