KITZBUEHEL, Austria —
The bar woman poured Pommery Champagne free of charge from her stand in the VIP tent, the cold French wine lighting up the cold Austrian morning. The annual polo-on-snow competition held outside Kitzbuehel, in the Tyrolean Alps, had just begun, and no time had been wasted in making the long white tent worth the price of entry.
Prosperous middle-aged men were eyed by more prosperous women of a certain age and ignored by those attractive young things who can pick out a truly rich man at 50 meters in dense fog. Outside, the day’s four matches were held in quick succession, the play called alternatively in German and English. The coed teams of three players each shared their talents with great spirit, smacking oversized red balls through goal posts of vivid green.
As with so many polo events, whatever the playing surface, the scene outside the VIP enclosure was a majestic melange of equine grace, of mallets wielded like weapons for medieval combat, and of saddle-borne shouts in multiple tongues. The scene within the VIP enclosure and along its rim was awash with the indifference to play offered by so many polo spectators everywhere. The English-language announcer tried to encourage interest until he called out with faintly pained irony how the fans were biting their nails over the excitement on the field; when even that drew no reaction, he dared a few innuendo-laced jokes, if only to pass the time. But tradition is tradition, and on this morning, the priority given to off-field maneuverings could not be disturbed by sporty exhortations — except when the horses charged nearly within arm’s reach.
The polo weekend (known officially as the Valartis Bank Snow Polo World Cup) was added to the Kitzbuehel winter calendar in 2002, as a run-up to the annual World Cup races on the Hahnenkamm, the region’s signature mountain. The Hahnenkammbahn flaunts the treacherous slope known as the Streif — a 3.3-kilometer kamikaze dive that is famous on the circuit for leaving scant room for error and none for nervous doubt.
Years ago, my wife and I had come to Kitzbuehel to test our uncompetitive skills against the Streif family course (the portion available for public use) and we had succeeded. We had stayed at a hotel in Kitzbuehel — a town that, with its Christmas-story good looks, is about as close as possible to what will come to mind if you now shut your eyes and imagine the perfect Tyrolean ski town. Now imagine that town standing close enough to Munich to serve as that prosperous city’s version of the Hamptons, and you will understand why Kitzbuehel is a must on both the winter sports and winter party circuits.
What we did not know, and as the parents of a 4-year-old boy were grateful to find out, was how brilliantly and paradoxically this wealthy sport and party town is set up for families with small children. Although exclusivity is often bred by inaccessibility, reaching Kitzbuehel as a family is quite simple. The key to making it easy is to book what you can in advance. Before we left the United States, we bought adult train passes through Rail Europe (on the entire route, our son was able to travel for free); we had the passes activated at a German Rail counter inside Munich Airport, boarded a train right there, and about three hours later we were in Kitzbuehel.
We were equally careful in our choice of hotel. The Kitzbuehel ski area is vast, with 170 kilometers of runs and 51 lifts of various kinds spread over interconnected peaks above seven villages and towns. We chose to stay at the Kempinski Hotel Das Tirol, in nearby Jochberg, for an important reason: We wanted Ryan to learn to ski. The year before, Ryan had refused even to put on his boots but for a few minutes. This time, as winter approached, I rented him boots for the entire season, encouraging him to walk and stomp around our apartment in them until they felt familiar. He now seemed game to give skiing a try.
So I had troubled myself to call ahead to discuss ski rental and ski school details, but there proved to have been no need. At the Kempinski, opening onto the lobby is a shop that rented us skis, poles and boots. Just beyond is the ski room to store equipment when not in use, and just steps opposite that is the desk where Katrin, of the Skischule Jochberg, organized Ryan’s daily lessons. The hotel’s restaurants were one floor above the lobby, and our junior suite, complete with a wickedly fun glass-walled bathroom and a mountain view, was two floors above that.
Each day, we would have a family breakfast — encouraging Ryan toward yogurt and fruit, even as he celebrated his first experience with croissants. By 9:20 each morning, Ryan and the other children in his class had to be in their gear, waiting in front of the ski room. Depending on the day, one or two teachers skilled in early childhood winter sports instruction would lead the little team outside for beginner lessons that would last until noon.
In good snow conditions, the Kempinski is ski-in, ski-out, allowing guests to shoot onto the mountain by an adjoining lift, thereby avoiding any logjam at the main gondola, the Hahnenkammbahn, which operates above Kitzbuehel proper. Because of low snow cover in the valley, however, the neighboring lift was closed, so the third day, the teachers were taking Ryan & Co. by car to Pass Thurn, at the far end of the region, where conditions remained good and where Ryan learned the v-shaped technique I had called the snowplow when young but which was here referred to as either the wedge or, more charmingly, the pizza. Meanwhile, the hotel shuttled my wife and me to and from the Jochberg gondola, a scant three-minute ride away, giving us such easy access to the slopes it felt as if we were cheating.
After class each day, we would pick up Ryan and bring him to the Kids Club, where a staffer would feed the children, play with them and otherwise keep them engaged while the parents got in their own skiing. Late in the afternoon, we would all head as a family to the spa area.
At home, Ryan was well on his way to learning to swim, and at the Kempinski’s indoor pool, he practiced his aquatic moves with his mother — to the point that it took combined parental persuasive powers to get him out each day. Little ones are not allowed into the steam, cold mist and sauna portion of the coed spa.
A Porsche showroom literally opens onto the hotel lobby. One morning, while my wife hit the slopes early and with her characteristic vigor, Florian, the head concierge, took me for a spin in a white Porsche, curving along Alpine roads, the engine rumbling, the countryside a picturesque blur.
We had most of our dinners in the Steinberg, the hotel’s main restaurant, where, depending on the night, it was either a six-course event or a copious buffet centered on a regional dish prepared in full view. One night, we treated ourselves to Sra Bua, the hotel’s unique and excellent Asian-fusion restaurant.
By the end of the week, Ryan was making great progress in his skiing — which he was learning the way we wanted him to: with the basics of proper Alpine technique. My wife had found what she had come for: ski days so complete and across terrain so varied and expansive, she was literally the last skier down one day — the deep-blue dusk threatening to fade into black, the lifts closing as she exited, her vision clouded by thick spray from the snow-making machines that fired up daily once all guests were thought to have cleared off. And I had gotten what I came for: a few unstrained hours a day of skiing and spa-going; good food and a lovely selection of Austrian wines not available at home; espressos, apple strudel and toy shopping in town; a g-force cruise along Alpine roads in a borrowed Porsche; and thundering polo washed down by Champagne that flowed as clear and cold as Alpine spring water.
And we all had fun together as a family. As winter vacations go, that is hard to beat on any account.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: We flew Lufthansa from New York to Munich — in economy and yet in comfort. lufthansa.com; 800-645-3880. You can always rent a car, but the trains in the region are so good, a car rental is hardly worth the trouble. If you are going to spend any time traveling around the region or beyond, get a train pass in advance from Rail Europe. Depending on your itinerary, the total discount off the combined price of individual tickets can be substantial. As an example, a flexible pass that allows for four days of rail travel within Austria within a one-month period costs about $200. raileurope.com; 800-622-8600.
STAYING THERE: The Kitzbuehel region is full of hotel options at all price levels, but if skiing with the family is the main objective, choose a hotel as close to the slopes as possible — preferably one with a children’s center. Alpine hotel prices can fluctuate considerably during the winter season, but a working baseline is that a room at the Kempinski Hotel Das Tirol and similar hotels for a family of three, with breakfast and dinner, is about $500-$650 per night. kempinski.com; to book through Leading Hotels of the World: 800-745-8883.
SKI RENTALS: The staff of the Sport Etz shop at the Kempinski were careful and conscientious, waxing our preschooler’s skis when he, after his third day of skiing, complained that they were not going fast enough for him. A week’s rental of high-end gear for two adults and one child was about $700.
SKI SCHOOL: Our son’s group classes with the Skischule Jochberg were about $47 per day. 1-43-(0)5355-5342.
LIFT TICKETS: You can buy them at the main valley lift stations. Six-day adult ticket: $280-$315, depending on dates. Small children ride for free.
APRES SKI: On Kitzbuehel’s main street, we enjoyed espressos at Centro, a cafe/restaurant with a pizza oven at its entrance, and at Praxmair, a traditional pastry shop/cafe. This mom and dad visited the Spiel Fuchs toy store and the Parish Church of St. Andreas, which holds an intimate but sumptuous Baroque interior within a Gothic edifice.