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Photo by Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock
Four a taste of Bavaria on this side of the Atlantic, head to Vail, Colorado.
These historic outposts feature Swiss chalets, Austrian cuisine, and dramatic pistes.
Europe’s eternally charming Alps region, spanning France, Monaco, Switzerland, Italy, Lichtensten, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia, is on many travelers’ wish lists for a reason. (Hello, gorgeous snowy peaks, endless fondue, après cocktails, and hot springs.) If you’re yearning for an alpine experience closer to home, get your fix in several U.S. ski towns with a distinctly European past and aesthetic.
How did these Alps-inspired ski hubs come to be? In the 1930s, a small group of Germans and Austrians fleeing the rise of Hitler was deployed by U.S. ski developers to run America’s first ski schools and help turn its mountain towns into world-class resorts. They had been taught by the “father of modern skiing,” Hannes Schneider, at a famous ski school in St. Anton, Austria, and helped develop the modern resort and sport that we know in the U.S. today in places such as Stowe, Vermont, and Sun Valley, Idaho. Other U.S. ski destinations have also been inspired by their European counterparts.
Can’t make it to the Alps region this winter? Consider a chalet in a Tyrolean-style village at the base of one of America’s first ski resorts.
If the thought of vacationing inside a life-sized snow globe appeals to you, Leavenworth, Washington is a good bet. This Bavarian-style village, dominated by German A-line architecture with tiny windows and wooden balconies, is a two-hour drive from Seattle in a narrow valley of the Cascade Mountains. Many Seattleites will decamp for Oktoberfest here each year, though the forested winter wonderland scene appeals all season. Leavenworth is also home to one of the country’s earliest private ski clubs with a long legacy of competitive jumping. Visitors can still ski at this little mountain, now owned by the town; catch the shuttle to Stevens Pass, or in a few hours, be at world-class runs like Mission Ridge, Mount Hood (Oregon’s oldest and biggest), or Crystal Mountain, where Schneider’s pupil, Austrian Otto Lang, founded a ski school and made some of the first ski films, classics such as Ski Flight and Sun Valley Serenade.
From Thanksgiving until February, the entire town of Leavenworth, one of America’s most festive Christmas destinations, is decked out in thousands of strings of lights and hosts carolers and numerous holiday events. There’s even a nearby reindeer farm. Snack on authentic German fare at München Hause Bavarian Grill & Beer Garden or Andreas Keller, and stay at the Bavarian Lodge or the Haus Hanika, a Swiss chalet with river and mountain views.
The ski town of North Conway in New Hampshire’s White Mountains was once home to Schneider himself. The legendary founder of the ever-popular three-step Arlberg teaching technique (that takes skiers from snowplough to parallel by shifting their weight on their outside ski for a “stem Christie” wedge turn) arrived in North Conway in 1939 straight from anti-Nazi house arrest. An influential financier pulled some strings and had Schneider released in Germany to come run his ski school at what’s now Cranmore Mountain Resort. Schneider’s son, Herbert, co-founder of the Professional Ski Instructors of America organization, later acquired Cranmore, and Schneider’s grandson went on to open the Schneider Hof Hotel Garni in St. Anton, Austria, in 2017, bringing the family story full circle.
Today, the Schneider legend can be felt throughout the Cranmore experience. From the New England Ski Museum to the oldest ski shop in America (Lahout’s), the area is a scavenger hunt of rich World War II-era European ski history, and a short drive to about a dozen ski resorts. After hitting the slopes, stay at one of America’s first ski schools that is now converted into an inn, Eastern Slope Inn Resort, or opt for old-world Austrian charm at Mittersill Alpine Resort, modeled by Austrian Baron Hubert von Pantz after his Austrian castle and ski club.
Early Austrian influences in “the ski capital of the east” date back to 1936. That’s when Schneider’s student, Austrian engineer Sepp Ruschp, arrived in Stowe, Vermont, to direct the ski school at Mt. Mansfield, now Stowe Mountain Resort—home to the country’s first ski patrol. By the 1950s, climbers and skiers were traveling from all over to the Trapp Family Lodge, still owned and operated by the descendants of Maria and Baron Georg von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame. Over the years, the family’s add-ons, like the country’s first cross-country ski center, the von Trapp Brewing Bierhall Restaurant, a farmstead, and a kaffeehaus offer even more reasons to visit this iconic ski destination.
In 1935, the Union Pacific Railroad commissioned Austrian ski resort developer Count Felix Schaffgotsch to find a piece of skiable land where “the powder is dry, the sun shines all day, and the harsh winds of winter don’t penetrate,” according to Sun Valley: A Biography. Schaffgotsch responded with Sun Valley, a mining town on the northern edge of the Rockies, which he claimed “contains more delightful features for a winter sports center than any other place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland, or Austria,” the city’s website retells. One of America’s first destination ski resorts is home to the country’s first chairlift, which opened in 1936, and has remained a prominent ski school, which was under Austrian leadership until 2006. It was directed by greats who trained under Schneider in St. Anton, like Sigi Engl (his trail, Sigi’s Bowl, offers gentle, intermediate terrain for the day’s first tracks), Sepp Fröhlich, Otto Lang, Hans Hauser, and Friedl Pfeifer. Once a fashionable destination for sunbathing in roofless igloos at glamorous hotels, and jetsetters like Ernest Hemingway (check out the Hemingway-themed walking tour) and Gary Cooper, Sun Valley (and neighboring Ketchum) has stayed true to its Austrian and mining roots, with a touch of opulence.
Accommodations range from the newly remodeled Austrian-styled ski chalet Sun Valley Inn (think old-world charm with modern amenities and sweeping mountain views) to Knob Hill Inn, an upscale single-structure alpine lodge with similarly gorgeous mountain views for days. Sip après-ski cocktails at Konditorei Bakery & Cafe, or dine like Hollywood, 7,700 feet up on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain (aka “Baldy”), at the Roundhouse, a classic on-mountain experience since 1939. Don’t forget to take a plunge in the natural hot springs just outside of Ketchum—this tradition has long been a favorite in the Alps.
If you’re after big powder with traditional Austrian charm, get a taste of the Alps in the Rockies. It’s impossible to overlook the influence that Austrian Olympic skier Pepi Gramshammer had on the 5,317 acres that is Vail Ski Resort. After leaving Austria in 1960 to teach skiing at Sun Valley in Idaho, he was lured to Vail the year it opened in 1966 and remained at the heart of the community until his death in 2019. Authentic Austrian hospitality lives on at the base of some of the best skiing in the country at Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer, which he founded with his wife Sheika in 1964. This Austrian-styled inn, which serves up traditional favorites like bratwurst and sauerkraut at the onsite Pepi’s Restaurant and Bar, offers an intimate setting with 37 rooms with the rustic Austrian ambiance of hand-carved furniture and wooden beams.
In Vail Square, pay homage to Bavarian culture in old-world luxury at The Arrabelle at Vail Square (a nod to Bavaria developed in 2007 by Vail Resorts at the site of the old gondola). Wander narrow streets with Tyrolean facades where you will find traditional restaurants run by German immigrants, like Alpenrose and Almresi, that serve fondue and pretzels. There are also plenty of lodging and shops inside vintage chalets, a vibrant Oktoberfest season complete with ample lederhosen. Final stop: Gramshammer’s former ski shop, Pepi Sports, for a wide selection of top gear and luxurious alpine knitwear.
>> Next: The World’s Most Charming Ski Towns
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