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Where to find the most winter fun in Europe

You don't have to crave a vertical drop-or even ski at all-to enjoy the winter mountain scene: ice bars playing popular tunes, a bowl of Gulasch Suppe, and a tall, cold beer are among the highlights of offseason travel. Read on, as we profile a winter resort in each of our three countries:

Austria: Mayrhofen

An easy two and a half-hour drive from Munich or Salzburg, the Ziller Valley begins at the town of Jenbach (population 6,000), and runs south following the Ziller River between the Tux Alps and the Kitzbühel Alps. At the end of the valley sits Mayrhofen, a town of 3,000 residents that grew from its origins as a summer haven for Viennese city folk to an 8,900-bed skiing and hiking resort.

One of Austria's liveliest resorts, Mayrhofen has steadily upgraded its lifts in recent years. The latest addition is a six-seater called the Gerent, that will usher 3,000 skiers per hour to the mountaintop. Next on the list is the 25-year old Ahorn cable car.

There are two main mountains at Mayrhofen: the Penken and the Ahorn. The Penken is best suited to intermediates while the Ahorn is ideal for beginners.

Mayrhofen recently joined with the resorts of Hippach, Finkenberg, and Tux to form the Zillertal3000, an area that provides more than 146 kilometers (80 miles) of trails and is serviced by 46 lifts.

Shorter runs and long lift lines discourage some advanced skiers, but the conditions are reliable for Tyrolia. And nearby, the Hintertux glacier offers year-round winter recreation.

For a small village, Mayrhofen has an active après-ski scene. The Ice Bar at the base of the Penken Gondola is a popular destination for skiers at the end of the day. Bars and clubs offer music ranging from folk to disco.

A number of wintertime activities, however, don't require traipsing around in stiff boots attached to long, skinny planks. The tourist office can arrange a hot air balloon ride or a panoramic alpine flight, horseback riding, sleigh rides, ice skating, or tobogganing. In the rare case of inclement weather, indoor activities include swimming at the "adventure" pool (Waldbadstrasse); soaking in a hot tub, sauna, or Jacuzzi; playing squash, billiards, bowling, or chess; and of course, browsing the shops along Hauptstrasse.

The five-star Elisabeth Hotel (tel. +43/5285/67 67, has 30 guestrooms with wood-paneled walls and ceilings, a balcony, mini-bar, satellite TV, and separate rooms for toilet and bath. The fitness center is a destination in itself, with a large indoor pool, sauna, solarium, steam room, body styling, massage, beauty salon, and Jacuzzi. Closed November 1 to December 16.

For Ziller Valley cuisine, Wirtshaus zum Griena tel. (+43/5285/627 78) is the place to dine. Here, Anneliese Steinlechner serves local specialties in a 400 year-old farm house located near Mayrhofen's Ahorn gondola.

Switzerland's Châteaux d'Oex

Nestled on the south side of a valley among the Vaudois, French-speaking Alps, Château d'Oex is the picture of a quaint ski village. To the west is the medieval town of Gruyères, world famous for its cheese; to the east, the international glamour resort, Gstaad.

If cheese and the international jet set are not enough to evoke the real Switzerland, the cultural diversity between the French and German speaking sections of the country is.

Some people enjoy the relaxed atmosphere at Château d'Oex. But most serious skiers opt for a regional pass that covers 69 lifts and accesses 248 kilometers (155 miles) of groomed slopes across eight different resorts, including Gstaad, Saanemöser, and Schönried, as well as the glacier above Les Diablerets, which is skiable year round.

Perhaps the most exciting time to visit this resort is toward the end of January, when Château-d'Oex is home to one of the world's largest hot air balloon events. Only an hour and a half from Geneva, the resort is convenient for day trips to the lakeside Castle of Chillon (saluted by Lord Byron) and the cities of Montreux and Lausanne.

Inquire at the Château-d'Oex tourist office about visiting La Maison de L'Etivaz, a cheese-making cooperative. The cheese is made by individual farmers in the mountains in the summer, then brought to L'Etivaz to be stored and cured for up to three years. The tour is worthwhile.

For accommodations, Hostellerie Bon Accueil is one of our favorites, in an 18th century chalet.

Germany: Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Fresh, pure mountain air has made this one of the most popular health resorts in the Bavarian Alps. Unlike some of Europe's more glamorous resorts, it has a down-to-earth feel that is grounded in authentic culture. Locals often dress in traditional styles and many of the older buildings are decorated with beautiful frescoes that are often centuries old.

The imposing Zugspitz rises 2,966 meters (nearly 10,000 feet) from Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Skiers will find 115 kilometers (72 miles) of downhill runs, across all ability levels. With a multiresort pass, you can also use unconnected lift systems in the area. Three rail lines, several bus lines and excellent highways connect Garmisch-Partenkirchen with southern Bavaria and Munich, the capital.

Five minutes from the center of town, the Hotel Staudacherhof is a wellness hotel and golf resort. Contact: tel. + 49/8821/92 90

Gasthof Fraundorfer hosts an entertaining Bavarian Evening with music, Schuhplattler, jodels, and a traditional Bavarian menu. Contact: tel. +49/8821/92 70,

* Most of the information in this story comes from our colleagues at SkiEurope, a longtime winter tour operator that specializes in arranging custom packages for groups and individuals. Gemütlichkeit is personally acquainted with the company's knowledgeable and caring management, and unhesitatingly recommends its products and services. Visit or phone 800-333-5533, for information about 60 resorts in six countries and online tools that help travelers find the best ski resorts to match their interests.