It wasn’t your traditional winter fairytale. But that made it all the more special. I was dressed in a cheerful red and pink suit that wouldn’t have looked out of place on one of Santa’s helpers. Only it was made of polyamide and neoprene and was designed to keep me dry if I ended up in Lake Fuschl, whose water hovered around 4 degrees.
Despite the temperature and season, I had avoided sledding and skis and was instead stand-up paddling in spectacular mountain scenery. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky; the sunshine blinded the snowy hills and the lake itself, which seemed to have been ripped from the Caribbean. I could see the trout finning through the crystal clear, emerald green water. Grinning stupidly at the beauty of it all, I flexed every muscle from my toes to my temples, dipped my paddle and did my best – regardless of the elfin drysuit – not to fall in.
Winter SUP (stand up paddle boarding) is new to Austria’s Fuschlsee in 2024. This seems like a trendy addition to the area’s activity programme, at a time when not Skiing may be the new skiing.
More people than ever are looking for the benefits of a holiday in the snow – the gentle silence, the immersion in winter nature, the magical sights – without the intense, adrenaline-packed and environmentally damaging aspects of traditional slopes. Slow holiday specialist Inntravel reports that bookings for its non-ski snow holidays have increased by 150 percent compared to last year.
“When the mountains are covered in snow and the view of the Alps stretches into the distance, there is a certain sense of serenity,” says Amber Welford of Inntravel. “Being on the mountain is good for well-being and also helps to gain a bigger perspective. Snow holidays for non-skiers are a growing trend as people discover more and more benefits from these types of holidays that go beyond just hitting the slopes.”
I’m not a skier. But I am a fan of getting out into the fresh mountain air, ideally followed by Kaiserschmarren and schnitzel. Inspired to see what all the fuss was about, the non-skiing husband and I had taken the Nightjet sleeper from Paris to Salzburg to see if Inntravel’s activity break at the Hotel Seerose, in nearby Fuschl am See, might Real be the best way to spend the winter, no downhills required.
Fuschl is accessible. There are no chairlifts or après-ski bars here and it’s all the more attractive for that. In winter, the emphasis in this Salzkammergut village is on hiking, snowshoeing, sightseeing – and now also SUPing – amid beautiful mountains. In reality it is a summer resort, which means that unlike many other retreats in the Alps, Hotel Seerose is actually cheaper in winter.
Walking through the doors felt like a warm hug. The Schocher family, who have been running the hotel for years, know what they are doing. The decor is traditional, the arrangements are flexible, the saunas hot, hot, hot, the rooms cozy, the food excellent and plentiful – five courses every evening, ranging from venison ragout to fresh salmon trout.
Of course, the weather was a bit of a gamble, but since there was no skiing on our schedule, I wasn’t too worried. Fuschl is located at 2,200 feet (an altitude that sets off alarm bells for skiers). From January to March snow is almost a given, but in December, as we had, the snow is variable. “Last week was a winter wonderland!” we were told to no avail as rain gloomy our first day. However, it is reassuring: “go higher” – to places like the Hintersee, Postalm or the Zwölferhorn – and you are guaranteed to find snow, even if there is no snow at the lake.
During the week we had a mixed bag of conditions, but none stopped playing. Rain and shine we followed the numerous designated winter hiking trails. We walked a peaceful lap around Lake Fuschl and marveled at its extraordinary color, even as the clouds hung heavy above it. We walked to the ruins of Wartenfels Castle and startled two chamois who didn’t hear us in the muffled noise. And we took a day trip to Bad Ischl – the centerpiece of the Salzkammergut’s tenure as Capital of Culture in 2024 – and hid from changeable weather in the chandelier-hung Cafe Zauner, which has been serving a dazzling range of cakes since 1832.
Then on sunny days we climbed to the hidden Eibensee, through forests even more glistening with snow than Narnia. We walked through the cheerful Christmas market of St. Gilgen before following the pilgrim path around Lake Wolfgang; we finished in Strobl as the sun set over the chestnut burners and the town’s trumpeting brass band. A higher hike, up the 1,500-meter-high Faistenauer Schafberg, was a tougher challenge, with every third step sinking thigh deep into powder. But the day was too beautiful, the views too great, the joy too great not to do it. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to rent snowshoes – which you can easily do locally.
On another lovely afternoon we took the bus to Faistenau for something different – it was the closest we’d gotten to a pair of planks all week. Karin Wieser-Linhart set up the Nordic Fun cross-country skiing school here and we signed up for a private lesson. Karin raved about its benefits as she led us through the warm-up. To get the body working and the blood flowing in the mountains, there is no better sport, she assured. That is, if we manage to stay on our feet.
All positivity and swinging ponytail made Karin an excellent teacher, and soon she had us gliding, albeit inelegantly, around the prepared tracks. The movement, when I got it right, was smooth, crisp and exhilaratingly addictive. And the views were fantastic: Faistenau sits in a bowl of hills, and as I slipped along I watched the low sun turn everything from the tree-clad slopes to the onion-domed church tower a dreamy pink. Then I fell on my face.
But no harm was done. And nothing that can’t be solved by another gentle winter walk. Or take a dip in the indoor pool overlooking Lake Seerose. Or a nice warming (and reasonably priced) glass of Austrian blaufränkisch. That’s my kind of winter break.
Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) offers seven nights at the Hotel Seerose from £1,035, half board, including flights to Salzburg or from £1,520, including a sleeper train return. SUP Box (sup-box.at) offers guided winter SUPing from €290 (£248) for two, including all equipment. Nordic Fun (nordic-fun.at) offers cross-country skiing lessons from €118 (£100) for two. For more information see austria.info
Sarah was a guest at Inntravel.
Three more top winter resorts for non-skiers
Best for dizzying heights
You don’t need any special skills, skiing or otherwise, to reach the Top of Europe. For more than 100 years, trains have been running to the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe, at an altitude of 3,500 metres, which offers the ultimate winter view. Indeed, it is the excellent transport that makes this area so good for exploring non-skiers. Trains, mountain railways and cable cars connect places like Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Interlaken and Wengen, from where you can access winter hiking and tobogganing routes – including the longest toboggan run in Europe.
Book It: Skiline (020 8313 3999; skiline.co.uk) offers seven nights at Grindelwald’s Sunstar Hotel from £1,349, half board, including flights and transfers.
The best for gourmets
Skiers love Alta Badia. But maybe foodies like it more? This delightful part of the Dolomites is home to a plethora of tasty winter events: Michelin-starred chefs create dishes for mountain huts, there are powder snow breakfasts at sunrise (accessed via snowcat) and cooking experiences with local Ladin bakers. Make Corvara your base: you’ll have easy access to both the mountain cable car and the Michelin-starred La Stüa de Michil. The new SkyAlps London-Bolzano flight also makes it quicker to get to (skyalps.com).
Book It: Ski Solutions (020 3504 6929; skisolutions.co.uk) offers seven nights at La Perla from £2,245, half board, including flights and transfers.
Best for village vibes
Although the charming village of Samoëns lies within the Grand Massif ski area, it has retained its own identity. It is the only winter sports resort in France classified as “national heritage”. People come not only to ski, but also to wander the old square and covered market. And for refreshing dips: Samoëns organized the Ice Swimming World Championships in 2023, and ice swimming courses are given at Lac aux Dames. Alternatively, you can try cold yoga or winter rafting on the Giffre River.
Book It: Peak Retreats (023 9283 9310; peakretreats.co.uk) offers seven nights at La Residence Club Samoëns Village from £296 (five sharing), including Eurotunnel and a self-contained apartment.