An eco-friendly stay at ‘the quietest ski village in Austria’

On a steeply pitched road in Grosses Walsertal valley, it was snowing – heavily – as if the heavens had shattered. I was two hours west of Innsbruck, deep in the Alps in midwinter, but the view was free from the rows of snow-laden hotels, après-ski bars and resort chalets that I was used to seeing on previous ski trips.

I’d come to the hamlet of Fontanella, halfway between Sonntag and Faschina in Vorarlberg – a place few skiers would be able to pinpoint on a map – to experience a new type of holiday at Cabinski, a cluster of affordable, sustainable huts, which opened last December. Each of the 10 cabins comes with two double bunks, an ensuite and kitchen, and minimalist yet smart Scandi vibes. That might sound familiar enough, but the twist is that this accommodation is temporary – just about pop-up – and able to vanish as quickly as it appeared. It is a counter world to the typical chalet stay.

The view from the cabin.

Before leaving for Austria, I’d spoken to Cabinski’s German co-founder Tim Suske, who explained how his “leave-no-trace” cabins were built to work in harmony with the landscape, not against it. “We saw a need for some changes in Alpine tourism,” he told me. “Our aim is not to turn the Alps into one big theme park. It’s not about higher, faster, further. Our construction means all cabins can be winched out somewhere else if needed – we’re able to rewild the land completely afterwards.” The Fontanella cabins are likely to stay in place for a few years and there are more in Montafon an hour south – with others in the pipeline.

My shipping container-style apartment was complemented by a Sonos system with a ready-made playlist of moody scene-setters (Sigur Rós, Maribou State, Arlo Parks) and snow-to-sky window views over a wave of graceful mountains. Outside, two distinctive ranges met: the green flysch belt of the Walserkamm collided with the rocky chutes and crags of the limestone Alps.

Cabinksi Walstertal in the snow. Photograph: Julia Nimke

Then, I saw the private wood sauna (half of the cabins here have them), a short barefoot walk in the snow beyond the sliding door, with wireless timer to ignite the burner while I was skiing. The strong impression was of farsightedness and knowhow, but also something neighbourly and cosy. Next door, in an old housebarn owned by the farmer leasing the land to Suske and his partner Christopher Eichhorn, two honesty fridges of butter, milk, eggs, cheese and other local specialities sat between tufty hay bales and cow bells. Breakfast and dinner, paid for via a QR code, was sorted.

The private wood sauna. Photograph: Julia Nimke

In Austria, the country of big ticket resorts such as St Anton, Ischgl and Kitzbühel, it is always a pleasure to find somewhere new in winter and, dare I say it, somewhere more authentic. Grosses Walsertal is such a place. It is where centuries of immigration have converged, with the Walsers – originally from Valais in southern Switzerland – first settling, then clearing land and erecting farms around 1300. Many of these long-established homesteads still exist and, today, the huddling barns and web of huts aren’t a ghostly presence like in many Alpine valleys. The ski areas are basic and low-tech, Sonntag has one gondola and one chairlift and Faschina two chairlifts, one T-bar tow.

The next morning began with a blizzard – all white light, grey sky, lithograph mountains – but also with the news that I was the first person on the chairlift at Faschina. It was already well after 9am. “You’ll have the place to yourself today,” said the lady at the ticket office, surprised to hear a foreign accent. “It won’t be what you’re used to, but that’s why we love it.” Several hours of the loneliest ski and loveliest runs followed – just me and the mountains .

Reverence for the local ecosystem is built into the Walsers’ DNA as I learned at Biosphärenpark Haus, an archive in Sonntag of the valley’s Unesco credentials. Those, as I later found out, put the miniature valley on an equal footing with the Galápagos and vast Serengeti. All are biosphere reserves, recognised for balancing the relationship between people and nature. Grosses Walsertal is just on a different scale.

The museum’s project assistant Monika Bischof, explained that the Walsers were one of the original advocates of an eco-friendly way of life. Their approach to sustainability balanced both cultural and natural assets. “We speak about problems and solve them together,” she said, as we explored the exhibits, including an award-winning working cheese dairy. “There’s a slow pace of life. And we’re not looking to change.” It helps, I think, that the population – only 17 people a square km – is tiny. On the slopes, it feels like even less.

Sonnenhof Sonnenalm restaurant and ski hut in Damuls. Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy

For the more ambitious skier, there is much more terrain further up the valley that reveals itself in stages. Catching the bus outside my cabin the next morning, I crossed into Damüls in the neighbouring region of Bregenzerwald, a journey of only 10 minutes, but one that drifted from empty slopes and the quiet main street of Faschina into the wintry Austria visitors would be familiar with. I saw a blur of whirling lifts, piste-top restaurants and goggled helmets.

Light streaked across Damüls and, with the weather improving, I rode the quad and six-person chairs for the day, always with an eye on Damülser Mittagsspitze, a Matterhorn-type mountain with less fanfare but perhaps all the better for it. It glinted black and white above the tree line, a giant dorsal fin on a calm sea.

Skiing in Faschina. Photograph: Alex Kaiser/Alpenregion Bludenz Tourismus

Hunger took me to Elsenalpstube, a terraced mountain refuge that smelled teasingly of Germknödel, a poppy seed-topped jammy dumpling, and a thinly veiled excuse to pig-out at lunchtime. The self-service restaurant was busy and I queued alongside Bavarians and Vorarlbergers, most of whom also ordered foaming pints of wheat beer. Alcohol and cake for lunch seemed a given, with no hint of embarrassment. Another reason to love the place.

Later, skiing done for the day, I dropped my rental kit back in Faschina and looped back to my cabin for a sauna and shower. Dinner was beer and no-frills pizza at Dorfstübli in Fontanella, an unashamedly old-fashioned locals’ place by the church and where I was the only visitor. Like the rest of the Grosses Walsertal, it felt unreal. There was no open-armed welcome, no après-ski, no choice. You could search a thousand other wood-clad bars throughout the Alps in winter and not find another like it. My overall sense was this was the quietest ski village in Austria, which suited me fine.

The trip was provided by Alpenregion Bludenz and Visit Austria. A stay at Cabinksi Walsertal costs from €184 per cabin per night, for up to a family of four, or three adults.


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