The night was as dark as the bottom of a well when I pushed open the old wooden door, releasing a wraith-like puff of steam into the frosty air. Stuffing my wet feet into my snow boots, I stepped out and walked naked across the fresh, crunching snow under a full moon.
The silhouettes of firs and pines towered all around, a silent forest tucking into the bluish mountainsides. I reached out into the moonlight like some kind of pagan worshipper, feeling the icy sting of the air working its invigorating magic.
It wasn’t a moon bath ritual at a fancy spa in the new forest, but my no-frills version – stepping out after a shower for some DIY cold therapy – the kind of liberating activity we get used to. it can be dedicated when in an isolated shelter.
It wasn’t actually that isolated, although it did feel that way, as just over the mountains to the north was the ski resort of Kitzbühel, nicknamed the ‘Aspen of the Alps’ for its glitz.
While I felt the attraction of its legendary slopes, the champagne bars, five-star service and even après ski weren’t what I wanted. When I go snowboarding these days I want to explore the mountains as a hiker would in the summer, cover them all, enter their folds and “get in touch with nature”, leaving the crowded slopes behind. Some of my best experiences have been riding through the forest, speeding through the dust between the trees, but also taking the time to stop, sit on a rock, smell the pine scents, and listen to the slow drip of melt water across a landscape muffled by snow.
I wanted the same feeling from the accommodation as well. We Brits have chosen cabin stays for the summer and autumn. Why not for the most special holiday of the holidays, the ski trip?
Related: ‘There are enough new routes to last a lifetime’: ski touring in the French Alps
Places like that aren’t so easy to find in a holiday market dominated by the bright norms of chalets and big-resort hotels, but one helpful website, almliesl.com, lists Austria’s rustic and wild cabins. It was here that I spotted the Josef Kreidl Hutte, an off-grid former hunting lodge outside Jochberg, a satellite resort linked by ski lifts to Kitzbühel and popular with Austrian and Bavarian families who enjoy its friendly lessons, low prices and the community atmosphere. This appealed to us as well, coming with two young children in the early stages of learning to ski. Plus, it was relatively affordable, even during the usually exorbitant February semester.
The fact that the hut wasn’t easy to reach was a factor, and our journey from Jochberg began with a frantic struggle in the dark, trying to fit snow chains on the wrong type of hire car (a 4×4 is recommended ). We were eventually rescued by the 74-year-old cabin keeper, Franz Poll, and his adult son, who took us two miles up what was essentially a cross-country ski trail (a few confused skiers zipped past), past small cliffs, drifts of deep snow and frozen waterfalls like big flakes piled up on the windshield.
We stuffed beers and lollipops into the snow outside, and the kids plucked icicles off the overhanging roof for drinks
Crossing a bridge over a tumultuous river we finally arrived at our beautiful cabin. Gentle Franz, a real skier in a knit cap and white ponytail, busied himself with a torch, lighting the gas lamps, pulling wood from a basket and wood from a cupboard to light the large stone stove in the center of the living area, with kitchen, benches and hooks for drying clothes. My “spa” (shower room) was next door, and steep stairs led up to the gabled loft room, with five single beds lined up as if a small group of dwarfs were expected.
This was no fancy Scandi design cabin, but the real deal. The tiny gas fridge only had room for the essentials, so we tucked beers and lollipops into the snow outside, and the kids plucked popsicles from the overhanging roof for drinks. No TV, no wifi – we couldn’t even charge our phones as the wrong type of rental car had the wrong type of plugs. But being without electricity creates a special sensation: free of hum and static, the air itself seemed calmer and quieter, older.
The setting proved unique the next morning as we skied down the piste to the road, where the lifts were only 500m away. For the kids it proved a bit slippery and lumpy, so we ended up using the car. Parking was free, as were the beginner lifts, where we helped the kids practice each morning, then stocked up on frankfurters, salads, and herb-scented sparkling Almdudler at the Hausleit’n Stub’n café at the foot of the slope for children. Conveniently next door to the ski school office and meeting point, it became a gathering place for parents, who drank coffee in the sunshine while the kids came and went.
Evenings were spent cooking in the warm glow of gas wall lamps, sitting outside with a beer under the stars
Our youngest thoroughly enjoyed his afternoon lessons, learning to ‘pizza’, ‘airplane’ and ride to the top on his own whilst we took our daughter to tackle the more challenging blues. We focused mostly on the easy runs at Jochberg, but were able to access the 145 miles of runs in the wider KitzSki area. We all went to Kitzbühel for the kids to experience their first amusement park, hitting every bump and baby jump with a round of applause. The Kitz 3S-Bahn cable car took us there, running nearly two and a half miles between two ski areas on either side of the Saukaser Valley, where our cabin was hidden below, 400m above the ground in places (it was the highest cable car in Europe for a time).
We considered trying the restaurants in Kitzbühel or going bowling, but it seemed like a waste when our magical cabin was waiting for us, so we took the bus back home. One evening, after visiting the imposing church of Saint Wolfgang in Jochberg, we dined out at the Schwarzer Adler, a luxury hotel restaurant that prepares chic schnitzels and spaAndtzle, with jeweled cattle skulls on the walls. It was fine, even fabulous, but we preferred our cozy evenings at home. Apart from the naked moon baths, these were spent cooking in the warm glow of gas lamps, sitting outside with a beer under the stars and lighting candles to play. No one set their hair on fire, though I worried about it, and while the children’s general judgment of life in the cabin was that they “missed the light switches,” I knew this quiet life was doing us good.
We shot through the silence and mercurial light under giant trees whose branches seemed to be bathed in bubbling bubble baths.
Franz stopped for the night with his 13-year-old younger son, who chatted in perfect English about his passions: airsoft, his older girlfriend and manga. We learned that in addition to being a ski fanatic and well-rounded mountain man, who tended the cabins in the winter and the cows in the summer, Franz had previously been a cobbler, producing numbers of luxury leather goods for artists of the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger. A shoemaker who runs a small log cabin in the woods? All we needed were some elves and an evil witch and the fairy tale would be complete.
We could have easily slept there for even a hundred years, but our time was running out and we had a great mission to accomplish.
By the end of the week the boys seemed up for the challenge, so we rode the lifts up to Kitzbühel and skied a trail down into our valley and onto an ungroomed run that led (we hoped) to the lodge. The snow was so deep that the lower windows of the chalets we passed were buried and we sank into silence and mercurial light under giant trees whose branches looked as if they had been dipped in foamy bath bubbles.
If we hadn’t had the little ones with us, we could have had the time of our lives in the dust filled bowls above the cabin, but hey, a reason to go back. And it was a thrill to see the children doing awfully well, plowing the mounds without falling or complaining until finally, around a bend in the pines, our little hut came into view.
“How we got there here??!” the younger one gasped. We had. We returned home on skis. A fairytale ending.
The trip was offered by the Tyrolean Tourist BoardKitzbüheland the Austrian National Tourist Board. The Josef Kreidl Hütte costs from €79 one night and sleeps five; booked up to almliesl.com, which has around 170 cabins and lodges to rent, mostly in the Austrian Alps. Six-day ski pass for Kitzbühel from €275 adults and €137 sonsfree). Intersport provided ski hire