About halfway through his 19-plate tasting menu, around the time of the arrival of the confit egg yolk served in its shell with yakitori eel and roasted millet, Max Natmessnig bounds across the kitchen with a newsflash. "Joschi's just shot a 250 kilogram deer!" he gasps.
Joschi Walch is the owner of the Rote Wand resort in Zug, a pretty hamlet on the Arlberg massif in Austria's western Alps. Natmessnig is his talented young chef (ex-Brooklyn Fare in Manhattan and Vienna's Steirereck) who oversees the Schualhus, Rote Wand's hot-ticket, 16-seat chef's table.
The deer does sound impressive but it's not enough to distract me from my post. Natmessnig's dégustation launched with a "pre-amuse" of forest mushrooms in a super-charged fungi broth then segued into nine "finger dishes", one-bite delights that range from turnip to Tyrolean wagyu. His sourdough is presented mid-banquet like a ritual sacrifice before the gastronomic games continue – the standout a hibachi-charred hunk of pigeon seasoned with cassis, chive oil and its own jus. Beside it, a refined pigeon-blood pudding nests under a spiegeltent of zucchini.
(The young woman next to me, one half of a newlywed couple who's come from Hamburg to eat here, scrapes her plate with a knife to savour every drop of jus. I use my fingers.)
At the end of the feast Natmessnig ushers me into a fir-lined room where a baroque tableau awaits. Walch and his hunting mates are celebrating at a table crowned with a deer's head on a bed of pine branches, the magnificence of its eleven-point antlers offset ¬¬somewhat by a cartoonishly long tongue lolling from its mouth.
Life in the Arlberg in late summer is visceral and invigorating. Deer heads aside, my week in the Austrian Alps brims with thrilling scenery, decadent dining, exhilarating hikes and mountain villages that excel at lodging and good living.
The massif connects Austria's western states of Tyrol and Vorarlberg. Its glamorous villages of Lech, St Anton am Arlberg, Zürs, Stuben, St Christoph and Warth are best known as élite ski resorts favoured by royalty, moguls and old-money Mitteleuropeans. But when the season's last après-ski debauch winds up (usually at St Anton's MooserWirt, the wildest party in town), these hill stations retreat into seasonal hibernation. The resort village of Zürs shuts down completely in summer.
This is when outdoor and adventure enthusiasts come to conquer the green mountains, and when visitor numbers are a fraction of their winter highs. So local entrepreneurs such as Axel Bach have conceived events and attractions to make the Arlberg a more compelling summer destination. The off-season calendar now features golf challenges, trail-running and triathlons, mountain biking, yoga, classical music and jazz festivals, and a characteristically bold offering from Bach.
He's the larger-than-life proprietor of the exclusive Hotel Tannenhof in St Anton and founder of the annual Kulinarik & Kunst festival of gastronomy and art. He launched it five years ago as a four-day fling and now directs a 24-day program centred on exceptional moments in food and culture.
"I am Kulinarium and Art!" he declares when we meet at St Anton's Der Waldhof, one of the region's alpine inns with a prodigious talent for hospitality. We are here for a headline event of the festival, a 36-head dinner prepared by the three-star German chef Klaus Erfort. The highlight for me is an Austrian-Australian production of organic "onsen" egg, poached at 60°C, with parsley purée and speck, and topped with shavings of Tasmanian truffle and caramelised chicken skin. "Just for the umami," explains pastry chef Matthias Spurk.
Between Erfort's trademark langoustine, the turbot and venison, soufflé and délice – all paired with wines selected by Paula Bosch, the German-speaking world's pre-eminent sommelier – I ask Bach why he conceived this festival. "Talking to each other, eating together – it's the oldest form of culture we have," he replies.
Good living seems to be programmed into the Arlberg DNA, a rare and appealing hybrid of Teutonic thoroughness and southern-European savoir vivre. Its sophistication belies the accepted wisdom that the Arlberg is remote and backward. "There's a saying in Austria: the narrower the valley, the narrower the mentality," says Bach as we gaze down the scenic Stanzer valley from the Tannenhof's sun terrace. "And the Stanzer is one of the narrowest..."
He exaggerates. This valley is at least as worldly as it is parochial. St Anton is home to the world's first ski school, founded in 1921, and the modern concept of snow tourism was born here in the 1930s. "There were visionaries here," Bach concedes. "This small village is the cradle of alpine skiing – and that's really something."
For the first-time visitor the Arlberg's class system is hard to fathom, chiefly because its six main villages are all picturesque arrangements of chalet-stacked valleys, catering to the ultra-rich in maximum style. (The region claims one of the highest concentrations of awarded restaurants in Europe: 29 hatted establishments listed in the Gault Millau guide, 21 of them in Lech-Zürs.)
But, if pushed, locals will offer some handy shorthand descriptors to help outsiders tell one idyllic settlement from another. "I can tell you that the Tyrolean side with St Anton and St Christoph is preferred by the sporty skiers," offers Bach, "and the Vorarlberg side with Lech, Warth and Stuben is more for the family skiers. The clientele is absolutely different."
Florian Werner, owner and host at St Christoph's Arlberg Hospiz hotel, is more succinct. "You go with your family to Lech, your girlfriend to Zürs and to St Anton with your friends, to ski and to party."
The short drive from St Anton to Lech involves typically pulse-racing scenery and a pit-stop at St Christoph, famous for its charitable foundation which has provided refuge to alpine travellers since 1386.
It is less well known as the birthplace of the world's first ski club (in 1901) and a repository of an amazing collection of large-format Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.
They're stored in a hillside cellar at the Arlberg Hospiz, where Werner escorts me underground to marvel at magnums of St Émilion (Chateau Figeac to be precise) and balthazars of Cheval Blanc, produced exclusively for his hotel. His father, Adi, started the €45-million collection in the 1970s after a patron at his restaurant, a ski lodge-styled affair renowned for good times, asked if there were any "better wines" than those listed.
Adi's passion was wine; his son's is art and culture. Werner junior built deluxe apartments in St Christoph to fund a subterranean Contemporary Art and Concert Hall, which, thanks to heavy rain, is the substitute venue for a signature event of Bach's 2018 gastronomy and art festival.
Originally booked to perform on a floating stage on Lake Verwall, instead German virtuosos Karolin and Friederike Stegmann, identical twins in flaming red dresses and gold crotchet earrings, play Liszt and Rachmaninoff on piano to a packed audience with such hypnotic intensity that one man faints. The evening, which includes acrobats and a rock concert by a Queen cover band, is considered a great success despite the change of venue.
The festival also brings art exhibitions, literary and musical performances and a fashion show to the Arlberg in late summer, but culture permeates the landscape year-round. On the 22-kilometre Green Ring hiking trail (it becomes the White Ring ski route in winter), artists from five countries have installed a series of nine wilderness doorways that open to grand Tyrolean vistas, part of a three-year project that ends this northern summer. It's preceded by British artist Antony Gormley's Horizon Field project, in which he erected 100 iron men over 150 square kilometres of the Alps. Only one remains, standing forlornly like a lost soul above the Kriegeralpe, a tavern of gingham tablecloths and traditional tastes such as schnitzel, beef soup with sliced pancake, and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche. Opened last northern autumn, American artist James Turrell's Skyspace is a roofless pavilion framing ephemeral glimpses of sky from a grassy mount above Lech.
Lodgings are far easier to come by here in summer than in winter, when reservations are passed down through generations like an inherited privilege. I spend three nights at the Hotel Gasthof Post in a pine-walled suite with every comfort I could imagine, including access to an outdoor pool that looks directly to Omeshorn, the house mountain."In the German-speaking world, everyone who can afford Gasthof Post knows Gasthof Post," says owner Florian Moosbrugger. He and his wife Sandra host weekly cocktails to welcome new arrivals and outline the coming week's activities. These might include an outing to the hotel's hunting hut at Lake Forma rin for cheese noodles, wine tasting (Moosbrugger's brother owns an excellent vineyard, Schloss Gobelsburg) and dinner in the revamped dining room with panoramic village views.
Any stay in a top Arlberg hotel is underwritten by the hospitality of its hosts. Running a hotel in these parts is a vocation, not a job. Moosbrugger talks of "the philosophy of hosting people" and later, over Champagne in the bar, gives me a first-hand demonstration of what he means by recounting the hotel's storied history.
His grandmother Fanziska, a woman fond of whisky and cigars, bought the Post in 1937. The stuffed ibex on a rocky plinth outside the bar was, it turns out, shot by his mother Kristl to mark the successful reintroduction of the species to the region. Florian took over the hotel in 1988 after his father's sudden death from altitude sickness in the Himalayas.
He runs it in traditional Austrian style with great warmth and a twinkle in the eye. If you imagine Austrians as dour Germanic types then think again. "We are friendly, positive, fun, singing people," Moosbrugger assures me.
That's certainly my experience. The following morning I set off on a mountain ramble with Harald Rausch the wanderführer (hiking guide). He is a lanky, instantly likeable man who says things like, "When I look at this area through other people's eyes who have never been here, I can appreciate it even more," as we amble through spruce forests towards Bürstegg. He leads me through lush fields painted with gentian, rampions, bright fuchsia bursts of knapweed and pink autumn crocuses, past munching cows in settings straight from a chocolate ad.
The tiny township of Bürstegg was founded in the 14th century by Swiss migrants who fled to the mountains to avoid taxes. At 1,800 metres it was the Alps' highest settlement for 500 years, until a priest convinced the last holdouts to relocate to the valley in 1890. There's still one couple who migrate here every summer to pasture their cows. They also operate a simple kiosk from a 500-year-old farmhouse, serving jause – an in-between meal of cheese, speck and bread – and drinks to passing pleasure seekers. There is beer, four versions of homemade cider and, as always in Austria, schnapps.
The shingled spire of Bürstegg comes into focus first and then its cluster of thatch-roof buildings. Hikers, some in lederhosen and hatbands stuck with flowers, sit on benches outside one house admiring the cowbell symphony and precipitous outlooks over the Lechtal Valley. Inside, Franziska and Norbert Bitschnau greet me in fashionably cuffed jeans, skivvies and cardigans. Both in their eighties, they look like a pair of elderly beatniks.
The Bitschnaus have been coming up here for 26 years. They usually arrive around mid-May to mend fences and then, in early June, they bring their livestock. This year they have 45 cows with them.
Franziska takes me into the stube, a basic wooden room with a tiled kachelofen stove and six windows framing serene valley views. Her 10 grandchildren all visit over summer, and her nine-year-old grandson loves nothing more than staring out the windows. When school friends ask if he gets bored up at Bürstegg without television or internet, he tells them: "No, I'm not bored at all. I have six channels."
Franziska loves her time in the mountains – "every day, through my heart, I discover new things"– but there comes a time when she longs to return to the valley. "My washing machine's calling me," she jokes.
My wanderführer and Norbert discuss how they feel ready for autumn. In spring they feel drawn to the heavens but now they feel it's time to return to their earthly lives in the valley.
Back at Rote Wand, chef Natmessnig is also looking forward to autumn, when the hunting season is in full swing. Next week at the Schualhus he'll launch a game menu of deer, elk, pigeon and other unlucky creatures.
"We are going to make a deer schnitzel," he grins. "It's mind-blowing!"
How to get to Austria's western Alps
Emirates flies from all major Australian cities to Dubai with connections to Zurich, which is much closer to Austria's Arlberg region than Vienna. The drive to the Arlberg takes about two hours, or take the train from Zurich to Bregenz, the capital of Vorarlberg state. emirates.com
Where to stay and eat
Rote Wand This 53-room "gourmet hotel" lends a chic edge to the sleepy village of Zug, with a choice of family apartments and suites in six buildings, a sophisticated main restaurant and bar, the 1,500-square-metre Red Spa, and the Schualhus's impressive chef's table run by Max Natmessnig. Zug 5, Lech am Arlberg, rotewand.com
Hotel Gasthof Post Elegant rooms, an indoor-outdoor pool with stunning mountain views, full spa, organised activities and fine dining are highlights. And tremendous hosts in Sandra and Florian Moosbrugger. Dorf 11, Lech am Arlberg, postlech.com
Hotel Tannenhof Owner and host Axel Bach has created a discreet and indulgent seven-suite hotel with superior dining by British chef James Baron, a spa, sauna and Maserati guest cars. Helicopter transfers on demand. Nassereinerstrasse 98, St Anton am Arlberg, hoteltannenhof.net
Arlberg Hospiz This historic ski in-ski out hotel has a stellar wine collection, a legendary restaurant, and 87 rooms and new, ultra-glamorous apartments for families and groups. St Christoph 1, St Christoph am Arlberg, arlberg1800resort.at
What to see and do
Kulinarik & Kunst The Arlberg's premier summer festival brims with cultural and culinary events from mid-August until early September. kulinarikkunst.org
For details of Arlberg activities year-round, as well as hiking itineraries and routes, see `lechzuers.com` and stantonamarlberg.com
For other regional events see arlberg.net/#events
For more information, head to austria.info