Until Covid hit, the Dutch Royal family had not once missed their annual ski trip to Lech in 60 years. This mountain village in Austria has a population of just 1,600 or so – roughly the same as Tintagel in Cornwall. Yet during 'the season' it transforms into the playground of European royalty, where you might find yourself in a cable car with Queen Maxima of The Netherlands or Princess Caroline of Hanover (Grace Kelly’s eldest daughter – who has a chalet in neighbouring Zürs).
Lech is most famous for being the favourite ski resort of Princess Diana – it was on the slopes here that William and Harry learnt to ski – and has hosted F1 drivers Sebastian Vettel and Niki Lauda. But what draws celebs and royals to this unassuming former farming settlement?
'We do a lot of bookings to Lech. Many of our clients go time and time again,' says Peter Anderson, of Knightsbridge Circle, an invitation-only members club which offers travel booking and concierge services for the rich and famous.
'They tend to prefer Lech as it is less showy than some of the other better known resorts such as Gstaad or Megève. The village also doesn’t tend to attract paparazzi so many of our high-profile members can have a more relaxing time without the concern of being snapped on the slopes,' adds Anderson, whose agency has helped clients with everything from attending the Queen’s 90th birthday party to travelling to space.
One of the few exceptions to this rule of privacy was Princess Diana, who is said to have bought a pair of superfast racing skis in Lech in order to escape the paparazzi on the slopes.
But nowadays, Anderson says, it is all very discreet: 'No one makes a fuss if they spot a well-known face so clients feel comfortable to go out and about to restaurants here.'
One of the most popular places to stay for those seeking privacy in Lech is Severin*s. This boutique hotel has just nine suites and sits on the fringes of town – it's a 15-minute tramp through snowy fields and ancient pines to the centre, from which the cable cars leave.
'Before Covid, the slightly out-of-town location could have been a drawback for some – but now it is one of the most appealing aspects for guests. Because of the pandemic they want to be away from the bustle of the village,' explains Cecily Smedek, Severin*s’ General Manager.
The wood-panelled suites are enormous - at 47 m², even the smallest suite is larger than the average flat in England and Wales. With their own living areas, wrap-around terraces and open fires, they are perfect for holidaymakers wanting to hole up in comfort. All but one of the suites also come with a dining table where you can feast royally on the local fare cooked by Severin*s Head Chef. Specialities range from a bisque made with Tyrolean prawns, Austria's own sashimi grade variety of the crustacean, to an Austrian cattle tartare.
There’s also a stylish restaurant, bar/lounge and a 2,500-bottle wine cellar you can dine in. However, more and more guests are opting to stay in their rooms and make use of the 24-hour room service, Smedek reports.
A separate residence, sleeping up to eight, has a professional kitchen, cinema room, and a sitting room with a grand piano.
The exclusivity of Severin*s hotel spa is another key draw. Numbers are limited so the 12.5m pool, saunas, steam room and infrared cabin are never crowded. The residence has its own whirlpool bath on the terrace. Privacy, of course, come at a price. Nightly rates at Severin*s start from €690 on a B&B basis.
'You don’t come to Lech if you want to show off - you come for the skiing,' Smedek adds. And very good skiing it is too. Lech is part of Austria's largest connected ski area (also the fifth largest in the world). A four-day adult pass to access the Arlberg region's 305 kilometres of runs and 88 lifts and cable cars costs €231.
'Lech has plenty to offer any level of skier and the impressive snow record continues to bring people back for more,' says Louise Mathers of Powder Byrne, a ski tour operator that runs trips to the village. 'It is also the only place in Austria to offer heli-skiing.'
Unlike most exclusive resorts, Lech is very family-friendly, with deer watching trips, a natural ice rink in Zürs and horse-drawn sleigh rides to keep children entertained.
The village's low-key vibe is reflected in its rustic wooden architecture as well as its choice of shops. There’s a local butcher, a cheese shop and a baker selling homemade strudels.
'You don’t see the kinds of flashy designer shops and clothes in Lech that you might in somewhere like St Moritz,' says Smedek. 'Yes you see a fur coat from time to time but mostly people are in ski gear.'
Although Lech has had many famous visitors, she adds, it is precisely because everyone is so low-key and is constantly clad in ski wear that it is often hard to recognise them. 'Some of the royals will have security guards but they’re all dressed in helmets and goggles too so it’s not obvious,' Smedek says.
You don’t need to be in line for a throne to enjoy the charm of Lech either. On Airbnb you can find comfy chalets sleeping four people for £300 to £400 per night – although these are few in number and should be booked well in advance. And with Easyjet running flights to Zurich and Innsbruck from just £16.99 one-way, travel can be done relatively inexpensively too. From Innsbruck, you can hop on a train to Saint Anton am Arlberg and then do the last 20km by public transport or taxi. While from Zurich, the Arlberg Express bus company runs an airport transfer direct to Lech or Zürs. In a hire car, the drive takes about two hours and two and a half hours from each respectively.