The spy who skied with me
Lounging in a bathtub shaped like an elephant’s salad bowl, with two perpendicular walls of picture windows opening onto the main street of Soelden, below, I was beginning to feel splendidly above it all. This was my second visit to Soelden, in the Oetztal region of the Austrian Alps, in the show-window bathroom of my spacious room at the Dominic, a family-run hotel within ski-booted walking distance to the base of the Giggijoch gondola. From there, it is a short ride up to a series of highly efficient, interconnected lifts that can take you from one end of the ski area to the other on slopes suitable for intermediate skiers and snowboarders.
On this day, however, I was on a different sort of mission. I feel free to call it a mission because James Bond would be involved. “Spectre,” the latest film in what is now the longest-running franchise in cinema history, was filmed in the Soelden area. Remember the chase along a mountain road and into an evergreen forest, with the bad guys in four-wheel-drive vehicles and Bond in pursuit in a twin-engined airplane? The road, not in use in the winter, is nearby, and if you saw the film, you know what short work Bond made of the vehicles and the airplane in the rescue of his then-current love interest, Dr. Madeline Swann.
Key mountaintop filming was done around a glass-walled gourmet restaurant that already, and conveniently, had been named Ice Q (but not as a homage to Bond’s chief gadgeteer, the head of Q Branch). Recently opened, in a companion structure built inside the mountaintop (and kept ski-clothing chilled to respect the environmental needs of its surroundings), is an interactive Bond-themed funhouse called 007 Elements. I have seen every James Bond movie and have visited a number of the locations used in filming them. Would I really engineer an entire ski trip around coming up here for a James Bond moment? As anyone who read my last travel article (on London, of course), in which I reported that my secretary carries the nickname Ms. Moneypenny might surmise, indeed I would.
The installation starts with a video presentation based on the opening credits of “Spectre.” Even if you are not familiar with the series or a fan of either Daniel Craig, poisonous snakes, undulating nudes or the Walther PPK semi-automatic pistol that Q first issued to Bond in his introductory movie, “Dr. No,” you will be quite impressed. The rooms beyond present, in videos and in displays, the key elements (as the name of the experience implies) of the entirety of the James Bond oeuvre, which started as a series of novels by Ian Fleming and was energized by the prescient casting of Sean Connery as the lead. The public came to expect the Bond women and the spy gadgets, all of which are cool and none of which Bond has failed to use soon after its delivery to him.
My favorite room in 007 Elements was the Tech Lab, which includes a selection of that hardware and a seat in which those of us present lined up, each to place his or her palm on a sensor that reported on a screen to each of us differently a menu of Bond statistics. In my turn, I found that my casino winnings totaled a satisfying 221 million pounds but that my blood alcohol level could be better. As for the most important of Bond facts, among those of us tested, I was responsible for the fewest fatalities just one, in fact although I find that one too many. I was, however, a participant in what was by far the greatest number of amorous liaisons 35 in total, which Bond would call a good start.
In the Austrian Alps, along the wooden huts that populate the slopes, alcohol (responsibly consumed) and winter sports have had a long and beneficial reciprocal relationship. For lunch at Ice Q, therefore, starting with a cocktail was all but necessary, and so when my waiter offered, I replied, “A vodka martini, please, shaken, not stirred.” He smiled as if to reply, “Asking was just a formality.” He brought around the shaker and poured a wonderfully chilled vodka martini, with Belvedere as its base. The meal was superb, an accomplishment all the more impressive at 3,000 meters of altitude where some dishes, such as creme brulee, cannot be prepared correctly and so have to be brought up from a kitchen at the next gondola station down. For his efforts, head chef Patrick Schnedl has won for the restaurant a toque from Gault Millau.
Having not been on skis in two years, I engaged the services of a skilled guide, Emanuel “Manu” Schoepf. Manu, who is 36, has lived in Soelden most of his life and, over lunch, shared pleasant memories of being allowed to ski alone with friends starting when he was about 6. There have been many changes since then, but for Manu, the character of his town remains the same: comfortable and hospitable.
The rest of my ski week was about as close to ideal as can be had, with excellent snow conditions, mild temperatures and consistently sunny days. The lifts moved with assembly-line precision, with nearly all managing impressively well with the large high-season crowd that filled every hotel room in town. Rowdies sang in the apres-ski bars, but I preferred the quiet of the Dominic’s charming restaurant. Because I wanted to stay on longer than the period for which the Dominic had space, I spent a couple nights at the Bergwelt, a hotel a few towns over that is favored by families. It was reached by a ski bus that is almost empty on boarding in Au but, on return, was as packed as the Lexington Avenue line at rush hour. The fare is included in the price of the lift tickets, so just climb onboard and snuggle in.
All well and good for me, but my mission was to uncover what James Bond would have done. So, for a train ride to Zurich, I upgraded to first class, ordered lunch at my seat and stretched out to enjoy the unblemished countryside of Mitteleuropa. On arrival, I checked into the Atlantis by Giardino Hotel a five-star spa property on a mountainside just beyond the main part of town. The Atlantis has that mid-century look of a hotel that traces its beginnings back to near the start of the James Bond era and received the rock-star imprimatur of the age when The Who threw furniture from the lobby into the outdoor pool after a performance nearby. Like Bond, the Atlantis has been updated in a way that respects its style, era and traditions, with completely redone rooms and suites that are designed for easy flow of guests and their luggage, each with enough power outlets for a film crew.
That evening, after packing for my return to New York, I welcomed old friends as my guests for dinner at Ecco Zurich, the hotel’s main restaurant, which, under Chef Stefan Heilemann, carries two Michelin stars. Since it just so happens that Bond and I share a shirt maker (the quite nonfictional Turnbull & Asser, of London), I wore the same style of shirt with turnback cocktail cuffs that Bond wore in Dr. No” when he dispatched the malevolent Professor Dent. The restaurant offers a chef’s surprise menu, but I made sure to have the bison filet for my main course and a completely unique avocado-based dessert. When I returned to my room, I found, a bit to my dismay, that no international beauty had slipped in, first to try to kill me but then to make love to me. A visit to the hotel’s capacious spa before heading back home was more than enough compensation.
As Bond would do, I left with a gadget which is to say I bought a small Leitz stapler. Bond may be an engine of cinematic fantasy, but real life retains its practical needs, and for journalists, that means being able to punch holes into paper and not into erudite villains intent on world domination.
IF YOU GO
The Hotel Dominic is centrally located. Traditional food served by a friendly staff in the restaurant. www.dominic.at.
Hotel Bergwelt, in the town of Au, has a small indoor pool and wellness area. The ski bus, which can be quite full in season, stops nearby and takes you straight to the main lifts of Soelden. www.bergwelt.at.
Of the mountain places for lunch, Restaurant Ice Q (tel. +43 664 96 09 368), which is embedded 3,058 meters atop a mountain called the Gaislachkogl, is in a class by itself in cuisine and decor. Of the traditional mountain huts, I particularly enjoyed Huehnersteign (tel. +43 664 522 1909) and Gampa Thaya (tel. +43 (0) 664 240 0246). In season, it is prudent to reserve a table, especially if you want to enjoy a unique Alpine experience: lunch at an outside table.
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