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Austrians love sports and the outdoors and, although skiing is a national obsession, there are opportunities to participate in a variety of activities. Here we outline the best places to go and who can guide you there.

Ballooning

Hot-air ballooning over the dramatic landscapes of Austria, including alpine terrain, can be a real thrill ride. One of the best centers for this is Ballooning Vorarlberg in western Austria. The balloon specialist here is Günter Schabus, Bruderhof 12A, A-6833 (tel. 05523/51121; www.ballooning.at), which features ballooning 7 days a week from April to September -- weather permitting, of course -- near the German and Swiss borders. The cost of ballooning is 220€ ($352) per person for one to five persons.

Biking

Hindriks European Bicycle, P.O. Box 7010, citrus Heights, CA 95621 (tel. 800/852-3258; fax 916/729-2181; www.hindrikstours.com), is the North American representative for a Dutch-based company that leads 10-day bicycle tours in Austria. You'll bike along well-laid-out paths and quiet country roads, which are thankfully flat and mostly downhill. The cost of this tour is 1,625€ ($2,600) per person based on double occupancy.

Backroads, 801 Cedar St., Berkeley, CA 94710 (tel. 800/GO-ACTIVE in the U.S., or 510/527-1555; www.backroads.com), offers 6-day, 5-night trips that take you from Prague to Vienna going along the Danube. Lodging is either in castles or first-class country inns. The trip also includes most meals.

David Zwilling, David Zwilling, GmbH, Waldhof 64, A-5441 Abtenau (tel. 06243/30690; fax 06243/306917; www.zwilling-resort.at), organizes Austria's best mountain-biking trips, as well as other adventure activities such as rafting, rock climbing, and paragliding.

Fishing

Austria is an angler's paradise, with many clear, unpolluted streams and deep rivers and lakes. You can try for trout, char, pike, sheatfish (monster catfish), and pikeperch in well-stocked mountain streams. In the right tributaries of the Danube, you might catch a huchen, a landlocked salmon that's an excellent fighter and a culinary delight, usually fished for in late fall. The Wörther See in Carinthia sometimes yields the North American big-mouth black bass, which once stocked the lake because of an accident by an owner of Velden Castle -- intended for a pond on his estate, one barrel fell into the lake and burst, introducing the immigrants from America to a new happy home. The local tourist office in each province offers information about local fishing conditions and can advise you of the best local outfitters. Fishermen generally need two permits -- a general license issued by the state and a private permit from the local owner of the land. You can also write for information from Österreichischen Arbeiter-Fischerei-Vereine, Lenaugasse 14, A-1080 Vienna (tel. 01/4032176; www.fischerei.or.at).

Golf

One of the country's most outstanding 18-hole courses is at the Murhof in Styria, near Frohnleiten. Others are the Igls/Rinn near Innsbruck; Seefeld-Wildmoos in Seefeld; Dallach on the shores of the Wörther See in Carinthia; Enzefeld and Wiener Neustadt-Foehrenwald in Lower Austria; and the oldest of them all, Vienna-Freudenau, founded in 1901. There are numerous 9-hole courses throughout the country. The season generally extends from April to October or November. For more information, contact Österreichischer Golf-Verband, Prinz Eugen-Strasse 12, A-1040 Vienna (tel. 01/505324519; www.golf.at).

Hiking & Mountaineering

More than 70% of Austria's total area is covered by mountains of all shapes and sizes, and the rugged beauty of the Alps demands exploration. Walking, hiking, or mountain climbing across these hills and glaciers is an unforgettable experience. Paths and trails are marked and secured, guides and maps are readily available, and there's an outstanding system of huts to shelter you. Austria has more than 450 chairlifts or cable cars to open up the mountains for visitors.

Certain precautions are essential, foremost being to inform your innkeeper or host of your route. Also, suitable hiking or climbing shoes and protective clothing are imperative. Camping out overnight is strongly discouraged because of the rapidly changing mountain weather and the established system of keeping track of hikers and climbers in the mountains. More than 700 alpine huts -- many of which are really full-service lodges with restaurants, rooms, and dormitories -- are spaced about 4 to 5 hours apart so that you can make rest and lunch stops. Hikers are required to sign in and out of the huts and to give their destination before setting off. If you don't show up as planned, search parties go into action.

If you're advised that your chosen route is difficult, hire a mountain guide or get expert advice from some qualified local person before braving the unknown. Certified hiking and climbing guides are based in all Austrian mountain villages and can be found by looking for their signs or by asking at the local tourist office.

Above all, obey signs. Even in summer, if there's still snow on the ground, you could be in an area threatened by avalanches. There are other important rules to follow for your own safety, and you can obtain these from the Austrian National Tourist Offices, bookstores, branches of various alpine clubs, or at local tourist offices in villages throughout the Alps.

For information about alpine trekking, contact Österreichischer Alpenverein (Austrian Alpine Club), Olympia-Strasse 37, A-6020 Innsbruck (tel. 0512/59547; www.alpenverein.at). Membership costs 49€ ($78). Members receive 50% off of overnight stays in mountain refuges. One of the best trekking adventure companies in Austria is Exodus, 1311 63 St., Suite 200, Emeryville, CA 94608 (tel. www.exodus.co.uk). Run by avid naturalists and mountaineers, it offers hiking tours through Austria for moderately experienced hikers in good physical condition. Tours usually last 8 to 15 days.

The most cutting-edge sporting outfit in Austria, the kind of place that merges California cool with alpine adventure, is David Zwilling, Waldhof 64, A-5441 Abtenau (tel. 06243/30690; fax 06243/306917; www.zwilling-resort.at). It organizes the best mountain-biking trips in Austria and is also the front-runner in mountain- and rock-climbing tours. This outfitter also arranges paragliding adventures over nerve-jangling cliffs and some incredible white-water rafting trips.

There are summer and winter mountaineering schools in at least 3 dozen resorts in all Austrian provinces except Burgenland, with regular courses, mountain tours, and camps for all ages.

Skiing

Austria is world renowned for its downhill skiing facilities. Across the country, some 3,500 lifts transport skiers and sightseers to the summits of approximately 20,113km (12,498 miles) of marked runs. Don't forget to look around on the way up; the view above is as amazing as the runs below.

Ski "circuses" allow skiers to move from mountain to mountain, and ski "swings" opening up opposite sides of the same mountain tie villages in different valleys into one big ski region.

Shuttle buses, usually free for those with a valid lift ticket, take you to valley points where you board funiculars, gondolas, aerial trains, or chairlifts. Higher up, you can leave the larger conveyance and continue by another chairlift or T-bar.

Because competition among ski resorts is so fierce, you'll probably find roughly equivalent prices at many resorts for 1-, 2-, and 3-day passes. For example, at the Arlberg in Tyrol, one of the most famous ski areas of Europe, a 1-day pass costs 40€ to 43€ ($64-$69). Discounts are granted for longer stays. A 6-day pass ranges from 192€ to 204€ ($307-$326) per person. Prices for skiing in other regions of Austria, such as the area around Lech and Zürs in the Vorarlberg, and the Ötzal region of the Tyrol, tend to be similar. And skiers who buy passes valid for more than 2 days are rewarded with a much wider diversity of skiing options.

The Austrian Ski School is noted for its fine instruction and practice techniques, available in many places: Arlberg; the posh villages of Zürs and Lech/Arlberg, where the rich and famous gather; the Silvretta mountains; and Hochgurgl, Obergurgl, Hochsölden, and Sölden in the Tyrolean Ötzal, to name a few. Year-round skiing is possible in the little villages of the Stubaital through use of a cableway on the Stubai glacier, more than 3,050m (10,007 ft.) above sea level. Kitzbühel is known to all top skiers in the world, while Seefeld lures the trendy.

Skiing is a family sport in Europe, and ski centers usually have bunny slopes and instruction for youngsters, plus babysitting services for very small children. Many of these areas offer more than just fine powder. The Valley of Gastein was known for its medicinal thermal springs long before it became a ski center. The people of Schladming, in the Dachstein Mountains, wore their local costumes and lodens well before the first cross-country skier discovered the high plateau surrounding the small, unspoiled village of Ramsau.

Among the most attractive large-scale skiing areas are the Radstädter Tauern region and Saalbach/Hinterglemm in Salzburg province. Here, as in most of the winter-sports areas, you can rest your tired legs by the crackling fire of a ski hut while enjoying hot spiced wine or a Jägertee, hot tea heavily laced with rum.

Snowboarding, whose popularity is spreading each year, is making inroads in Austria. The best outfitter is Ski Europe (tel. 800/333-5533 or 713/960-0900; www.ski-europe.com). They can arrange all sorts of vacations focused on skiing and snowboarding, as well as winter hiking.

Cross-country skiing is popular among those who want to quietly enjoy the winter beauty and get a great workout. Many miles of tracks are marked for this sport, and special instructors are available.

In the summer, you can give grass skiing a try. Ask the Austrian National Tourist Office for a list of resorts providing this sport, as well as for details about centers offering summer snow skiing.

For information about the best skiing in Austria, contact Österreichischer Skiverband (Austrian Ski Federation), Olympiastrasse 10, A-6020 Innsbruck (tel. 0512/33501; www.oesv.at).

Spas & Health Resorts

Austrians have long been aware of the therapeutic faculties of mineral water, thermal springs, and curative mud in their own country. More than 100 spas and health resorts are found here, including the Oberlaa Spa Center on the southern hills of Vienna. These institutions not only use the hidden resources of nature to prevent physical ailments, but they offer therapy and rehabilitation as well.

You can "take the waters" at baden (baths), with springs ranging from thermal brine to thermal sulfur water, some rich in iodine or iron and some rich with radon. (Many hot-water springs in Europe contain trace amounts of radon, which is not harmful in the doses that doctors prescribe.) Users of these facilities have found them an effective treatment for digestive troubles, rheumatism, cardiac and circulatory diseases, and gynecological and neurological ills, to name just a few.

Information about these spas and treatments is available from Österreichischer Hellbäder-und Kuroteverband, Josefsplatz 6, A-1010 Vienna (tel. 01/5121904). Ask for a copy of the brochure "Nature the Healer: Spas and Health Resorts in Austria." You can also learn about "Kneipp Cures," a method developed in the 19th century as a restorative treatment and still hailed as "a magic formula in the world of natural medicine." This cure, popular among seniors with limited circulation, involves simple stretching exercises and moderate amounts of low-impact aerobics. The exercise session is then followed by immersing the feet in icy, nonsulfurous water.

Watersports

Austria has no seacoast, but from Bodensee (Lake Constance) in the west to Neusiedl See (Lake Neusiedl) in the east, the country is rich in lakes and boasts some 150 rivers and streams.

Swimming is, of course, possible year-round if you want to use an indoor pool or swim at one of the many health clubs in winter. Swimming facilities have been developed at summer resorts, especially those on the warm waters of Carinthia, where you can swim from May to October, and in the Salzkammergut lake district, between Upper Austria and Land Salzburg.

The beauty of Austria underwater is attested to by those who have tried diving in the lakes. Most outstanding are the diving and underwater exploration possibilities in the Salzkammergut lake district and in the Weissen See in Carinthia. You can receive instruction and obtain necessary equipment at both places.

If you prefer to remain on the surface, you can go sailing, windsurfing, or canoeing on the lakes and rivers.

The sailing (yachting) season lasts from May to October, with activity centered on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut lake district, on Lake Constance out of Bregenz, and on Lake Neusiedl, a large shallow lake in the east. Winds on the Austrian lakes can be treacherous, but a warning system and rescue services are alert. For information on sailing, contact Österreichischer Segel-Verband, Seestrasse 17b, A-7100 Neusiedl am See (tel. 02/167402430; www.segelverband.at).

Most resorts on lakes or rivers where windsurfing can be safely enjoyed have equipment and instruction available. This sport is increasing in popularity and has been added to the curriculum of several sailing schools, especially in the area of the Wörther See in Carinthia.

If you're interested in riding the rapids of a swift mountain stream or just paddling around on a placid lake, don't miss the chance to go canoeing in Austria. You can canoe down slow-flowing lowland rivers such as the Inn or Mur, or tackle the wild waters of glacier-fed mountain streams suitable only for experts. Special schools for fast-water paddling operate May through September in the village of Klaus on the Steyr River in Upper Austria, in Opponitz in Lower Austria on the Ybbs River, and in Abtenau in Salzburg province.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.