Destinations

The thrills are alive

Austria’s spa hotels have always offered scenic splendour for the summer visitor – but recent investment has created an even more compelling proposition for the pleasure-seeker, says Felix Milns.

July 25 2010
Felix Milns

It was 3am when we set out for the summit of the Kitzbüheler Horn. A distant line of ski-lift pylons stood like sentinels along the shoulder of the mountain, dimly silhouetted against the sky. As we walked up, all was quiet save for the tinkling of cowbells and the gentle whistling of the breeze. Our destination was the flashing red light atop Austria’s most famous TV antenna – the iconic mountain-top beacon that overlooks another of its best-known destinations, the medieval town of Kitzbühel.

While the Austrian Alps are a venerated winter destination, we were here in mild weather, with a licence to explore why more and more well-heeled travellers are leaving the beaches behind for the scenic serenity of an Alpine summer. For in summer the true colours of the Alps are not hidden under a blanket of snow, and they offer a unique blend of adventure and seclusion – whether the urge is to climb, mountain bike, abseil through waterfalls, or simply be supine on a sun-drenched terrace, drinking in the stunning views. And, increasingly, they offer style: with a handful of new hotel and spa openings and imaginative refurbishments of old favourites, the Austrian Alps have laid down a refreshing new marker on Europe’s luxury landscape.

In many ways, this is tourism going back to its roots. The Alps have historically been a year-round retreat for the wealthy, lauded among Continentals as elite summer destinations long before they became a winter playground for skiers and snowboarders. Victorian doctors in particular prescribed summer stretches of R&R at sanatoriums across the region. And the current revival of interest among luxury-seekers is in part fuelled by the tradition of wellness, even if today it owes as much to man-made intervention and cutting-edge spa technology as to nature’s finest assets.

Indeed, with no seas or shorelines to exploit, the driving force behind a top Alpine hotel has to be its spa; and along with Italy’s German-speaking South Tyrol, the Austrians are Europe’s spa pioneers. (The country is the birthplace of Dr FX Mayr, who realised his seminal dietary approach to detoxification and wellness at a military hospital here during the second world war.) Saunas, too, are ubiquitous.

In the heart of the Tyrol, the sunny Mieminger plateau is a perfect summer base for nature-lovers and pleasure-seekers. It’s home to Alpenresort Schwarz, a tastefully traditional Tyrolean grande dame and one of Austria’s leading spa hotels. This summer the resort has introduced features that elevate the luxury quotient, with two stylish new suites (costing €2m to create, and making four in all), seven new indoor and outdoor pools, and a 180° wraparound natural bathing lake, built to the tune of a further €5m.

The six-bed Royal Garden Suite is a 270sq m split-level apartment, aloft in the eaves of the hotel, with a second-storey private spa area, a bijou Swiss pine sauna and roof terrace with 360° views. The four private suites, accessed by exclusive lift, all come with their own butler, but the lure of the communal spa area and pools is still hard to resist. The hotel’s V-shaped bathing lake is a tour de force, surrounded by an artfully weathered pine deck and cleverly subdivided with beds of reeds and waterlilies, which also act as a natural filtration system.

The hotel runs events programmes throughout the week, with guided mountain-bike tours, river rafting trips – Europe’s largest river-rafting centre is 5km away – and day-long mountain hikes, among others. We joined Hansi, the mountain-bike guide, for a ride across the plateau to the nearby village of Obsteig. The trail took us through meadows of knee-high grasses full of purple and yellow flowers punctuated by the occasional blood-red poppy. Cows the size of small cars lolled in the shade of tall pines as we dropped down the gears to enter the woods. The scenery was timeless; we greeted an old man with a gnarled scythe hand-cutting fresh hay, and cycled around a 12th-century castle and a 30m-high waterfall, before finishing up at the hotel’s 18-hole championship golf course (which happens to be the longest in Austria).

After a refreshing dip it was straight to the spa and the private Garden Room Suite. A sauna was followed by a papaya mousse wrap, then champagne in a coconut-oil bath and a sublimely relaxing hot stone massage. The 4,000sq m spa area itself is a global trendsetter, comprising five saunas, one hammam (and two private spas), and a chill-out room full of double waterbeds. But the scene-stealer is the “mind oasis” room, a dark meditation space with hanging orange-leather heated bucket seats and a central smoky fountain with luminous crystal that glows from pink to blue and back.

Post-massage, we opted for the spa’s outdoor area and lay in a rock garden of acers, hostas, miniature pines and giant granite boulders, before trying out the rustic outdoor sauna and cool stone pool. Goats and cows meandered on the slopes above us while Meiming mountain loomed impressively in the distance.

In the environs of Salzburg, too, lofty peaks of luxury are being reached. At first glance, the new Bergdorf Priesteregg appears a traditional, idyllically preserved Alpine hamlet – an artful illusion. The long-held dream of owners Renate and Hubert Oberlader, Priesteregg comprises 16 luxury chalets. A vital part of the hotel’s philosophy is the concept of the in-room spa: along with expansive day beds, each chalet features a bathtub with fireplace views, a spacious stone shower and a terrace with wooden sauna and hot tub. All the furniture in the open-plan interiors is handmade, using local Austrian pine and antique woods; beds are dressed in hand-stitched linens. The open-air baths in the nearby woods are a delightful conceit, with pairs of tubs enjoying postcard views down the valley towards the Leoganger Steinbergen mountain range.

It’s a fairytale idea complemented by fairytale service. An enormous gourmet breakfast is delivered each morning in a woven basket. Guests can dine in their chalet or visit Huwi’s Alm, the Oberladers’ renowned restaurant, from which the Bergdorf concept sprang. Beyond its impressive design, the hotel is an ideal base from which to explore the surrounding countryside. While Salzburg is most famous as the birthplace of Mozart, its environs comprise some of the Alps’ most beautiful, Sound of Music-calibre landscapes. There are absurdly picturesque 11th-century castles, the world’s largest ice-cave system, more than 4,000km of bike trails and more than 185 natural lakes – plus the Krimml, at 380m the highest waterfall in Central Europe.

Yet it is the Tyrol region that is the hub of Austria’s top Alpine spas and hotels. Fresh from an €8m renovation, the Park Hotel Igls is again one of its leading lights. The look is understated elegance with an elemental feel, and breaks vibrantly with the traditional gemütlich Tyrolean hotel model, with surfeits of natural light, greyed-off oak flooring, serene white walls, stone-coloured woodwork, and flashes of mandarin orange and lime in the rooms. In the lobby, a wide, sweeping staircase twists round a 30ft-tall Bucida buceras tree; the new, L-shaped indoor pool is sided with two walls of glass, with the south-facing one opening onto the gardens.

This is, in fact, not so much a hotel as a serious health retreat. The principles of Mayr medicine have been updated to address 21st-century ills, from stress-induced tension to chronic alignment issues, and Parkhotel Igls’ partnership with the Innsbruck University Hospital affords access to a wide range of specialists. Each week-long stay starts with a physical examination from one of the hotel’s four doctors, who tailors an individual dietary, exercise and treatment regimen.

The basic weekly programme includes massages, hydrotherapy treatments and regular consultations with your doctor. One of the first of these is a live blood test; mine involved a flame-haired Russian haematologist in red Italian designer shoes assessing the vitality of my blood, while together we watched my red blood cells dancing under a microscope. The doctors encourage you to be as active as possible – not easy for the first couple of days as you adapt to the diet, but afterwards you find a surprising amount of energy to direct at the pool and the third-floor gym with its triple aspect views, or daily yoga, Pilates or Nordic walking sessions. Surrounded by Alpine peaks, the picture-postcard village of Igls has wonderful walking and cycling trails.

Another local favourite (a 20-minute drive from Innsbruck airport) is the Lanserhof, chosen as the leading health hotel in Austria by the Relax Guide 2010. Its approach is based on four different constitution/personality types: power, structured, sensitive and sensualist. The programme is individualised with a diet, massage regimens, body peels and wraps, freeing the skin, liver and other organs from unwanted toxins.

Less hardcore and more luxe is the Stanglwirt Biohotel, a favourite of many luminaries: Franz Beckenbauer, ex-Formula One champion Niki Lauda and others come for the awe-inspiring scenery of the Wilder Kaiser mountain range. Stanglwirt is still nicely traditional, but the subterranean spa – complete with turf roof and London Aquarium-style shark pool – is anything but. It has just introduced the excellent Dior range, making it the only Austrian spa to feature it.

As compelling a draw as these hotels and spas are, it is the beauty and diverse terrain of the Austrian Alps themselves – an enormous, verdant adventure playground – that seals the deal for many. It was in the spirit of exploring it at its most pristine that, while at the Stanglwirt, we set our alarms for the wee hours to make a dawn climb to the summit of the Kitzbüheler Horn.

Though the skies were still inky, in the distance we could make out the twin peaks of the Grossglockner, at 3,798m the highest mountain in Austria, while the nearby Wilder Kaiser range was a sharply defined dragon’s back floating among the low clouds.

As we approached the summit, the first hint of sun silhouetted the line of the Loferer Steinberg peaks. While we stood lost in the beauty of the display, Engelbert, our local guide, was busy with a more down-to-earth indulgence; I snapped out of my reverie to the pop of a champagne cork. The sun came over the summit at 6.30am, just as we were taking our first sip. As we watched the sky shade from rosy pink to apricot to golden, a lone hot-air balloon rose on a distant thermal, reminding us that we were not alone. And with the success of these new hotels and spas so likely to draw the spotlight here, the Alps would do well to prepare for some summer company. I’m confident they will cope.

See also

Hotels, Austria