Austria: So Bad, yet so good
Mark Evans discovers a perfect summer retreat in Austria's mountains
It's 5.30pm and the sun is shining as I sip a glass of Salzburger Stiegl lager in the open July air. A short distance away, the town's church bell marks the half hour. Only yesterday we arrived in the Austrian spa town of Bad Hofgastein, and already this short summer sojourn in the Alps is a refreshing break from the typical Mediterranean beach holiday.
We flew into Munich, hired a car and took the autobahn south. On the way, we slightly overshot our destination and arrived in the neighbouring resort of Bad Gastein, home to the famous casino and renowned for the powerful waterfall that crashes down into the centre of the town.
Both towns are in the Gastein Valley, just 10 minutes apart by car, and flanked by breathtaking mountains that are criss-crossed by charming cable cars. You can pick out the cascading waterfalls and traditional chalets dotted in the pine forests high above.
While Bad Gastein looks more like a little corner of Vienna, Bad Hofgastein is typically Austrian: think quaint little streets winding around a delightful promenade.
Shutters are pretty much pulled down by 9pm, and the lack of nocturnal offerings makes it the perfect spot for relaxation.
We stayed in an apartment in the family-run Winkler Hotel. Two-bedrooms, with small kitchen-cum-living room, it was cosy, functional and clean. The hotel restaurant is very much a traditional affair – think rustic wood-panelled interior, and specialities of venison and schnitzel, served up by Conne, a very pleasant young waitress.
During the winter season, the Gastein Valley is a fabulous ski destination with more than 220km of piste. But in summer, the valley transforms into a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Expect an 18-hole golf course, walking, hiking, cycling and mountain-biking runs, as well as lots of festivals and free concerts, and day trips to places such as Salzburg, which is just an hour away.
The following morning we were up early to spend a day hiking in the mountains, a short distance north in Dorfgastein. We were met at the ski-lift station by our guide Renatta and took the trolley car to the top. Our aim was to wander back down to base with no time pressure.
Renatta's giddy enthusiasm was infectious as she identified wildflowers for the children in the lush Alpine meadows. We passed herds of goats, and cows with bells attached to their collars. It was a scene straight out of a Milka advert.
Lunch took us to the slopes of the facing valley. I drove up a long, winding road to The Amoseralm, a farmhouse where visitors are taught how to bake delicious farmhouse bread. We feasted on a smorgasbord of pork, bacon, tomatoes, potato salad, sauerkraut, and mash fused with paprika. The lady of the house baked rye bread in an open area just yards away. It doesn't get much better than this, we thought.
That evening, our new healthy lifestyle was rounded off with a trip to the Alpentherme in the centre of Gastein. This giant modern facility has a family area, sauna, relaxation centre and gym. There was even a cinema in the pools – a cavern into which the children swam and watched cartoons.
It's a massive place, with lots of pools and Jacuzzis from where you can swim into a connecting outdoor pool and feast your eyes once again on the spectacular mountains that guard the valley.
The next day, we set out to make our fortune at Goldwaschplatz. This, apparently, was the scene of Austria's own gold rush in medieval times and metals found here paid for many of the elaborate palaces in Salzburg. It is said that Gastein used to supply more than 10pc of the world's gold.
We climbed up a forest road to a clearing at the riverside and, furnished with our pans, we soon discovered that all that glitters is not gold. Nonetheless, it was an enormously enjoyable way to spend the morning in the shade, out of the hot sun.
For the afternoon, we had another adventure planned and it involved a train ride with a difference at the Gastein Heilstollen – a spa set in the heart of the mountains. We were taken 2km into the centre of the mountain in a rickety little train for a spa treatment, Teutonic-style.
The reception area has the feeling of a modern, impeccably clean hospital. Lots of elderly Germans and Austrians come here to treat their complaints, where they are covered by health insurance.
But this experience is not for the faint-hearted. We all had to have our blood pressure checked by a doctor beforehand because, deep within the mountain, caves are carved out where the temperature reaches 40°C.
The journey to the caves takes about 20 minutes. Think the London Tube, except smaller and hotter. We then spent 30 minutes on a sunbed, where you sweat out the toxins and take in radon, scientifically proven to alleviate a multitude of ailments including skin complaints, rheumatism, osteoporosis and autoimmune diseases.
The caves are well lit, albeit a little bit daunting, but not to be recommended if you're claustrophobic.
Following the detox, it was time to retox. We enjoyed our last supper in Restaurant Tropferl, where they serve up a modern twist on traditional Austrian fare. As the adults explored the impressive wine cellar, the children indulged in their final hot chocolates.
If you're looking for an action holiday for the whole family, but don't want to sacrifice your creature comforts, Gastein ticks all the boxes.
Need to know
Topflight is Ireland's largest tour operator to Austria, with both ski and summer packages to the Alpine destination. Whilst the Alps can attract some rain at times, the weather is generally up in the late 20s right through the summer.
With the Gastein Card, you can avail of many free activities during your stay, including hiking in the national park, breadmaking and even gold panning.
The Gastein Valley is famous for its medically proven healing caves, and thermal spas – great for anyone with arthritis, asthma or skin problems. The better hotels in the towns of Bad Gastein and Bad Hofgastein have thermal water pumped into their pools.
Try the four-star Palace Hotel in Bad Hofgastein, which is priced at €949pps with return flights to Salzburg and return transfers, for seven nights in June.
This price also includes your Gastein Card, amenities in the Palace, including thermal spa, plus a welcome drink and cocktail, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and unlimited beer, wine and juices with dinner.
Call Topflight on 01-240 1700, your local travel agent or see topflight.ie.
See also gastein.com.