Finding Freedom in the Austrian Alps

Water sizzles into steam as it hits the heated rocks, blasting up into the sauna and colouring the thick air with hints of lavender. Colin, almost in a trance, begins to wave a towel through the steam, weaving it around his body, taking long breaths in and out. It’s a hypnotizing display. I’m aware of my own breath as he begins to slow down, turns towards me, and suddenly whips the towel through the air as hard as he can. I brace myself as the towel flies down inches from my face, its energy tearing apart the steam to offer a brief respite from the heaviness of the sauna. But just as quickly, the steam rushes to re-join in the small space, pressing in over my body with vigour.

It’s a drizzly evening at the beginning of June, and I’m at the Forsthofalm Eco Hotel in Leogang, a small village located about an hour and a half outside of Salzburg in the Austrian Alps. The entire area is well known for its incredible skiing slopes, accessed through a series of villages seemingly lifted straight out of a fairy tale scattered throughout the valleys. But instead of joining the throngs of snow sport enthusiasts, I’ve instead travelled here in the off-season to experience the region’s pristine nature without the rowdy crowds and to partake in another mountain ritual – the therapeutic escape from bustle of daily life.

The spa infusion is the first activity on my schedule for the next 3 days, which couldn’t have come at a better time for me. In the middle of a big relocation from Reykjavik to Barcelona, my mind is abuzz with to-do lists and attempts to recall my University Spanish before I arrive. I’m looking forward to disconnecting, if just for a little while, before the arrival of the inevitable stresses that come with moving to a new city.

 “The lavender which I chose tonight is really good for the sinuses and lungs” says Colin in between munches on apple coated in sugar. We’re back outside the sauna, both looking out at the rain while he explains the spa infusion to me. “It never really caught on outside of Europe, but the people really love it here” he says, offering me some apple slices. I begin to talk to him about my big move to Barcelona, and he agrees that an escape to the mountains is a great way to relax.

“You’re lucky that you were the only one here tonight. Last week I had a group of 12 Germans in there – it was crowded, and incredibly sweaty” he says. I count my blessings as I bid him farewell, my mountain escape having officially started.

The next day, I wake before dawn and head up to the top floor to attend an early morning yoga session, again led by Colin. This time however, instead of the drizzling rain my class finds itself doing our sun salutations to a clear sky in a large room, the floor to ceiling windows offering views out over the surrounding mountains. The sun glances off a sprinkling of snow on far off mountain peaks, and I’m able to blame my lack of yoga form on the distracting views.

After breakfast, I take off up the mountain right behind the hotel with a steely glint in my eye, following a zigzagging path that starts right outside the dining room leading first to the hotel’s own ski lift. Not currently running due to the lack of snow, there’s no option but to hike up. An enchanting chorus of chiming bells and gentle bleats accompanies my climb, as curious goats roam the hillside in search of prime tufts of grass. The mechanical whirring of a nearby cable car catches my attention, and I look past it towards where the blue boxes are whizzing up to the top of the distant mountain, their interiors cramped with mountain bikers squeezed in with their bikes. They look like large insects trapped inside a box.

Further up the mountain, which I later discover is called Pirzbichl, I stop for a rest to watch those same mountain bikers shoot back down the mountain on one of the many trails that loop towards the bottom. I’m perched on a stump in a forest of tall pine trees, and at this elevation the sun has melted the light snowfall of the previous evening, bringing the forest alive with drops of water slipping off the trees and drifting towards the undergrowth. I spend my entire morning climbing through the forested tracks, occasionally stumbling upon an incredible view, until I reach the top of the mountain - elevation 1760 metres.

It feels good to be in the old stomping ground of some of the world’s best explorers. These mountains have long acted as a source of inspiration and wonder for Europeans, a challenge for mountaineers, and a rite of passage for the Grand Tourists who crisscrossed over them on their tours of Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries. I understand the fascination with them at the top of the mountain; it feels as if I’m on the roof of the world. And that’s from the top of what could only be considered a gentle hill when studying the mighty eminences shooting up across the valley floor, so close and yet completely out of reach.

The recent re-emergence of wellness travel has given new life to the summers here. The first ever health resort in the region was opened in Switzerland in the 1840s, and with the rapidly expanding railways of Europe, soon there was a demand for many more of these sanatoria escapes across the slopes. It was these places that would eventually turn into the first winter resorts, after the entrepreneurial British travel agent, Thomas Cook, convinced a group of English tourists to winter in the Alps. Until most recently, winter tourism in the region had eclipsed all others.

 “Spa holidays have always been popular in the Alps. But it wasn’t until 2013 that we really changed the concept of the hotel from eco-friendly spa to an all-round lifestyle hotel” says Markus in a thick German accent. He’s the proprietor and general manager of the hotel, and we’re at the bar sharing an aperitif while discussing the wellness travel trend. He’s smartly dressed in a maroon blazer and dark chinos, intelligent eyes shining out from behind a pair of designer glasses.

“Research showed that the people coming here in the summer needed more. Our guests are socially and environmentally conscious, and a luxury getaway for them involves feeling good on many different levels” he says.

“So, it came down to the details. The food, drinks, architecture, social events, spa treatments and the mountain life activities are all carefully curated to help generate that good feeling. It’s no longer just about a nice hotel”

He points towards the ceiling with a cheeky smile on his face. “Even the music is specially curated by Berlin DJs with regard to the time of day and the weather outside” he says.

As I wander around the quiet and cool corridors of the Forsthofalm, those details come to life. Built of moon timber (trees chopped down when they’re not producing sap, said to aid sleep) sourced sustainably, everything about the design is pleasant and helps keep you immersed in the nature beyond the walls; the curving hallway to my room could be a forest track, the views outside of every window giving a glimpse of either stunning mountain backdrops or mysterious green copses of sloping woodland. The hotel is built as an extension of the world outside.

The next day I opt for an early morning fitness class, where I thrash around heavy ropes, do sprints, push ups, and plank poses, at the bequest of Lisa, my energetic class leader. Exhausted but revitalised, the afternoon brings another slow yoga session before I once again take off to explore the mountains, which are starting to seem like a buffer to the outside world.

My evenings are spent dining in the restaurant, where the menu for the evening also lists the activity schedule for the following day. Dinners are a 5-star affair, and there are frequent social dinners coming up on the calendar as well. Aperitivo barbeques on the terrace, themed nights, even a dinner where everyone sits together at one long table. I’m not there to see that, but one night I do get to order a specially made appetiser before dinner from a Milanese chef who has been flown in for the day. I take back an eggplant parmigiana to my table, with the promise of a handmade pizza upon my return.

Before dinner one night I visit the Sky Spa, where I’m confronted with 5 different options for treatment depending on what I think most needs sustaining; energy, brain, soul, muscle or love. Each has its own unique treatments and methods of massage, and I get to choose by opening a container and smelling the contents. I opt for muscle; the massage complete with views out towards the Leogang peaks as the setting sun sends spools of gold across the sky.

My frequent hikes and participation in the activities gives me a chance to study my fellow hotel guests as well. There are no booze-laden English tourists here, no rosy-cheeked skiers bundled up like the Michelin man. Instead, there are young hip couples from the nearby cities of Salzburg and Berlin, escaping the city for a luxurious and quiet weekend in the mountains. Side by side with them are adventurous families, the kids decked out in flash hiking boots, walking poles resting against their tables as they sip on their afternoon coffees. These are the modern-day wellness seekers.

 

Another day sees me with a rental bike under my control, but instead of tackling the intimidating trails above I instead cycle down the hill into town. I catch vistas of the long valley on my descent from the hotel, cows unmoving in distant paddocks, shadows of clouds drifting across the lush green of grass. Leogang is equally as laid back as the warm afternoon, and what it lacks in size it makes up for in beautiful solid timber houses sporting perfectly manicured gardens. In the centre of town is where I find the bottom of the cable car running up the mountain, bikers preparing for the long ascent. Tall hotels and guesthouses stand empty, devoid of their winter guests. I find an outdoor terrace bathed in sunshine, order a schnitzel with beer, and settle in to listen to the gentle chit chat of the Germans around me.

On the afternoon of my last day in the hotel, I meet with Colin in the lobby for my final adventure, a guided group hike through the mountains. As he leads the 5 of us at an easy pace through the landscapes, he talks about a life in the mountains, switching between German and English as he relates his story and interesting facts about our surroundings. We climb steadily until the paddocks far below us look like a patchwork quilt, grey monoliths rising on the other side. We turn back just as twilight begins to fall, a purple veil slowly folding over the valley, the blinking orange lights of the towns drawing us back.

As I wait for my taxi to the train station, I look at my phone for the first time in a while to see a notification about my upcoming flight to Barcelona. There’s a lot to be said about a wellness retreat in the Alps when such a big move can fade to the back of my mind, but there it was. And although the hotels here that have redefined themselves to offer a new kind of luxurious wellness might be due some credit, I think the true luxury is being able to get back to the basics and reacquaint yourself with nature - without the crowds.

On the afternoon of my last day in the hotel, I meet with Colin in the lobby for my final adventure, a guided group hike through the mountains. As he leads the 5 of us at an easy pace through the landscapes, he talks about a life in the mountains, switching between German and English as he relates his story and interesting facts about our surroundings. We climb steadily until the paddocks far below us look like a patchwork quilt, grey monoliths rising on the other side. We turn back just as twilight begins to fall, a purple veil slowly folding over the valley, the blinking orange lights of the towns drawing us back.

As I wait for my taxi to the train station, I look at my phone for the first time in a while to see a notification about my upcoming flight to Barcelona. There’s a lot to be said about a wellness retreat in the Alps when such a big move can fade to the back of my mind, but there it was. And although the hotels here that have redefined themselves to offer a new kind of luxurious wellness might be due some credit, I think the true luxury is being able to get back to the basics and reacquaint yourself with nature - without the crowds.