Ski in and chill out
Far from the madding crowds, Danielle Demetriou discovers a stylish sanctuary in the often kitsch resort of Zell am See, Austria
Saturday 28 October 2006
The midday sun scorches the rosy cheeks of skiers squeezed into striped deckchairs more than 600m above sea level. Behind them is an ice bar in the shape of a sandcastle. A selection of life-size animals made from twigs dot the terrace. And the air is filled with an ear-splitting electro-techno rendition of "The Sound of Music". Welcome to party-time at Zell am See, the Austrian ski resort that may be famous for its breathtaking mountains and winter sports, but is equally deserving of recognition for its celebration of all things kitsch.
Alpine resorts, of course, have long been synonymous with excessive amounts of pine, hearty gastronomy and musically challenged nightclubs, and Zell am See is no exception. Hotel staff wear traditional Alpine dress; Crazy Daisy, the hippest joint in town, serves blue cocktails; and the steamy-windowed Irish pub is never empty. But there is one new venue in the Austrian resort that is refusing to conform to tradition: the Mavida Balance Hotel and Spa, which opened last December.
With its minimalist interior and emphasis on wellbeing, the Mavida is the antithesis of its more hedonistic Alpine counterparts. My plan is to determine whether it is more enjoyable to confine myself to the luxurious environs of a chic design hotel or to join the glühwein-swilling masses in the resort?
As I make my way to the Mavida for a kitsch-free weekend of inner harmony, I pass a bar resembling a giant cuckoo clock with huge outdoor speakers and wonder idly about what I may be missing. The hotel is in a prime location on the shores of the frozen Zeller Lake, which is encircled by the snow-capped foothills of the Gross Glockner, Austria's highest mountain at 3,798m.
From the outside, the Mavida appears to err on the plain side of modern. But once inside, the lobby's minimalist décor immediately confirms its status as a rival to the most sophisticated of urban retreats. There is not a painted cowbell or frosted pinecone in sight. Sunlit diaphanous curtains line the windows, architecture books are artfully strewn on sharply lined bookcases and dried plants from South America provide abstract ornamentation.
Each of the 47 rooms and suites is equally peaceful. A calming organic palette of beige and white is brightened with the odd splash of ruby red. The scent of wild fig candles fills the slate-tiled bathrooms. Best of all, beds are placed directly in front of a wall of sliding windows that frames a postcard-perfect vista of snowy mountains.
Sleep, it transpires, is taken very seriously at the Mavida. Guests are instructed to fill in a lengthy "personal sleeping menu" because "for your interior balance, a healthy and calm sleep is important". There are hard and soft mattresses, an array of pillows from spelt to millet, blankets for those with allergies and a helpful diagram to highlight which side of the bed requires which sleeping aid. All in all it's exhaustive and exhausting. Less demanding is the hotel's spa. As well as eight private treatment rooms and one opulent suite, there is a small but chic swimming-pool, a flotation tank, saunas and one room filled with nothing but reclining waterbeds.
A short while later, I find myself in an airy mirrored studio for the first in a series of activities arranged to help guests achieve that eponymous sense of balance. Standing face to face with Franz, my personal instructor in the ancient martial art of qi gong, I can't help but wonder if it would be more fun downing heart-warming glühweins while listening to techno-yodelling in some canary yellow mountain-top bar.
As the sun dips behind the jagged skyline, I clumsily copy Franz as he works through his body's energy blockages by bouncing with both feet rooted to the ground: trickier than it sounds. It may be down to Franz's gentle voice, the wonderfully named and hypnotic "wave hands like clouds" exercise or simply the hotel working its magic. Either way, an hour later, my hyperactive mind has been reduced to a soporific lull.
The lesson is the first of a string of activities that fill my days. I float on a bed of heavily salted water in a small, dark room. I have a one-to-one stretching class. I am even attached to a large contraption called "Dr Wolff's Back Check Machine", which highlights the weakest parts of my body.
Fortunately, food is also taken very seriously. The dinner menu in the sleek, bright restaurant is the antithesis of a traditional Alpine food-fest. From salmon mousse coated in leek and duck breast on gold millet to millefeuille with blood orange cream, we savour every stage of our five-course meal.
After perfecting the art of sleeping with an early night, I awake the following morning with the perfect vista of snow-dusted mountains - and am unable to resist the temptation of scaling a mountain with a pair of skis. But the transition from the Mavida to the outside world is not so easy. Stepping outside is like stepping into a Technicolor cartoon. I joltingly switch from a world of subdued neutrals to sensory overload.
Zell am See, only 80km from Salzburg, is perfectly located for top-class skiing, attracting hordes of international holidaymakers as well as car loads of weekending Austrians. As I climb into the dense blue sky on a chairlift, a mass of bright red bobble hats, orange scarves and yellow ski suits swarms beneath me. Every bar and café is throbbing with crowds of revellers shouting over indescribably loud music as they warm up with creamy hot chocolates. After an exhilarating skiing session, lunch consists of a satisfyingly hearty green pea and sausage soup, Kaiser beer and an extra large portion of apple strudel.
With aching knees, wind-burnt cheeks and heavy stomachs, we make our way back to the Mavida - whose calming serenity induces a feeling akin to stepping into a hot bath at the end of a long day in the office. The fact that I am about to sample the delights of the spa obviously helps.
I soon slip into pampered princess mode with a visit to the private spa suite. First stop, a private sauna filled with the uplifting fragrance of citrus aromatherapy oils.
Twenty minutes and one shower later, I'm taken to the next room of my suite, where I am pummelled with an organic body scrub. And just in case a microscopic iota of stress remains lurking in my body, I'm then led to a candlelit foaming bath the size of a small swimming pool. Platters of exotic fruit and herb tea are served as I melt into the bubbles. One rose quartz facial later, I'm pretty much incapable of standing up.
But I force myself to battle on. Just one treatment remains - one that is talked about by staff in near-reverential tones: the signature Blue Box. Unique to the hotel, the custom-designed Blue Box consists of a small circular room of balmy temperatures with cobalt lighting and two organically curved wooden beds taking centre stage. It is based on the idea that music vibrating through speakers built into the chairs creates a customised massage for the body. "Softer music for the women, more loud and aggressive for the men," adds Jeannine Meiners, the ever-smiling spa manager. "That's what they seem to like."
Expecting some low-key chill-out music to start playing in accordance with my gentler gender, I'm slightly taken aback when a crescendo of clashing sounds begins to resonate discordantly in the air - and down my back. I remain wide-eyed in surprise as the music - "a crashing symphony of high-pitched chimes" - results in tingling vibrations massaging the back of my body.
Gradually, however, something quite literally strikes a chord. The music, I find out afterwards, is designed to target parts of the brain which induce the alpha state that takes over the body moments before sleep. And my bemused disbelief is gradually replaced with a state of near hypnosis - or maybe I'm just exhausted by all this therapy. Either way, I am as spaced out as I am relaxed when I stumble out of the room 30 minutes later.
In the face of such concentrated "relaxation", I am determined to get one last blast of the outside world with a final skiing session. The following morning, as I rest between runs with a rejuvenating hot chocolate on a packed terrace, the euro-techno is momentarily replaced with a Last Night of the Proms-style recording of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", played full blast.
Kitsch? Absolutely. But would I really want an Alpine skiing holiday any other way? Definitely not, particularly now that hotels like the Mavida are providing a plausible antidote.
The writer travelled to Salzburg with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) which flies from Stansted, Liverpool and Nottingham. SkyEurope (09057 222 747; www.skyeurope.com) flies from Manchester, and British Airways (0870 950 8950; www.ba.com) begins flights from Gatwick in December. To reduce the environmental impact, buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Salzburg is £1.80.
Zell am See is just over an hour from Salzburg Airport by coach; return tickets cost €29 (£21).
The Blue Box experience costs €35 (£25) for 25 minutes. Three-day spa packages start at €193 (£138).
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