Off piste and into the spa: Austria's Bad Hofgastein offers far more than skiing
Past the town's cross-country skiing track, a little further on from an icy-looking pond peppered with hardy ducks, steam was rising from the valley floor. A series of low-rise modern buildings, large windows brightly lit against the surrounding mountains, awaited me, grouped around a striking dome and a simple glass box.
Too welcoming to be a Bond villain's lair, and too attractive to be a power station, this was Alpentherme, the leisure centre, watery wonderland and spa complex that is Bad Hofgastein's secret weapon as a ski resort with a difference.
You see, thanks to the usual fare of fresh air, physical activity and a week's worth of stick-to-your ribs mountain cuisine, I normally feel satisfied after a skiing holiday – and always well fed – but not necessarily well rested. With just six days to ski each year, it can feel as though any moment not on the slopes (or sipping hot wine to alleviate piste-inflicted pain) is somehow a waste.
There is another way, where the spas equal the bars, and healing is as important as hurtling down mountains. It took my first trip to an Austrian ski resort to make me realise this. It could have been skiing in a new country that challenged my winter holiday preconceptions, but more likely it was something in the water of Bad Hofgastein – naturally heated to 42C and used extensively in the spas and healing centres that the town is named for.
Before I'd even had the chance to set foot on a piste, I was dipping my toes in one of the warm outdoor swimming pools at the five-year-old Alpentherme complex. While downy snow fluttered past, children and adults splashed happily, jumping in and out of the atmospherically lit pool as Jacuzzi bubbles fizzed through the water.
Opposite, a stunning steel-clad lane pool offered chillier charms, while inside, water slides, saunas, steam rooms, treatment rooms and a multimedia leisure dome (set within a swimming pool, of course) competed for visitors' attention.
After an afternoon of soaking, floating, swimming and steaming, I defy anyone not to agree that Austria gives good spa.
Meanwhile, rather than give up in the face of such municipal magnificence, my hotel, the Kur- & Sport-Hotel Palace, had a fabulous pool, steam rooms and saunas (although the latter two – in relaxed Austrian style – were mixed, with no swimsuits allowed).
With four piste areas (the Dorfgastein-Grossarl area, the Schlossalm-Angertal-Stubnerkogel, the Graukogel and the Sportgastein) there are over 200km of ski runs to choose from here, plus 45 lifts, a funicular railway and a free ski bus linking it all up. The lower pistes are pretty and tree-lined, something I was grateful for as the trees reduced the wind and kept the slopes visible despite near white-out conditions. And far beyond the tree-line the resort tops out at an impressive 2,700m.
The Ski Club of Great Britain added Bad Hofgastein to its roster of resorts last year – and its Freshtracks holidays are designed around groups of skiers of roughly the same ability, making them a good option for independent travellers looking for some company on the slopes.
Roland from the Ski Race Academy Gastein was my instructor on the first morning. Having opted out of ski school during recent ski trips, I was quickly reminded how important tuition is. Without Roland I would never have headed into Bad Hofgastein's fresh powder or attempted a black run. Certainly not before lunch, anyway.
Lunch was in fact taken at a slope-side chalet – but if the wurst, bacon and lentils plus fist-sized potato dumpling met my expectations for hearty Austrian fare, then supper confounded them. Unterberger Wirt, a traditional Alpine hotel and restaurant, served delicious, dainty dishes made from local ingredients and cooked according to feng shui principles – something I'd never heard of in connection with food.
The chef-proprietor, Hans-Peter Berti, became fascinated with the art after meeting a Chinese expert. Having feng shui-ed his hotel, he decided to try it with the food.
"You have to balance the elements," he explained, and each one has its corresponding flavour: wood is represented by sour tastes; fire is bitter; earth is sweet; metal is spicy and water is salty. Although I wasn't really sold on the thinking, the pumpkin oil, cheese and freshly baked bread starter was perfect, as was my herb-encrusted veal.
The snow the next morning was the best I've ever skied on – even if the visibility was some of the worst I've ever battled through. After a brave attempt to follow Roland off-piste into a duvet of powder, I sank to my shoulders and had to be dug out. Eventually snow halted play: the conditions after lunch were too windy for safety. But in the neighbouring belle-époque spa town of Bad Gastein there was another kind of mountain adventure to be had.
The Gasteiner Heilstollen was like nowhere I'd ever been before. On the outside, this contemporary building could be any other spa. But after a blood-pressure check and a change into a swimsuit and dressing gown, I joined a stream of locals and tourists climbing aboard a little electric train that was one part Noddy to two parts Blofeld.
The train took us through a rocky tunnel deep inside a mountain that got hotter and more humid as we travelled.
The idea behind this commute is that the naturally occurring noble gas radon is present inside the mountain, and that, combined with a temperature of 37-39C and humidity of 80 per cent, this is beneficial to health. It's claimed that exposure to these conditions can reduce the need for painkillers for those with long-term pain.
Once again I decided to suspend my disbelief and go with the healing flow. So I spent a strange but soothing half hour sweating on a bench in a dimly lit tunnel with lots of other people. It was oddly enjoyable but I can't vouch for the radon's efficacy – I still ached from my earlier exertions.
But I was in fine fettle for supper, a fondue feast held in the oldest mountain lodge in Austria: Bellevue Alm, reached by a ski-free, single-person chair lift. After the dark ride up the silvery mountain, the smoke-streaked wooden restaurant with its vast stone fireplace conjured a thrilling sense of hunting parties long since past. But was it the radon or the schnapps that fortified me for dessert? Either way, descending back to town on a wooden toboggan around a winding track studded with Narnia-esque streetlamps was truly magical – and the only scary thing about it was how hard I cackled with glee.
Although a final night's dancing at the Silver Bullet nightclub possibly wasn't the killer cure its name suggests, after four days in Bad Hofgastein, I felt pleasantly stretched in terms of my skiing ability but also immensely relaxed. Apparently, there really is more to a ski holiday than, well, skiing.
Travel essentials: Bad Hofgastein
* The Ski Club of Great Britain (020-8410 2022; skiclub.co.uk/freshtracks) offers four nights' half-board at the Kur & Sport Hotel Palace (00 43 6432 67150; kurhotelpalace.at) for £699. The price includes flights from Heathrow to Munich and a two-hour coach transfer.
* Ski Club Freshtracks run a number of ski holiday options to Bad Hofgastein including a girls-only getaway and Peak Experience ski and spa holidays.
* The closest gateway to Bad Hofgastein is Salzburg, served by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com)
* Alpentherme Gastein (00 43 6432 83930; alpentherme.com/en). Admission is €27.50 for an all-day adult ticket.
* Unterberger Wirt hotel and restaurant (00 43 6433 7077; unterbergerwirt.com).
* Gasteiner Heilstollen (00 43 6434 37530; gasteiner-heilstollen.com). Introductory treatments cost €29.90.
* Bellevue Alm (00 43 6434 3881; bellevue-alm.com).
* Membership to the Ski Club of Great Britain costs £58 for individuals, £90 for families and £21 for members under 24. Membership includes the services of a Ski Club Leader, available in 35 ski resorts.
* Bad Hofgastein Tourist Office: 00 43 6432 3393 260; gastein.com
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