Tucked away in a pretty Alpine valley is Bad Hofgastein, a vigorous little spa town that shares famous healing waters with its more well-known neighbor, Badgastein.
Now, in the drab depths of an interminable winter, our daydreams are increasingly of warm days in a green, peaceful Alpine valley, perhaps sheltering a spic and span little town with simple, homey restaurants and hotels. Such an out-of-the-way dream village would be perfect for a week of country walks, good books and outdoor café lounging. It should also not be too expensive or attract too many American tourists. And, in case of a rainy day or plain old boredom, it needs to be within an hour's train ride of an interesting larger city.
One town that fits our daydream is Bad Hofgastein, located just an hour south of Salzburg in the Gasteiner valley.
its better-known neighbor, of course, is Badgastein, the spa town that saw its best days around the turn-of-the century when it attracted royalty from all over Europe.
Spread out on the valley floor, Bad Hofgastein cannot match Badgastein's unique hillside location or its Victorian splendor, but BH is brighter, more contemporary and far livelier.
There is also just the tiniest feeling of isolation. Bad Hofgastein is not an Autobahn exit and few visitors are just "passing through." The town is near the end of the valley and the only way out is back the way you came or to put your car on a train through the Taurentunnel.
Except for walking, our reverie envisions a pretty sedentary existence. The active traveler, however, will find plenty to do. There are many miles of flat trails, just outside of town is one of Austria's few golf courses and, of course, lifts to ski slopes are within walking distance of most hotels. In summer, the energetic visitor can ride, play tennis or squash, bicycle or swim. And three times a day the town's orchestra performs free concerts outdoors if the weather is good.
Besides downhill and cross country skiing, winter activities include ice skating, curling and sleigh rides. And don't forget the "Bad" in Bad Hofgastein; the town has access to the same thermal baths, radon caves and mineral water that are available to the swells of Badgastein.
Walking, however, remains our exercise of choice when traveling. One morning last April, we walked to Bad Hofgastein from the Hotel Grüner Baum about 9 km (5.6 miles) explored the town, ate lunch and returned to the hotel by bus in the mid-afternoon. Obviously, one could do it in reverse, though much of the route would be an easy uphill.
This is a good destination for families. The resort offers special programs for children, there are special ski schools for kids and the town swimming pool has a waterslide.
Though only a city of 6,000 inhabitants, Bad Hofgastein has dozens of hotels in all price categories and more than 400 apartments or houses available for rent.
Here are three we liked.
The centrally-located Aurora is our pick of the three accommodations options reviewed that are in Bad Hofgastein proper. Reserve either of the two top floor units. They are modern, well furnished, sparkling clean, airy and full of the fresh smell of the blonde wood that is the basis of their decor. The slanting ceiling of the smaller unit, for two persons, is broken by a large skylight. There is a small, well-equipped, spotless kitchen, a quiet bedroom and a cozy, comfortable sitting room. At 95 AS per day ($90) it's a bargain. Even better value is the larger apartment with two bedrooms and a balcony with a good view.
• Daily Rates: 560 to 720 AS ($49-$63) for two persons; 810 to 1060 AS ($70-$92) for three persons; 970 to 1240 AS ($84-$108) for four persons and 1360 to 1600 AS ($118-$139) for six persons. Breakfast and daily room cleaning available for an additional charge.
Contact: Appartmenthotel Aurora, Am Kirchenplatz 8, Bad Hofgastein, Austria, A-5630, tel. 06432/6210-0, fax 06432/6210-62
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 17/20
Even more in the center of things, and a great bargain for those who want to stay only a couple of days, is the charming little Hotel Austria. Be sure, however to reserve room Number 1. This clean, spacious room has the usual side-by-side twin beds, two comfortable chairs, a small balcony, cable TV, telephone, radio and toilet and shower. The wash basin is in the sleeping room. The price is 280 AS ($24).
The welcome here is warm and the restaurant serves good food, sometimes on a terrace on the Platz. A light lunch of salad, Speckknödlesuppe and beer set us back 164 AS ($14).
• Daily Rates: 280 AS ($24) per person.
Contact: Hotel-Café Austria, Bad Hofgastein, Austria, A-5630, tel. 06432/6223
Rating: Quality 10/20 Value 16/20
You won't go wrong either at the four-star, five-story Hotel Norica, also in the town center. Rooms are large and modern, most with balconies and the hotel offers such amenities as a thermal indoor pool, sauna and steam bath.
Ask for room Number 305.
• Daily Rates: Singles 740 to 950 AS ($64-$83), Doubles 1280 to 1680 AS ($111-$146). Prices include breakfast and dinner.
Contact: Hotel Norica, Kaiser-Franz-Platz 3, Bad Hofgastein, Austria, A-5630, tel. 06432/8391-0, fax 06432/8391-500
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 15/20
Hotel Grüner Baum
Of course the best hotel in the region and, in fact, the best country hotel we've seen is the Grüner Baum, in its own little valley, the Kötschachtal, about nine kilometers from Bad Hofgastein. First built by the Archduke Johann as a hunting lodge, this hotel is spectacular in every way: backdropped by heavily forested hills and snow-covered peaks, its setting is picture-postcard, a cluster of Alpine chalets in a rolling green meadow with a mountain stream winding among them; the facilities are five-star with beauty farm, indoor and outdoor pools, multiple restaurants and tennis courts; and the interiors are glorious examples of Alpine decor, a rustic/elegant kaleidoscope of rugged wood beams, white vaulted ceilings supported by marble-footed columns, carved wood paneling, cozy fireplaces and priceless antiques and rugs.
The Grüner Baum's considerable physical charms are matched by the owners' exceptionally warm welcome and the efficient, friendly service dispensed by the family and their traditionally-dressed English-speaking staff. In the nearly 90 years the Grüner Baum has been in the Blumschein-Linsinger family, it has hosted the likes of Yehudi Menuhin, filmmaker Billy Wilder, Arturo Toscanini and the Emperor Franz Joseph and the Empress Elizabeth.
Most of the spacious, wood-accented guest rooms have separate sitting areas and private balconies. Ours, Number 93, overlooked the little river and offered a wonderful view up the valley. Depending on the season, it rents for from 2200 to 3400 AS ($191 to $296).
The hotel offers a half-board arrangement (350 AS/$30 per person) but we opted to dine a la carte. Most main courses are in the 300 AS ($26) range. Without beverages, our dinners were about $80 for two persons. The first night's meal was highlighted by a surprisingly excellent bouillabaisse that would have done Marseille or Boston proud. Almost as good was an herbed pasta tossed with fresh dill, garlic, onion, butter and mussels that were a little too sandy. Soups, salads and desserts, all about $6 to $7, were very good. Main course meat dishes, however, did not measure up to the rest of the menu, particularly the seafood. Service was excellent and knowledgeable. There is an extensive wine list that seems reasonably priced. We paid 680 AS ($59) for an outstanding Bordeaux, Leoville Las Cases, 1980.
When a hotel such as the Grüner Baum is compared, as it should be, against the best in Europe, it emerges as an outstanding value.
• Daily Rates: Singles 1150 to 1950 AS ($100-$170), doubles 2100 to 3700 AS ($183-$322).
Contact: Grüner Baum, Kötschachtal, Badgastein, A-5640, tel. 06434/25 160, fax 06434/25 16 125
Rating: Quality 19/20 Value 19/20
Bad Hofgastein Info
* Altitude: 850 meters, 2,789 feet
* Population: 6,845
Bad Hofgastein Tourist Office : Tauernplatz 1, A-5630 Bad Hofgastein, 9 am - 12 noon; 2 pm - 5 pm
* Tel. 43-6432/7110-0
* Fax: 43-6432/7110-31
Location: Bad Hofgastein is 100 km (63 miles) virtually straight south of Salzburg. By car, take the A10 Tauern Autobahn and get off at Bischofshofen; then Red Road #311 south to #167 and south again. Approaching from the south, take the railway car ferry at Mallnitz.
Map: Die GeneralKarte #4 - Austria
* City KM/Miles
* Berlin 839/524
* Frankfurt 650/406
* Innsbruck 191/119
* Milan 611/382
* Munich 235/147
* Paris 1127/704
* Salzburg 100/63
* Vienna 412/258
* Zürich 468/293
Bad Hofgastein Seasons
* High season (HS) / summer July 1 - September 7
* Low season (LS) / summer September 8 - October 28
* High season (HS) / winter December 22 - March 2
* Low season (LS) / winter March 3 - April 20