In Badgastein, the spa town that has attracted royal hot-tubbers for nearly 150 years, we found a country hotel to write a long letter home about and three others worth at least a postcard.

You won't be in town two minutes before you understand perfectly what it was that attracted kings and queens to Badgastein. its remote setting, a few hundred feet above the Gasteiner Valley floor, laid out along the curve of the valley's end, is tremendously appealing. Badgastein's main street is thus in the shape of a horseshoe and right in center of town, slashing through the middle of that horseshoe is a rip-roaring waterfall that blasts it way wildly down the steep hillside. Continue on around the horseshoe and the road becomes the Kaiser-Wilhelm Promenade, a wide, flat walking path that meanders past hotels, shops and crumbling Belle Epoque buildings.

Many - perhaps even most - people come to Badgastein to "take the waters." In 1845, the Emperor Franz Joseph showed up in BG for a cure and the place was made. A number of large, elegant hotels were built and for several decades Badgastein was one of Europe's most popular spas. These days the best hotels are smaller and less in the "grand" style, but the prospect of better health is still a major attraction. Many hotels have direct connections to the hot springs. Another cure attraction is the "healing tunnels" of Böckstein, a former gold mine, where deep in rocky caves, at temperatures of sometimes more than 100-degrees, people come by the tens of thousands from all over the world to lie on cots and inhale and absorb radon gas.

In winter, many of BGs visitors are fit skiers (56 lifts, 250 kilometers of downhill runs), but in warm weather the tourist population is, in large part, elderly and ill. Thus in summer, the town is quiet and goes to bed early, although there is a casino. If you're looking for action Badgastein is not the place. But if relaxing in a peaceful, beautiful setting - perhaps filling your days with long walks and good books - appeals to you there are a number good hotels, four of which we recommend without equivocation.

Grüner Baum

(Editor's Choice)

Over the years readers have told us of a country hotel near Badgastein, the Grüner Baum. We finally decided to find out what all the excitement was about. Did we like it? Let's just say it's the best country hotel we've reviewed in the six-plus years of publishing Gemütlichkeit.

What the Grüner Baum doesn't have, you won't need. This luscious hideaway is an enclave of half a dozen or so buildings set in a private Alpine valley (Kötschachtal), surrounded by craggy, forested mountains. Winding through the 175-acre property, past the tennis courts and the outdoor swimming pool, is an energetic, crystal clear mountain stream. Just over a footbridge is the Kösslerhaus which contains the hotel's spa, the beauty treatment center, the indoor swimming pool and several guest rooms and apartments.

There are three restaurants, Ganghoferstüberl, Rösslstube and Hochzeitsstube. Three nights a week there is live music in the Rösslstube, from dance orchestras to zither music. A pianist plays every day at 4 p.m. - tea time. The centerpiece of the bar is a sculptured grizzly bear fountain that sometimes spouts Kir Royale. In its large fireplace, the hotel will sometimes spit-roast a whole pig. When the sun shines, meals can be taken in the garden restaurant which on marginal days has a heated terrace.

The Grüner Baum schedules a full program of guest activities including picnics, hikes, bike tours, sleigh rides, tobogganing and barbecues. When we were there, the Blumschein family took a horse-drawn wagon load of guests into the nearby mountains and served them a huge buffet breakfast. There are the usual cure therapies such as thermal baths, herbal baths, massages, mud packs, inhalation and sauna. For the various beauty treatments the hotel employs full-time cosmetologists. There is even a staff doctor and a fully staffed nursery for children of guests.

Only five minutes from the hotel is a nine-hole golf course. Weekday green fees are 280 AS ($24) and a five-day pass is 1250 AS ($109).

Of course, the hotel's public and guest rooms are decorated in the traditional but sumptuous Tirolean style with liberal doses of rich, hand-carved and inlaid wood, marble tiled floors, fine rugs and antiques. But not everything is traditional; the main dining room has a no smoking area.

Guest rooms are comfortable, quiet and come with five-star furnishings and amenities. We particularly liked Number 90 in the Kösslerhaus. It overlooks the creek and from its balcony is that stunning view up the valley toward the mountains. The bed is canopied and the bath roomy and gleaming. With breakfast and dinner, the per night cost for two persons is about 2400 AS ($209).

You'll note we have rated the Grüner Baum as "offering significant value." That it does in any season, but in the off-season May 14 through July 4 and September 19 through October 18, the rates are especially attractive: an apartment with bedroom, living room and balcony for two persons, depending on length of stay, ranges from 1960 to 2600 AS ($170-$226) including both breakfast and dinner.

By any standard, this is a great hotel. The setting is perfect. Grounds and interiors are beautifully maintained. Staff is friendly and efficient. All the services are offered.

Grüner Baum, Kötschachtal, A-5640 Badgastein, telephone 06434 25 160, fax 06434 25 16 25. Per person, per day rates including breakfast and lunch or dinner range from 730 to 1800 AS ($64-$157). Major cards.
* Grüner Baum: V G $

Haus Hirt

(Editor's Choice)

Walk around the Kaiser Wilhelm Promenade, near the end of the horseshoe, and you'll find Haus Hirt, a wonderfully comfortable, quiet little hotel spread across the hillside with great views over the Gasteiner Valley.

Though it is no more than a 10-minute walk from the center of town, Haus Hirt feels like being deep in the countryside. Room Number 68 is a two-level apartment - sleeping area and bath are up a short flights of stairs - with a balcony and view of the valley. There is a small kitchen. For two persons with half-board the price is 1980 AS ($172).

A comfortable corner double with balcony and valley view is Number 590 which rents for 690 AS per person ($60) including breakfast and dinner.

The hotel has cure facilities and in the morning guests can participate in yoga and group exercise.

This is the kind of place to hide out in for a week or two. Take your walking shoes and some good books.

Haus Hirt, An der Kaiserpromenade, A-5640 Badgastein, telephone 06434 27 97, fax 06434 27 97 48. Singles 640 to 990 AS ($56-$86), doubles 1280 to 1980 AS ($112 to $172).
* Haus Hirt: III G $

Villa Solitude

(Editor's Choice)

One of Austria's newest castle hotels is the Villa Solitude on Kaiser Franz Joseph Strasse, the horseshoe shaped main street. The house was originally a gift from an Austrian count to his mistress and is registered as an historic monument. It was the site of the signing of the Gasteiner treaty between Bismarck and Count Andrassy. The owners of the Grüner Baum, the Blumschein family, purchased the building at auction in March of 1990 and in short order returned it to its former glory. Today it is an exquisite six-room inn with an excellent restaurant, the Brasserie.

The five apartments and one two-bedroom suite have been meticulously restored using the highest quality materials and adding all the modern comforts. Several have a view of the falls. Most of the wood paneling is the original cedar and in one cabinet are pieces of the Blumschein family's Meissen porcelain. The carpets are original and were repaired at a cost of nearly $50,000. The design on the guest bathrobes matches that found on bathroom tiles and towels.

Dinner in the bright Cascade Room of the Brasserie was satisfying. Brasserieteller, 180 AS ($16), was filets of lamb, veal and pork, served with a reduction sauce and sliced mushrooms. A side of spaghetti had no visible sauce, but a nice flavor of herbs, cheese and garlic. Hirschruckenfilet was three very tender pieces of venison, also served in a reduced sauce, with Chinese pea pods and potato croquettes.

Villa Solitude, Kaiser Franz Joseph Strasse 16, A-5640 Badgastein, telephone 06434 5101/5102, fax 06434 5101-3. Apartment prices range from 2,000 AS ($174) to 3,000 AS ($261). The Kaiserin "Sissy" Suite has a low season/high season price range of 2,400 AS ($209) to 3,800 AS ($330). If three or four persons occupy this two-bedroom suite the range is 3,000 AS ($261) to 4,800 AS ($348). Major cards.
* Villa Solitude: IV
* Brasserie: P

Landhaus Gletschermühle

(Editor's Choice)

Located in a wooded area about a five-minute walk above the center of town is the best bargain we found in Badgastein.

Officially a Frühstückspension (bed and breakfast), the Landhaus Gletschermühle has 16 nicely-furnished, spotless, spacious guest rooms. Most have balconies with views, cable TV and private bathrooms. Room Number 3 is a corner double with a separate sitting area. For two persons the price with breakfast is 640 AS ($56).

Little English is spoken but that shouldn't deter you because ownership is very friendly.

Landhaus Gletschermühle, Gletschermühlestr. 7, A-5640 Badgastein, telephone 06434 20 970, fax 06434 23 80 30. Singles 270 to 350 AS ($24-$30), doubles 540 to 700 AS ($48 to $60).
* Gletschermühle: III $

Evianquelle

The village of Böckstein is 10 minutes by car into the hills behind Badgastein. The Alpenhaus-Café Evianquelle is located by itself outside the village in a narrow river valley. Water from a locally famous spring on the hotel's property is free and delicious. Next to the hotel is a trout pond and, no surprise, one of the hotel's specialties is fresh trout. Lachsforellenfilet in Zitronenbutter with potatoes and salad is 175 AS ($15.22).

Guest rooms are simple but spacious, some with separate sitting area. Kids and dogs are welcome and there is plenty of room for both to roam.

• Evianquelle, Nassfelder Weg, A-5645 Böckstein, telephone 06434 27 68, fax 06434 27 67. Singles 260 to 320 AS ($23-$28), doubles 510 to 610 AS ($44 to $53). No cards.
* Evianquelle: II

Meranhaus

Those who would like to go back 80 to 100 years and see what a hotel was like in the time of the Habsburgs might try the Meranhaus. Some of its guests date back at least that far.

While this relic is full of antiques and nostalgia, such charms are outweighed by a worn, almost shabby, atmosphere and lack of vitality. Guestrooms are comfortable enough, bathrooms have even been redone with modular, plastic shower stalls, but we'll take a pass.

Meranhaus, A-5640 Badgastein, telephone 06434 23 28, fax 06434 23 863. Singles 350 to 550 AS ($30-$48), doubles 700 to 1300 AS ($61 to $113).
* Meranhaus: I

March 1993