Enjoying Old World Elegance in Austria
|Hotel Grüner Baum|
There is something special about top-of-the-line country hotels in Austria. To first or second time travelers to our regions, they may seem virtually the same as their counterparts in Germany and Switzerland. There are, however, enough subtle differences to give a unique twist to the Austrian hotel experience; more country, more off-the-beaten-track, and more "Old World" - all the while maintaining a high standard of luxury.
Take the "Old World" business: In Germany and Switzerland there are a few hotels where one finds the staff turned out each day in traditional dress, whereas in the Austrian countryside it's standard operating procedure. In fact, when it comes to setting a mood, country hotels there seem bent on recreating the time of the beloved Emperor Franz Joseph in the mid-19th century, the last great days of the Hapsburgs. Lehar and Strauss are heard on hotel sound systems and décor is reminiscent of the great royal hunting lodges. The obvious goal, and this is not criticism, is to reproduce in style and atmosphere, that headier, perhaps more gracious, era.
It starts with the properties themselves. Four and five-star Austrian country hotels set the standard for rustic elegance: gorgeous, elaborately carved wooden ceilings and paneling, frescoes on stucco surfaces, are all de rigeur in public rooms; great stone fireplaces blaze throughout the day and evening; and here and there are cozy, nooks with vaulted ceilings. Dining rooms can be grand, high-ceilinged places or intimate, elegant hideaways. During your stay it's likely that each night at dinner you'll be shown to a roomy, comfortably padded, wooden booth marked with a discreet "reserved for" sign with your name on it.
The benevolent, gemütlich feel extends to the typically oversized guest rooms where separate sitting and sleeping areas are the norm, as are balconies and spacious bathrooms equipped with terrycloth robes and thick towels.
These hotels are not for the overnight auto traveler, but for those who can stop for a few days to enjoy a different kind of hotel experience. Not only are guests provided with comfortable sleeping accommodations, but are fed two or even three meals a day - often accompanied by live music - and entertained with outings and special activities. Elaborate spa, pool, wellness and beauty facilities, bicycles to loan, guided hikes and excursions, and even professionally supervised childcare and activities for kids, are all part of daily life at a top-flight Austrian country hotel.
Though the tariff at such rustic palaces will deter some, to pass them by is to miss a bargain, especially in the off-season. Take the rambling, five-star Hotel Tümmlerhof in Seefeld, whose kitchen gets two Toques from Gault Millau. Next spring, two persons can stay there six nights for less than $1300, or about $217 per night, including breakfast and dinner. At least one evening will feature a special buffet with live music. Let's compare that with a week at similar Swiss and German hotels. The website of the Grand Hotel Regina in Grindelwald advertises a seven-night package for around $3200 or $457 per night. A four-night package at the Hotel Bareiss, in Baiersbronn in Germany's Black Forest figures out to about $446 per night. Even an off-season superior double room with breakfast and dinner, in what Gemütlichkeit considers the top country inn in Austria, the Grüner Baum, is a comparatively thrifty $260 per night.
Here are a half-dozen of our Austrian favorites listed in reverse order of our ranking:
Hotel St. Peter, Seefeld
In this mountain resort village 20 minutes northwest of Innsbruck the traveler can select from a long list of hotels. This one is a four-star that provided us with a pleasant night's sleep and a good meal a couple of years ago. Number 107 had a separate sitting area with couch, coffee table and television, a gleaming bathroom with thick towels and terrycloth robes, and a balcony with a mountain view.
Getting There: Seefeld is about 20 km north of Innsbruck on Red Road 177. From Munich it's about a two-hour drive via Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It is also accessible by train from Innsbruck (about 35 minutes) and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (about 45 minutes).
Cost: See box below
Gartenhotel Tümmlerhof, Seefeld
The Tümmlerhof is a 10-minute walk or five-minute ride on one of the hotel's bikes from the center of the village. Its location on four wooded acres combines country charm with easy access to Seefeld's busy pedestrian-only shopping areas.
Each Wednesday, half-board guests are treated to an outdoor barbecue (weather permitting). Tables and umbrellas are set on the terrace and lawn, the staff dresses in traditional Tyrolean costume and a great ice carving is centerpiece for a massive layout of food. Uniformed chefs barbecue and serve an assortment of delicious meats including various wursts, chops, steaks and fowl. Members of the Zorn family graciously greet guests and serve them from the buffet, all the while urging extra helpings onto plates already top heavy with food. Throw in live music from a venerable string trio and, of course, magnificent views of the mountains, and you have a most agreeable package. Friday nights feature a five-course degustation menu.
The hotel's 65 rooms are large, well furnished and designed for long stays. Nearly all have spacious entry closets with plenty of shelves, places to hang clothing and to store gear.
Getting There: See Hotel St. Peter.
Contact: Gartenhotel Tümmlerhof, Münchnerstrasse 215, Seefeld, tel. +43/ 5212/25 710, fax 25 71 104
Cost: See box below
Hotel Jagdhof, Neustift
The Stubaital, a few kilometers south of Innsbruck, is a narrow valley running at a southwestern angle off the main highway to Italy. Neustift is one of the larger villages along the valley road which dead ends at the Stubai Glacier, where there is year-round skiing.
A Burgstall apartment - ours was Number 211 - turned out to be three rooms: one with a queen-size bed, another with a single bed, and, between the two, a sitting room with huge L-shaped sofa, coffee table and TV. The large bathroom consisted of shower, tub and double sinks in one space, and the toilet in a separate room. The per person off-season rate is _123 ($134); in high season the price rises to 130 ($142). Included are breakfast and a multi-course dinner with live zither music in the candlelit dining room where a small ceramic plaque inscripted with a gold "Bestor" designated our table.
The Jagdhof has all the five-star refinements: indoor and outdoor pools, beauty farm, fitness facilities, childcare, etc.
Getting There: From Innsbruck, take Red Road 182 south which parallels Autobahn A22 toward the Brenner Pass. (The Autobahn is faster but you pay a toll.) Angle southwest into the Stubai Valley at Schönberg. The nearest rail station to Neustift is in Fulpmes, about six km (4 miles).
Cost: See box below
Hotel der Bär, Ellmau
The Bär's several buildings sprawl over the hillside above the town, a position that takes advantage of a fine view of the Kaisergebirge range. Five-star amenities include two swimming pools, a beauty center, free bicycle use, a long list of guest activities, supervised play for kids, tennis and six golf courses in the vicinity.
In the spacious bar, the hotel's most appealing room, a wall of curving windows takes advantage of the view. The furniture is comfortable with couches and overstuffed chairs arranged around coffee tables - a particularly pleasant after-dinner room.
Though guest rooms are not quite on a par with the rest of the hotels in this group, the Bär's restaurant may be the best of all. Even as single night guests we were escorted to a large window table softly illuminated by a single, low-hanging, shaded lamp. Set before us were starched linens, gleaming stemware and delicate, fresh blossoms floating in a giant wine glass. Somewhere, a piano rippled familiar show tunes. Dinner began with a few tiny baked shrimp followed by a morel mushroom soup sprinkled with tiny croûtons. Next came a dish with Asian overtones; Fischstrudel auf Wildreisrisotto, flaky white fish in phyllo crust over a mixture of white and wild rice. Then, after a bit of sorbet, came the featured course, three small pork medallions, first grilled then coated with a sauce of Gorgonzola cheese and quickly broiled to form a light crust. The rather dramatic dessert was wings of white chocolate mousse, Tiramisueis and fresh berries served on a black plate. One of the finest half-board dinner we've ever been served.
Getting There: Ellmau is about 113 km (71 miles) southeast of Munich. From the Wörgl exit on A12 Autobahn, proceed east about 20 km (13 miles) on Red Road 312 just south of Kufstein. The nearest rail station is in St. Johann im Tirol, about 12 km (8 miles).
Cost: See box below
Gasthof Post Lech
The very best hotel in one of Austria's most popular ski destinations is the ultra-traditional Post. Though its weathered shingle façade on the village's main street is quite plain, beyond the arched front doors is a Fabergé egg of carved-wood rusticity and Austrian country elegance. Everywhere Oriental rugs and highly polished antiques catch the eye. Dirndls and Loden coats are the uniform of the day and not just for the staff.
Hovering above the stunning main salon - the Hubertushalle - is an octagonal skylight cut into the center of the wood paneled ceiling. With the room's fireplace crackling away, there is no better place in Lech to take tea on a winter afternoon.
Guest rooms are more of the same; traditional, atmospheric and five-star.
There is an indoor pool, a lovely garden for summer relaxing, various dining venues and even a small boutique.
The Mercedes Benzes and BMWs parked out front tell the story of the Post's clientèle: well-fixed Europeans, mostly Swiss, Germans and Austrians.
This is the most expensive of the hotels mentioned here, especially in winter during ski season. Rates are considerably lower in summer.
Getting There: Best reached by car, Lech in the Arlberg is west of Landeck and just a few kilometers north of the A12, the main east-west highway through Austria. The nearest international rail station is 17 km (11 miles) in Langen am Arlberg and from there bus and taxi transfers are available.
Cost: See box below
Hotel Grüner Baum, Badgastein
All things considered, the Grüner Baum, which occupies its own little valley, the Kötschachtal, near the old resort town of Badgastein, is the finest country hotel ever reviewed by Gemütlichkeit. First built by the Archduke Johann as a hunting lodge, it is spectacular in every way. Backdropped by heavily forested hills and snow-covered peaks, the 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. Interiors are glorious examples of Alpine decor, a kaleidoscope of rugged wood beams, white vaulted ceilings supported by marble-footed columns, carved wood paneling, cozy fireplaces and priceless antiques and rugs.
The hotel's considerable physical charms are matched by the owners' exceptional warmth and the efficient, friendly service dispensed by the traditionally-dressed English-speaking staff. Over the decades Grüner Baum has hosted the likes of Yehudi Menuhin, filmmaker Billy Wilder, Arturo Toscanini and the Emperor Franz Joseph and the Empress Elizabeth.
When this hotel is compared, as it should be, against the best in Europe, it emerges as an outstanding value.
Getting There: Badgastein is almost straight south of Salzburg and about an hour's drive - 94 km. There is frequent rail service from Salzburg with trip times ranging from one-and-a-half to two hours.
Austrian Country Hotel Prices Bed & Halfboard - 2 persons
- Hotel St. Peter $160
- Hotel der Bär $200
- Hotel Tümmlerhof $215
- Hotel Grüner Baum $280
- Hotel Jagdhof $290
- Gastof Post $386
Prices are approximate low season per day for two persons, standard double, based on a seven-night stay and include breakfast and dinner.