The high life in Austria

You could sweat on a crowded beach again, but why not set your sights higher this summer? Wholesome, healthy and with mountains to do, Austria’s Alpine pastures mean pure fun for kids and adults, says Ed Grenby
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Maria-Theresien-Strasse in Innsbruck

Sweets. Pizza. Doing the school run by car because someone (often me) is ‘too tiiiiiired’ to walk. TV. In fact, screens in general. These are some of the things my family does too much of. But what’s a holiday if not a chance to do for seven days what you’ve been meaning to do for the preceding 358? This week, I warn my family as we board the plane to Austria, for Innsbruck, things will be different. This week, there will be fresh mountain air. There will be hiking. There will be wholesome meals and hearty appetites earned through honest exercise. There will be enthusiastic identification of wildflower species. There will be swimming in cool, clear Alpine lakes. There will be rosy cheeks. There may even be family sing-songs. And if they’re not careful — if, say, the walks are foreshortened by whingeing, or if rude words are inserted into the sing-songs, or if wildflowers are declared to be ‘boring’, or if I simply deem, at my sole discretion, that there is insufficient rosiness of cheeks — then, Gott in Himmel, there will be Lederhosen.

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A brass band entertains the town

See, ever since they’d been old enough to say ‘iPad’ I’d wanted to give my spoilt urban offspring an unspoilt pastoral summer holiday in my ’50s fantasy of Swiss Family Robinson meets The Sound of Music meets Heidi. But it wasn’t until last winter’s sneaky ski weekend without them that I located it: in the three linked villages of Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis, high in the Austrian Tyrol, I saw brochures promoting the area as a summer playground of walking, mountain-biking, outdoor swimming and — if the pictures were to believed — happy, bonny children and relaxed parents beaming at each other like they’d found nirvana with a breakfast buffet attached.

I’d booked a week for the four of us… which is why we’re currently two kilometres up a mountain, trying to buy a sandwich, but being swept up in a tide of Teutonic pensioners line-dancing and stein-clinking to a pleasingly overweight brass band as they oompah through a selection of soft-rock classics (‘Ve vill… ve vill… röck you!’).

This is Fiss’s SummerPark, epicentre of the area’s attractions this time of year. And once we’ve escaped Fattie Mercury and friends, we’re free to ride, climb, bounce on, slide down and splash through a whole high plateau of amusements. Even better, the fiendish geniuses who designed the place plonked loungers just above the main play area of sand and water and free wooden trikes and tractors and scooters (and helmets! They think of everything, those fiendish geniuses!)

So multi tasking mums can tan and kiss-better grazed knees simultaneously.

‘The trail itself, punctuated with giant wooden beasts, brilliantly tricks young legs into believing they like walking’

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Hiking through an Alpine meadow

But, as I hope I made clear back at the airport, we haven’t come on this holiday for fun, and I’m soon dragging my kids away for a walk. And while that would be the cue for a four-hour whine-a-thon back home, here it’s the beginning of a great adventure. A fold-out ‘summer piste map’ plots hiking trails, cable cars, bike tracks, swim spots and other attractions, so I let my two boys pick out our route, and they pore over the thing like it might lead to pirate treasure. Inevitably, they choose one of the area’s ‘Adventure Mountain’ family paths, each themed and waymarked with puzzles and play areas, but even getting to its start point is a blast of fresh-air fun. Five minutes’ stroll out of tiny Ladis village and we’ve already climbed higher than its rooftops to views over its prettily rickety barns and operatically Gothic-looking, but seemingly pointless castle (what was it meant to guard? Some hay?). The footpath intertwines with a cheerily chuntering stream that trips down off the mountain in an unending series of mini-falls. It passes through fern and fir and patches of meadow; then suddenly there’s a whimsical set of carved-out tree trunks fixed together in giant zig-zags to form a marble run of diverted brook water. For 20 gigglingly idyllic minutes we race pine cones down the mini-flumes as if this is the only kind of ‘streaming’ that’s been invented.

‘This is Austria, and they take that “hearty appetite” stuff seriously’

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Taking a break beside a beautiful lake

The trail itself, punctuated with giant wooden beasts, brilliantly tricks young legs into believing they like walking. This one’s theme, though — following an eccentric scientist/animal trapper — unteaches kids every lesson you’ve taught them about stranger danger, with its climax nosing around the old man’s house and the creepy collection of pelts in his bedroom. (‘And the last item in my little museum,’ you half expect him to announce, suddenly creaking up the stairs and taking that axe down from the wall, ‘will be the skin of a human child!’)

We scurry to the cable car that deposits us handily back beside our hotel, and wash off the ‘ick’ in the pool. Schlosshotel Fiss is a sumptuously cosy, darkwood-and-windowboxes base for an in-the-know ski crowd in winter, but a light, airy terraces-and-gardens job come summer. What’s constant is a serene indoor-outdoor pool, a pair of decent-length water-slides, and a sprawling complex of hot tubs, whirlpool baths and the like.

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Kaiserschmarrn with fruit purée

Also constant is the food. This is Austria, and they take that ‘hearty appetite’ stuff seriously. So every evening, as well as helping ourselves from the kids’ buffet (they spend the week contentedly munching sausages at every single meal — Wurst place to bring a vegetarian), we grown-ups gorge on six courses, with the odd octopus sashimi thrown in to balance out the heavyweights: a meltingly rich goose liver, say (not foie gras, mind, because these geese aren’t force-fed), followed (just to cancel any ethical points scored by that cruelty-free first course) by a veal schnitzel, pounded as delicately thin as carpaccio, or a handmade fat local pasta with thumb-sized truffle shavings and a light snowfall of Parmesan. This stuff would make a perfect, richly deserved reward after a day scrambling to the Tyrol’s mighty summits, but most of our ascents were made by cable car — it’s so much easier walking down than up — and much of each day was spent on the sunlounger anyway.

Round here, however, even the lazing is wholesome. Our favourite spot was a hammock on a floating wooden deck in the middle of a lake, which meant a spell there had to be earned with a few minutes’ hard work aboard a hired pedalo or canoe — or a swim. The lake itself, Högsee, was a blue-green beauty, fed by a spring of clear silver. It shimmered seductively in the sunshine that’s noticeably warmer up here, 1,829m closer to its source. It’s the ideal temperature, too, after you’ve schlepped there on foot or in the moving greenhouse of a glassed-in cable car: 20c, said the chalked sign.

Even more refreshing for tired feet — and whomever is in charge of the ‘big wash’ when suitcases are emptied back home — there’s no sand on the little lakeshore beaches here, just a lovely cooling mineral mud. Elsewhere, some opportunistic spa therapist would be charging 200 quid a pop to smear it on you; here, it’s merely the perfect, much-more-workable material for the kids to build ‘sand’-castles from.

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A cow poses for the camera

At the Schlosshotel’s own spa, meanwhile, things are as Germanically no-nonsense as you could hope for/fear. I’d mentioned that my shoulder was troubling me, and that I didn’t want anything too ‘pampery’, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when my therapist, a man, with the dispassionate delivery of a wartime execution squad declared: ‘This is not going to be relaxing.’

He wasn’t wrong. I’ve had more excruciating experiences in my life, but none that didn’t occur in or immediately prior to being in hospital. And when he asked me, at the end, if I had any questions, I could only think of, ‘Why do you hate me?’ In fact, the sole pleasant moment was finding my other half had got similar treatment at the mild-looking hands of the graceful goddess who’d led her meekly to her own lair.

I’ve rarely felt in greater need of a ‘relaxation area’, and luckily the spa’s are lovely: its Finnish sauna, in particular, has an epic view, through a widescreen window, of Alp upon Alp upon Alp. 

Mostly, though, it’s the gentler, lower, more bucolic slopes that we love on this holiday, rather than the dramatic, Wagnerian peaks. That’s partly because they’re easier to walk, but mainly because they’re prettier: pastures are strewn with buttercups and clover, purples and golds and midnight-blues, edelweiss layering its delicate, vanilla scent on top of the mountains’ base notes of pine and ozone. Meadows are dotted with winsome little wooden huts for cattle to shelter in when winter bites, and if you’re quiet enough (i.e., you’ve bought the kids an ice cream), you can get up close and stroke the cows and model-blonde horses.

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Take a leap into an Alpine lake

Those perfect, Milka-advert cows provide the soundtrack, too: they gaze and graze, and tinkle their little bells, and I close my eyes and think how evocatively picturesque that noise is (while they, presumably, think that if they could just once — just once — move their heads without that damn noise, then maybe a short life ending up as haché at the Schlosshotel’s excellent BBQ buffet might not seem so bad).

I don’t suppose it’s much consolation to them, but I’d like those tartare martyrs to know how important the buffets were to my holiday. The generous opening hours — 1pm ’til 4pm — smoothed over many a parental mistiming of lunch and miscalculation of walking times, and allowed us to do much of our exploration in the late afternoon, while the hills are at their loveliest. Then, when the mountains’ shadows slid slowly down their slopes into the valley below, and the tall pines’ silhouettes stretched ever longer, and undulating ripples in the hillsides cast darker, bottle-green mottles across the neon-green fields, we’d sidle down the tracks towards a slakingly satisfying beer or gloriously stained-glass-golden Apfelsaft, and sigh with unanimous satisfaction.

Despite my best efforts, the little rodents seem to have enjoyed this holiday almost as much as we adults have. I feel a family sing-song coming on.

‘Pastures are strewn with buttercups and clover, purples and golds and midnight-blues’

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