Need to recharge and reset? Go and explore Austria’s lakes and mountains
There's nowhere better to recharge and reset than Austria' lakes and mountains, as Ali, our Girl About the Lake District found on a recent trip there
Picture this. You’ve just come out of the busiest and most stressful period of your life. New businesses, a global pandemic, life has been running at 100mph for the past eight months and some days you just want to give it all up.
Then open your eyes and you’re standing on top of a mountain in the Alps. Blue skies and mountains as far as you can see, the faint sound of cowbells in the distance, the warm air with a cool breeze, and the sense of achievement from climbing a mountain. Plus, you’ve just seen off a shot of schnapps at the summit. This was me, from hectic overwhelming life in the UK to zen in the Austrian Tirol. Prost to getting back to nature in Austria!
Rewind a few days and we – my boyfriend and I – are waiting to catch the 6am flight from Manchester to Munich. Everything feels pretty normal, considering the world is coming out of a global pandemic. At least it’s normal as long as you have all the forms, QR codes and tests required for your destination. Just allow extra time and you shouldn’t have any problems in the airport.
Anticipation was high as we’d be visiting two locations in the west of Austria, Zillertal and Zell am See Kaprun, and our itinerary included lots of ways to get back to nature, with hikes, wild swims and herbal workshops in and around the lakes and mountains in the Tirol and Salzburgerland regions. It sounded like just the holiday I needed.
Both the towns we’d be visiting are around a two-hour drive from Munich Airport and from each other, so having a hire car made sense for the itinerary we had planned. But for the most part, public transport was also widely available and seemed popular with locals and tourists.
Relaxing in the Tirol Valley
The nature experience was a success from the start. Seemingly confusing but not once we were there, to check in to our first accommodation, the HochLeger chalets in Zillertal, we had to go to its sister property Das Post Hotel a few miles down the road, part of the small local group Ziller Seasons. But we were so warmly greeted and given a glass of local Austrian sparkling white wine while we checked in that any confusion vanished and we made our way up to our chalet, on the hillside in Aschau, above the Zillertal valley. In fact, everywhere we went there was an incredibly warm greeting and people seemed to enjoy the fact that British tourists were back in Austria.
I cannot begin to explain how incredible our stay was at HochLeger, but I will try! Set up a mountain road with a view over the Zillertal Valley, one of the prettiest in Austria, and with a small collection of only three chalets and three tree lofts, you are really up and out of the way in your own private space. You can choose to eat in the small, traditional central chalet, cook for yourself in the fully equipped kitchen we had, or you can book a table at one of the other hotels in the Ziller Seasons group. We did a mix of everything, as I didn’t want to miss out on anything.
We stayed in the Hunters ‘Jagd’ Chalet, with two floors, sleeping up to eight people, a private hot tub with a mountain view and some real luxury bedrooms and bathrooms for everyone to enjoy. This cabin would be ideal for a group of friends or multi-generational families and is the perfect idyllic setting to escape the real world. There is even an outdoor bathtub with a champagne table and a view over the mountains. Believe me, I was in there at 6.30am to make sure I got the best sunrise view (minus the champagne at that time!).
Think of HochLeger as a little hamlet, albeit very luxurious little hamlet. There’s a communal natural pool, two saunas, a larger hot tub and an infinity pool plus relaxation and treatment rooms. Lots of its therapies focus on the healing properties of the Alpine herbs and plants and the benefits of getting back to nature in Austria, something I would love to go back and experience more of.
We’re in the Zillertal for a full-day hike among the Alpine peaks that tower above this Tirolean valley. Living in the Lake District I am used to being in the mountains in the UK but the Alps blow me away every time.
We met our guide Judy at another Ziller Seasons hotel, the Malis Garten, and joined another three guests to drive to Hainzenberg, 15 minutes away. From there, it was a cable car ride – using our Summer Cards (more info in the details at the end) – to the start of the walk. Cable cars are always exciting, right?
The whole of the Zillertal is a family-friendly and family-run ski resort in the winter and a thriving hikers’ paradise in the summer. We were booked on an intermediate hike, although Judy runs guided hikes for all levels, and she adapted the day according to our abilities and drew our attention to the flora and fauna along the way.
We talked about the local area and its history, spotted a few marmots and she shared plenty of local recommendations. She even translated most of it to English while we adjusted back to hearing German again. A personal highlight was celebrating reaching the summit of Gerlossteinwand at 2,166m with a small glass of Zillertal schnapps! (I’ll do a full write up on this experience as it was a real highlight, great for the mind, body and soul in Austria’s lakes and mountains.)
After a full day’s hiking we were hungry, and we had one of our two amazing evening meals in the Zillertal at HochLeger, a very traditional Austrian experience. All the food was locally sourced, freshly made and full of Austrian history. My personal highlight? The apple strudel.
And the other amazing meal? At Malis Garten, a five-star hotel in the Zillertal, which had everything from a 4-D cocktail tasting menu to a pick-your-own edible garden as an appetiser.
It was the perfect end to our stay at HochLeger, and we set off for Zell am See Kaprun. A two-hour drive, we’d allowed ourselves plenty of time which was a good job as the drive is beautiful and you can stop off at some perfect spots for more walking, sightseeing, swimming and paddling. There are reservoirs, viewpoints and even Krimml Waterfalls, the tallest in Austria. We could easily have spent a day slowly meandering along the road to Zell am See, stopping in local towns such as Gerlos, a quaint hamlet popular for skiing in the winter and walking in the summer.
Getting active in Zell am See Kaprun
We changed the tone a little in Zell am See and made sure we were as active as possible, making the most of everything this area has to offer. We paddle boarded, did yoga, went up the Kitzsteinhorne and did a herb hike, all while staying at the very well-located Hotel Active by Leitner’s. This hotel is designed to allow you to have the best active holiday possible, and it’s perfect for families, couples and friends to stay near to everything they need to have a great time in the mountains.
The hotel is modern but full of traditional features to help it blend into its beautiful surroundings. All the rooms are full of light and natural colours, and the balconies and terraces look out on to the wonderful surrounding mountains.
The clue’s in the hotel name but you’re encouraged to be active for your entire stay here. From taking the stairs to eating a well-balanced breakfast and providing in-house or making it easy to book activities to get you outside and embracing everything nature has to give, Active by Leitner’s kept us busy, and happy!
Just like at HochLeger, we were instantly made to feel at home here, and nothing was too much trouble for the family-run hotel and its staff. The spa was an added bonus and just the thing, with its outdoor pool, garden, saunas and treatments, for relaxing and resetting after an active day. More to come on Hotel Active by Leitner’s in another blog post, because I can’t wait to tell you more.
Paddleboarding on Zeller See, the lake ten minutes drive from the hotel, was a really special experience. We had both done it before at home but Günter, who owned and ran the SUP and Windsurf Centre in Zell am See, happily gave us pointers and tips on where to head. We paddled to a beach club on the other side of the lake at Thumersbach for a drink and snack. It was full of families enjoying the pool, lake and ice creams and is such a wonderful setting, with a view over the mountains. Just sitting on the board in the middle of these turquoise waters had me dreaming of doing this all the time and never leaving!
For many people, yoga will be their ideal way of getting back to nature in Austria. So we headed to Kaprun, around 15 minutes away from the lake, where we met Monika, our local, lovely yoga teacher. We hiked a short distance up to our little viewpoint above the Klammsee lake and spent an hour or so moving our bodies.
The whole session was a beautiful way to celebrate being in nature, spending time during the practice to take in the surroundings and appreciate the sounds, smells and feelings of being outdoors. If you like your yoga, or just want to have a go in the mountains, then Monika runs sessions every week, weather dependent, at Schmittenhöhe, to the west of Zell am See.
The following day we spent most of our time taking the Ranger tour around the Kitzsteinhorn, a tour that runs from Zell am See up to 3,029m, one of the highest points in Austria.
It was an unforgettable day, learning about nature and wildlife at every level of the mountains and stopping at each station to observe how the rock, vegetation and surroundings change as the altitude increases. Having a local guide is a great way to really understand why the mountains are so special, and seeing them in the summer, when everywhere isn’t covered with snow, helps you appreciate the geological features of the mountains and how global warming is changing them every day. We saw how animal habitats have changed as the seasons differ and how the glacier is now half the size it was 25 years ago.
The stunning scenery blew us away at every turn. The pictures will never do it justice and the views of Austria’s lakes and mountains go on as far as you can see. You can imagine yourself having lots of fun as a family on this adventure up the mountain too, taking the Gipfelbahn cable car from Kaprun.
There’s a National Park Gallery in the tunnels that run under the peak and an Alpine coaster at the bottom station, and it's hard to beat simply taking in the views from the viewing platforms at the top. I’d recommend taking a picnic to enjoy at the midstation and trying to spot marmots, if you’re lucky!
While we were in the area we also spent some time exploring Zell am See. It’s a wonderful town with plenty going on for everybody to enjoy. It’s worth taking a walk along the lakeshore to watch the light show that happens three times a week, and there are lots of great places to eat and drink, even for kids. We ate at Villa Crazy Daisy which had great options for everyone, friendly staff and a lovely in-town family feel. The pretty town centre is pedestrianised and is lovely to potter around on a mild evening. Don’t forget to pick up an ice cream for pudding! A lot of it is made from the local cow's milk.
The final guided tour we took part in was the Herbal Trail at Schmittenhöhe. This is a family-friendly walk that gives you lots of info about Alpine plants, herbs and flowers. Fredi, our guide, was so knowledgeable and told us lots of Austrian folk-lore tales about these herbs, as well as their medicinal uses and which dishes and cocktails you can put them in.
Fredi really took us back to nature on this trail. In a short distance, we covered so many fascinating and interesting plants, and ended the tour in the Sonnkogel Restaurant where Fredi showed us how to make our own lip & body balm and a wonderful herb salt out of the ingredients he finds in the mountains, which we could take home. The only thing to note is the tour is in German, which is stated on the website, and Fredi translated a little for us and my rusty German got us through the rest. If you have less German experience then watch out to book a tour in English or for English speakers too.
These herbal remedies are the perfect mementos from our trip, which I find hard to believe was only for four nights. We crammed so much in, and could easily have spent a week in each place.
There’s so much to see and experience in both the Zillertal and Zell am See Kaprun that we will definitely be returning, and all of the guides, rangers and instructors we met went above and beyond to make sure we were included, understood the language and were having a good time. It was amazing to be led by highly qualified, knowledgeable and friendly, mostly female, guides. A real bonus! They made the experience extra special, and less stressful for us not having to map read or concentrate too much on where we were going.
I cannot recommend all of these experiences enough. They are all the perfect way to relax in nature, surrounded by the Austrian lakes and mountains.
In both towns, you can get a ‘Summer Card’ which includes the use of public transport, including cable cars and gondolas as well as entry to swimming areas and heavily discounted entry to other attractions. This is a great option and saves you the hassle of buying a ticket separately for everything in the area and helps with getting back to nature in Austria’s lakes and mountains. The adult Tickets were between 60 and 70 euros, but there were great deals for families too. The easiest way to have the freedom to explore where you are staying.