Thursday, 21 July 2011

Make hay while the sun shines! The Austrian spa where the countryside comes inside

Great Low Fares to Paris, Madrid, Rome and Beyond

Being buried under a mound of warm, wet hay wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I booked in for a relaxing spa session. Thankfully I don’t suffer from seasonal allergies but I was itching at the mere thought of taking an Alpine hay bath.
There's no need to worry, my therapist assures me, as the Wiesenhof’s spa treatment promises only positive side effects. The steam-heated hay is said to draw out toxins, ease aches and pains and stimulate the cardiovascular system. Its healing powers have been harnessed in Austria for centuries.
The hotel’s owner Johannes Entner ensures guests get the best results by using organically-grown hay harvested from his own meadow. The grass is hand-cut, along with flowers and herbs, dried in the sun and then steam-heated to 41C.

I’m instructed to lie on a bed of hay covered with a thin sheet of muslin while more of the steam-heated grass is heaped on top of me. I’m then wrapped in various layers including a thick plastic sheet, which is slowly inflated, and left to simmer for 20 minutes.
It leaves me feeling strangely cleansed and mercifully itch-free.

Other local flora and fauna pop up on the spa menu - there is also a mountain herb bath - but the star ingredient in most of the treatments is Tyrolean Shale Oil, which is mined locally in the Karwendel mountains.
The thick, pungent oil boasts natural healing properties thanks to its high content of organically-bound sulphur and is said to ease muscle cramps, joint pains, arthritis and skin irritations.
For €26 (£23) you can relax in a 20-minute shale oil bath in a giant wooden bathtub from which you can take in the soothing vista of the mountains from which it is extracted.

The local elixir has also been added to shampoo, soap, shower gel, foot balm and even dog shampoo to treat your pampered pooch. Most of the products can be found in the guest rooms or purchased in the hotel’s lobby.
Another of Johannes’ innovative treatments is the wooden ‘sound bed’. It is based on Tibetan resonance therapy and features 52 piano strings which, when plucked by a therapist, create deep tones and vibrations that pulse through your body and help to calm the mind and leave you feeling thoroughly relaxed.
Needless to say, the Wiesenhof hotel is all about well-being, something that the Austrians know a lot about. Built 300 years ago, it is one of the oldest houses in the village of Pertisau and is run by a third generation of Entners - Johannes and his wife Alexandra - having been handed on to Johannes by his parents who still help out.

The hotel motto is ‘arrive as a guest and leave as a friend’ and thankfully this isn’t a hollow cliché.
Despite catering to 66 bedrooms, Johannes and Alexandra insist on offering their guests the personal touch and between them they manage to be the perfect hosts. At dinner, we watch them flit from table to table in the restaurant chatting to diners like old friends and later spot Alexandra pulling up a chair in the bar to catch up on the gossip.
The four-star hotel is a homely mix of traditional Tyrolean style and contemporary design and our room was modern and light, with crisp white sheets and an abundance of Alpine wood. Most of the rooms have a balcony. Ours sadly didn't but it did boast perfect views of the serene Lake Achensee - a vast expanse of calm turquoise water framed by the regal Austrian Alps and a pretty meadow dotted with dandelions and buttercups.

The quest for a sense of well-being at the hotel even stretched to our ‘pillow menu’, which included a hay flower and herb pillow and a spelt pillow, which apparently helps to ease tension, back ache, migraines and circulatory disorders.
Healthy choices were in abundance next morning at the breakfast buffet, including home-made bread, organic cereal and warm muesli with apple. I was tempted by the slightly less saintly local treat of Kaiserschmarrn (Austrian pancakes), having convinced myself that I'd be sweating off all the extra calories later in the spa's Finnish sauna.
Your next opportunity to eat at the hotel is never far away though and after a hearty buffet lunch and afternoon tea and cake, it was looking like I'd have to bed down for the night in said sauna.
There was a chance to atone for my sins when dinner rolled round in the form of the nightly 'healthy heart' dish. It's usually the fish dish and it turns out to be no great hardship being virtuous - the trout caught fresh from the Lake Achensee is superb.

The next day we discover a host of opportunities to burn calories rather more effectively than a session in the steam room and a shoulder rub. Skiing is the big draw for the hotel in the winter but summer activities include hiking, Nordic walking, mountain biking, paragliding, windsurfing, kite-surfing and sailing.
The nearby Karwendel Alpine Park is the largest nature reserve in the northern Alps and offers hikers hundreds of kilometres of well-kept, signposted routes ranging from flat, gentle paths to demanding routes.

Having conveniently left our hiking boots at home (there really wasn't room in the suitcase...) we discovered an altogether less-strenuous ways to explore. The Wiesenhof is the only hotel in the village to offer Segways, which at €20 (£17) could prove to be a bit pricey if you segue too far, but provided us with a novel and fun way to whizz around the village and into Karwendel Alpine Park.
Johannes has even been known to take one up a mountain but after a particularly hairy moment involving an encounter with a steep hill, a golf cart and a fork in the road, I'll be sticking to flat surfaces from now on.

For those who need a helping hand up the peaks, electric mountain bikes are also available for hire, as are electric golf carts, which golfers can ride to the nearby Achensee golf club for a game on the second oldest golf course in Austria. You’ll get 20 per cent off the price of a round if you’re staying at the Wiesenhof and can practice your swing in the hotel’s golf simulator on rainy days .
The hotel is home to four horses - a docile Haflinger, a sturdy Quarter horse and two lively Criollos from Argentina – and Alexandra offers riding lessons in the hotel’s canopied riding ring and guided tours around the lake for more experienced riders.
The Wiesenhof's menagerie also includes four donkeys, two cats, Pikas the dog and Chayenne and Cola the alpacas, who eye the hotel guests suspiciously as they lazily chew the cud in their pen beside the hotel’s terrace.
In the background, the Karwendel cable car whisks walkers silently up the Zwolferkopf mountain where we stopped for tea on the terrace of the mountain-side café and enjoyed perfect views of the lake below.

At nine kilometres long, Lake Achensee is the largest of the Tyrolean lakes and is a magnet for kitesurfers and windsurfers whose colourful sails skit backwards and forwards across the water all day long. Its shores are dotted with campsites and picnic spots and there is a walking trail around the entire circumference of the lake.

A lack of suitable footwear again seemed like a good enough excuse to opt for a less strenuous way to explore the lake and we boarded one of the regular cruise ships that offer a hop-on-hop-off service at various points along Achensee's shore
as well as a complete round-trip, which takes about two hours and costs €15 (£13) per person .
Across the water from Pertisau is Seespitz, the final stop on our cruise route, where we climbed aboard Europe’s oldest steam-cog train. Built in 1889, the delightful little train, with its colourful wooden carriages, rattles and shakes its way through picture-perfect Alpine countryside along the valley to Jenbach and back again between May and October.
A round-trip costs €29 (£25) per person but the scenery along the way is priceless . No doubt the Austrians have been harnessing its healing powers for centuries.

Travel facts

The Wiesenhof hotel offers year-round outdoor pursuits such as skiing, mountain hiking, Nordic walking, mountain biking, sailing, windsurfing, golf, fly-fishing, paragliding and horse-riding. A diverse range of spa treatments is also available, including the three-night 'shale oil superior package', which includes a Tyrolean shale oil bath for two for €412 (£362). For more information about the Wiesenhof's range of seasonal activities, spa treatments

The nearest airport is Innsbruck, but the hotel can arrange a pick up via Munich or Salzburg airports. easyJet flies from Gatwick to Innsbruck from £56.96 return.

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