Spa and ski holiday this winter? The Austrian Tyrol is the best place to get naked and find your ski legs, says Sharon Walker
I’m standing on top of a ski lift in the Staubai Glacier, 3212m above sea level. The sky is a deep blue and all around are white peaks. I’m about to head off on my third red run of the day and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.
I’m not much of a skier in fact only a week ago I’d have told you it wasn’t the sport for me AT ALL but now I can’t help but think if I’d started my ski career in the Tyrol, I might well be shushing down black runs by now, instead of generally pootling along on the blue like a granny Sunday driver.
Certainly, if I’d been lucky enough to land in the cosy, family-run hotel Jagdhof Spa when I first tried skiing, instead of thinking: ‘Skiing no thanks. Who needs to risk life and limb at top of a freezing mountain, with belly full of melted cheese and an apres-ski headache?’ I would have been chomping at the bit to come back year-in-year out like every other guest I’d met here.
The Jagdhof Spa-Hotel is gorgeous. A wooden chalet building an easy thirty-minute drive from Innsbruck airport, this traditional hotel, in the village of Neustift is widely considered one of the best five-star spa hotels in the Tyrol, with its gastronomic restaurant, award-winning spa and friendly staff.
The minute I was through the door I’d received a heartfelt welcome from Kai, the front of house manager and immediately had the sense of being in a cosy family home – though a very nice, luxurious one with endlessly patient hosts.
Kai greeted me with the sad news that the Staubai Glacier, the acclaimed local ski area, which is the biggest glacier resort in Austria, with 26 cable cars and lifts and 110km of ski runs, was in fact closed due to record levels of snow and avalanche warnings.
this traditional hotel is widely considered one of the best five-star spa hotels in the Tyrol
‘The glacier is closed? ‘Really oh dear,’ I’d said, breathing a sigh of relief. I suppose that means I’ll just have to hang out in the spa drinking glühwein?’
With a not-so- heavy heart I’d signed up for the Jagdhof sport programme, a daily programme of Pilates, yoga, aqua aerobics and other fitness classes and headed downstairs to the spa to book my treatments.
When in Rome
The spa at the Jagdhof is a thing of wonder. A 3000 square metre labyrinth of steaming cabins and relaxation rooms which variously flatten your stress and elevate your mood with a mix of heat, herbs and tonics from a spritz of sinus-clearing salt spray to the hypnotically soothing water reflections in the aqua meditation room.
The look is a unique mash up of styles. One minute I felt like I was in a Roman bath, the next I was in an old mountain hut watching a cranking bucket of coals swinging over a flame. Incredibly it works. You can wander between Grecian urns and sloshing water wheels losing yourself in a new room every day. A word of warning though: you must remove all swimwear before entering the spa’s inner sanctum. Swimming costumes aren’t optional, they are strictly verboten, considered unhygienic. There’s even a notice telling you to take them off at the spa entrance, but you can of course wear a towel.
This is where I met Klaus, the hotel’s sauna meister. The sauna meister is the instigator of the hotel’s nightly sauna infusions, which are an Austrian tradition that will melt your muscles and blow your mind. There are two sauna meisters at the hotel Jagdhof, confusingly both are called Klaus. One rubs you with honey, the other, let me call him ‘army Klaus’, has more bracing magic potions up his sleeve or rather in his ice bucket.
‘I’m Klaus, Santa, ho ho ho,’ boomed army Klaus, who resembled Santa in nothing but name with his big muscular arms and a clean shaven, square jaw. ‘You will feel ten years younger!’ he said, leading the way into the steaming Laconium.
As he rubbed my back with an invigorating salt scrub I learned that Klaus had served in the Austrian army for 25 years, in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan. I felt pleased for him that he’d now found a more relaxing job, but it did strike me as funny that I’d barely been in Austria three hours and I was naked in a steam room with a man who looked like he could have felled Osama bin Laden with his little finger.
I’d been in Austria three hours and I was naked in a steam room with a man who looked like he could have felled Osama bin Laden with his little finger
Then it was off for a spot of ‘frisch’ air, and – for the brave – a dip in the plunge pool or snow. ‘Look! That is where people have been.’ Klaus was pointing out the indentation of what I imagined was a bottom in the white blanket of snow. I grabbed a handful to rub on my legs and chest. Then stood wondering at the night sky, towel pulled tight.
The next morning the glacier was closed again and I spent the morning with Julia the fitness instructor, who’d arrived from Innsbruck to take the sport programme. We’d swum outside in the pool surrounded by snow as we pumped our legs against the water and wrestled with long foam tubes. From here it was off to the sport room for a session of ab-challenging Pilates. Then I was blissfully free to explore the spa once more.
I could have happily stayed here the entire week without once setting foot on a ski slope.
But I didn’t get away with my ski-shy attitude for long, because that afternoon my friend Jenny arrived from London. Jenny was like a coiled spring with one thing and one thing only on her mind and it wasn’t the Jagdhof sport programme. Jenny skis every year and does crazy things like going off-piste. ‘Look I’ve brought you my sister’s skigear,’ she said as she bounced through the door in her ski suit. ‘Oh my God, I’m SOOO excited.’
Jenny had found out that there were several other ski areas which were open only twenty minutes from the hotel, even if the glacier was closed. I’d run out of excuses. It was time to slide down a mountain.
As it was I rather enjoyed the first day. It was tough on my calf muscles, but we’d stuck to the blue runs and I’d found my ski legs. OK so I was slow and it was tiring, but was also exhilarating. ‘Don’t you just love feeling of wind in your hair, Jenny yelled.’ And I had to admit it was more fun than I remembered. The snow was powder perfect and there were no queues which helped.
It was time to slide down a mountain
Our first day on the sloped had left me with aching legb muscles, but fortunately I’d booked a sports massage, so minute we were back I headed to the spa and left Jenny to fend for herself.
‘I’ve never been anywhere so POSH and so naked,’ exclaimed Jenny, when I saw her later at dinner. Today’s sauna meister also drove the hotel’s ski shuttle so Jenny had already met him with their clothes and she’d felt a little awkward, but dutifully stripped. ‘When in Rome,’ she’d said bravely submitting to the honey rub down along with other guests.
As you know I’m not a big skier and you could come to this hotel without ever once hurtling down a mountain with wooden planks strapped to your feet. Though it would be a shame to miss the glacier. It’s just a scenic twenty-minute drive through pretty alpine villages in the hotel’s luxury van, which shuttles back and forth on the hour six times a day (three each way).
The Staubai Glacier is the biggest glacier in Austria and offers one of the longest ski seasons, from October through to mid-June. We could potentially come back in the summer and ski in our bikinis. Jenny was already planning it. And even I was warming up to the whole ski thing. For a start there were no queues. We’d come in low season and hit the sweet spot, but according to the regulars we chatted to in the cable cars that’s the way it is in Staubai Glacier, even in high season you can whizz straight on the chair lifts or into the cable cars.
When the glacier was closed – which it was on two of the days in the week we were here, we headed to Schlick, which was lower and prettier with its snow-covered pines and wooden alpine cafes where we sat outside in the sun.
We also tried our hand at tobogganing, which is one of the activities, along with snow shoeing and magical-sounding forest hikes, included in the Jagdhof’s daily activity programme, all led by their friendly hiking guide Armin. Unlike skiing, I’m a tobogganing natural it turns out. A real talent. The Michael Schumacher of sledging. Unlike my granny skiing I can fly down on a mountain on my butt no problem. But by the end of the week even my skiing was getting a little less tentative, a little less granny, especially after a lesson with Walter who’d been teaching here for thirty years and immediately sorted out my gammy left turn that had been making it tough for me to tackle steeper slopes without crying.
I’d finally ‘got’ skiing. Had I chosen to give the slopes a wide birth, however, I would have been in good company. Plenty of the Jagdhof guests come simply to enjoy the scenery and food.
The FOOD! Oh my God the food
The cosy, elegant dining room with its gorgeous staff dressed in traditional Austrian dress has won numerous awards for its food. With its hearty national dishes designed to fuel you through the coldest and most energetic of winters Austrian food isn’t typically known for its light fair, but the hotel Jagdhof’s prize-winning kitchen will tailor a menu to suit your dietary requirements and has just launched a new spa menu. The chef Boris Meyer had worked at NOMA, the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant, and after one day of eating his food I wanted to marry him.
Each night I was presented with a menu of six courses
Each night I was presented with a menu of six courses with two or three options to choose from amongst starters, soups and the main course as well as the salad bar and ‘exceptional’ cheeses. Delicious, perfectly presented, it was the best spa food I’ve ever eaten, light yet satisfying and full of delicate and piquant flavours.
The hotel also has an award-winning wine cellar, with over 20,000 bottles of 1300 different types of wine and an award-winning gastronomic restaurant which we didn’t try as the half-board food was already quite amazing enough for us.
Another bonus was the apres ski in Austria which was a little more refined than the alcohol-fuelled rampages I’d encountered elsewhere. The Jagdhof treated us to traditional Tyrolean accordion players, an old school crooner in the piano bar and one risk-free night of gambling (not for real money) on the roulette wheel and black jack tables where we watched the famous seventies footballer clean up on the blackjack table. It was really good fun.
the hotel has an award-winning wine cellar with over 20,000 bottles of 1300 different types of wine
The thing that really sets the Jagdhof apart though is the friendly atmosphere. With Sandra in the dining room who looked a young Annette Bening teasing us about our dinner options through to Klaus our sauna meister waving his towels to turn up the heat, the staff here are wonderful.
We’d been too focused of skiing to really make the most of the Jagdhof fitness programme or impressive gym, though we did unfurl our muscles in a yoga class with the lovely Louise who’d led us through a very relaxing hatha/flow session, another great post ski tonic.
I’ve got to admit all the five-star spa pampering certainly helped me fall in love with skiing. After day one my muscles were so well oiled with the nightly sauna/massage ritual that I barely ached. After the initial giggles we soon abandoned our British modesty and got used to the idea that we’d seen everyone at dinner butt naked.
Price 680 Euros for 4-nights pp, half-board. Click here for more information.