Winter in Austria gives you a completely different outlook on spas. A spa here often means outdoors, it’s in nature and it probably involves a mountain. There are only a handful of natural thermal spas in the Alps and one of them is in the Carinthia region of Austria. At Bad Kleinkirchheim you also have some 103 km of pistes and it’s on the mountain rather than in the gym that you exercise. So think less pumped up and more lean and graceful.
The mountain part doesn’t necessarily mean just skiing, though there is certainly plenty of that – downhill or cross-country. There are also the lakes, frozen solid and the perfect surface for skating, ice hockey and curling (yes, really). You can go husky sleighing, too, tobogganing or winter hiking.
So given all this choice, I decide to go for something I’ve never tried before. I am promised an increasingly popular total body workout. Snow shoeing. Now the first thing that comes into my mind is putting tennis racquets on your feet. Those days are, however, gone. Instead you are issued with high-tech footwear (with claws for grip) that straps on to your snow boots and more than doubles the width of your feet. This means you have to more than double the usual width between your feet because otherwise you will step on the snow shoes and either come to a complete standstill or fall over. You get poles, too (hence the total body workout) and clambering uphill at 1700 metres turns out to be quite a strenuous activity.
My guide, Miro, a strapping Slovenian who teaches skiing most of the time pauses every now and then, ostensibly to point out animal tracks, distant peaks, and the pistes where the “Emperor” – champion skier Franz Klammer – will go skiing with you if you get up early enough (6.45, ouch). Miro is probably really stopping, though, because for a Londoner, this air seems very thin and I’m gulping it down in an effort to find the oxygen. Most disconcerting is that the snow shoes dangle from your feet if you lift them in the air – or indeed climb over stiles or through fences as we do a few time en route.
Afterwards, I recover in Bad Kleinkirchheim’s vast spa (4000 square metres) with its hot (32C) thermal waters that benefit the heart and circulation, the immune system and, of course, the sore muscles that might come from skiing – or indeed snow shoeing. As well as the indoor and outdoor pools, there are some 13 different kinds of sauna and, at different times of day, people congregate in one or other of them to enjoy the Aufguss, a kind of sauna show with infusions (ice, wine, olives, herbs, salt, chocolate, coconut, menthol) and a lot of towel wafting generally greeted with applause by the bathers.
At this point, I should warn sensitive readers that the Austrians do all of this without clothing except, oddly enough, the swimming part. (I don’t really understand this – if you want to go swimming more than once, do you have to struggle into a wet swim suit or just bring several?) So changing rooms are communal, saunas are naked-only areas and in the extensive relaxation areas that are drenched in sun and face the ski slopes you don’t wear a stitch. This is all part of the region’s “traditional bathing culture” and it’s one that’s been going almost 1000 years. In fact, Bad Kleinkirchheim came up with the exercise-thermal relaxation idea long before the word “wellness” was coined.
And the local culture goes way beyond the bathing. This is a traditional area and it looks just like you’d expect Austrian mountain villages – lots of painted wood furniture, steep roofs, deep balconies, low vaulted ceilings and the smell of spices and gluhwein in the air. At the Trattlerhof Hotel – now under the ownership of the fifth generation within the same family – it’s all about gemutlichkeit, an untranslatable word really with “cosy” at its heart but with a sense of well-being, belonging and peace of mind mixed in. This makes it absolutely brilliant for families with not only excellent ski schools on the doorstep but lots of other kids’ activities: horse and carriage rides, a pony club, a huge kids’ club about to open, pizza making afternoons and family-friendly restaurants and music events.
They have their own in-house spa, too, with a pool and several saunas as well as a treatment room where they specialise in very local skin-care products. In nearby Klagenfurt, CA&LE make natural but high-tech cosmetics based on local ingredients found in the wild and others that are grown organically. Karen, my therapist, told me at the end of an hour and a half of the gentlest, most supportive of facials, that “she’d put her soul into it.” I believe her. In my case, the ingredients included everything from aloe vera to powdered pearl and afterwards, my skin looked fabulous. Karen even had time to shape and dye my eyebrows.
The Trattlerhof restaurant features lots of suitably warming goulash and fondues. (Don’t worry, it’s all worked off on the slopes.) They even have their own hut restaurant, Einkehr. As all skiers know, a hut in the Alps means something quite different. This is not a garden shed, it’s an extensive wooden chalet of fun. There are roaring fires (inside and out), great food, lederhosen, more gluhwein, accordions and diners leap up for a quick polka. And it doesn’t get more gemutlich than that.
For more information about Hotel Trattlerhof, including details of experiences and activities, visit www.trattlerhof.at For more information about Bad Kleinkirchheim Tourism, visit www.badkleinkirchheim.at.
For more on Anna’s travels see her blog at www.annaselby.co.uk.