Travel: Mountain holidays are not just about skiing

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Travel journalist Jan Henderson forsakes the winter Alpine ski slopes for the joys of a summer break in Austria’s Lakes and Mountains.

Austria’s mountains – that’ll be the skiing, then…. well yes and no, actually. If you are going between December and May, then skiing or boarding are your likely pursuits of choice, but over the summer and autumn months you will probably going for the less frenetic pleasures of the country’s lakes and mountains.

As a longtime skier I have never really considered the mountains as a holiday destination in the summer, but having just returned from a few days based in the popular summer resort of St Wolfgang, on the edge of the beautiful Wolfgangsee, it’s fair to say my eyes have been opened to a whole new mountain landscape.

First impressions are that it is warm and green rather than cold and snowy – as you’d rather expect in mid-June I guess – and in fact the Wolfgangsee is nestled at the edge of the Austrian Alps, surrounded by less lofty peaks. The nearest ski area of Dachstein is on mountains that can be seen in the distance….. not that the mountains that surround the lake aren’t impressive in their own right.

Legend has it that St Wolfgang founded the first church on the edge of the Wolfgangsee more than 1,000 years ago by lobbing an axe off the cliff above. He decreed that where the axe landed is where he would build his church – judging by the position of the church as it stands today in the centre of the town, he must have had a pretty impressive throwing arm…. but that’s the story and the locals are sticking to it.

A more realistic stone’s throw away from the church is the delightful Hotel Im Weissen Rossl – literally the White Horse – which has become a destination in itself. Situated right on the edge of the lake, the hotel dates back to the 1640s and has grown organically over the centuries to now consist of no less than nine different buildings all linked together over a number of storeys. The effect is of a pleasingly haphazard hotel that is both informal and impressive, and a world away from the often soulless modern boxes you can often find yourself staying in when on holiday.

I didn’t think that going to the mountains without doing any skiing would be worth the effort – but having spent a busy few days in and around St Wolfgang I can own up to having changed my mind.

Jan Henderson

The five star hotel also boasts three excellent restaurants and makes the most of its enviable lakeside position with a spa area that includes a whirlpool jacuzzi literally on the lake, and a swimming pool that sits in the lake itself but is heated to a much kinder temperature than the slightly chilly waters of the Wolfgangsee. The impressive spa area also includes an indoor pool, sauna area, steam baths and plenty of opportunities to pamper yourself.

So you’ve made the short 35-kilometre or so transfer from Salzburg airport, settled in to your large and beautifully-furnished room with balcony overlooking the lake – what’s to see and do in and around St Wolfgang?

Well, one of the joys of a lakes and mountains holiday is that you can be as active or lazy as you like. The lake has a small beach at St Wolfgang and the Weissen Rossl has an array of attractive lakeside areas where you can just chill with a snack and a drink and enjoy the stunning views…. but just in case you are feeling a bit more energetic, there are plenty of other things to do.

It’s about 25 kilometres right round the lake and there are cycle paths all the way – quite a leisurely ride, especially on an ebike. I have never ridden an electric bike before, but boy, does it make life easier! The discreet battery pack sits on the frame and all but the steepest hills are made considerably less hard work as you flick through the power range to ‘turbo’ and let the electric motor take the strain. If you think that’s cheating, there are ordinary bikes to hire instead – and also some considerably tougher challenges than the round-the-lake excursion if you choose to try some of the many mountain trails.

St Wolfgang itself is a pretty little town with a variety of shops, bars and restaurants – and it is very much a tourist destination, so can get pretty busy at the height of summer. St Gilgen – at the head of the lake and a short ride away on one of the many ferries that ply between the towns and villages of the Wolfgangsee – is quieter, and worth a visit. The town boasts a quirky museum and the home of Mozart’s sister Nannerl from 1784-1801. Unfortunately Mozart himself was too busy composing – and after 1791, decomposing – to visit his sister, but the restored building gives a good feel for what life must have been like in those days.

The town is a good place to eat, with a variety of restaurants and hotels – the family-run Hotel Hollweger, at the top of the town, has wonderful views down the lake from its terrace and does a fine line in traditional Austrian specialities in its main restaurant; while the Hotel zur Post in the town square served up a most delicious lunch. The owners have also done a wonderful job of creating some startlingly modern rooms that somehow blend in perfectly in the traditional hotel.

Enough of the lakes – what about the mountains? The Schafberg (sheep mountain) towers up behind St Wolfgang, and the views from the 1,783-metre summit are breathtaking – but no need to trudge the nearly six kilometres route to the top, as they have handily built a remarkable steam cog railway that takes you pretty much the whole way. Completed in 1893, the Schafbergbahn’s sturdy little steam locomotives haul carriage-loads of tourists up a strikingly steep track from April to November (snow permitting) – and it really is well worth making the trip, both for the journey itself and the stunning views from the top. For the more intrepid visitor there is always the challenge of reaching the top via the network of hiking trails…. personally I was happy to let the train take the strain!

Alternatively, a vintage cable car system can take you up to the trails and walks atop the impressive Zwolferhorn from St Gilgen, where the views are equally impressive. This summer is the last chance to use the colourful vintage little telecabines, as next year they are building a new, much bigger, cable car – so catch it while you can.

A little further afield, but well worth a visit, you can find yourself plunging inside a mountain, rather than labouring to the top. The mountain looming behind the idyllically picturesque village of Hallstatt contains the oldest salt mine in the world, and a guided tour through the mineworkings is a fascinating experience. Known as ‘white gold’ because of its value as a food preservative in pre-refrigeration days, salt has been mined in Hallstatt mountain since about 5000 BC – and even now they still extract over a million tonnes of it a year.

The mine tour takes you deep into the mountain and involves an underground train ride, 70 metre wooden ‘slides’ taking you deeper into the underworld, son et lumiere displays in vast caverns, and film displays. You can also see what’s claimed to be the oldest wooden staircase in the world, dating from about 1350 BC. It’s fascinating, good fun and not in the least scary, unless you are claustrophobic – in which case steer well clear.

From the mine it’s down the mountain again to the perfectly preserved town of Hallstatt – so perfect that it has become a major tourist attraction worldwide, and the Chinese have even made a full scale replica of the village square and its houses back home, for the tourists who weren’t able to make it in person. So besieged have the town’s inhabitants become that there are signs at regular intervals – in English and Chinese – asking visitors not to fly drones that hover outside their windows and film inside their houses. It is busy, no question, but still worth braving the crowds to visit – and most of the whistle-stop tourists don’t stray far from their coaches, so the salt mine itself doesn’t get too overwhelmed.

Another worthwhile excursion is to the town of Bad Ischl, where the Emperor Franz Joseph spent his summer hols for some 60 years – his summer residence the Kaiservilla is now a museum, with the walls laden with the skulls of more than 2,000 unfortunate animals the Emperor shot in the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Perhaps more interesting is the desk on which he signed the declaration of war against Serbia on July 28 1914, effectively signalling the start of World War 1 – something that with the benefit of hindsight he would probably have regretted, as the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire which he headed was reduced to, well, just Austria really, when hostilities ceased in 1918. Maybe just as well he died in 1916… Not the town’s fault, though, and it has prospered to this day as a major health spa destination – as well as serving the most delicious cakes and coffee in its riverside cafes…

I didn’t think that going to the mountains without doing any skiing would be worth the effort – but having spent a busy few days in and around St Wolfgang I can own up to having changed my mind. The mixture of good weather, excellent hotels, good food, fantastic scenery and interesting excursions – not to forget a genuinely warm welcome from the locals – makes a lakes and mountains holiday one that is well worth considering. Lots of Brits come back year after year, and it is easy to see why.

*Jan Henderson travelled to St Wolfgang with Thomson Lakes and Mountains. Thomson Lakes and Mountains (www.thomsonlakes.co.uk; 020 8939 0740) offers a week’s half board at the five-star Hotel Im Weissen Rossl in St Wolfgang from £903 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Gatwick and transfers, departing in September. Direct flights available from all major UK airports.