Settling in for afternoon tea served at a plush, jewel-toned sofa in my Austrian mountain hotel, I observed the gentle flow of cashmere-clad young German-speaking couples, cell phones in one hand, wine glasses in another.
Although this was in marked contrast to the London I’d left behind, featuring rather more perfectly pressed shirts than hoodies and trainers, I took the smart continental vibe of Leogang’s Hotel Forsthofgut in my stride. No culture shock for me, because I’d arrived by train, acclimatising slowly on the way on what would turn out to be one of my last journeys across Europe before coronavirus shut the world down.
That continental-feeling had been growing on me for the last 24 hours. The day before, I had pulled out of London St Pancras on the Eurostar at a civilised 11am, and into Amsterdam by 4. That gave ample time for a cold Affligem and late lunch among the high-ceiling old-world atmosphere of Centraal station’s First Class Grand Café before embarking on the next leg of my journey.
The Amsterdam sleeper train service to the Austrian Alps has been operating since 2016, quietly leading a waltz towards the slow skiing dancefloor. In 2018 a new London to Amsterdam Eurostar made the route easier to access from the UK, and since April 2019 both legs have been direct.
For me, choosing the sleeper train rather than the usual cheap flight option for a short skiing break was a conscious decision on my part to savour the journey (not to mention its eco-credentials) – walkabouts, wanderings and quality window gazing – as well as the destination. In my case, the latter was the family-run, five-star Naturhotel Forsthofgut, which as well as having a top-drawer spa and ski-in/ski-out location, is committed to slow living the luxurious way, specialising in organic Alpine food (much of it grown within 50km), built from naturally handsome materials, and encouraging an active lifestyle in both winter and summer.
It is also just a few minutes taxi ride from Saalfelden train station where the Alpen Express stops, and those doorstep slopes are part of Austria’s second largest linked ski area, Saalbach-Hinterglemm-Leogang-Fieberbrunn. Now we’ve said that once, the area also known as the Ski Circus is 270 rolling kilometres of intermediate-friendly pistes speckled with tree-lined glades. From the hotel terraces, the craggy Steinernes Meer mountain range frames vistas of a ski area that’s also home to more than 60 mountain huts, brimming with wursts, goulasch, and fine Austrian wines and beer.
Mornings at Forsthofgut start in the convenient and rather luxurious ski room (snacks, drinks, padded chairs), which is a short pole-and-push ski from the base of Leogang’s eight-person Asitz gondola lift. It transported me quickly and comfortably into the heart of the Ski Circus, where predominantly blue and red pistes thread westward, including hero runs looping up and over for miles.
A variety of marked circuits are designed to impart direction to the day, including a whole day’s route that’s one of the longest in the Alps. Four two-hour routes cover from 20 to 26km, whether wending through the Saalbach area, tracing the slalom and giant slalom runs of the Alpine Ski World Cup of 1991, or weaving the pistes along the high panorama of the Leogang circuit. The latter indeed took me about two hours, and created a hearty appetite.
I made the mistake of ordering a delicious schnitzel at Alte Schmiede, an old smithy dating from 1882 complete with (uninhabited) pig stall. Neither the schnitzel nor the restaurant was the mistake – the former thin and crispy, the latter a welcoming enclave of pine tables and the dirndl-decked staff for which Austria is famous. The error arose back at my hotel when I discovered that afternoon tea, served from 2.30pm, is an extravagant repast of hot dishes, local charcuterie and cheeses, salads and cakes. Why pay for lunch on the mountain when a spread like this is complimentary?
The Forsthofgut dates from 1617 and has been subjected to an infusion of stylish redesigns in the past few years. It’s now a cosseting compound that as well as wellness and organic cuisine, is devoted to sophisticated bar culture, and cleverly designed, child-friendly features. Clever since, as a guest sans enfants, my exposure to the offspring of others was limited to the odd charming corridor encounter (like the little blond boy in blue flippers heading for the dedicated family spa area) and a few passing prams.
Before the pandemic, après ski in Austria meant one of two things. Either the beer steins and thumping euro-pop come out in force, or the massage jets do. With crowded bars pinpointed as breeding grounds for the virus, the latter is now more enticing than ever before.
Spa time at the Forsthofgut is as good as it comes. Over multiple floors, nearly an acre of space (3,800m²) is devoted to the art of relaxation, rejuvenation and renewal. From the edge of a sultry-warm outdoor pool, I watched late-afternoon skiers whoosh past. Next, lying prone alongside the large panoramic window, I roasted in the slow burn of a Finnish sauna, battling to keep eyes open to the tranquil snow-covered pines and fading cerulean sky.
It would take several days of corporal commitment to dip and dunk oneself into every sauna, pool, herbal steam bath and bubbling whirlpool at Forsthofgut, all open until a luxuriating 10pm. And there’s also a full gym, along with assorted organised sessions such as power walking and sauna infusions. I joined a free yoga class (in German which though slightly weird, was easy enough to follow). But sometimes I just got into my fluffy towelling robe and pretended to read my book while falling asleep on a chaise longue in a sun-patch, like an old retriever.
As enlightened pampering and relaxation goes, Forsthofgut has thought of everything. Like the elegant adults-only library and the sophisticated Botanist Bar creatively stocked with tinctures and locally-grown herbs and mixologists who shake a mean martini from shelves heaving with rare and interesting spirits. Diners are offered delicious mix-and-match options of vegan dishes, organic meats and produce from within 50km, and tasty modern Alpine dishes with herbs, berries and mushrooms harvested from surrounding forests.
For many, nothing beats the piste-side pulsing discos of Leogang’s ski-area mate, Saalbach-Hinterglemm, whether it’s vodka shots at the Goaßstall, or the cowboy corral and real horses at the Westernstadl. But in the age of muted après and for the skier who appreciates a bit of all things fine – food, drink and pampering alongside miles of piste draped across the provinces of Tirol and Salzburg – the Forsthofgut is a slow-tripping destination worth the journey, especially when the journey is half the fun.
Standard double rooms at the five-star Forsthofgut spa and family hotel (0043 6583 8561; forsthofgut.at) start at €205 per person per night, half-board, including daily afternoon tea. Children’s club for two years and up is supervised from 9am to 9pm, free of charge. As well as being six miles from Saalfelden train station Forsthofgut is 50 miles from Salzburg airport, and 75 miles from Innsbruck. The Alpen Express train (alpen.express) serves nearly 100 Austrian ski resorts including St Anton, Kitzbühel, Söll, Mayrhofen, Ischgl, Sölden and Zell am See. Tickets start at €179 return, boarding at Amsterdam or Cologne, with a place in a six-berth sleeping car. Eurostar (eurostar.com) tickets from London to Amsterdam start at £70 return; London to Cologne from £53 return. Prices for winter 2021/22 to be confirmed.
Leslie Woit travelled before the coronavirus pandemic. For the latest travel advice and restrictions visit gov.uk