travel - driving in austria's tirol region
tirolean travels in austrian elegance
Motoring across the mountains of Austria's Tirol region wasn't the obvious choice for a family summer holiday. Jonathan Crouch tried it just the same - and won't forget the experience.
Summer in the Alps. So often it seems to pass the British by, quite literally as our tourists fly over the mountain tops on their way to the coastal resorts of Southern Europe. And on arrival? Well, they don't tend to find too many Austrians sharing the crowded beaches. Their wild, rugged yet perfectly formed country has too many charms of its own, in warm as well as colder months. And as a visitor, if you've a car, an adventurous spirit and just a few days to spare, it doesn't take long to discover them.
But an adventurous spirit isn't something we tend to want to take on holiday with us is it? Particularly, if like me, you've a family with three growing children along with you, all wanting different things, few of which contribute much to the relaxing break you've been looking forward to all year. So unless you're one of those annoyingly active biking, hiking and fishing families, the easiest option is to book a beach hotel, sign up for the kids club you know they'll hate and stay put by the pool until work on Monday morning beckons.
This year though, we'd decided would be different. Austria was a place I'd travelled through but never properly visited. And for my kids, mountain tops in summer were merely places waiting for the first dusting of winter snow. Hiring a car and taking to the roads of the country's picturesque Tirolean region would, I thought, change both our perspectives on this hidden kingdom of middle Europe.
A place that these days is plenty more accessible than it used to be thanks to the introduction of low cost carrier flights into the pretty city of Innsbruck, not much than ninety minutes flight from the UK. It's a place that connects you quickly into the heart of the Tyrolean mountains we'd come to explore, which for us, would start an hour's easy drive away in what's known as the rocky crown of the Alps, the Wilder Kaiser region - the name meaning 'Wild Emperor' - an imposing peak that towers over a collection of little valley villages famed for their Austrian hospitality.
"An adventure holiday that doesn't require too much of a spirit of adventure"
In winter, this is the country's largest interconnected ski area with 90 cable cars covering 173 varied runs down 279kms of slope. A place that in summer transforms itself into a white island in the midst of lush, green hills, home to over 1,000 different flowering plants. And a little town called Ellmau, the base for the first section of our trip. No smart, shiny hotel chains here, though very comfortable accommodation is on offer if you want it. We thought we'd try an affordable family apartment, Haus Landmann, which for just 70 euros a night for all five of us including a hearty local breakfast, offered everything we needed - and nothing we didn't.
Breakfast, in fact, is something of an event in this part of the world. Drive up the winding road leading to the cable car station and you can take a lift up to Hohe Salve, Brandstadl, Hartkaiser or Astberg for a choice of 23 Alpine huts offering 'Breakfast on the Mountain' with delicacies like 'kaiserschmarrn', a pancake speciality, or specially cured local white sausage. Fortification for a day we spent exploring five different mountain top adventure playgrounds with activities for all ages.
Equally enjoyable was a day back behind the wheel pottering through the other Wilder Kaiser villages, Going, Scheffau and Soll, with shopping and leisurely pavement cappuccinos for adults balanced by a visit to the Kaiserbad water park for the kids.
Too soon, it was time to move on, back to Innsbruck and 20 minutes beyond to a more developed but no less scenic part of the Tirol, the Olympic region of Seefeld. Home to a string of Olympic events over the years, this is a place that's established itself as one of the most fashionable of Austria's Alpine resorts. For fashionable families that is. They flock from nearby Italy, Germany and Switzerland not only to Seefeld but also its neighbouring villages of Leutasch, Mosern, Reith and Scharnitz to enjoy almost every outdoor sport imaginable. All set in a picture postcard wooded valley with over 650km of marked hiking trails peppered by frequent mountain huts offering food and refreshment.
As for our base, well, having stayed with a Tyrolean family, we thought we'd try a Tyrolean Family Hotel, rather a good one as it turned out, the 4-star superior Hotel Alpenpark in the heart of Seefeld itself. My kids had tried 'family hotels' before and didn't like them. Ten minutes into their guided tour of this one, they'd changed their minds, with facilities that included everything from a bowling alley to a squash court, from waterslides to a beauty spa to keep Mum occupied while they were having fun.
Tearing them away from it all and hitting the road once more wasn't easy but there was just too much else to see, pottering between the area's little villages in the shadow of the majestic peaks we'd marvelled at on the final approach of the flight into Innsbruck.
Swapping four wheels for two, there was also the chance to experience something new for me - e-biking. Pedal-biking with the aid of battery power is addictive and just the thing for exploring over 200kms of forest tracks with sparking mountain streams that criss-cross the area. You'll probably need a guide to find them all, ours provided by the Cross Country Academy in Seefeld who'll also hire you the bikes.
More relaxing routes to the scenery are provided by a leisurely horse and carriage ride. Or a trip up the mountain railway Rosshutte for a fantastic panoramic view across the whole region. It's all enough to tire the most active of families. Mine were certainly keen enough to relax amongst the waterslides and sauna spas of Seefeld's Olympia Sports and Congress Centre. And to try cuisine that takes you to the heart of the Tirol. One night we'd be at the Alpenpark sampling 'Frittaten', a tasty soup served with herbs and pancake strips. The next we'd try a local Gasthof like the Waldgasthaus Triendlsage eating 'Bergkase', mountain cheese that comes in umpteen variations, the strongest of which is used in the popular 'Kasspatzle' (a kind of cheesy pasta).
An adventure holiday then, that doesn't require too much of a spirit of adventure. A place you and your car can properly explore while you and your family relax. Austria's Tirol region is a land of pleasurable contradictions, a place in the sun you can rediscover yourself. Mountain living's like that.
Want to replicate this journey? Here's what you need to know..
Where to stay in the Austrian Tirol region: the resorts of Ellmau in the Wilder Kaiser region and Seefeld in the Olympiaregion Seefeld.
We tried -
- a self-catering apartment at the Haus Landmann in Ellmau, with prices starting from £70 per night for a family of four. For more information visit www.landmann.ellmau-tirol.at.
- the 4* Aktiv und Spa-Resort Alpenpark in Seefeld on half board, with prices starting from £100 per person per night. Children sharing with their parents receive a discount of between 30-85% depending on their age. For more information visit www.alpenpark-seefeld.com
How to get there: Direct summer flights are available twice weekly with www.easyJet.com from Gatwick to Innsbruck airport. Resort transfers are available from www.transfer.tirol.at.
General Information: For more information on the Austrian Tirol visit www.visittirol.co.uk or for more information on Ellmau visit www.wilderkaiser.info or for more information on Seefeld visit www.seefeld.com