Europe > Austria
In Austria, a Chalet for the Night
By KIMBERLY BRADLEY
Published: January 31, 2010
STANDING 3,346 feet above sea level on a steep mountain slope overlooking the village of Bruck, Austria, I found it was easy to feel a little breathless. As the morning fog lifted, the jagged peaks of the Hohe Tauern mountain range — including the mighty Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain at 12,460 feet — slowly emerged. Ah, these hills are very much alive.
The bray of a donkey brought that point home as we sipped hot coffee on a creaky wooden balcony and watched our visible breath vanish into the thin air. Looking far below, we could see a small river twist like a satin ribbon between the valley’s timbered houses and church spires; surrounding us were the weathered buildings of a mountainside farm, with sheep and cows grazing on the alm, or mountain pastures.
We’d come to the Taxhof farmstead to escape city life, but didn’t expect this kind of vertigo (the good kind). Founded some 500 years ago, Taxhof has evolved from something solely utilitarian into an idyllic place to eat, sleep and breathe crystal-clean air — with a restaurant and five guest rooms in the main farmhouse and two chalet-like outbuildings on the grounds. It’s the latter that make Taxhof a prime example of one of Austria’s newest travel attractions: living high in an Alpine hut.
For decades, vacationers in the Austrian Alps generally booked accommodations in the valleys and hit the slopes only for hiking or skiing. On-slope resorts were rare, and the only travelers brave enough to sleep at altitude were hard-core mountaineers, who camped or slept in barracks-like huts accessible only via hiking paths.
But over the last five years or so, the country’s mountain regions — the western provinces of Salzburg, Tyrol and Vorarlberg, along with parts of Styria and Carinthia — have been sprouting Almdörfer, translated as mountain pasture villages, groups of chalets or huts on mountainsides that offer creature comforts to go along with the vistas.
The properties take different forms. Some, like the Bergdorf Priesteregg in Salzburg province, which opened in December, and Almdorf Seinerzeit in Patergassen are new constructions geared toward luxury and wellness. There, extras like spa services are available in chalets that mix modern amenities like private saunas with traditional features like wood-burning ovens. Almdorf Seinerzeit, for example, has a swimming pond, a communal sauna and a shop.
But many Almdörfer are more rustic and developed organically as additions to established inns or conversions of outbuildings on family farms.
No matter what form they take, however, they all offer the same attraction: living above the fray, so to speak. High above it.
“People want to be closer to nature, and go back to simple, honest things,” said Berta Unterberger of Taxhof, which has been in the same family since 1687. Hale, hearty and shod in knee-high work boots, Mrs. Unterberger is the farm’s matriarch, hostess and chef. Her husband, Matthias, tends to the cows, sheep and other livestock wandering around the surrounding fields.
“All the food is from right here; everything’s natural, except the butter and milk, which is from the dairy farm up the road,” she said to my partner, Michael, and me as we sampled a breakfast spread of home-cured ham slices, fresh dark bread, homemade marmalades and eggs that might have just been laid by the chickens outside. Even Michael, an Austrian mountaineer with a discerning palate when it comes to national staples, was impressed.
International culinary guidebooks have lauded Taxhof’s restaurant for its lamb and beef dishes. Meals are served in three dining rooms, one with a charred ceiling revealing its past as a smokehouse. The guest rooms range from traditional Alpine style in the main house (think extra-wide beds in antique frames, dark-wood beams and pictures of the Unterberger ancestors) to modern suites in the outbuildings, one of which is a converted grainery.
Not far from Taxhof is Steinalmdorf, chalets that opened in 2007 on a slope overlooking the town of Leogang. According to Michael Madreiter, 31, who grew up there and whose parents have operated the adjacent 20-room 17th-century inn for decades, chalet guests value the privacy. “Guests really want to have a house of their own, but with the service of a five-star hotel,” he said.
It’s why the family chose to expand with chalets, and not by enlarging the inn. “If you think of resorts in the Pacific, huts are not a new idea,” Mr. Madreiter said. “But these cottages are something new for our region.” Downhill skiers have direct access to the Saalfelden Leogang ski area, and cross-country enthusiasts can glide onto an extensive trail system from their doors. And then there’s the food: Madreiter’s mother, Elisabeth, prepares farm-to-table cuisine with ingredients from the family’s organically certified farm.
Elsewhere, things get even more interactive. At Zur Sonnleit’n Abtenau, which has four huts on yet another nearby slope, visitors are welcome to watch cheese production or bake their own bread.
Despite the generally stagnant tourism industry in Austria, the chalet resorts have been instant successes. Most are already booked years in advance for the Christmas and New Year holidays, and winter ski season attracts visitors from places like Germany, England and even Russia. Summer visitors often reserve two or three weeks at a time to take advantage of excellent hiking. And expansion is under way; Steinalmdorf is building another seven chalets and Taxhof is converting two hay sheds into a luxury suite.
“For me, it’s about the food and the views, of course, but also the peace and quiet,” said Andreas Meck, an architect from Munich who takes his family to Taxhof nearly every year to ski.
Not all these resorts were developed by locals. Josch and Klaus Seyfert, twin brothers and proprietors of the Hüttendorf Maria Alm in Salzburg province, are from Germany. They originally planned a vacation house near the village of Maria Alm. Then they built another to rent out. By 2005, they’d built two more. A business was born (a 17th is being built). “We see how beautiful it is when we wake up in the morning, but with the eyes of a tourist,” Josch Seyfert said. “So we know what they want.”
For many, that’s something more than just direct access to the expansive Amadé ski area or proximity to the Salzburger Almenweg, a hiking trail that connects alm to alm over more than 200 miles. It’s a natural high that seems easier to attain with a bird’s-eye view.
“Come on,” Michael said to me after our breakfast at Taxhof, donning his boots. A frosty morning hike led us past a flock of sheep, the neighboring dairy farm, a roadside apiary and beyond. Back at the farmhouse, the aroma of a hearty lunch wafted through the wooden hallways, along with the smell of lavender that Mrs. Unterberger had picked over the summer. It was almost time to leave. As if she could sense our reluctance, Mrs. Unterberger said, “Life is more beautiful and much grander when you’re looking over the whole world.”
IF YOU GO
The following resorts (except Almdorf Seinerzeit) are most easily reached by flying from New York to Munich. A recent Web search showed nonstop flights in February on Lufthansa, United and Continental beginning at $700. The best way to reach the resorts is by car. Rental companies like Sixt and Avis operate at the Munich airport. To reach Almdorf Seinerzeit, fly to Vienna (February flights on British Airways, connecting in London, begin at $729) and drive to Patergassen.
WHERE TO STAY
Prices for Alpine huts reflect the range of accommodations available, from sophisticated to rustic. Meals are generally eaten at the resorts, with breakfast or breakfast and lunch included in room prices. Dinners are à la carte.
Bergdorf Priesteregg (Sonnberg 22, Leogang: 43-6583-82-55-20; priesteregg.at); from 155 euros per person per night, or about $220 at $1.42 to the euro.
Almdorf Seinerzeit (Fellacheralm, 9564 Patergassen; 43-4275-72-01; almdorf.com); from 290 euros for two people per night.
Taxhof (Hundsdorf 15, Bruck; 43-65-45-62-61; taxhof.at); prices start at 45 euros a person a night.
Steinalmdorf (Rain 9, Leogang; 43-6583-82-75; steinalmdorf.at); chalets ranging from 172 euros a person per night, depending on season.
Zur Sonnleit’n Abtenau (Schratten 5, Abtenau; 43-6243-288-13; sonnleitn-abtenau.at); huts for 70 to 90 euros per night
Hüttendorf Maria Alm (Bachwinkl 27, Maria Alm; 43-6584-23-606; huettendorf.com); chalets from 119 euros a night (in spring).