With a history of tourism that goes back much further than its relatively recent status as a snow sports area, the Gastein Valley – home to the resorts of Bad Gastein, Bad Hofgastein, Sportgastein and Dorfgastein – is better known for the healing properties of its naturally thermally heated waters. Mozart’s mother and wife, Johann Strauss, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Emperor Franz Josef I, Schubert and Louis Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer fame all spent time here, and I’m currently adding my name to that list of August visitors.
Jumping about to loud music in the Silver Bullet, a Swedish rock bar in neighbouring Bad Gastein, I’m thinking, in a slightly slurred manner, back over what an unusual and slightly leftfield week it’s been in the Gastein Valley. I’m currently dancing in my ski gear and that’s because earlier on we’d kicked off the final night celebrations with a trip up on a single person gondola to a fondue supper at Bellevue Alm, one of the oldest mountain lodges in Austria, built around 600 years ago. The quirky ascent was matched by the quality of the food and ambience, while a few Piney Zirbenschnaps fortified us for a competition and laughter riddled return journey – by toboggan. We’d tipped into the Silver Bullet laughing and snow-covered.
The whole week has been unparalleled for matching excellent snow, charming tree-lined runs and deep powder off-piste shenanigans for the more adventurously inclined. The area is a paradise for all levels of skier from beginners to world class freeriders, the 208km or so of pistes and the backcountry areas of Sportgastein have something for everyone. I’ve tended to stick to my usual blues and reds, but the snow has been so fresh and the slopes uncluttered that I actually ventured off-piste for the first time – about a meter off-piste and it didn’t end well, even with an instructor on hand. However, I did manage to get down my first ever black, without falling over, sitting down for my dumpling and beer lunch with a big grin on my face.
The area is very very Austrian in feel. While plucky Brits have been visiting the Gastein Valley in the summer for walking and spa treatments for years, the winter season is largely the domain of German speaking skiers and backcountry-loving Swedes. It’s not ski-in ski-out, something that many British skiers have come to expect, but the buses are frequent and easy to use. The town itself is small and welcoming, with the feel of a real town, rather than a purpose built resort, complete with shops selling artisan Christmas decorations and bakeries filled with cakes and goodies galore.
The majority of the winter visitors have been staying here as much for the general “wellness” experience as for the winter sports alone, with spa and snow going hand in well-steamed hand. Pretty much every hotel has its own sauna and Jacuzzi, and probably a small pool, while the spa centre in the town of Bad Hofgastein, the Alpentherme, is worthy of a visit in its own right, with indoor/outdoor pools offering the chance to swim in warm water with snow falling all around – a frankly baffling barrage of saunas, steam rooms, massage therapies, pools (even one with a cinema) and a plenitude of general embarrassment-inducing scenarios for an uptight and overclothed British person. For the adventurous, the Beer Draff Skincare Bath therapy is a half hour soak in water containing beer in a special massage bath and a beer is included in the price (£22.50). This is the sort of thing the Gastein Valley still specialises in, and I’ve definitely come to the conclusion over the week that skiing in the morning, followed by spa and a swim in the afternoon is the way to go, keeping limbs limber and spirits high. Or that could be just the Zirbenschnaps. Or beer.
Taking it up a notch in both wellness and weirdness potential from the naturally thermally heated waters of the Alpentherme were the Gasteiner Heilstollen. These “healing galleries”, as they are known, harness naturally occurring radon gas, warmed within tunnels bored into the mountain itself as a medically recognised treatment for a vast array of ailments from skin conditions to asthma and even cancer. Sitting on a miniature train, dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, travelling into the heart of a mountain felt more reminiscent of entering a Sci-Fi movie set than a spa treatment, and the serried ranks of wooden benches each occupied by a dozing human form did little to dispel that feeling. Whether down to the radon or not, I did leave feeling relaxed, with muscles surprisingly refreshed.
Food on the mountain has been traditional Austrian mountain fayre, with sausage, dumplings and goulash soup aplenty, definitely designed to stick to the ribs, but we certainly experienced some interesting culinary options. At UnterbergerWirt in Dorfgastein-Unterberg, the unique and unexpected experiences we’d been clocking up over the past few days were added to when we were greeted by a menu prepared on Feng Shui principles, something I’ve never associated with food before. The results, intended to balance the elements, were extremely tasty if nothing else and the ambience of the Feng Shui designed hotel itself was soothing in the extreme.
The best way to appreciate the Gastein Valley was definitely to fully immerse oneself into the rhythm of snow and spa, with a healthy nod towards food and drink, keeping mind, body and soul all happily together in one healthy package. The skiing possibilities were superb, the town charming and the wellness options near endless. I found it best to just leave that traditional British reserve and cynicism at home in the spirit of enjoying a genuinely quirky and different ski holiday experience.