Travel: Let off steam at an Austrian thermal spa

Eschenhof Hotel in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria. Picture: Contributed

Eschenhof Hotel in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria. Picture: Contributed

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FIND great skiing, warm hospitality and mountains of charm at this Austrian thermal spa resort, writes James Rampton

I don’t know about you, but at the end of a day’s skiing, I usually feel like I have done 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. I ache in muscles which I was never previously aware I even possessed.

So what could be better than to go straight from the slopes to a spa? That is the selling point of the captivating Austrian resort of Bad Kleinkirchheim.

After one particularly arduous day pummelling the pistes, we went directly to the Romerbad Thermal Spa in the centre of town. (Handily, you can purchase joint ski and spa passes in Bad Kleinkirchheim). Pausing briefly to pick up a fluffy white towel and dressing gown from an assistant wearing a toga – the clue’s in the spa’s name – we plunged straight into an outdoor spring right by the piste.

The spa water has the epic dimensions of an Olympic swimming pool. But the good news is that here you don’t have to do anything as strenuous as the 200 metre butterfly. All that is required is that you lounge in the pool and let the tensions of the day melt away.

Looking out from the extremely pleasant warm water at the dramatic Nock Mountains that encircle the spa, you feel perfectly at peace. The fact that you are enveloped in billowing clouds of steam only makes your sense of relaxation more satisfying. These natural springs have been de-stressing energetic, yet exhausted winter sportsmen and women for more than three centuries, and they really are the ideal way to soothe those groaning limbs after a hard day on the mountain.

To seal a really good day, we then got a lift back to the hotel on a horse-drawn sleigh. These can be hired at the cost of E35 for six people, from the Hotel Trattlerhof in the village centre. There is also the option of a dreamy candlelit ride for two. As you clamber on to the back of the sleigh, a helpful horseman hands you a mini bottle of prosecco and – very important, this – a snuggly blanket.

The ride, which is surprisingly smooth, takes you to the brow of a nearby hill, from where you look back on a gorgeous vista of the village twinkling below you. It would be quite easy to get used to this antiquated, but romantic form of transport. As a local tells me later, “The traffic is old-fashioned here.”

Alternatively, you might choose to find your après-ski entertainment at one of the 23 traditional huetten (huts) that are dotted around the village. They cater to many different tastes. Halfway down one piste, for instance, you can pull over at the wifi-enabled Blog Huette and check your emails.

We arrived at six o’clock one evening at the Einkehr Huette in the village centre to find a party already in full swing. A dozen mums in Dayglo ski suits were dancing “Gangnam Style” around a big open fire on the terrace.

It looked like a rehearsal for this year’s interval entertainment at the Eurovision Song Contest – which, after last May’s memorable victory by Conchita Wurst, will, of course, be taking place in Austria.

In the evening, the Einkehr turns into a very cosy restaurant with a beautiful interior fashioned from 300-year-old wood. They run “Wine Journey” evenings where a vintner is on hand to pair each local speciality dish with a vintage.

The skiing in Bad Kleinkirchheim is equally appealing – as you might expect from the hometown of Franz Klammer, the legendary Austrian skier who won the Olympic downhill gold medal at Innsbruck in 1976.

Klammer has a very close connection to the resort. As an 18-year-old battling to make a name for himself in downhill, he won his first ever race in Bad Kleinkirchheim at the European Cup in December 1971.

Known throughout Austria as “Der Kaiser”, Klammer still plays a very active role in village life. For example, advanced skiers can sign up for one of the “Early Morning Skiing with Franz” sessions which happen four times a year. Ultra-keen participants meet at the bottom of the main lift at 6:30am. They then spend several pre-breakfast runs trying to catch the five-time World Cup winner who was most famous for two things: his utter, borderline-certifiable courage and his canary-yellow jumpsuit. Even though Klammer is now well over 50, no-one has ever managed to overtake him.

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Klammer is a highly regarded figure here – a mountaintop restaurant and a scrumptious marzipan cake are both named in his honour. And even when he’s not there, you can still test yourself out on the run that bears his name: the Franz Klammer Piste.

It opens with a vertiginous 80 per cent incline. It is so steep that the “piste-bashing” tractors have to be winched up the hill, and workers tending the run have to wear crampons. This piste is probably one best left to the experts.

I found myself just as happy on more sedate, but equally eye-catching runs with evocative names such as Maibrunnbahn, Kasierburg and Mulde.

We stopped for lunch one day half way down the mountain at the Unterwirt Huette. As we sat outside ringed by stunning pine-clad mountains downing the justly celebrated Wiener Schnitzel, goulash with dumplings and sauerkraut being served by waiters in lederhosen, I could imagine Gregg Wallace turning up to exclaim: “Skiing doesn’t get better than this.”

The accommodation in Bad Kleinkirchheim is just as gemütlich. There are no large hotel chains in the village, just family-run establishments. We stayed at the Trattlerhof, which is as authentically Austrian as a Viennese waltz.

The inside of the hotel, which has been run by five generations of the Forstnig family for the last 130 years, is very attractive, decked out with vintage wooden furniture. The walls are bedecked with more sets of antlers than you can shake a ski-pole at.

We also ate at the Loy-Stub’n Restaurant in the Pulverer Thermenwelt Hotel, which was an experience that will linger long in the mind. We were serenaded into the dining room by a close-harmony singing group crooning Alpine songs accompanied by an accordionist and a man playing the spoons. Surreal, but definitely memorable.

The highlight of the top-class meal was the Carinthian lake trout with forest honey and mustard sauce. The puddings were just as outstanding.

What is most appealing about Bad Kleinkirchheim is that it’s very traditional. It is far less bling and oligarch-overrun than some of the flashier resorts in the Alps.

With its sleigh bells and sauerkraut, lederhosen and leberwurst, Bad Kleinkirchheim lives up to the classic image of an Austrian ski resort. It’s not glitzy, but in my eyes it is something much better: it is absolutely charming.

All the ski instructors in Bad Kleinkirchheim wear jackets emblazoned with the resort’s motto: “Lust Am Leben”.

It’s an apt maxim because that’s what a visit to this delightful place will give you: lust for life.

• Seven nights at the four-star Hotel Trattlerhof in Bad Kleinkirchheim on a half-board basis cost from £843, including flights from Edinburgh and transfers. Seven nights at the four-star Hotel Eschenhof on a half-board basis cost from £903, www.inghams.co.uk

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