Recent research suggested that time spent enjoying nature does wonders for us, with even a couple of hours a week making a big difference. Melanie Bryan tested the theory with a long weekend at Forsthofalm, a hotel in Austria that promises to leave you feeling better than when you started.
Approximately an hour and a half outside of Salzburg, up a multiple hairpinned, one-lane track, stands the Forsthofalm or ‘timber hotel’. Sitting high above the Alpine sports haven of Leogang, the air here is clean and pure, the only sounds come from birdsong or the gentle clink of bells from a passing herd of mountain goats.
Owned and extended by the charming Markus and Claudia Widauer, this family-run health and nature hotel is a hidden gem in an area better known to most UK holiday makers for its winter sports than its spring, summer and autumn holiday potential. Think of it as Scotland without the midges, bigger mountains — and, dare I say it, better weather.
As the name would suggest, the interior of Forsthofalm is made entirely from wood; larch, pine and spruce to be precise. Not just any wood, but ‘moon wood’ – wood felled during the waning moon when the amount of sap is at its lowest. The result, apparently, is a product that doesn’t expand and contract as much as its sappier alter ego meaning it can be used as a more precise building material.
It’s quite a feat of engineering. There is no glue holding the planks together, there are no nails in the bedframes or the tables. It is all made from wood. Untreated, unpainted wood.
At first glance, the rooms look like some kind of clinical sauna. All light wood and white bedsheets. The only colour in my room came from a solitary red apple placed on two oval white dishes. It honestly disturbed me at first. I am a woman who is often found snuffling in antique shops. I love a cushion or seven. Here, the only obvious luxury in the room is a gloriously supportive memory foam mattress. However, the longer I spent in this seemingly stark space, the more my mind cleared itself of clutter. The room felt calm and calming.
Outside, there was a balcony with a direct view of a lush, green mountain slope. Clouds of dust sprang up in the distance every now and then as a mountain biker tore down the track, but this was the only distraction. I soon came to realise that living in a minimal colour palette in the middle of an area of outstanding natural beauty was an incredibly relaxing thing to do.
That sums up the whole place. A visit to the Forsthofalm is a reenergising experience, one that forces you to slow down, appreciate what you have and what nature can offer, while also nourishing your soul with pure food and drink. And I have joined my local yoga class on my return and have signed up for a boot camp in order to shift some of the old middle age spread — two things I would never have considered before my trip to the Alps.
Prices at Forsthofalm start from €105.20 per person per night on a full or half board basis. The hotel caters for children, but will accept only ten at a time; the same limit doesn’t apply to dogs, which are welcomed at €28 a night. Find out more at www.forsthofalm.com.
Food and Drink
Forsthofalm might be a hotel that’s focused on seeing you leave healthier and happier than when you arrived, but thankfully this does not mean that the catering consists of portions of lettuce leaves and dust. In fact, the complete opposite would appear to be the case. Meal times in the Forsthofalm’s Kukka restaurant are a bamboozlingly generous affair, with all manner of delights being presented.
A vast buffet of freshly baked breads (the ovens greet you with their warm glow and nose-hugging aroma as soon as you walk into the lobby), meats, cheeses, fruits, pastries and salads are offered up as almost an amuse bouche.
Anything less than five courses seems to be regarded as a snack, and you’ll work your way from soup through belt-busting main courses before arriving desserts to satisfy even the sweetest of tooths. With the focus on organic, local foods and fresh alpine herbs, the menu changes daily to offer at least one meat, one fish, one vegetarian and one vegan main from their impressive statement grill.
Drink is equally varied, with an impressive selection of over 300 wines in the cellars, including an excellent array of Austrian wines. A particular favourite was the hotel’s own-branded ‘orange wine’ — so called because it takes its colour from the seeds and skin during the natural fermenting process. It’s like a red wine, but it’s white — well, technically orange — and… well, it’s complicated, but it’s delightful, complex and makes a refreshing change to Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.
Things to Do
Round the hotel
If taking it easy is your idea of wellness and relaxation, there is a sun trap roof terrace with small spa pool, and a range of massages (including a herbal massage or a facial). There are also stunning saunas and a sun room, all of which offer awe inspiring windows across the surrounding, ever changing mountains. A word of warning, though: it’s entirely normal for people in Austria to wander around naked in the sauna/steam room/sunbathing areas; of course, you don’t have to join in if you don’t want to, but just be aware that you may be suddenly confronted with some unexpected, erm, privates on parade.
Yoga hikes and Boot Camp
Activities are part of the package if you stay on an all-inclusive basis, and while I gave the Boot Camp workouts a miss, I did take up the offer of various outdoor pastimes. There was an outdoor yoga session in front of a mountain (breathtaking for all the right reasons), a yoga hike (basically walking up a mountain path, stopping occasionally to meditate) and an actual hike up a mountain. On the latter I was overtaken by many elderly locals and their grandchildren/dogs, but was rewarded with a stunning view of the massive glacier.
At the end of one of the yoga hikes there was a piece de resistance: a session of aerial yoga. For the uninitiated, this is where a sling is suspended from the ceiling for the practicer to employ in order to intensify their stretches. Mindful of the fact I had wimped out of even attempting boot camp, (and possibly still under the influence of some of the aforementioned delicious orange wine from the night before) I decided I should give this my best shot.
To start with, it was both ground-based and simple, even relaxing. So when our instructor Eve asked for a volunteer to try the sling, I — buoyed by my success — shot my hand into the air with the eagerness of a five-year-old who actually knows the answer to a maths question (I may have even shouted ‘Me! Me! Me!’).
We were shown the seemingly simple technique, which I observed, then launched at with all the gracefulness of a baby elephant. I wrestled with the material to find enough to encompass my ample posterior, became very un-yogically impatient with my progress, and launched myself at said sling. From here I went into a death spin from the ceiling before catapulting myself sideways out of my cocoon onto the floor with all the aplomb of Patsy exiting the cab in that infamous scene from Absolutely Fabulous. With nothing dented other than my pride, I said my ‘Namastes’ and retreated to the sauna, where no one is suspicious if your face is bright red.
The activity of sitting has been much-maligned, but now receives an elegant makeover in the form of a moss green