Outside of the ski season, summer in the Austrian Alps offers holiday bargains, empty mountains and, if you’re so inclined, therapeutic naked saunas. Claudia Cahalane straps on her walking boots and heads to the hills
Arriving in Austria, via the Swiss Alps, is like a fairytale. Blankets of Alpine flowers, enormous mountain peaks and vast glaciers spread out for miles around.
I hadn’t considered Austria as a holiday destination before, assuming it was too expensive. But outside of the ski season I was surprised to find good deals and prices pretty much in line with the UK. That’s why, after first visiting two years ago, I recently found myself heading back for five days of pristine air, hiking and saunas.
Travelling with four friends, we took the two-hour train journey from Salzburg to the popular ski resort of Kaprun, where there are several campsites and hostels. Nearby is the busier town of Zell am See, set around Lake Zell, where you can swim, if the mood takes.
Our budget was heavily saved thanks to a Zell Am See-Kaprun Summer Card, which meant we were able to get cheaper bus and cable car rides, a big discount at the sauna and wellbeing centre, and various other savings along the way. The cards can be picked up for free from most places in the town.
Our days were spent walking in the mountains. I was pleased to find the Austrian hiking routes well marked and fairly straightforward. During our stay we covered four routes from the Walking In Austria guidebook, published by Cicerone. Each was about 10km, or four hours long, generally with steady climbs.
“The flow of heavy meadows, and high peaks set with snow, soothed our senses and calmed our minds”
The mornings began with excitement: ascending by cable car into the heart of the Alpine landscape. We walked at a steady pace throughout, stopping occasionally to spot bright Alpine flowers. Sometimes the weather was unseasonably bad and we were forced to take refuge in a mountain hut. But gradually the flow of heavy meadows, and high peaks set with snow, soothed our senses and calmed our minds.
Once two other walkers joined us, but most of the time we didn’t see another soul. Human soul, that is. There were plenty of mountain animals for company. While on our way up the side of Scharfer Grat, we were chased by a herd of angry goats – an incident I now look back at with hilarity, but at the time my chest was beating hard with panic.
Aside from the walking, we also enjoyed many of the region’s charms. A highlight of the trip was a romantic steam train ride through the countryside to Krimml, refreshed halfway with glasses of Prosecco. We stood in the outside part of the train and felt the breeze on our faces and watched the views in motion.
On arrival, we hiked alongside the dramatic Krimml waterfall: at 366m it’s the biggest in Austria. The walk to the top is fairly steep, and sweaty, but splashes from the falls cooled us along the way. Hearing the water whip fiercely around the falls was invigorating for the senses.
Other standout moments included the shorter 5km walk to Scharfer Grat. Surrounded with thick ice, we looked down at Kapruntertal’s headwall (where the Karlinger Kees glacier hangs) and the hydroelectric dam at Mooserboden, feeling like we had been transported there in a futuristic dream. We breathed deeply and cleared our minds.
The Austrians’ focus on health and wellbeing is something we sank into wholeheartedly. For deep relaxation at the end of a hard day’s thigh workout, the Tauern spa is excellent and costs only about €10 with the discount card. Inside there were pools and Jacuzzis with mountain views. We treated our skin with a selection of saunas and steam rooms, all naked, as is the Austrian way. A thorough cleansing of the pores means exactly that: every inch tingles afterwards. We emerged from the post-mountain saunas filled with bliss.
Five days in Kaprun is enough time to give a boost and re-boot the mind. Assuming, of course, that one hasn’t overindulged on Stiegel, dumplings and mountain-milk chocolate. As a town, Kaprun is a good base. It’s a shame that it’s so underused outside of ski season.
With thanks to the Austrian National Tourist Board for arranging Claudia’s flights.