How a two-room guesthouse became one of the Alps’ finest ski-and-spa retreats

What is the apogee of the hotel world? The centuries-old Hotel Magnificos along the Italian

What is the apogee of the hotel world? The centuries-old Hotel Magnificos along the Italian coast? The expensive minimalism of the five-star tropical resort, or perhaps the storied grandes dames of Europe’s capitals? Maybe, though, there is a place at the top for the rustic luxury of Austria’s family-owned ski-and-spa hotels.

They have evolved over the generations, using their success not to launch chains or reward shareholders, but to reinvest in continual expansion and innovation, until every minute detail has been considered and improved.

At the Stanglwirt, for example, a 500-year-old Tyrolean hotel that has been run by 10 generations of the same family, even the lifts have been given rustic wood panelling, plus little carved corner cupboards containing a bottle of schnapps and glasses for passengers to refresh themselves. These places are twee beyond belief, yet magnificent in their devotion to Gemütlichkeit.

The Forsthofgut, which I visited this month, is a classic of the genre. In the hamlet of Hütten, outside Leogang in the Salzburgerland, it started out in 1617 as a farm and forestry business, providing accommodation for lumberjacks. The current owners, the Schmuck family, bought it in 1905 — we are now on the fifth generation — and, in 1960, opened two rooms of the farmhouse to tourists. In 1980, they added a few more, then in 1990 opened a new building beside the original house, creating a proper hotel for the first time. By 1992, brochures boasted of the chance to swim in a pond outside, and in 1997 the farm’s last cow was sold as hospitality became the sole focus.

The Forsthoftgut’s old chalet, built in 1617 and renovated in 1980

The chalet in the early 20th century

The Schmuck family, with Christoph, the Forsthofgut’s manager, second from right

Today, the hotel has 105 bedrooms — a modest enough total that new arrivals are welcomed by their name on a blackboard by the entrance — but it sprawls across the foot of the Asitz mountain, in a succession of buildings, traditional and modern, set around a lake, multiple pools and hot tubs, a ski piste snaking through the middle.

Some €60mn has been spent since Christoph Schmuck, now 38, took over from his father in 2006, including a €10mn spa expansion unveiled last year, to create a sort of Alpine fantasy land. Beyond the restaurants and spa is a miniature farm for children featuring Lilliputian chalets; beyond that are stables and a riding school, added this year, and off to one side a wildlife enclosure for red and fallow deer (which visitors can feed once a week). Room keys come with a fold-out map, but new guests are still likely to get lost.

GM101213_22X Travel map Leogang

I took an early flight from London City to Salzburg, only an hour’s drive away, and went straight out skiing. By the time I got back, it was Strudelzeit (cake time). All bookings come with what the hotel calls “three-quarter” board: breakfast, dinner and afternoon cakes. After a slab of apple strudel, I hit the spa. Snow was falling, steam rising from the outdoor infinity pool as I swam out into the darkness.

Later, I lolled in another pool, at 42C, then watched bathers climb out and lower themselves through the hole cut in the icy surface of the adjacent lake. In all, the spa covers 5,700 square metres, with some family areas (including a long water slide) and others reserved for adults, plus relaxation rooms where people doze or read on daybeds, looking out at snow-covered trees and peaks.

The mountain view from the hotel

One of the deer in the Forsthofgut’s reserve

The facilities might be cutting-edge but the tone is low-key, largely because it is so family-focused: as well as the water slides, there are rooms with art and craft activities (and 12 hours of childcare per day is included in the room rate). Couples in spa robes cradle tiny babies; older children team up to roam the hotel.

The Schmuck family, too, are a constant presence, their photos prominently displayed (even disconcertingly popping up on a screen set into the breakfast buffet). “I grew up running around the hotel,” says Christoph Schmuck. “I used to get into trouble with my mother for eating the sugar from the tables in the restaurant.” Today he employs 250 staff.

If the hotel has evolved from humble beginnings, so too has the ski area. For almost 30 years, Leogang was the poor relation to the village of Saalbach, on the other side of the Asitz, which opened its first ski lift in 1945 (not to mention the internationally famous Kitzbühel, 28km to the west, which installed a gondola lift in 1929).

Leogang didn’t get a lift until the winter of 1971-72 and, even then, it had an inauspicious start. Poor snow meant the lift, which only went halfway up the mountain, operated for just 14 days all season, so the bank refused to lend funds for an extension. In the end, the lift company founders went from house to house asking for support; 11 people agreed and by 1974 the lift had finally been extended to the top, creating a connection with Saalbach.

The summit of the Asitz, with the Leogang valley beyond © Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn

More expansion and connections followed, the village names being appended to the ski area brand name until, by 2015, it had grown into the less than snappy Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn. In fact, it’s also possible to ski into the Zell am See area, meaning there are 347km of slopes on offer (trumping even Kitzbühel, which has 233km).

Rather than being run by a distant publicly listed group, as is common in France and the US, the Skicircus lifts remain in the hands of five local companies. That means profits are reinvested and the lifts are as fast and modern as anywhere, many of them big chair lifts with covers and heated seats.

Perhaps conscious of its mouthful of a name, the ski area also brands itself the “Home of Lässig” — a word with no direct translation but which means cool, fun and laid-back. Though dreamt up by the marketing department, it describes the area rather well: the skiing is mostly below the tree line, rather than up among glaciers and rocky summits, more than half the runs are easy blues, and you are never far from one of the 60 cosy mountain huts.

One of the Forsthofgut’s saunas, with a view over the ski slope

The Schmucks are not the only local family to have ridden the transformation. Sepp Altenberger became a ski instructor after the second world war, later opening a guesthouse for clients which has grown into the Krallerhof, Leogang’s other five-star hotel, still run by the family and with a vast new spa.

Just up the hill, farmland owned by Huwi Oberlader’s family since 1782 is now Priesteregg, a hamlet of 18 chalets that look ancient but are in fact newly built, luxuriously appointed and come with a nearby spa and restaurant, Huwi’s Alm. At the top of the Asitz, the food stall where the Oberlader family used to serve grilled chicken has evolved into the Mountain Club Hendl Fischerei, a smart restaurant and après-ski bar, serving oysters and champagne (and grilled chicken still), with a DJ in the afternoon.

“At the moment, there’s a really good generation in the hotels, the cable car company and the ski school, who want to move forward fast,” says Christoph Schmuck. Collaboration is common, even among rivals, he says — several of the hotels, for example, have come together to build staff accommodation. “The money we make, we reinvest — we believe in a good future for our village.”

A view from one of the Forsthofgut garden loft suites, added last year © Patrick Langwallner

The 25-metre lap pool beside the piste

The living area of one of the garden loft suites

Back at the Forsthofgut, after a day exploring the mountain, I ate a six-course dinner (included in the room rate), much of it sourced from the nearby farm the hotel acquired in 2017. There are also Japanese, fine-dining and traditional Austrian restaurants.

If anything, though, it is the breakfast buffet that is most emblematic of the whimsical maximalism of this type of Austrian hotel. A large room is filled with endless choice: three types of fresh melon, a dozen cheeses accompanied by six homemade marmalades (cherry and sweetbriar, pear and passion fruit, apricot and marzipan, and so on), four types of butter, five types of honey, plus a fresh honeycomb. A side room is packed with pastries and breads, including the Forsthofgut “house bread” made with apples, carrots and pumpkin seeds.

Plates laden, guests can sit and read the Forsthofgut Morning Post, which lists scores of activities for adults and children, from yoga to group walks and HIIT workouts, all included. For some, the tyranny of such choice might begin to drag, but it does make you think that perhaps other hotels aren’t really trying.

Three more family-owned Austrian Alpine retreats

The Stanglwirt

Stanglwirt, Going am Wilden Kaiser Situated at the foot of the dramatic Wilder Kaiser massif, and a few minutes’ drive from the pistes of the SkiWelt area, the Stanglwirt was first licensed as an inn in 1609. Its fame grew after visits by Bing Crosby and Clark Gable in the 1950s, and because of the novelty of a window in its restaurant that looked straight into a cowshed. It still operates as a dairy farm and a stud for Lipizzaner horses but also as a lavish hotel with vast spa facilities and tennis and golf schools, a children’s’ “water world” and its own fishing grounds. “My credo is not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’,” says owner Balthasar Hauser. Doubles from about €450, including breakfast; stanglwirt.com

Das Edelweiss, Grossarl Opened in 1979, the Hettegger family’s guesthouse has evolved into a 145-room resort right beside the pistes of the Grossarl-Dorfgastein ski area. Three generations on, 14 members of the family now work at the hotel, which underwent a major renovation in 2018-19 and now offers a 7,000 sq m spa that a extends over five floors, plus a penthouse suite with a private pool on the terrace. Doubles from €360 half-board; edelweiss-grossarl.com

 

Trattlerhof, Bad Kleinkirchheim In the home resort of ski legend Franz Klammer, the Trattlerhof was licensed in 1642 and has been in the hands of the Forstnig family since 1884. Today, it is a comfortable four-star with 60 rooms, a gourmet restaurant and its own cake (the Trattlers Hoftorte), which it has been serving for more than a century. There’s a 1,000 sq m spa too, though enthusiasts will also want to visit the village’s two mineral-rich thermal spas, the Römerbad and the St Kathrein. Doubles from about €180 half-board; trattlerhof.at

Das Edelweiss, Grossarl

Details

Tom Robbins was a guest of the Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn (saalbach.com), SalzburgerLand Tourism (salzburgerland.com) and British Airways CityFlyer (ba.com). BA flies twice-weekly from London City to Salzburg, from £120 return. Naturhotel Forsthofgut (forsthofgut.at) has doubles from €550 per night, three-quarter board