By Isabel Conway –
Standing at the top of the world – or so it seems – where St Johann in Tyrol’s Berghahnen cable car disgorges the summer hikers and mountain bikers, we are discovering a whole new enjoyment of Austria without snow or adrenaline pumping ski slopes and crowded chair lifts.
I have just been tempted to enjoy “a quiet glide through the air” by the paragliding pilot toting for business here at 1700 metres high. But my other half refuses to part with the cash – €129 for me to be strapped on to the paraglider – to fly higher than eagles.
So much for my attempts to have a non-ski high octane adventure. But truth is I am somewhat accident prone with a couple of ski injuries in the past and he is not allowing me to risk life and limb up the mountain.
Instead we decide to hike all the way back down to chocolate box pretty St Johann in Tyrol , following narrow winding steep paths through alpine meadows carpeted in wild flowers and roamed by ‘Milka Bar’ patterned cows, wearing large bells around their necks.
Our journey turns out to be more energy consuming than skiing as we scramble over huge boulders and a maze of forest tree roots, crossing streams and circumventing tangles of dead pine branches.
We have taken our time, pacing the journey to feel super chilled,admiring the spectacular panorama of peaks , breathing in all that super pure air, looking forward to a welcome glass of Gruner Veltliner white wine and a thirst quenching beer back in town as reward.
As a winter sport enthusiast for decades, at first I was not sure how to tackle Austria’s Alps in summertime, wondering whether I would enjoy a holiday without skiing.
When the snow has melted and the skiers have headed home, the Alps don’t just disappear, a friend who traded in her ski equipment for lightweight mountain boots and walking poles, spending her holidays walking terrain she used to explore on skis in her beloved Austria, assures me.
Those who prefer their mountains served green instead of white, enjoying half empty sunny restaurant terraces and a speedy cable car ascent up the mountain, without any queues of skiers jostling them are in their element.
The locals enjoy the change in their surroundings too, welcoming a different type of visitor whilst offering a nice mix of outdoor activities and free entertainment.
In St Johann and the surroundings, you can try your hand at asphalt curling (surely easier than my one and only stab at it on ice which ended in a skid and a fall) hiking and rock climbing, orienteering and archery. Golf and horse riding is widely available and high up mountain carting and extreme biking replaces tobogganing and careering down a black slope.
The St Johann Card, a personalized Guest Card (www.kitzalps.cc/card) which visitors receive at their accommodation provides lots of benefits. They include discounts in shops and restaurants, reductions on a large range of adventure experiences, including canoeing, rafting, free hikes and guided bike adventures and free local public transport.
Our base for a week of walks, lovely outdoor lunches and swims in ice cold lake water was Hotel Park, near the centre of St Johann in Tirol and a few minutes away from the cable car station. It’s the kind of family owned and run traditional 4*comfortable hotel you still come across in rural Austria. Owner Seppi personally welcomes his new guests with a glass of Prosecco and explains the town’s amenities and free tours. The hotel invites guests to a daybreak breakfast up the mountain weekly to watch the sunrise. St Johann in Tirol has an interesting town museum, a weekly farmers market and regular music events are held in the centre, surrounded by café terraces throughout the summer months.
The Park Hotel (www.park.at) tries hard to keep culinary interest alive with different ‘nights’ – offering various country’s themes culinary themes and a substantial buffet breakfast from which guests can select their packed lunch with drinks cartons, sandwich bags and packets of chocolate wafers.
Come summer St Johann in Tirol’s ice cream parlours and Conditorei cafes overflow with day trippers, cyclists and hikers. A good selection of well- marked walking routes makes for an easy discovery of the region. A highlight was our gentle three hour walk to the town of Kitzbuhel for lunch, catching the train home. On our walk we stopped off at the hamlet of Oberndorf, nestling in the valley between craggy Wilder Kaiser and Kitzbuheler Horn, to admire goat farms and chalets whose carved balconies overflowed with brightly coloured flowers.
Half way through the walk, as temperatures climbed into the late 20s, we reached a Farm museum where we had a cold drink and a sit down. The interior was a step back in time to when farms were cut off once the snows came and wood carving, preserving food and spinning wool for blankets and clothing filled a family’s days and nights.
We came across a superb mountain restaurant Angeralm (www.angeralm.at) whilst hiking at Berglehen, enjoying some of the best food and wine I’ve ever enjoyed in Austria, sitting outside on the sunny terrace. The river trout had been caught locally . Tiroler Grostl, a hearty dish of potatoes, onions, small chunks of potato, topped with a fried egg, arrived in a copper pan, enough for two sharing.
When she took over the family business, Annemarie Foidl , one of Austria’s top wine sommeliers was the youngest and first female owner of a restaurant in the country, “ I have the best of both worlds here”, she said, “ far from the maddening crowd, and I never tire of the stunning views or surprising guests who don’t expect fine dining up a mountain”. For further information on walking holidays in St Johann and other parts of the Tirol see www.uwalk.ie , www.kitzalps.com