Family winter breaks in the mountains can be physically challenging but rejuvenating – there’s something about the combination of exercise, pristine mountain air and awesome scenery that leaves you well rested and ready to face the world. So why not try it in summer, too?
We’re keen on winter sports, but swapped skis for mountain bikes, hiking boots and wetsuits to discover that the Austrian Alps can be a fun-filled playground in summer.
The medieval town of Kitzbuhel is a fashionable ski resort in winter, just 70 miles from Salzburg. In summer, the drive from the airport takes you through a wide, lush green valley dotted with farmsteads so well-manicured it is hard to imagine any agriculture taking place there at all.
The peaks near the medieval town of Kitzbuhel, a fashionable ski resort in winter
It was a bright sunny day when we arrived, but even at 80F the breezy Tyrolean climate was a welcome relief from the cloying heatwave we endured in Britain last year – just as well as an action-packed week lay ahead of us.
Our hotel, the Schloss Lebenberg, was atop a steep hill overlooking Kitzbuhel’s pastelcoloured houses and ornate churches. It began life as a castle 400 years ago but now has 150 modern rooms.
We stayed in the Maisonette Suite, one of the hotel’s splitlevel family rooms. The boys, Thomas, 13, and Jack, 11, had their own huge space and patio doors opened on to a sunny terrace overlooking pine trees.
The hotel’s USP is its spectacular 150ft indoor rooftop swimming pool with floor-toceiling windows providing breathtaking views of the town and Alps. Screened off from the pool is an adults-only spa with king-size loungers, two steam rooms, an infrared cabin and a tiled room for rubbing handfuls of crushed ice into your skin. If there was a ‘best sauna in the world’ competition, the Lebenberg’s would get my vote.
That kind of indulgence is even better when you feel you’ve earned it, and we did. The first activity on our agenda was mountain-biking, organised in advance by Inghams, our host for the week. Superfit cyclists can make their way up steep routes to high altitude and experience the thrill of hurtling down treacherous-looking tracks on the descent. Electric bikes are available to ease your passage up the mountain and you can even take a bike on the chairlifts and cable cars that ferry skiers in winter.
As a family of mixed ability we decided to avoid mountain trails and explore the countryside around Kitzbuhel. Our 25-mile circular route started in town but, within minutes, we were pedalling through meadows and shady forests. Don’t miss the Hinteroberau farm museum (£7 for a family tour) which is a perfect pitstop.
Bliss: Guests admire the view from the pool at the Schloss Lebenberg
There are enough challenging hills to make you feel deserving of lunch – which we stopped for at the wonderful Hotel Seebichl.
The outside of its restaurant is decorated with hanging flowers, and here we enjoyed hearty mountain food to see us through the last leg of the ride.
Next came canyoning – the activity most excitedly anticipated by the boys. It involves jumping, abseiling, squeezing, sliding and climbing through a gorge carved out by an ice-cold raging river. It looks terrifyingly dangerous but our acrobatic guides assured us we’d be safe in their hands. Thick wetsuits are provided to insulate you from the freezing water.
Once we’d abseiled down into the ravine, the deafening roar of a waterfall made sign language the only form of communication.
We then faced our first daunting challenge – leaping from a 20ft ledge overhanging a deep pool, and so close to the rock face opposite it was impossible to know what lay below – you just had to step into a void.
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I watched with pride as Thomas, who had volunteered to go first, leapt off without hesitation. When it came to my turn, I needed stern words of encouragement from the guide who later told me my knees were knocking. That was the hard bit – the next three hours were an adrenalin-pumping adventure.
Wetsuits were supplied the next day, too, for white water rafting on the Tiroler Ache river. The rapids were powerful enough to set the heart racing as we crashed through them, furiously paddling when the guide shouted his orders. Hiking was for the last day and, with children demanding action-packed activities, it could have been testing – at some point most will irritatingly enquire: ‘What’s the pointof this?’
Telling them ‘It’s fun’ just won’t wash, so it is important to pick your route carefully – the promise of a delicious meal at the end of a climb always helps.
We hiked up to the Sintersbacher waterfall at Jochberg. Steep in places, the walk passes through a forested river valley where sturdy wooden bridges criss-cross the river and there are icy pools deep enough to take a refreshing dip in.
The isolated Wildalm refuge was where we had a relaxing lunch. Milk from a goat tethered on a grassy knoll helped create the most delicate cheese salad I have ever eaten.
The circular hike took around five hours and we were all pleasantly aching by the end of it. What bliss to be soothed back to life by the pool and sauna at the hotel.
Inghams offers seven nights at the four-star Romantik Hotel Castello Seeschloss in Ascona, Switzerland, from £1,169pp based on two sharing, including flights and rail transfers. Visit inghams.co.uk for more information.