I have a complicated relationship with Austria. To me, it is not just a country of beautiful scenery and the finest of cakes. It is also the place where my father was born, and which forced him and my grandparents to leave.
My dad was born in Vienna in 1937. His father was taken away after the Anschluss (annexation) in 1938 and spent more than a year in Dachau concentration camp. He was extremely fortunate to be released before the start of the Second World War, and with my grandmother and baby father, managed to get to England in August 1939. Many of my father’s relatives were not so lucky.
This brief history may help you see why for me, Austria is far more than a tourist destination. It may also explain why I was so intrigued by the possibility of going to visit this tiny country as a holiday-maker.
The region I visited, the Wilder Kaiser, is a mountain range in the Tirol. It is best known for being a ski resort, but as it offers over 700km of signed hiking trails, over 400km of mountain bike routes, cable cars, six mountain adventure parks and numerous mountain huts and inns, it seems a waste not to enjoy it during the rest of the year. And of course there is the spectacular scenery.
I visited with my eight-year-old son, Robert, and we had a wonderful time although I did, at times, feel a little strange, a sensation I also experienced when I visited Vienna a few years ago. I think this is because Austria is such a very, very beautiful country, but with such a dark recent history. On this visit, I was struck by the fact that when I said my father was Austrian-born (I have an Austrian surname), only one person asked me for more details. In Vienna, people were far more interested.
The problem with family holidays is that they can often be too similar – full of beaches, chips and ice-cream. This is not an issue in the Wilder Kaiser. You can enjoy a holiday full of utterly stunning scenery, fresh air, and authentic cuisine — from schnitzel (not usually with noodles, I’m afraid) to Kaiser-schmarren (chopped pancakes).
We stayed in the Hotel Alpin in Scheffau, around an hour from Innsbruck airport. This is a lovely place for families, offering a kids club, table tennis, fields to play in, and a swimming pool. It also has family rooms and includes buffet meals, perfect for children who are independent enough to want to choose what they eat (and easy for parents of any age, as it means you only take what you think your child will enjoy).
If you like walking and fresh air, then you will find the entire region delightful and may also be surprised by just how much there is to do. As the parent of a rather screen-obsessed child, I was thrilled by how physical everything was, how outdoorsy and fun. Robert walked and walked and never complained.
The region offers a free hiking bus, the Kaiserjet, which makes it easy to get around. Be warned, however, that as you’re not in the UK, buses arrive when they are supposed to and leave shortly after. This means you need to check the timetable and be punctual! There wasn’t time to visit everywhere the Kaiserjet could have taken us, but we saw some real highlights.
One of these was at Hexenwasser Soll. Hexenwasser means “witches water” and it’s a kind of outdoor activity centre, with more than 60 “stations”. Robert particularly enjoyed making his own beeswax candle, creating music with drops of water and walking in the streams over rocks and stones (this is supposed to be done with shoes off via a barefoot reflexology trail, but trust me, it wasn’t quite the weather!). We also both enjoyed a really wonderful Austrian breakfast with homemade bread, jams and green eggs (yes, really) at the Grundlalm, half way up the mountain.
The KaiserWelt Scheffau activity park is another excellent place for children. It offers a climbing wall and zip wires as well as some great wooden castles and aeroplanes. It’s high up with excellent views, so if you don’t want to enjoy the playground side of it, you can have a walk around.
And if you are more of a walker than a zip wire-r (like me), then you may enjoy the Kneipp experience. I loved it, especially as we had a brilliant guide.
The Kneipp philosophy was founded by a Bavarian priest, Sebastian Kneipp in the 19th century. It’s all to do with walking barefoot and using cold and hot water to bring you back to good health. It’s something I would really love to do again, especially as I have a long-term foot problem and am always looking for things which may help. However, I admit that I was loath to put my bare feet in the sticky looking mud.
Our favourite place was Ellmi’s Zauberwelt (or Magic World) on the Hartkaiser mountain, and which we reached by a funicular railway. It is a huge outdoor park with a magnificent children’s playground, water pump and water jet (both of which my son adored), trampolines, maze, pirate ship, treetop walk and more. It’s the kind of place where you can spend an entire day, and the most fantastic part about is that it all takes place outside and in front of the most fabulous panorama.
Our only gripe about our trip was that it was tricky in Austria (as in much of Eastern Europe) to be a vegetarian, especially if you don’t want to eat too much cheese. The weather also wasn’t brilliant, but that’s often true of the UK. When the sun shone, it was spectacular.
I cannot pretend that my personal circumstances stopped me from enjoying this holiday, although they probably put the experience in a different context to my fellow travellers. But my son and I still found it a superb, and out-of-the-ordinary, place for a family trip and would recommend it wholeheartedly.
Sarah Ebner and her son were guests of Crystal Holidays.
The Wilder Kaiser region in the Austrian Tirol is made up of four villages, Going, Ellmau, Scheffau and Söll.
Crystal Summer (www.crystalsummer.co.uk; 0871 231 2256) offers 7 nights half board, packed lunch, afternoon tea and cakes, unlimited drinks and children’s ice cream buffet at the 4* Hotel Alpin in Scheffau from £2,113 for a family of four. Price includes flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and resort transfers. Regional airports are available at a supplement from £20.
Also included in the price is ‘Bobo Club’ for children from 3 years with activities, Sunday-Friday · outdoor children’s play area with football pitch, trampolines, table tennis and climbing area (unsupervised), a small petting zoo area with goats and rabbits. The hotel has a heated indoor pool, sauna and steam room, bar/lounge with open fire place and WiFi throughout the hotel.