In 1875 Prince Johannes II of Liechtenstein decided to visit Austria where he had a hunting estate. The event might have gone unnoticed had it not been for a meeting he had with members of a local Alpine Association.
They had become fascinated by a spectacular gorge (the deepest in Europe as it later turned out) that had been carved out over thousands of years since the ice age by the raging Großarl river. And after some of the more adventurous climbers from the Alpine Association had obtained a glimpse of the spectacular views within – they had determined to make it more accessible for everyone.
But they ran out of money – and in a last bid attempt to open it up to the world they petitioned the Prince for assistance. He was fascinated, and determined to see it in even more detail he made a donation of 600 guilders – a princely sum in those days – that allowed for a spectacular series of tunnels and walkways to be created that opened up Europe’s deepest river gorge to the world.
Since then 7 million people have visited the gorge, named the Lichtenstein gorge (or klamm in German) in honour of the generous donation from the Prince. The trip is always worth it – even the noise which is deafening pales in comparison to the raging torrent and spectacular plunging waterfalls for those who decide to make the journey.
And it’s one of the reasons why St Johann – just over half an hour’s drive from Salzburg in the province of the same name – is one of the top Austrian ski areas that has also managed to make the conversion every summer to also become a successful summer holiday destination.
The main tourist destination in the area is the Alpendorf – located on the side of a mountain like most things in Salzburg province, in the winter it is the main gateway to the Salzburger Sportwelt, where you can access 870 slopes and 270 modern ski lifts.
But the top-quality hotels and restaurants in Alpendorf stay open throughout the summer where they reinvent themselves for a wide variety of guests from athletic types keen to take part in cycling or hiking in the spectacular local scenery – or those keen to enjoy health and beauty spas – and more recently a whole range of family activities.
When I visited the Alpendorf at the weekend I opted to stay at the Alpina Wellness & Sporthotel – although it was only when I arrived that I realised it was also a member of the Austrian Kinderhotel group – an organisation that aims to make sure members offer top standards for child guests – but not at the expense of adults. The idea is that everyone should have a relaxing time although all of the Kinderhotels approach the challenge in different ways. At one extreme you have those with something akin to Disneyland and at the other end hotels like the Alpina where a multi-million pound refurbishment emphasises class and style at the same time as making youngsters feel welcome.
Signs of the Alpina’s skiing roots are clear to see if you arrive in the summer as I did – with empty ski racks and a closed ski shop – but other than that the hotel was a hive of activity.
Right outside the front door the cable car busied away taking guests up the 1,787 metre high Gernkogel peak and in front of that was huge adventure playground area that as well as the usual trampolines and climbing frames includes a train.
Dotted across the front of the hotel under the panorama restaurant the hotel again exhibited its younger guest credentials with a crazy golf course.
And although the hotel may have plenty to keep younger visitors busy a quick trip on the nearby cable car will bring guests to the newly opened ghost park that has ghost themed walks, including the haunted panorama towers, giant slides, the caves where the mythical krampus lives as well as air swings, shooting galleries, water games, mill wheels and so on – certainly enough for a few days adventures.
But if that all sounds too tiring, in-house there are permanent carers and dedicated playrooms packed with games for youngsters aged from a few weeks through to young teenagers – and while under their supervision there was plenty of other facilities for adults.
The swimming pool includes waterfalls, fountains and water massagers – attached to that is almost staggering variety of saunas and restrooms. Squash courts and fitness studios help justify the sport hotel part of the title – while the Asian beauty and spa buildup the hotels wellness reputation. The hotel has the added attraction of a doctor specialised in sports medicine – Franz Leberbauer is on hand to discuss how guests can get the most out of their own personal fitness goals and health objectives, not just to get fit but also to cope with injury or ill-health.
I also noted with interest that there are now 10 golf courses in the area – which might explain why both former Formula One ace Ralf Schumacher and legendary skier Hermann Meyer both live locally.
Although some of the children’s hotels have a tendency to look like enormous nurseries with so many prams, toys and cartoon characters on the walls that adults might feel out of place – at the Alpina the opposite is the reverse. The numerous opportunities for kids to enjoy themselves are discreetly blended in in a place that has a real five-star feel to it – from the restaurants through to the bars.
Bio products liven up the culinary offerings from the chefs cooking fresh omelettes every morning through to the waiters speeding to deliver impressive dishes from five course menu to the tables in the evening. And afterwards there is the open fire in the bar to relax by.
A good tip is a trip down to the wine cellar to make a personal selection that might end up being enjoyed the table next to Hans Krankl – a regular at the Alpina.
The hotel had just been reopened after some expensive refurbishment work by the owners of the family Schwarz to strengthen the Alpine flavour – not that anybody who glances to any one of the windows of the bar or restaurant is in any doubt that they are anywhere else other than at the heart of the Alps.
Apparently people have lived in the site since 2000 years BC and although they started out pretty rough in local caves – graduating up to Roman and Celtic settlements, it’s now the best it’s ever been. Even the local church has been there at least since 924 when it was first mentioned in official documents. Anybody interested in seeing why the area is attracted people for so long can book up to stay at the hotel or see the pictures of the region by clicking here: