A long weekend in one of my favourite places on the planet – St Anton in Austria, where wild flowers and pine trees cover the green hills, where the air is fresh and where the locals really like beer and potatoes. Heaven. We went hiking, tried yoga up in the mountains and took to the skies to paraglide over this alpine paradise.
But it turns out that this alpine gem is even lovelier in the summer. When our skiing girl gang (that’s Annie of Tales of Tales of Annie Bean, Sarah of Sequin This and Helen of the Manchester Evening Post) arrived, all world weary and teary from the Brexit announcement, St Anton was an immediate and effective tonic. The streets were fresh from recent rain, the enticing hills rose up all around, and a music festival was taking place, with locals in lederhosen and beautiful dirndl dresses playing traditional folk songs in every cafe and bar. Prost!
There was more food for the soul the next morning. We took the chair lift up to the mountains I’d been gazing at hungrily the day before. It felt oddly light and free to sit on a ski lift without skis on, and it was a beautiful way to look down on the thick pine forests and remote wooden cabins, cows grazing on grass where I’d only ever seen pristine pistes. Whilst the locals might all be mad-keen skiiers they make sure they keep fit in the summer too, hiking, mountain biking, and increasingly, practising yoga. The first Mountain Yoga Festival will be held here from the 1st of September, and we got a taste of what a wonderful place St Anton will be for a sun salute with instructor Sandy Duncan. After class we unrolled our mats outside on a wooden platform looking across at the mountains, shrouded in a thick mist. Check our moves out in this video introducing the festival.
After exploring St Anton’s wide open spaces I wanted to get in amongst the forest. One of the easiest ways to take to the mountain roads in the area is on one of the sturdy electric bikes which can be rented in town (or grab the St Anton Summer Card, which includes free activities such as cycling and hiking as well as free use of the chair lifts). They make the tortuous hill climbs easier and leave you free to explore much more of the woods, which are like living inside a Heidi illustration – fragrant pines and duck-egg blue lakes, roaring rivers and bright alpine flowers. It rained a lot during our ride but that didn’t stand in the way of our plucky band of cycling ladies.
St Anton isn’t just the perfect place to get active – it’s steeped in history, too, with a lovely museum chalet dedicated to its past as the ‘cradle of alpine skiing’, back in the days when ladies would wear huge wooden skis and a billowing woolly skirt to careen down the pistes in. And the old traditions are strong in St Anton today – we were all fascinated by the local ladies in their beautiful dirndl dresses, an essential part of an Austrian’s wardrobe. The wonderful Wilma, our adopted mama for the weekend, had a surprise for us – she’d brought four of her beautiful dirndls for us to wear. An amazing idea, except for the fact that Wilma is on the petite side. We withdrew to the hotel’s gorgeous medieval sitting room and attempted it – first a blouse, then a tight corset buttoned up the front, then an apron, tied in certain ways according to your marital status. It was the funniest thing I have ever tried to put on, mainly because poor Helen had been given the tiniest of the corsets and had to lie on the floor and gasp for air whilst we tried to button her up, shaking with laughter. Girl bonding, eh?
The next morning we swapped fineries for waterproofs and went hiking in the foothills. Up close, the landscape was teeming with small wonders – we spotted a shiny salamander, black as liquorice, tiny forget me nots and white edelweiss and learnt to recognise medicinal plants used locally to make soothing syrups and muscle rubs. And after our walk we retired to a mountain hut to eat giant portions of Tiroler gröstl (potato, bacon and fried egg hash, aka heaven) with lashings of hot coffee, looking out over the hills.
The best view of St Anton was still to come. We headed up to the high mountains, where snow still lay in furrows on the ground to meet the paragliding guys from Flight Connections Arlberg. They strapped us expertly into parachutes and with very little ado we we trotted off the edge of a cliff and, magically, got instantly caught by the wind and floated high above the white peaks, the forests and tiny St Anton itself, like a wooden toy town below. Paragliding is one of the most addictive adrenaline rushes I’ve ever experienced – this must be a what it feels like to fly.
HOTEL SCHWARZER ADLER
We stayed at the Hotel Schwarzer Adler. Traditional and totally sweet, rooms were comfortably old-fashioned and the totally modern spa was heaven, with an outdoor sky pool to float in above St Anton after a day hiking in the sunshine. The staff were all utterly lovely – they let us stuff our faces with cake at tea time and didn’t even laugh at us running around in dirndls. And the restaurant is worth seeking out even if you’re staying elsewhere – they serve up delicious, carefully prepared local fare in their cosy restaurant. Rooms £76 per person per night on half board.