PEAK LUX­URY High cul­ture in the Bavar­ian Alps

At Schloss El­mau in Bavaria, the unique cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties are as impressive as the in­spir­ing land­scape

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - By LY­DIA SLATER

Af­ter about an hour’s stiff climb through the dark­en­ing pine woods, we emerged onto an Alpine meadow as smooth and white as a wed­ding cake. On the far side stood a com­pact wooden chalet, its red-cur­tained win­dows glow­ing in the twi­light, promis­ing rest, warmth and a cup of heisse Schoko­lade mit Sch­lagsahne (hot choco­late with cream). That was when my hus­band re­mem­bered he’d left his wal­let be­hind.

Un­able to face the howls of protest em­a­nat­ing from our two thor­oughly chilled off­spring, we stum­bled hope­lessly through the knee-deep snow to throw our­selves on the innkeeper’s gen­eros­ity.

‘No money? We’ll just put it on your room bill,’ said the jolly, felt-waist­coated land­lord. De­spite our lengthy trek, we were still in the grounds of Schloss El­mau… We grate­fully sipped the hot choco­late as the sun went down, then, rein­vig­o­rated, hitched a lift on a cou­ple of to­bog­gans and slid home singing.

It struck me sub­se­quently that this episode was an en­cap­su­la­tion of the Schloss’ en­tire ap­proach. While of­fer­ing all the luxuries you would ex­pect from a Lead­ing Ho­tel of the World – in­clud­ing six restau­rants, one Miche­lin-starred, and four dif­fer­ent spas – there is a hearti­ness to hol­i­day­ing here, a feel­ing that in­dul­gences are more en­joy­able when they are earned.

You could, the­o­ret­i­cally, lie by the pool with a cock­tail all day; but most guests are here for a

com­bi­na­tion of brac­ing out­door sport (the bet­ter to in­hale the sparkling moun­tain air) and men­tally stim­u­lat­ing evenings of mu­sic recitals or lit­er­ary and po­lit­i­cal sem­i­nars. The kids’ club is sim­i­larly in­tel­lec­tu­ally de­mand­ing, pro­vid­ing les­sons in cod­ing, lit­er­a­ture, chess, sci­ence and art. One night, we all at­tended a mod­ern-jazz per­for­mance in the crowded con­cert hall that brought tears to my eyes; we went to the li­brary, we took Pi­lates classes, we played board games, we browsed the shelves of the largest ho­tel book­shop in the world. Other es­tab­lish­ments leave rose petals on the pil­lows, but here, we were given beau­ti­ful sets of Caran d’Ache pen­cils to ex­press our­selves.

This phi­los­o­phy of self-im­prove­ment harks back to the ho­tel’s orig­i­nal foun­da­tion. Schloss El­mau stands in the foothills of the Bavar­ian Alps, at the south­ern­most tip of Ger­many. An im­pos­ing struc­ture re­sem­bling a cream-painted monastery with a large green-roofed tur­ret, it was built dur­ing World War I by Jo­hannes Müller, a the­olo­gian who wanted to set up a re­treat for per­sonal free­dom and com­mu­nity. His be­lief was that the grandeur of the scenery, al­lied to clas­si­cal mu­sic, danc­ing, lec­tures and en­forced neigh­bourli­ness, would al­low guests to free them­selves from their egos and be­come more re­cep­tive to the di­vine. Per­haps this was why it was the cho­sen lo­ca­tion for 2015’s G7 con­fer­ence. (The legacy of that visit could still be seen as we drove there in the softly fall­ing snow from Inns­bruck; ev­ery man­hole cover out­lined in spray paint to in­di­cate it had been checked for ex­plo­sives.)

‘I bet Obama had this room,’ ex­claimed our 12-year-old daugh­ter as we en­tered the suite. It was in­deed pres­i­den­tial, with floor-to­ceil­ing win­dows on three sides of the vast mas­ter bed­room that over­looked a wooded val­ley, a rush­ing stream, and the snow-clad moun­tain range be­yond. What re­ally en­chanted the chil­dren, how­ever, was the fully au­to­mated loo that po­litely lifted its lid as you en­tered the room, of­fered a heated seat, and had hot and cold sprays and a mas­sage func­tion. They spent half an hour press­ing its but­tons un­til we lured them away with the novel prom­ise of an out­door swim in a snow­storm. Don­ning our swim­suits, we emerged ten­ta­tively into the night, winc­ing as the icy flakes landed on our arms and faces, while our bod­ies re­mained warm and glow­ing in the steam­ing wa­ter – a glo­ri­ous sen­sory mix-up of heat and ex­treme cold.

This plea­sure/pain prin­ci­ple was main­tained the fol­low­ing day, when my hus­band and I, hav­ing dis­patched our chil­dren to the ski slopes, de­scended to the largest ham­mam this side of Is­tan­bul for a Turk­ish bath. We were wrapped in sheets and in­vited to douse each other with scoops of hot wa­ter; then we lay prone on a heated mar­ble slab while the grime of Lon­don was pol­ished ruth­lessly from our bod­ies, our tin­gling skins en­veloped in vast clouds of foamy soap. The fin­ish­ing touch was an al­co­hol rub to close up the pores, while we re­cov­ered with cups of ap­ple tea and su­gar-dusted Turk­ish de­light.

Af­ter an enor­mous pasta lunch (there is noth­ing self-deny­ing about the meals at the Schloss), the ac­tiv­i­ties re­sumed. We spent a cou­ple of hours to­bog­gan­ing down the hill out­side the ho­tel and helped to con­struct an igloo from gi­ant blocks of snow. Then the chil­dren re­tired to the sit­ting-room for slices of home-made cherry cake by the fire, while we set off for a ses­sion of cross-coun­try skiing through the woods of the es­tate, coached by Hans, a for­mer army ski in­struc­tor. For two hours, Hans chivvied us up hills and down slopes, clap­ping his hands and shout­ing ‘Ja! Ja! Ja!’ to en­cour­age our ef­forts. ‘Now you have earned your din­ner!’ he ex­claimed de­light­edly, as, limbs trem­bling, we reached the end of the last track. We set off up the fi­nal hill to­wards the bright lights of the Schloss, driven on by the prom­ise of rest, warmth and kirsch-laced cheese fon­due, aglow with an agree­able in­ter­nal con­vic­tion that our few days in the moun­tains had been more than just good fun. We had some­how be­come health­ier, wiser, bet­ter and no­bler as a re­sult… Jo­hannes Müller would have un­der­stood.

Schloss El­mau Lux­ury Spa Re­treat & Cul­tural Hide­away (+49 088 231 8170; www.schloss-el­mau.de), from about £370 a room a night.

We sipped hot choco­late as the sun went down,

then hitched a lift on a cou­ple

of to­bog­gans

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