PEAK LUXURY High culture in the Bavarian Alps
At Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, the unique cultural activities are as impressive as the inspiring landscape
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