St. Anton is known as the birthplace of alpine skiing, but just over the Arlberg massif in Vorarlberg, summertime is still a largely undiscovered treasure.
Fly to Zurich and it’s an easy and scenic train ride to get to Austria’s westernmost province, bordered by Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
1. Immerse yourself in nature
Hiking is the obvious sport of choice and with gondolas in the area operating all summer, breathtaking views are just around the corner for hikers of all ages and abilities. Mountain biking is also quite popular.
In Lech, purchase a Lech Card for access to all the local public transportation, including the Rüfikopf and Lech-Oberlech gondolas. The village also offers complimentary guided hikes, like a scenic five-hour hike to the Körbersee and a herbal hike with herbalist Veronika Walch to discover the wealth of medicinal herbs on the mountainside. Walch also offers herbal cooking classes and workshops for making beauty products from these healing plants.
Trails are well-marked so feel free to hike or mountain bike on your own too. There are so many gemütlich Alpine huts along the way to stop for kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake) or Bergkäse, a special Alpine cheese that is only produced for a couple of months in the summer from raw cow’s milk. The cow’s milk is the best at this time because they are grazing on mountain grass and herbs.
Kriegeralpe is a favourite for their cheese, produced in tiny quantities by cheesemaker Karl from just 11 cows. They offer weekly kässpätzle cooking classes too.
In Bregenzerwald, a selection of self-guided culinary hikes is a great way to spend a day in nature with stops for breakfast, lunch and dessert along the way. When you’ve walked 20,000 steps and climbed nearly 100 flights according to Fitbit, you’re allowed to have your cake, and eat it too. The Käsespätzle topped with fried onions at Jagdgasthaus Egender on the Bezau-Schönenbach hike is especially satisfying.
2. Watch opera on Lake Constance
Each summer since 1946, the Bregenz Festival has been the premier summer event in Vorarlberg. The inaugural performance, just one year after World War II ended, staged Mozart’s “Bastien und Bastienne” on two barges. Today, the weeklong festival has expanded to an entire month, and the floating stage constructions have become ever more elaborate and impressive.
The festival regularly stages world premieres along with inventive twists on traditional classics like “Carmen” by Georges Bizet. The “Carmen” set took four years to construct and the moving sculpture with its use of video projections is far more like a pop concert stage than typical opera. Large hands with chipped nail polish reach out of the lake, framing a deck of playing cards strewn above and in the water, shapeshifting throughout the show with video projections.
The acoustics are incredible and the performance more spirited than a typical opera. Bregenz Festival draws more than a quarter million attendees each year.
3. The most luxurious hotels are affordable
Summer hotel rates in all the Vorarlberg ski towns are about half of what they would be in winter, and rooms are nearly always available, even for last minute getaways.
Within Vorarlberg, Lech is truly unique, since building secondary homes has been forbidden by law for the past 30 years, allowing the hotel industry to flourish.
All hotels are family-owned and nowhere will you find this concentration of five-star ski hotels in Europe outside of Courchevel. The population increases tenfold from a mere 1,500 year-round residents during the peak winter season. In contrast, summertime is far more relaxed.
Hotel Gasthof Post Lech is a personal favourite, not only for its Relais & Chateaux affiliation, or the lovely spa, but for the Moosbrugger family’s warmth and kindness. Hospitality runs in their veins and their passion for service is imbued in all their staff, who are quick to anticipate needs.
The decor at Gasthof Post is very much traditional hunting lodge, with solid oak floors and beautiful arolla pine ceilings and panelling. I’m told the pine keeps bugs away and helps you sleep, which I certainly believe after spending a few peaceful nights.
By contrast, Hotel Das Schiff in Hittisau uses the same spruce, fir and pine wood in a minimalist and modern manner. Guest rooms have clean lines, bare walls, balconies and plenty of storage space, showcasing the design work of Bregenzerwald’s local craftsmen and artisans.
Like the Moosbruggers in Lech, the Metzler family is equally dedicated to making every guest happy, assisting with reservations, suggesting activities and getting to know every guest. Half-board includes a lovely five-course dinner each evening in addition to a generous breakfast buffet with a dozen kinds of local cheese.
4. Relax at the spa
Alpine spa culture is pretty wonderful and a great way to unwind after long hikes and bike rides. Many of the five-star properties have beautiful facilities from Hotel Burg Vital’s Ayurvedic-inspired spa, the perfumery and pools at Hotel Gasthof Post Lech.
Enjoy the Finnish sauna before the Lecher body stamp massage at Gasthof Post. Warm herbal compresses made from local herbs are used to detoxify the body, similar to a Thai poultice massage, but with an earthy mix of Alpine medicinal herbs.
In Bregenzerwald, Metzler Molke has been producing skincare and cosmetics products from whey for nearly 30-years and now makes many private label products too, including for Susanne Kaufmann, another local Vorarlberger with a spa resort in Bezau.
Molke began as a cheesemaking business four generations ago, and started making soaps and shampoo from the leftover whey for family and friends. Now, the cosmetics business is far larger than their cheese business, although their goat and cow’s milk cheeses are fantastic.
Their products are carried as bath amenities in many local hotels, including Hotel Das Schiff, where they also offer gentle and relaxing facial treatments with Molke’s natural products at the spa. Afterwards, spend time in several different saunas, a herbal steam bath and an outdoor pool.
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5. Discover local contemporary art + architecture
The newest work of public art here is Skyspace Lech, a light installation by James Turrell.
Nearby Bregenzerwald is famous for its contemporary architecture and traditional craftsmanship, as evidenced driving through the small villages that make up this region. Tiny Krumbach has some of the coolest bus stops I’ve ever seen, designed by various international architects.
Visit Werkraum Bregenzerwald in Andelsbuch to connect with local artisans. The space is best described as a modern salon; it’s part museum, showroom, boutique and cafe, and an inspiring discussion around contemporary art and design. Special exhibitions rotate throughout the year.
6. Eat like a Konig
Hearty Austrian classics like topfentorte and käsespätzle, and rindfleischsulz are not to be missed, but there are also many more sophisticated dining options. There’s no Michelin guide here, so unlike many parts of Europe, it’s a little harder to sniff out the best fine dining, but in Lech two restaurants stand above the rest.
Griggeler Stuba has just five tables and represents Alpine omakase at its finest. Chef Thorsten Probost is the Dan Barber of the Alps, with a special affinity for herbs. He grows a hundred different herbs from around the world on Burg Vital’s terrace garden and forages for more in the surrounding mountains, often consulting with Walch.
A caprese salad-inspired amuse bouche features three different kinds of basil, along with heirloom tomatoes and the first Austrian buffalo mozzarella. Food here is clean and pure, using the finest local ingredients from Vorarlberg.
Seafood often comes from Lake Constance, including crayfish served with shaved cucumber, fennel and rich caraway tomato stock. Burbot fillet is served with its liver (more delicate than monkfish liver I’ve tasted) over a bed of wild spinach and mint ice cream is so generously flecked with mint from the garden that they resemble green chocolate chips.
In neighbouring Zug, 30-year-old Chef Max Natmessnig returned home to Austria after cooking at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and he’s running the show at a similar 18-seat kitchen table concept surrounding a posh open kitchen in a centuries-old school house at the Rote Wand hotel in Zug.
The 19-course meal begins with a flurry of one-bite finger food snacks, each a wild burst of flavour, and I can hear Walch whispering in my ear –“Plants here have a lot of energy and intense colour and flavour because the time of vegetation is so short.”
The meal crescendoes with the main dish of rare Montafon Steinschaf (stone sheep) served three ways with umeboshi sour plum and chard, an example of Natmessnig’s cosmopolitan approach to local delicacies. Wild strawberries baked in the oven and served with yoghurt ice cream are the perfect sweet note to finish.