Forget about ducks in sailor suits and red bow ties, mice with bright red shorts and big yellow shoes, and cities made from plastic building bricks. In the SkiWelt you can make water jump out of a huge copper bowl, sail on a snowmaking lake, meet a witch, measure your jumping skills against a kangaroo, and learn how to cook dumplings.
The SkiWelt is the name for the nine villages that share 700km of hiking paths and 400km of mountain bike routes. The area has an amazing 76 restaurants and bars, of which 50 are open in summer. Not forgetting the ski season when the craggy Wilder Kaiser mountains boast 280km of piste and 90 modern lifts.
Wherever you choose to stay in the area, you can get up the mountain on a choice of a dozen gondolas that operate in summer as well as in winter. From May to October mountain bikes are transported free of charge and we found much the best way to explore the area was in the saddle.
Up the mountain in summer, we felt like we were in another world to that of the valley villages below. There’s a buzzing hive of activity here, from cows grazing and children running around, to couples and families mountain biking, paragliding, swimming, sunbathing and walking their dogs.
For during the summer months the SkiWelt has six theme parks, connected by walking and cycling paths, and reached by gondola. What makes these parks unusual is that there is not a scrap of brightly coloured plastic to be seen, nor a ubiquitous cartoon character in sight.
The ‘rides’ have been carved out of local wood and cleverly melded together with metal, looking completely natural and in keeping with their mountain surroundings. Children can leave their iPad or tablet at home and plunge themselves into nature whilst learning about local animals and the environment.
This is the biggest natural playground in the Alps, and it’s free of charge provided you buy a lift pass. But first of all, start with breakfast on the mountain on the (hopefully) sunny terraces of a choice of 23 different restaurants.
Here is a guide to what you can expect:
Filzalmsee is at Hochbrixen, reached by gondola from Brixen-im-Thale. It comes complete with Moor mud paddling pools, trampolines, sandpits, wigwams and a themed forest walk. There’s a signposted walking/cycling path from here to Hexenwasser, and another to Ellmi’s Zauberwelt – two of the other theme parks. You can also walk up to Jochstubensee (see KaiserWelt, below).
Eat: Frankalm, Brantlalm, Filzalm, SkiWelt Hütte.
Hexenwasser is at Hochsöll, reached by gondola from Hopfgarten and Söll, and here kids (and adults) can get really wet and dirty at any of 60 ‘stations’ – all of them are natural experiences, including wading through squelching moor mud. Others include dipping tired feet into a bath of cooling shale oil, walking shoeless over rocks and stones, through streams and meadows on a barefoot trail – it’s natural reflexology for your whole body.
At Simonalm mountain hut you can learn to make your own Tirolean specialities, such as Brodakrapfen (hot dampers filled with fresh cheese) and Daumnidei (potato dumplings), on the wood-burning stove as part of a two-hour lesson for both adults and children. Tuck into them with a glass of fresh milk, courtesy of the cows just outside the door. You can also visit an apiary and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see a witch complete with broomstick who’ll entertain the children on the piste.
Eat: Gründlalm, Stöckalm and four other mountain restaurants.
Stay: Söll is where to base yourself if you want a lively atmosphere. Hotel Eggerwirt is a comfortable family-run place to stay in the centre, with a small outdoor swimming-pool. Neighbouring Going is where to base yourself for luxury living.
The lovely Bio-Hotel Stanglwirt is the focal point in Going, and it was here that we ate the best Kaiserschmarrn in the area (along with delicious local trout cooked in the traditional miller’s style). The spa is sensational – truly one of the best we have encountered in the Alps, with myriad indoor and outdoor rock pools, a dazzling choice of treatments (including sports psychology), grottos, saunas, and steam baths. There’s also a children’s spa that includes a timed water slide.
But this is not just a luxury hotel with great restaurant and spa: the hotel also has a stud, a real boxing ring, a tennis centre, on-site driving range, and children’s farm. From the reception you can watch white Lipizzaner horses perform through a glass wall, you can visit them in their stalls, or even take a riding lesson.
Ellmi’s Zauberwelt is reached on a state-of-the-art gondola from Ellmau. The theme here is goblins and ghosts and there’s a wizard’s trail that passes a wooden tower, a wooden ship to climb on, water features (you can learn how a dam works, for example), and a small climbing park.
Eat: Wochenbrunner Alm, Jaegerhütte, Panorama Restaurant.
Stay: at the AktivHotel Hochfilzer in Ellmau, which is the biggest of the villages, with the best choice of shops, bars and restaurants. The hotel is well-located on the high street, has an indoor swimming-pool and some of the bedrooms even have four-poster beds.
KaiserWelt is reached by gondola from Scheffau. Here children can try trampolines, slides, climbing frames and swings – all made from natural materials. There’s also a wooden castle with KaiserWald behind it – a trail through the woods here involves zip wires, more swings and trampolines. Higher up the mountain you can sail on the Jochstub’nsee mountain lake from where, during the winter, water is pumped into snow-cannons. Weekly sailing trips with by an experienced captain take place here.
Eat: Bergrestaurant Brandstadl, Tanzbodenalm and two other choices.
Stay: Scheffau is the quieter village set back on the other side of the valley, but it has a direct gondola up to the theme park and is convenient for a day of swimming and sunbathing at the gorgeous Hinteralm See. The lake is so clean that it is said to be of mineral water quality! The choice of places to stay includes Hotel Kaiser in Tirol.
Alpinolino is at the top of two gondolas from the pretty village of Westendorf. At the animal-themed park kids can see how they measure up to animals. Can you leap like a hare or run like a cat?
There are nine lakes in the area, with the most beautiful being the Kreuzjochlsee, which is also reached from the top of the Westendorf gondola. This summer it has been out of use, since it’s being doubled in size in time for the winter when the lakes produce water for snowmaking. In summer, the same lakes have shallow shores so you can paddle and get in and out of them with ease.
Eat: Choose one of the family-owned mountain restaurants such as Berggasthof Sonn-alm above Westendorf.
Stay: Westendorf is the place to stay if you want a typically Tirolean village atmosphere. There are lots of choices here; including Vital Hotel Schermer which is a family-run establishment with a pleasant bar, a restaurant serving delicious cuisine, and a spa complete with swimming-pool.