Sometimes no stars and no fuss make for a more comfortable and relaxed stay, writes Robert Pimm
Financial Times, January 21 2006
Lech, Austria – Photo: Robert Pimm
Nick sips the wine and wrinkles his nose. “It’s corked,” he says.
“No it isn’t,” the waiter says.
Our children watch, fascinated. “I’d like a different bottle,” Nick says.
“That will taste the same.”
“Only if it’s corked, too.”
The waiter sighs. Then he picks the bottle up and leaves without a word.
“This is meant to be a four-star hotel,” Nick says to me. “What happened to ‘The customer is always right?’ ”
Skiing holidays are a tempting time to splurge on a pricey hotel. You’re only staying a few nights, and who goes skiing to save money? But paying mountainous prices doesn’t guarantee peak performance. Hotel room rates are governed by what most people want. If your tastes deviate from the norm, you may find you actually get more by paying less.
My doubts about the relationship between price and pleasure were stoked by a stay in the Pension Waldhof, in Ramsau am Dachstein, south of Salzburg. This is an establishment so modest that its website boasts no stars at all. The core of the picturesque wooden structure dates from 1670. Little seems to have changed since then. To reach the dining room you must stoop beneath ancient lintels and walk through the kitchen, where dirndl-clad women sit by an ancient range peeling mountains of apples for the Waldhof’s famous home-made apple strudel.
The woodwork is a masterpiece of antique carpentry. A blackboard outside advertises simple, solid Austrian fare. The bedrooms are airy and spacious – in part because the owners have not rebuilt the place to give each room an en-suite bathroom.
“A lot of visitors like it that nothing changes here,” says Helga Moser, a long-time member of the Waldhof staff. “The recipe for the apple strudel has been the same for 40 years. Children don’t have to keep quiet all the time: there’s no pressure to be on your best behaviour. We don’t try to be modern. But we’re not against change: we have introduced some vegetarian dishes.”
The other thing which never changes at the Waldhof is the view. Behind rises the Dachstein massif, with its lofty peaks and year-round skiing. Across the valley, the great wall of the Niedertauern Alps marches westwards. The meadow outside the front door is dotted with wooden picnic tables where, weather permitting, you can drink hot chocolate as you munch that strudel.
If splendid views and mouth-watering puddings are your thing, it’s impossible to imagine a more perfect combination. Yet the best room at the Waldhof costs only €38 per person per night in peak season, including breakfast. A three-course evening meal is €7 extra.
There are cosy gems in classy resorts, too. Susannah Hatzmann runs the Pension Waldesruh in Lech. “We have a lot of regular guests,” she says. “One man’s been coming here for 45 years. They like it because it’s friendly and snug (gemütlich). If they want luxury, or a spa, they go elsewhere.”
The Waldesruh also happens to be the most convenient accommodation for the main Lech ski lifts. Best of all, after a hard day’s skiing you can walk in the door and up to your room with no need to interact either with staff or with any of the maximum 11 other guests.
Modest establishments also offer surprises. At another two-star Austrian pension, my daughter Anna comes in to tell me she’s met Claudia, the owner, skinning a deer in the back yard. We go outside to watch. As Claudia works, she talks. She explains how she’ll wait up to 45 minutes after seeing a deer to make sure her shot is on target; how she aims to hit broadside on, for the best chance of striking the heart (“I know it sounds silly but you don’t want the animal to suffer”); and how she prepares the different parts of the body for consumption or display. This brief insight into another world is one of the most memorable events of our holiday.
There’s no risk of seeing a deer skinned at the Tannbergerhof, founded in 1924 and now one of Lech’s grand old four-star hotels. From the moment you arrive you’re in a comfortable cocoon of deep pile. Everywhere you turn, someone in a uniform is standing there. Service standards are high, if inflexible: as we eat our four-course gourmet set dinner (children: “too fancy”) the waitress refuses to serve the next course until every person at the table has finished the previous one. And it’s hard to send wine back. But there’s every modern convenience, from Royal Lakshmi face treatments in the Ayurveda centre to beauty pageants in the basement disco. At day’s end, the snow bar on the street outside grows a heaving mass of joyous drinkers, chorusing the words to singalong hits.
Despite his experience with the wine waiter, Nick can understand people paying for luxury. “If you go four-star, they change the towels every day. I can’t say I hate always walking into a perfect bathroom. In fact, I’ll never stay anywhere without an en-suite again. I can’t stand being waited on hand and foot but there are plenty of people who like it.”
It depends what you want. The Tannbergerhof restaurant is an epicure’s delight. But there’s no children’s menu and any sign of boisterousness draws censorious stares from other diners. Our room at the Tannbergerhof is smaller than in the Waldhof or the Waldesruh.
Where the four-star hotel really scores over the competition is in its impressive public areas, the quantity and uniforms of its staff, and its central location.
On my next trip to Lech I’ll stick to the Waldesruh. And the longer the rustic Waldhof in Ramsau remains unchanged, the more I’ll want to go back there. Helga Moser says they have no plans for rebuilding any time soon. “But we did put in heating in 1980. After that we could stay open in the winter.”