Protected from the northern winds by the Tauren Mountains and featuring a landscape smoothed by the effects of glaciation, the Carinthia region in southern Austria, known as Kärnten in German, is altogether sunnier, warmer and more relaxed than resorts to the north.
It can truly claim to cater for a ‘lust for life’, as the local tourist board suggests, as it is a little paradise for winter sports and mountain lovers.
The glaciation, much like the UK’s own Lake District, has left the region with lovely smooth-topped mountains perfect for skiing, walking and cycling around, as well as over 120 lakes and numerous thermal springs. Indeed the locals talk about going ‘From the slopes to the spa’ (Von der piste in die therme) in this picturesque region, and that is what we were lucky enough to do.
Located next to the Nockberge Biosphere Park, a living area of outstanding natural beauty recognised by UNESCO, lies the small town of Bad Kleinkirchheim. Being just 50 minutes from the Klagenfurt regional airport (access direct from Gatwick with Easyjet and via Vienna with Austrian Airlines), BKK, as it is more commonly known by British travel companies, is also just 90 minutes from Ljubljana in Slovenia and a similar distance from Innsbruck to the north.
Whilst BKK is the premier ski resort for the region it is also a great place for non-skiers and those interested in enjoying the winter landscape, fresh air and warm hospitality. Staying at the Hotel Trattlerhof, a 4-star traditional hotel full of charm and warmth, we explored the area courtesy of Inghams Ski. Inghams specialises in finding good quality hotels (with both winter and summer programmes) and if you travel in March/April you can benefit from free lift passes included in the price.
On the advice of the locals, we went skiing in the morning when the snow was at its best, and then retired to the thermal spa and enjoyed other activities in the afternoon. We needed to do plenty of exercise to work off the wonderful breakfast buffet and afternoon snack (served from 1.00 pm), and then to fit in an excellent dinner each evening.
BKK in fact consists of two ski-areas, connected by a short 50-metre path under the road, with the nearby St Oswald area easily accessible. There is plenty of skiing for a day in each of the areas, with St Oswald being the more picturesque and BKK rising slightly higher, where the Kaiserburg lift station reaches 2,055m. Don’t be put off by the relatively low altitude of BKK at 1,100m, as the snow quality was very good when we were there, despite no large snow falls for a couple of weeks. With relatively quiet slopes, we enjoyed no queues and very well-groomed pistes well into the afternoon, although for beginners it would have been more challenging later. Ski instructors and classes are available of course, with 13 languages being spoken to cater for, among others, the Italian, Slovenian, Hungarian and English-speaking guests.
It’s fair to say that BKK is best suited to intermediate-level skiers, and especially those wishing to do more than ski, although that is not to say it’s not challenging. Franz Klammer, no less, learned to ski here and you can follow the Franz Klammer piste, where the FIS World Cup events are held. You can even ‘Ski before 9’ and explore the pistes with the great man before the crowds arrive (see below for details).
There is plenty of variety in the skiing, but the highlights for me were the incredible views from the top of the Maibrunnbahn lift area down towards the Millstätte See (Millstätte Lake) and south across to the Julische Alpen in Slovenia, as well as skiing down the many picturesque tree-lined pistes in lovely bright sunshine. A perfect Monday morning.
So having completed time on the slopes it was time to hit the spas. Not only is there the substantial and convenient pool and spa area at the Hotel Trattlerhof, but there are also two very impressive spa centres in town to experience.
Closer to the Trattlerhof (500m), in what is known as the Bach district, is the Family and Health St Kathrein Spa. This features a large family pool as well as an 80m long slide – parents and grandparents can enjoy this too – I tested it for you! – as well as a separate adults-only pool and sauna area. A wide range of treatments and classes, such as yoga, are enjoyed here by the locals and tourists alike. Everyone is friendly and speaks English and the wrist-band entry tag system also opens and closes your locker which is included in the price. A two-hour visit to both the pools and saunas costs around €20 and is well-worth a visit after a morning skiing or being outside.
The larger Thermal Spa Römerbad is situated about 3km (2 miles) away, right next to one of the main lifts (Kaiserburgbahn) and is best reached by taking the free ski-bus that runs every 20 minutes around the resort. It is definitely worth the trip and there is a stop right outside the Trattlerhof. You can also walk back through the town or up around St Kathrein’s church, built over the source of where the thermal springs emerges at 40°C.
The Römerbad Spa boasts 13 different saunas, so I was keen to try as many as I could. Besides the fairly standard dampfbad (steam bath) at 65°C and 90% humidity, and the Finnish sauna at 90°C and 15% humidity, there were a number of in-between variations with indicative names to suggest the experience. Three hours was plenty of time to explore and cost around €27 per person, again with the same tag system.
When going to the spas you have to respect spa etiquette. Spa areas and changing rooms are unisex, although there are private changing cabins. Once into the spa area the etiquette is strictly naked, although people can choose to walk around between saunas, showers and rest areas with a towel wrapped around them. In the saunas themselves rules apply too. You must place your towel under you when sitting in the sauna, including under your feet, so that your perspiration doesn’t make the spruce seat slats damp. But in the Dampfbad (steam bath), which is fully tiled, you should leave your towel outside completely; as I found out when everyone shouted at me in German when I walked in with mine!
Besides sitting among other naked people, sometimes face-to-face in the steam bath and sometimes on the slatted seats looking towards the door, you should also be ready for one of the attendants to come in and offer you a treatment. In my case, I was just settling into sitting cheek-by-cheek with 9 locals in the St Kathrein spa steam bath, when in walked the attendant and explained in German we would be given local honey to rub over ourselves, which we should wash off after 5 minutes. Everyone duly held out their hands like at church mass and proceeded to smear themselves and sometimes close neighbours with honey. Five minutes later the attendant came back and told us all to go and shower it off, so we had a naked queue for the shower. All part of the experience and you become surprisingly un-self-conscious as most other bathers are a similar age to you (50s and 60s).
Besides living between ski slopes and spa, there are also lots of other things to do in BKK and that is what makes it such a special resort. There are plenty of shops, cafes, bakeries, a Spar supermarket (of course!), a Sports Bar (for watching sports on TV) and of course lovely restaurants, but also other winter outdoor activities.
We had a lovely evening ride on a horse-drawn sledge – using a wheeled trailer due to lack of snow in the village on this occasion – which took up through the centre and on to a small road high above the village near St Kathrein’s church, just as the sun was setting. This was beautiful and gave a good perspective on the town layout and the valley in which is sits.
There were also tobogganing and cross-country skiing tracks departing from near the Kaiserburgbahn lifts, but my favourite activity was the snow-shoe expedition. Taking the Brunnach Biospherepark lift from St Oswald, we walked from the Nock In Panorama Restaurant about 1km gently up a ridge to look over the Nockberg Biospherepark towards the mountain huts. You can walk or go ski-touring in this area and it has incredible views, especially on a sunny day as we had. Don’t be put off by the slight difficulty of an outing on your snow shoes; it’s worth it as it allows you to walk easily and safely across pristine snow areas. If you are able it is recommended to take one of the local guides, as that helps you understand the terrain, but you can walk safely on the paths which are well-marked without a guide.
Bad Kleinkirchheim can truly claim to be on the sunny-side of the Alps and the offer to take you from the slopes to the spa is a great experience. I cannot wait to return to explore the Nockberge mountains more, maybe in summer. I am sure that will be another story full of delightful surprises in this special place.
Inghams Winter Offer
Inghams is offering a seven-night ski holiday on a half board basis at the four-star Hotel Trattlerhof in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria, from £864 per person based on two sharing in January 2020. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Klagenfurt and airport transfers. Lift passes, equipment hire and tuition can be pre-booked through Inghams. To book, visit www.inghams.co.uk/ski-holidays or call 01483 938 047.
Ski before 9am (with Franz Klammer) – www.badkleinkirchheim.com – includes a leisurely brunch.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Inghams Lakes & Mountains.