A top-of-the-line country hotel in Austria, particularly in the Tirol, is like a landlocked cruise ship with organized guest activities, big, posh dining rooms, and plenty of guest-pampering facilities. Not necessarily better than its counterparts in Germany and Switzerland, but different in subtle and pleasing ways.

With an emphasis on longer stays, these hotels invariably include breakfast and dinner in their rates and seem to have larger guestrooms and a higher percentage of rooms with separate sitting areas. Austrian hotels also seem to pay more attention to tradition and are more likely to have family ownership. The best of them have excellent restaurants.

For example, three of Austria's top country properties which we have covered in past issues—the Post in Lech, Grüner Baum in Badgastein, the Bergresort Seefeld in Seefeld—have highly involved family ownership, commodious guest rooms, very good kitchens and employees who show up for work in traditional dress.

Late last year, prowling the Tirol by auto, we tried three more hotels in this category. All, to varying degrees, fit the described mold and are recommended. In each, we spent one night and ate both dinner and breakfast in the hotel. Given the level of luxury and the quality of food, we think all offer good value. Rates for extended stays, of course, will be less on a per-day basis than we paid.

Though it is not in the country, we are also including a review of a popular Innsbruck hotel that is part of the Romantik group. It offers an interesting comparison with accommodations available just a few minutes away in the countryside.

We didn't reserve ahead at any of these hotels; we simply stopped and inquired as to the availability of a room for one night. In high season, this footloose approach might not work so well, but we were in luck.

Hotel der Bär

Ellmau

The Bär's several buildings sprawl over the hillside above the town, a position that takes advantage of a fine view of the Kaisergebirge range. Five-star amenities include two swimming pools, a beauty center, free bicycle use, a long list of guest activities, supervised activities for kids, tennis and six golf courses in the vicinity.

On two visits, we have found der Bär's staff to be exceptionally friendly and helpful, though we required nothing more than a comfortable room and good meal.

In the spacious bar, the hotel's most appealing room, a wall of curving windows takes advantage of the view. The furniture is comfortable; couches and overstuffed chairs arranged around coffee tables are great for groups of four to six. It is particularly pleasant after dinner. Unfortunately, on this visit a rather obnoxious teenager had commandeered the room's sound system and played loud music that matched his personality.

Room Number 212 is on a corner with a balcony off one side, a window on the other and oddly decorated. There is a small sofa in hot-pink leather and the bed, covered by a pink and green striped spread, is too low to the floor for our taste. Bright green curtains feature huge artichokes in various stages of bloom. The toilet is in the same room with the shower, which is a bit of a disappointment for a hotel in this price category.

Though guest rooms at Hotel der Bär are not quite on a par with the Post, Grüner Baum, Tümmlerhof - or the two other country hotels in this issue - its restaurant may be the best of all.

Dinner at der Bär:

After introducing himself - not usual in Europe- the young, tuxedoed maître d'hotel, Fabian, escorted us to a large, booth-like window table softly illuminated by a single, low-hanging, shaded lamp.

Before us were starched linens, gleaming stemware and delicate, fresh blossoms floating in a giant wine glass. Somewhere, a piano rippled familiar show tunes.

Above us, of course, were heavy wooden beams and had it been summer the view across the valley to the mountains would have been a glorious one. The floor covering was a green/grey carpet with white bears woven into it.

Our traditionally dressed waitress served us Trumer Pils in tall, slim glasses.

The half-board dinner began with a few tiny baked shrimp followed by a morel mushroom soup sprinkled with tiny croûtons. Next came a dish with Asian overtones; Fischstrudel auf Wildreisrisotto, flaky white fish in phyllo crust over a mixture of white and wild rice.

Following a bit of sorbet to reset the tasters came the featured course, three small pork medallions, first grilled then coated with a sauce of Gorgonzola cheese and quickly broiled to form a light crust.

There was also a better than average, serve-yourself cheese buffet and a rather dramatic dessert presented on black plates with wings of white chocolate mousse, Tiramisueis and fresh berries. A fine finish to an excellent meal.

With it we drank a somewhat pricey but excellent Italian red wine Cru "Occhetti," Nebbiolo d'Alba, Prunotto, 1989 for which we paid 520 AS ($41). There were many less expensive choices.

Breakfast was the bounteous buffet one expects at a country hotel of this category.

We paid 2560 AS ($202) for room, breakfast and dinner.

Getting there: Proceed east to Ellmau about 20 km (13 miles) on Red Road 312 from the Wörgl exit on A12 Autobahn just south of Kufstein. The nearest rail station is in St. Johann im Tirol, about 12 km (8 miles).

Daily Rates: Singles 930 to 1180 AS ($101 to $125), doubles 1460 to 2760 AS ($196 to $230). Rates include breakfast and dinner. No cards.

Contact: Hotel der Bär A-6352 Ellmau, Tirol, Austria, telephone 53 58/23 95, fax 53 58/23 95-56.

Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 14/20

Hotel Jagdhof

Neustift

Austria's Stubaital, a few kilometers south of Innsbruck, is a narrow valley running at a southwestern angle off the main highway to Italy. Neustift is one of the larger villages along the valley road which deadends at the Stubai Glacier, where there is year-round skiing.

Arriving in the early afternoon by car, we inspected two rooms before choosing Number 211, a Burgstall apartment for 2840 AS ($227), including breakfast and dinner. We chose it over a standard double room for about 300 AS ($24) less. Number 211 was really three rooms: one with a queen-size bed, another with a single bed, and, between the two, a sitting room with huge L-shaped sofa, coffee table and TV. The large bathroom consisted of shower, tub and double sinks in one space, and the toilet in a separate room. Among the four hotels reviewed here, this was easily the best room we occupied.

The Jagdhof has all the five-star refinements: indoor and outdoor pools, beauty farm, fitness facilities and so on.

The welcome was routine and not especially warm.

Dinner at Jagdhof:

Dining rooms in Austria's five-star country hotels are the quintessence of rustic elegance and the Jagdhof's is a fine example of the genre. Walls and ceilings, of course, are light wood with frescoes, and the floor's scrubbed planks are scattered with Oriental rugs.

The candlelit table, designated as ours by a small ceramic plaque inscripted with a gold "Bestor," was set with pewter chargers covered by embroidered doilies. A slim pewter vase held a single rose.

The half-board dinner, accompanied by live zither music, started with a thick, slightly smoky tasting barley and bacon soup, followed by salad from a well-stocked and maintained buffet. Roast lamb in a reduction sauce served with house-made Spätzle and creamed carrots was satisfying but hardly haute cuisine.

From the lengthy but expensive wine list - Austrian wines $30 to $50, a passable Chianti from Villa Antinori at $70, for example - we selected a disappointing-at-the-price (520 AS/$41) Austrian Cabernet from Neuseidlersee, south of Vienna.

Service was attentive but rather formal (the servers timed the lifting of the silver domed lids covering our entrées and whisked them off with a flourish).

There was a choice of attractive desserts and/or a selection of cheeses from a buffet.

Overall, a good meal in very pleasant surroundings. The evening was slightly marred, however, by our after-dinner experience. We sat by the imposing fireplace in the bar waiting to be served. Other than two or three patrons on stools at the bar itself, we were the rooms only customers. Unfortunately, something we had eaten had apparently rendered us invisible because no one ever inquired as whether we wanted a cup of coffee or a $500 bottle of Chateau d'Yquem. Not really needing the calories, we toddled off to bed after about 10 minutes.

Despite the unenthusiastic welcome and being ignored in the bar, we like the Jagdhof and would happily return.

Getting there: From Innsbruck, take Red Road 182 south which parallels Autobahn A22 toward the Brenner Pass. (The Autobahn is much faster but you will pay a 50 AS/$4 toll.) Angle southwest into the Stubai Valley at Schönberg. The nearest rail station to Neustift is in Fulpmes, about six km (4 miles).

Daily Rates: Singles 1270 to 1770 AS ($100-$139), doubles 1960 to 3100 AS ($154-$244), apartments 2840 to 4,080 AS ($224-$321). Rates include breakfast and dinner. No cards.

Contact: Hotel Jagdhof A-6167 Neustift, Tirol, tel. +43 052/26 2234, fax 2666 503.

Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 13/20

Hotel St. Peter

Seefeld

In the mountain resort village of Seefeld, northwest of Innsbruck, the traveler can select from a long list of hotels except - in late November when the whole town closes up and the list of open hotels dwindles to a very precious few.

Picking up a car at the Munich rail station about 3 p.m., with Seefeld as our overnight destination, we zoomed down the Autobahn, rolled through Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and eased into Seefeld just before 5 p.m. After stopping at or driving past half a dozen hotels and finding none open we asked a pedestrian if even one hotel in town was doing business. Yes, the St. Peter.

At this relatively new, four-star property we were quoted a rate, including breakfast and dinner, of 2000 AS ($157).

After depositing the rental car in the hotel's basement garage, we rode the lift up to reception and were shown to a comfortable, spacious double, Number 107. In it we found a separate sitting area with couch, coffee table and television, a gleaming bathroom with thick towels and terrycloth robes, and a balcony with a mountain view.

Though the hotel's public rooms feature the usual dark wood beams and paneling, white stucco vaulted arches and deep-cushion chairs and couches, the St. Peter might be just a whisker less richly decorated than the Jagdhof.

Looking at its opulent indoor pool and Jacuzzi spa, however, one sees little difference between this hotel and its five-star brethren.

Dinner at St Peter:

As virtually the hotel's only guests we were served in solitary splendor in the vast dining room. We supped on gemischte salat (brought from the kitchen rather than a buffet because of so few diners), onion soup, spaghetti in a light, rather bland, tomato sauce, and a main course choice of baked red snapper, lamb chops or Kalbsgeschnetzeltes (chopped veal). We chose the latter two. The juicy chops were served with lentils and potato croquettes, and the sautéed veal arrived in the usual creamy mushroom sauce with a side of buttery rice.

A bottle of Spanish red, Rioja Campo Viejo Riserva of 1994, 380 AS ($30) had no rough edges and was a nice accompaniment to the pasta and meat dishes.

There was no cheese course and no choice of desserts, but the sponge cake with hot chocolate sauce and dabs of whipped cream was more than we needed.

This was a well-prepared, satisfying meal and the simplest among these four hotels.

After dinner we adjourned to comfortable chairs by the bar's fireplace where we intended to finish the evening with a glass of port. A young man who had been talking loudly and animatedly on a cordless telephone, overheard our order and immediately rushed over to recommend a special vintage port. He was unusually fervent in his advocacy and it soon became clear there was, or had been, a party somewhere in the hotel and he had not only played an important role in the wine selection but in the consumption of it as well.

Obviously part of the hotel's ownership or management (though he knew us only as two American guests of the hotel), he then proceeded to tow this writer to the hotel's impressive, brick-lined wine cellar whose contents he passionately expounded upon with hardly a pause for breath.

Back at the fireplace he had the bartender bring a taste of the special port and pledged us one glass without charge if we would purchase the other. The wine was good so we agreed to the proposal and our benefactor returned to his telephone. On our bill when we checked out next morning was a bar charge for $15. If that's the price for one glass, the wine was even better than we thought.

Getting there: Seefeld is about 20 km north of Innsbruck on Red Road 177. It is accessible by train from Innsbruck (about 35 minutes) and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (about 45 minutes).

Daily Rates: Singles 850 to 2150 AS ($67-$169), doubles 1700 to 4300 AS ($134-$338). Rates include breakfast and dinner.

Contact: Hotel St. Peter A-6100, Seefeld, tel. +43/5212/4555-0, fax 455545.

Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 13/20

Schwarzer Adler

Innsbruck

Looking for an overnight in Innsbruck prior to catching a morning train to Zürich, we inquired in person about a room at the Schwarzer Adler, a three-star hotel of the Romantik group near the town center.

We booked Number 401, which was spacious and comfortable enough but a definite cut below the three hotels we had just come from. The cost for two persons was 1900 AS ($150) with breakfast.

Unlike its country cousins, the Adler has no spas and no great public rooms with massive fireplaces to cozy up to on cold nights. It is a typical city hotel with a tiny street-level bar and a restaurant.

Dinner at Schwarzer Adler:

The warm and cozy little dining room's handful of candlelit tables, head-high dark wood paneling, and leaded windows with deep sills filled with Tirolean knickknacks, is an appealing dinner venue. Add a menu with interesting-sounding dishes and we looked forward to the evening with some relish.

Alas, however, the food ranged between ordinary and dreadful. A shared "Romantik Variations" appetizer plate (150 AS/$12) was mainly a collection of heavy and heavily-salted smoked meat and fish and soggy ratatouille-style vegetables.

Lifeless mixed salads (50 AS/$4) were followed by medallions of Chamois (235 AS/$18.50) in a garlicky crust and stuffed breast of guinea fowl ($17) with a chanterelle mushrooms sauce. Sounds good but we surmise both had been prepared at an earlier time and reheated prior to serving.

For dessert, we asked for plain vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate sauce (60 AS/$4.75). Though we were at first told the chocolate couldn't be heated, the ice cream came with a steaming boat of it. It was the best part of the meal.

Without beverages, the dinner for two was 851 AS ($67).

The Schwarzer Adler is comfortable enough, the location excellent and the service pleasant, but the restaurant is to be avoided. Your schillings buy much more in the countryside.

Daily Rates: Singles 900 to 1250 AS ($71-$98), doubles 1500 to 2300 AS ($118-$181). Rates include breakfast.

Contact: Romantikhotel & Restaurant Schwarzer Adler Kaiserjägerstraße 2, 6020 Innsbruck, tel. +43 512 58 71 09.

Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 9/20

Ranking the Four Hotels

Food Room Friendliness Ambiance

der Bär Jagdhof der Bär der Bär

Jagdhof St. Peter St. Peter Jagdhof

St. Peter der Bär S. Adler St. Peter

Schwarzer Adler S. Adler Jagdhof S. Adler

Cost for one night with breakfast & dinner (not including beverages)

Jagdhof-$227

Schwarzer Adler-$218

der Bär-$202 St.

St. Peter-$157

January 1998