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Enjoying Old World Elegance in Austria

Hotel Grüner Baum
Hotel Grüner Baum

There is something special about top-of-the-line country hotels in Austria. To first or second time travelers to our regions, they may seem virtually the same as their counterparts in Germany and Switzerland. There are, however, enough subtle differences to give a unique twist to the Austrian hotel experience; more country, more off-the-beaten-track, and more "Old World" - all the while maintaining a high standard of luxury.

Take the "Old World" business: In Germany and Switzerland there are a few hotels where one finds the staff turned out each day in traditional dress, whereas in the Austrian countryside it's standard operating procedure. In fact, when it comes to setting a mood, country hotels there seem bent on recreating the time of the beloved Emperor Franz Joseph in the mid-19th century, the last great days of the Hapsburgs. Lehar and Strauss are heard on hotel sound systems and décor is reminiscent of the great royal hunting lodges. The obvious goal, and this is not criticism, is to reproduce in style and atmosphere, that headier, perhaps more gracious, era.

It starts with the properties themselves. Four and five-star Austrian country hotels set the standard for rustic elegance: gorgeous, elaborately carved wooden ceilings and paneling, frescoes on stucco surfaces, are all de rigeur in public rooms; great stone fireplaces blaze throughout the day and evening; and here and there are cozy, nooks with vaulted ceilings. Dining rooms can be grand, high-ceilinged places or intimate, elegant hideaways. During your stay it's likely that each night at dinner you'll be shown to a roomy, comfortably padded, wooden booth marked with a discreet "reserved for" sign with your name on it.

The benevolent, gemütlich feel extends to the typically oversized guest rooms where separate sitting and sleeping areas are the norm, as are balconies and spacious bathrooms equipped with terrycloth robes and thick towels.

These hotels are not for the overnight auto traveler, but for those who can stop for a few days to enjoy a different kind of hotel experience. Not only are guests provided with comfortable sleeping accommodations, but are fed two or even three meals a day - often accompanied by live music - and entertained with outings and special activities. Elaborate spa, pool, wellness and beauty facilities, bicycles to loan, guided hikes and excursions, and even professionally supervised childcare and activities for kids, are all part of daily life at a top-flight Austrian country hotel.

Though the tariff at such rustic palaces will deter some, to pass them by is to miss a bargain, especially in the off-season. Take the rambling, five-star Hotel Tümmlerhof in Seefeld, whose kitchen gets two Toques from Gault Millau. Next spring, two persons can stay there six nights for less than $1300, or about $217 per night, including breakfast and dinner. At least one evening will feature a special buffet with live music. Let's compare that with a week at similar Swiss and German hotels. The website of the Grand Hotel Regina in Grindelwald advertises a seven-night package for around $3200 or $457 per night. A four-night package at the Hotel Bareiss, in Baiersbronn in Germany's Black Forest figures out to about $446 per night. Even an off-season superior double room with breakfast and dinner, in what Gemütlichkeit considers the top country inn in Austria, the Grüner Baum, is a comparatively thrifty $260 per night.