Soak in the sights of Austria’s mountainous region on foot or by e-bike and get bewitched by its magic
"A HUGE percentage of bikes now sold in Austria are e-bikes. They have completely transformed tourism in the last five years,” so says our guide moments before we shoot up a steep hill at speed with the minimum of effort on our own electric two-wheelers.
We are just outside the picturesque town of Söll in the eastern part of the Tyrol, better known to most people as a popular ski resort.
But we are here in the spring, the snow is all gone and the sun is blazing down with temperatures in the mid-20s. And it’s easy to see why e-bikes are now in such demand in this German-speaking, mountainous region.
Over 40pc of bikes purchased in Austria in 2020 were electric, representing an impressive 69pc of the value of all two-wheelers sold across the counter.
When you consider that they can cost around €5,000 each, that is a booming trade. With four electric speeds to choose from, eco, tour, sport and turbo, as well as the usual gears, even the most inexperienced cyclist can tackle this beautiful but extremely hilly terrain.
Whole family groups are now taking to the mountains and it’s hard to beat the joy of a warm wind in your face as you see green meadows and rolling hills while gliding by on your cycle.
Half of Söll’s tourists now come between spring and autumn, rather than winter, as hiking and biking grow ever more popular. The town, which sits in a sunny valley between the Wilder Kaiser and Hohe Salve mountains, is perhaps even more beautiful in the summer.
We certainly relish the warm days of 23C to 27C degrees in early May as we walk on trails through sun-dappled forests of spruce, pine and fir trees, and listen to the bell-clanging cows let out for the summer.
Adventurous visitors can take bikes up the mountains in a cable car or gondola and cycle down on a heart-pumping, one-way journey.
Alternatively, there are 35, 66 and 90km circuits for those who like varied terrain. The Wilder Kaiser region has a total of 400km of mountain bike trails and 350km of cycle paths.
On foot, you have 700km of walking and hiking trails to choose from, with views of over 70 peaks. There are 50 mountain huts for long-distance walkers to take refuge.
However, Söll is not just for adrenalin junkies but is a great destination for kids. Its Hexenwasser Mountain Adventure World is like a witch’s theme park which will cast a spell on the whole family.
It has 60 different features, ranging from a witch’s house to a huge variety of water play areas and rivulets where youngsters can splash around in the sun while their parents tackle Austria’s longest barefoot path to reawaken the senses.
Women in pointy hats keep the broth brewing in the ancient witch’s house where you can look in at the workroom where they make their flying broomsticks. Every day is Halloween in Hexenwasser!
There’s also a bee house where youngsters can safely watch thousands of the insects entering and exiting their hive through glass tunnels.
Definitely not for the kids is schnapps tasting in the nearby Oberkollerhof, a beautiful wooden building dating back to 1492 where Simon Koller and son Fabian run a generations-old distillery, making the famous Austrian drink from cherries, apples, plums, apricots and pears.
Visitors have to book in advance but prepare yourself for the ingenious trap door which opens into a wonderful underground tasting room. A great morning or afternoon can be had at a stunning lake called the Hintersteiner See, where a trail right round the shore can be done in an hour and a half and which has fabulous views of the surrounding mountains.
Bring your swimsuits and feel free to jump in. Our base while exploring Söll was the wonderful four-star hotel Franzlhof, a short walk from the town centre. Like 98pc of businesses in the town, it is family owned.
Rooms are large and airy with balconies, and there’s also a camper van and caravan park behind the hotel, as well as separate holiday homes. There are tennis courts, a swimming pool and spa, and even crazy golf for the kids.
The restaurant is bright and stylish serving excellent pizzas. We also dined al fresco in the heart of the village in Die Krummerei restaurant and at night in the trendy Auf Da Muhle, which was doing a thriving trade.
There is also a whiskey bar downstairs. For a restaurant with spectacular mountain views, try the Alpengasthof Stallhausl, where we enjoyed ice-cold beer at the end of our hike. Before tackling the Hexenwasser, we sampled local delicacies at the Alpine inn’s Hochsöll, next to the Hochsöll gondola station.
They included Tiroler Grostl, a dish of roasted potatoes topped with a fried egg, and Kaiserschmarrn, a delicious dessert of strips of pancake with apple sauce.
In Söll, pop and rock fans might also like to drop into the Schulhaus, a former school which owner Hannes Ager has turned into a burger bar and apart-hotel with rooms dedicated to his idols, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, The Beatles and others.
Giant prints and murals adorn the walls along with framed photos, specially designed furniture and bric a brac devoted to the stars. Söll is easy to get to, 75km from Innsbruck, 90km from Salzburg and 100km from Munich Airport.
We flew with Aer Lingus on one of the daily flights to Munich and the transfer was less than two hours with Four Seasons.
All hotel guests in the town get a guest card, which gives free access to buses along the valley and to many attractions. So get your padded cycling pants or hiking boots on and prepare for a super scenic bike ride or walk through sensational Söll.
FACTFILE: SÖLL AUSTRIA See wilderkaiser.info ■ We flew to Munich with Aer Lingus aerlingus.com ■ Franzlhof Hotel: franzlhof.com ■ E-Bike rental: sport-edinger.at ■ Bike guides from: easybike.at ■ Transfers from €59 from: tirol-taxi.at
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