The Cultured Traveller, December 2019-February 2020 Issue 28 – No Shoes Required


From his retreat-like base at AYURVEDA RESORT SONNHOF, tucked away in a picture-postcard mountain valley surrounded by forests, Alex Benasuli discovers that the Austrian hills are not only singing but positively pulsating with life

Travellers have been enjoying the invigorating mountain air of the Alps for centuries. As part of the Hapsburg Empire, the Tyrol attracted a cosmopolitan nobility and emerging middle class escaping the cities and large towns during the heat and pestilence of the summer months. The stress of urban life, industrialization and threats of war drove people to the mountains as a place of refuge. Spa towns emerged around thermal springs and alpine lakes as centres of physical and mental well-being. In time, it became fashionable to spend a few weeks every year communing with nature as a way of nurturing one’s mind, body and spirit.

Nowadays the area is a popular as ever. From May to October there are seemingly endless opportunities for hiking, walking and cycling through mountains, valleys and forests. In winter, in addition to skiing, there is ice skating, snowshoeing and sledding. The Tyrol appeals equally to adrenaline junkies as it does to more sedate holidaymakers, its universal allure being its spectacular scenery, authentic culture and down-to-earth charm. In the bosom of its historic town centres, mountain meadows and snow-capped peaks, it is hard not to sense a spiritual connection or at the very least feel especially alive.

As the pendulum swings for those in affluent western societies towards more holistic and healing holidays, people are drawn increasingly to Asia’s healing traditions and spiritual practices. For many, however, a trip to India or further east is just too daunting. As the Tyrol shows, Europe has some spots of incredible natural beauty that stimulate profound inspiration. But it is sometimes challenging to find resorts that successfully merge the best of both Eastern and Western cultures in a location closer to home.

If you are wondering what a near-perfectly executed and authentic Indian Ayurvedic-oriented spa might look like in a European alpine setting, look no further then Ayurveda Sonnhof in Hinterthiersee.

Located in the heart of the Tyrol, an hour by car from Innsbruck and ninety minutes from Munich, Hinterthiersee is the type of place that a location scout would lock down for a bucolic, alpine movie scene. The high plateau of Thiersee Valley sees green pastures slope upwards on either side of the road towards forested mountains. The village’s church spire is the tallest man-made structure as far as the eye can see. Down valley is a perfectly framed picture of evergreen trees and undulating hills creating a mini self-contained world of serenity and visual bliss. The only sound apart from the occasional passing car and wind blowing through the trees is that of tinkering cow bells. At night you can literally hear a pin drop.

From the outside, Ayurveda Sonnhof looks like a classic high-end Tyrolean chalet – an attractive and well-maintained pair of half-timbered houses adorned with bright red flower boxes. However, it is inside where the real magic takes place and it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is something very different about this place. Maybe it is the orange and yellow tones with red accents that are subtly woven into the colour palette of the interior design, or the sprinkling of Indian deity and Buddhist imagery throughout the property. Perhaps it is the spiritual quotes and positive aphorisms stenciled on the various walls and doorways. The energy is instantly both uplifting and calming at the same time.

Ayurveda Sonnhof is the culmination of almost two decades’ work to fuse the best of Ayurveda with fine Austrian alpine hospitality, infused with heart and soul. So often a luxury retreat centre or spa hotel can tick all of the boxes in terms of facilities, treatments offered and high levels of service, but lack warmth, feeling and a sense of purpose. This is simply not the case at Ayurveda Sonnhof. A sense of positivity, a genuine care for guests’ wellbeing and light touch spirituality are at the core of the experience here.

Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, stretching deep into antiquity. It believes that physical and mental well-being come from balancing the mind, body and spirit. Today, Ayurveda is gaining in popularity around the globe as a way to treat common ailments ranging from insomnia, migraines and digestion issues to more serious chronic illnesses of all types.

In the Ayurvedic world, we are all divided into three mind/body types or doshas. Those governed by Pitta are made up of the fiery elements and tend towards high levels of energy, impatience and anger. Earth and water-bound Katha is the opposite – calm and centered but prone to laziness. Vata, governed by air, is creative but inclined to anxiety. While all of us have a dominant dosha, we experience all three to different degrees.

Ayurveda is about identifying which doshas are out of sync and how, through diet, herbs, various mind and body treatments and a long list of other potential remedies, to bring them back into balance. You don’t have to disavow western medical research to find wisdom, practical common sense and easy-to-follow treatment plans in Ayurveda.

The mostly Indian-born and trained clinical team at Ayurveda Sonnhof spends up to an hour with every guest at the beginning of a stay, listening to what ails them, explaining the Ayurvedic way of looking at things, defining a stay’s objectives and setting out the best course of treatments.

Most programs are based around detox, weight loss or nervous system rebooting with a fair amount of individual customization. The grandfather of Ayurvedic treatments, Panchakarma is an intense regimen for a minimum of one week which includes massage, oil treatment, a strict diet, purging and other purifying practices aimed at eliminating the toxins and returning one’s body and mind to a purer state. There are few places outside of India that offer Panchakarma in a traditional and well-supported way. Ayurveda Sonnhof is one of them.

Not every traveller visits Hinterthiersee for an Ayurvedic immersion. A full program of daily yoga and meditation classes, led by passionate and inspired facilitators, are vehicles for contemplation, self-exploration and the expansion of one’s consciousness. The resort’s “AyurvedaCentre” boasts a wide variety of steam rooms and themed saunas plus infrared heat cabins, peace and meditation rooms and a gym, and offers everything from Vata gemstone and saltwater therapy to classic spa treatments.

Therapists and instructors are not only extremely professional and proficient but also warm and mindful, approaching guests more like a family member than staff. Whether looking for a full-on detox, some relaxing downtime or something in the middle, Ayurveda Sonnhof offers a wide range of treatments and activities to suit every guest seeking some time out.

The Tyrol’s clean mountain air and gorgeous scenery work perfectly in tandem with Ayurveda as a salve to the body and mind to create a life-changing stay. Though there are regular, scheduled mountain and forest walks offering outdoor mindfulness in a group dynamic, it is just as easy to get out and explore on one’s own. There are countless trails of various durations and difficulties that literally begin right outside the resort’s front door.

Within 15 minutes you can be off the beaten track with the scent of pine trees and ferns filling the air. Tree covered mountain passes illuminated by dappled light suddenly give way to slope side views across the valley towards riverbeds and more mountains. Though all the paths are clearly sign-posted, one can walk for hours without seeing another soul. It’s criminal to be in this part of the world and not wander the trails for an afternoon or embark upon a hike that takes in some of the quaint surrounding villages.

In order to cover more ground in a shorter period of time and climb higher altitudes with greater ease, the hotel has a fleet of electric bicycles on hand for guests. Within 30 minutes on an e-bike, I am in to Höhlenstein. Even on an e-bike it’s a bit of a push to get up through the forest, but the views from the top, towards the Alps and the River Inn below, are incredible. The down-hill ride back is nothing short of exhilarating. Further down valley in the adjacent village of Thiersee, a small alpine lake is perfect for swimming on a hot summer’s day.

Visiting a farm might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it lends itself perfectly to introducing or reinforcing a new way of living based on greater awareness of our connection to the land while at the same time promoting healthier and more conscious eating. It is also a window into rural Tyrolean life and adds a dose of down-to-earth realness to one’s stay.

Free range takes on a new meaning when one sees animals roaming happily in green, open fields. It’s not rocket science to understand that carefully cultivated meat and produce has a positive impact on the world and our health. Most of the fruit and vegetables served in the excellent restaurant at Ayurveda Sonnhof, not to mention many of the herbs in the teas and various treatments, are sourced from the resort’s very own farm.

After just a few days at Ayurveda Sonnhof, the idyllic setting really starts to work its magic and the stresses of urban life soon drift away. Living healthier and more in balance actually begins to seem like a god given right, not an obligation. We tend to think that our lives need major overhauls or fixes. While this is sometimes the case, especially if in a period of crisis, much of the time moderate detoxes combined with mindful practices like yoga and meditation can work wonders. Add a renewed relationship with nature and you can literally change your outlook on life.

Most of the guests at Ayurveda Sonnhof are repeat visitors and it’s easy to understand why. At the end of my four-day stay I am bursting with vitality matched by an inner peace, and as I am heading to Innsbruck airport, not only are the hills positively alive but so am I.

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