When Balthasar Hauser started asking neighbouring farmers for their discarded wood back in the 1970s, people thought he was crazy. While they were constructing in cement and glass, Hauser spoke of soul while expanding the farm, tavern and rooms he’d inherited from his mother. 50 years later, guests of his five-star eco-resort agree that he is a visionary, and a large part of this comes from the feeling you get when you’re inside a hotel room that does, indeed, have soul.
Stanglwirt has expanded to 171 rooms, 5000 square meters of spa, 14 tennis courts, stables, and more, but it’s still a family-run hotel (in the 11th generation) that pays more attention to the environment and to genius loci than to the bottom line. I chose to spend the week of my 40th birthday at this hotel in the Austrian mountains, not far from Innsbruck, alternating daily tennis workshops with relaxing afternoons in the spa. Apparently I have returned looking younger!
To the casual, first-time visitor, Stanglwirt may seem like a great mountain hotel, with its traditional style in pine wood, and all the services you’d expect from a five star. But when you sit down for a welcome drink in the library and get talking to other guests, you quickly learn that this place has something special that keeps people coming back. We met some youngsters in their 70s and 80s who had been coming annually for 25-30 years!
Stanglwirt calls itself a bio-hotel, which doesn’t mean everything is organic, but there is careful attention to natural resources, especially to the on-site spring. But what I think is most interesting is how the hotel actually grew up organically. Every room, feature and activity has been developed after much thought, based on demand or philosophy, not on the advice of some marketing experts. And you feel the difference.
Stanglwirt began as a tavern in 1609, when it was a stop on the main road, frequented by copper and silver miners. The road itself has been here since Roman times, constantly growing in traffic. In 1722, an ancestor of the Hauser family took over the tavern. In following centuries, the tavern, annexed farm and guest house was a place to change over the horses of one’s carriage. Not much had changed when Balthasar Hauser inherited the 7-room inn from his mother at the tender age of 17 in the early 1970s. Although he really only wanted to be a farmer, it was stipulated that Stanglwirt had to remain the whole package of hospitality and farming. And so it is still today. This may be the only luxury resort in the world where the milk at the breakfast table comes from the cows you can see (and sometimes smell) from your room.
“Animals are always part of Stanglwirt,” Maria Hauser tells me, “I can’t imagine it without them, with the barn cats running around…”. The young marketing manager is rocking a pink dirndl, the national costume, to the point that I wish we could all wear that flattering cut to work.
From the original stables to change over horses, Stanglwirt now breeds Lippizaner studs, the noble white horse of the Hapsburgs – the stable of 25 horses is looked after by Maria’s younger sister, Elisabeth, who could easily double as a fashion model. You can hear the cows’ bells from the tennis courts, and at night the animals are led into a stable that shares a wall and a window with the hotel’s casual dining room. Johannes Hauser, Maria and Elisabeth’s brother who is in charge of farm and food, assured me that the cows can see only 3 feet, in black and white, and have no “beef” with you eating their cousins. (Incidentally, the three siblings claim to have received no pressure to work in the family business.)
The animals, which are all fed with hay grown on the property, are an “organic” part of the structure, providing milk and derivative products for the guests. When we met with Sepp, the in-house cheesemaker, he was preparing to move the hotel’s 25 cows up the mountain for the summer: from June to September they graze at higher altitudes, and “Alm-cheese” is made. The cows produce about 130,000 litres of milk per year, and in the summer the team produces 3 tonnes of cheese that has to last all year. The cheese is brought down the mountain on horseback, accompanied by Sepp and Johannes: each horse can carry 150 kilos of cheese on the 2-hour walk downhill. The bounty is stored in a natural grotto across the road from the hotel, to which only Sepp has the key. The house taleggio can only be purchased at Stanglwirt, yet brought in over €120,000 last year from guests wanting to bring home a piece of this experience.
But let’s get back to why I’m here. I’d read that Stanglwirt was one of the best tennis resorts in the world, thanks to a long-term collaboration with PBI International. What I didn’t know is that this, too, grew up organically. While Stanglwirt was still an inn with just a few rooms, it had tennis courts, and, in partnership with legendary 80s tennis-manufacturer Kneissel, the newly formed Peter Burwash tennis school began holding workshops here. Players were bused in to the location, and liked it so much they said it would be nice to stay there, so Balthasar built it. The hotel grew up out of demand for tennis, expanding with both indoor and outdoor courts.
Toronto-born Burwash was both a tennis and a hockey player in the late 60s, but after a hockey accident that left him temporarily without the use of his legs, he vowed never to play the ice-sport again. His tennis career took off and he traveled to tournaments around the world. Through his travels he met lots of great pros who didn’t have money to travel, so he came up with the idea of tennis schools in the world’s best resorts as a way, first and foremost, for the pros to travel. Of course, the “students” love it too. Stanglwirt was one of the first collaborations for PBI, which celebrated its 40th year in 2015.
The “tennis for life” program is one offered at all PBI locations: 5 days of lessons follow an established order, introducing simple “touchpoints” each day, no matter what level of player you are. Interestingly, the pros rotate, so you have a different teacher each day, though they’re well coordinated as a group, debriefing so that they know what you’d done the day before. Not only were they all great coaches, but we really enjoyed talking with the team because they were so well-traveled and multi-lingual – at a coaches and clients’ dinner we got to better know Andrea from Rome, Eva from southern Spain, Phil who was born in Lebanon to German and French parents, Joe from Ireland and Dave from New York. They’d all lived in numerous countries thanks to PBI, and all teach in 3-4 languages.
Although we thought 2 hours a day (plus additional matches or drills) would be not a lot of tennis, it filled our mornings and tired us out plenty. Stanglwirt isn’t nearly as isolated as I’d expected, being 5 minutes away from 3 reasonably sized towns and an hour and a half away from both Munich and Salzburg. Initial thoughts of visiting any of these cities were abolished in favour of spending afternoon hours in the hotel’s green-roofed wellness area, which turns out to be as eco-friendly as the rest of the place.
During expansion in the 1980s, they found a natural spring, whose water tested amongst the most beneficial of the area. This spring is so abundant that not only does it provide all of the hotel’s drinking and washing water, but it also feeds its many pools and is used to cool meeting rooms, as well as to power thermal energy pumps used for heating. Balthasar Hauser calls this water Kaiser Wasser after the mountain we see, and he says that “our fountain is a gift from God that can give the same to others.” Realizing that water wasn’t a highly valued resource as it should be, he opted to put a price on it, charging a symbolic fee for a jug of it in his restaurants in an area in which spring or tap water is usually free. A percentage of this money is set aside to build wells in Africa, and the Hauser family has personally visited the 8 wells they’ve built, that have changed the lives of some 8000 inhabitants of Ethiopia. They’ve also built a school for 600 children, carrying their family values abroad.
Drinking and bathing in this water may be the closest thing I’ve discovered to the fountain of youth. If you’re doing sports every day – for non-tennis-players there’s a golf practise area, horseback riding, a boxing and personal training coach, hiking, and of course in the winter, skiing – it’s important to regenerate your muscles in the spa and wellness areas, alternating the sauna with cold water. To make sure you do it right, Stanglwirt provides a (free!) trainer every afternoon: Gernot Gerold, known professionally as The Saunameister (www.saunameister.eu). For journalistic accuracy I sent my husband to the 2-hour sauna experience, entirely in German and involving rubbing your naked body with various smelly gels. He loved it. I opted for a more hands-on approach, taking advantage of the excellent sports massage in the hotel spa. The wellness center’s carefully delineated areas for families, adults, quiet adults, and naked adults ensure that everyone gets (only) what he or she wants. A sense of relaxation permeates the entire resort.
Balthasar Hauser’s vision has paid off, going “from stables to stars” to borrow an Italian expression usually used in “get rich” stories (dalle stalle alle stelle). He’s transformed the “stables” into a hotel well worth its 5 “stars”. And between the philosophy and the facilities, it’s no wonder that Stanglwirt is frequented by numerous stars of the movie, modeling and business worlds, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger (who’s also the godfather of a foal here), Heidi Klum, or Fiona Swarovski. Not resting on their laurels, the entire Hauser family works daily to run and constantly improve the property, hoping to please guests here for another 11 generations to come.
Kaiserweg 1 / A-6353 Going, Austria
Rooms from around €150 per person per night
Tennis week €390 per person
Nearest large airport: Munich
Drive from Florence: 6 hours