We are perched at the top of the toboggan run with a 1,000ft descent in front of us. We brace ourselves for a breathtaking ride downhill, yet there is not a spot of snow in sight and the sun is beating down on six-year-old Olivia’s sun hat. Welcome to the Austrian Alps in summertime.
The Sommerrodelbahn, or summer toboggan, is the fastest, wiggliest metal slide you can imagine – a good way to pretend to be in the Olympic luge team. It shoots down a forested slope below deep blue skies in the stunning Salzkammergut region of Austria, around 90 minutes west of Salzburg. The surrounding mountains are spectacular; their 6,000ft summits often peeking through wispy tendrils of cloud.
And who needs the sea when you can swim in a variety of pristine mountain lakes, which are not only clean, but surprisingly warm. At Fuschl, the cleanest lake of all, only electric boats are allowed to plough their way through the sparkling waters.
We are staying near the picturesque Wolfgangsee Lake where the high mineral content has turned the water an appealing emerald hue. The lakeside is portioned off into little lawned bathing areas belonging to various hotels, and ours comes complete with diving board, a large tree to sit under and a buoy to swim out to. In fact, the lake is an endless source of entertainment, offering not only swimming, but also water-skiing, pedalo and boat hire, and for the truly adventurous, paragliding behind a speedboat. My two children, Alex and Olivia settled for a banana-boat ride, although they were impressed by other children of their age already water-skiing with finesse.
In this corner of the Alps there are plenty of ski stations on the surrounding slopes, and during the summer you can take cable cars up the mountains for superb views and walks. Even more exciting for our children was the Shafbergbahn – the oldest cog mountain railway in Europe. The antiquated wood-panelled carriages are shunted and heaved by a wheezing antique steam engine to the top of Shafberg mountain where Wolfgangsee Lake becomes a distant, shining disk far below. Near the top, the train passes beyond the trees into a barren and rocky landscape. The final ascent gives you one last thrill as the train plunges into a pitch-black rock tunnel before arriving at the top.
Trains aside, the best way to travel to the area’s highlights – such as the spa resort of Bad Ischl or the picture-postcard village of Halstatt – is by car. Even without a car you can visit most of the region’s sights by bus or on the fleet of ferries that sail across the lakes. The ferries are extremely comfortable and you can take full advantage of the onboard waiter service as you stop off at a series of idyllic lakeside villages. St Wolfgang is particularly pretty with its buildings stacked up behind a lovely church.
With such varied scenery, it is even easy to persuade the children to put on their hiking boots and do some walking. We tried the round-the-lake path between St Wolfgang and the neighbouring village of St Gilgen – an easy route covering around nine kilometres. Despite the distance, the children approached the walk with gusto, weren’t discouraged by a substantial hillock that had to be climbed and enjoyed watching the various comings and goings on the lake. We also spotted some deer in the woods and admired the gushing mountain waterfalls.
It can be decidedly hot in Austria when the sun shines, but violent storms can sweep up the valleys like a train, bringing with them ferocious winds and a deluge of rain. However, with Salzburg on the doorstep, there is an easy wet-weather escape. It’s a beautiful city with an impressive castle and a maze of little squares surrounded by Baroque architecture and wonderful coffee shops. We spent some time wandering around the pedestrianised Getreidegasse, whose elaborate wrought-iron shop signs resemble an upmarket Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. Salzburg was Mozart’s home until he was 17. His old house had so many Japanese tourists thronging the doorstep when we visited that Olivia piped up “Daddy, was Mozart Japanese?”
Once we had explored the city’s cultural highlights, we spent the rest of the day holed up in the fantastic Haus der Natur – a kind of miniature version of London’s Natural History Museum. Its exhibits include moving dinosaurs; a reptile house filled with real snakes; ants and giant spiders; model sharks; mock space pods; and an amazing array of gems. And to cap it all, the top floor café boasts a superb view over the castle.
At Salzburg’s Café Tomaselli we sat on an outside terrace watching tourists go past on horse and carriage. It’s a threatrical little eaterie and has hardly changed since 1705 when it was opened. Waiters in bow ties serve chocolate Sachertorte, cheesecake and creamy tarts laden with summer berries. Finding a restaurant serving food your children enjoy isn’t a problem in a country that specialises in cakes, chocolates and savoury breads. The Seeböcken is a typically civilised restaurant in St Wolfgang, and has a pretty lakeside terrace where our children devoured tomato soup followed by chicken shnitzels.
The children also love Mozart, or rather the ubiquitous chocolate Mozart balls (at least they quickly recognized his distinctive appearance from the wrappers). Ice creams, too, were a hit, especially the lollies called Bum-bum.
Our first beach-free family holiday was a gamble that paid off. It was, as the Austrian’s would say, a very gute fahrte (good journey). One foreign expression – like the holiday – that my children are unlikely to forget...
For tourist information, visit www.austria.info