Richard Jones takes in the wonderful Austrian scenery on an alpine walking holiday
MANY British hikers take the easy option and stay near home for walking holidays, with the Lakes, Peaks, Highlands or Moors the first ports of call.
But the Alpine landscape of Austria, only a two-hour flight from many UK airports, is a great alternative – and a welcome escape from British traffic jams and windswept beaches.
There's much more to Austria than “The Sound of Music” and Mozart – and perhaps you can discover more of it in summer than as a skier in winter.
The standard holiday formula has probably changed little since the 1930s: you walk, relish the fresh air and discover the charms of small family-run hotels, with none of the crowds which cram Europe's cities and coastlines.
We started in the small, picturesque village of Maria Alm one Saturday evening, where the Hotel Niederreiter was hosting polka band Niki and the Oberkrainer on-stage, along with Tyrol's answer to Frank Carson – who told family anecdotes and mother-in-law jokes.
As I tucked into my Weiner Schnitzel and a few local Stiegl beers, I was taken aback by the warmth of the atmosphere inside the concert-room-come-restaurant, in which women wore traditional dresses and corsets.
I also downed what would be the first of many shots of apricot schnapps on the trip, a tipple that I was told "helped the digestive process after a meal" – not to mention send you to sleep.
Next morning, our group met Barbara, our local walking guide for the day, before strapping on brand-new day packs.
Like most Brits, we feared bad weather – Austria is two-thirds mountains, and its weather changes in an instant.
Nevertheless, rain stayed away as we took the Dorf Jet gondola, which carries skiers up the slopes in winter.
From the peak we had a spectacular view of the valley and Maria Alm, and then we hiked steadily through forests and down to the meadows.
There was so much to see in the woods, with activity boards every 100 metres or so detailing vegetation and wildlife.
Barbara explained the summer programme in the region, when children dress as pirates or Native Americans and tackle go-kart racing, pony trekking, clay modelling or mini-golf.
Lunch in the Gasthof Jufen farmhouse hut went down a treat – a succulent rump steak followed by a few schnapps tasters from the local distillery, which was basically a garage filled with dozens of varieties of the liqueur available to buy, along with jams, honeys and skin creams.
Five hours after setting off from Maria Alm we reached our destination, the village of Hinterthal.
The annual Bauernherbstfest (farmers' autumn festival) was cancelled due to the bad weather, giving us more time to enjoy the spa at the Family and Sporthotel Marco Polo.
For dinner in the Marco Polo's Wintergarten, the chef rustled up local delicacy Salzburgernockerl – a sort of pancake and strawberry-based dessert.
We had to keep walking to work the calories off. By day three, rain began to fall as sleet in the valley and snow on the peaks.
Our group agreed there was no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. We threw on waterproofs for another day's hiking.
Our departure point this time was the sleepy town of Dienten. Our guide Heinz began with a tour of the town, with its resplendent flower house and historic St Nikolaus church.
Heinz, a retired man, set a cracking pace. By lunchtime we had reached 1,550 metres up, and stopped off at the Pichlalm mountain hut for a welcome bowl of hot goulash soup, another local dessert called Kaiserslaute, plus the obligatory shot of schnapps and a mug of tea with rum.
The proprietor kindly added a spot of accordion music and yodelling, before we made a steep ascent through the rocky gorges and clouds in the afternoon.
Our hotel that night, the Hotel Ubergossene Alm (Flooded Alpine Meadow) was something rather special.
My garden room was kitted out with creature comforts such as robes, slippers, digital weighing scales and, on request, special pillows made with sheepwool, herbs, hops, buckwheat or wine leaves.
From my room I gazed out onto an outdoor swimming lake and breathtaking views of the Hochkonig valley.
The spa or “wellness temple” in the hotel contained half a dozen different types of saunas or “hot ovens”, with other steam rooms, relaxation suites and treatment areas.
Dinner that evening was a five-course meal: soup and salmon starters, lasagne and chocolate pudding.
First thing next morning, I decided to go for a swim; as I lay in the heated whirlpool, large flakes of snow were falling all around.
For the final excursion, our jovial guide Ernst led us on an enthralling walk across the ravines near Muhlbach to the snow slopes at the bottom of the Hochkonig.
Landmarks on the journey included a disused ski jump, apparently the home run of the the first man ever to have jumped over 100m, back in the 1930s.
Lunch was another tuck-in: we witnessed a local woman making her own cheese, and sampled farm produce including cider, bacon, fresh bread and berries.
This trip was a gastronomic journey as much as a walking expedition, and a paradise for food and drink lovers keen to try something new.
We finished with another local custom – the Arthurhaus and Schweizerhutte locals marking the end of summer by the bringing the cows down from the mountains.
The cattle (and a dog) were dressed in flowers, bells and other regalia, and the celebrations were fuelled by music and gluhwein (a version of mulled wine with spices and fruit).
Our final hotel was the family-run Hotel Salzburger Hof in Dienten, which had a fantastic spa, bar and log fire.
Next morning, the sky was icy blue, with the sun rising over the majestic snow-topped Hochkonig Massifs and mist rising from the streams at the foot of the slopes.
A truly magnificent sight after the clouds and rain of past days.