Imagine your ideal vacation. Raise that a notch and see what you come up with. That might just be close to the leisure, health and cultural experience to be had over at Schloss Elmau.
Having recently spent five days at the spa retreat in southeast Bavaria, not a million miles from the Austrian border, I can vouch for the fantasy factor in holing up at a hotel that is as far away as one can get from the formulaic, synthetically pampering rollout offered by any outlet of the well-known and, indeed, acclaimed hotel chains spread across the globe. OK, so you have to travel a bit after you land at Munich Airport, but boy is it worth it.
As we arrived late evening, after a 90-minute drive, our first taster was a vignette of a concert already in progress on the upper floor of the main, Schloss, building. Our group’s excursion to Germany was timed to coincide with a week-long festival of Israeli jazz, and we caught internationally-feted trumpeter Avishai Cohen in full harmonious and improvisational tête-à-tête with childhood pal and longtime creative sparring partner, Paris-based pianist Yonatan Avishai. Not bad for openers. Then the Elmau official professional designation does read: luxury spa retreat and cultural hideaway.
I was then taken to my accommodation over at the Retreat building. The genial soul who accompanied me there, a willowy chap by the name of George, gave me my electronic key to allow me to open the door to my “room.” At least that’s what I was expecting. It took me a while to ingest the fact that I was going to spend the next five nights in a bona fide suite.
While George scurried off to find my errant trolley bag, I availed myself of the restroom amenity. Without going into too much physiological detail I was, at first, shocked and then totally tickled by the fact that my pew for the call of nature was actually heated. That set the tone for the entire stay at Schloss Elmau.
I also had to “come to terms” with the enormity of my accommodation, and all the creature comforts around the place. I discovered, in the wee hours of the night, for example, that a sensor turned the bathroom lights on if I headed over to the warmly welcoming powder room unit after dark.
Morning in Schloss Elmau
AS I AWOKE in the early morning, the local bucolic beauty revealed itself in its fullest stunning, and immediate, glory. My sprawling lounge area opened up onto a balcony deck which led directly to a flower-festooned meadow that rolled gently down to the source of the gurgling sound I’d heard the night before. It felt like I was cocooned inside Mother Nature’s loving embrace.
Negotiating the dew-laden field, which included dodging a rivulet and a marsh, I made my way down to the Ferchenbach stream. And, as if having unadulterated melted snow-water at my disposal for a quick dip was not enough, the majesty of my natural surroundings was amplified by the steepling ridges of the Wetterstein range, complete with pockets of snow, towering up another 2,000 meters to the cloud-speckled early morning sky. I half expected to see Julie Andrews come bounding along merrily singing "The Hills Are Alive".
The morning constitutional was augmented by a few lengths in a subtly heated outdoor swimming pool, and I was all set for breakfast.
But, before I get to the vittles – and my vegan dietary requirements were amply, generously and aesthetically catered for – a few stats to convey some of the luxury, health-inducing spread on display at Schloss Elmau.
The “wellbeing” epithet is fully deserved, with spa facilities covering 70,000 sq. ft. of floor space, with 22 saunas – including family-oriented sections – and six heated swimming pools on different levels. Several of the pools overhang the aforementioned meadow and offer a spectacular view of the Wetterstein and nearby pine forest. They can also be enjoyed year-round.
Activities at Schloss Elmau
THE RETREAT also provides yoga programs, and there are 22 rooms where guests can just lie back and receive a variety of treatments. The session I had there left me impressed with the Turkish-born therapist’s professionalism and sensitivity to the way my body reacted to his touch, and how he adapted accordingly.
Youngsters are well cared for, too, with the Kids Club open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily for the 1-5 year age group, while the Edutainment facility sports, fun and adventure program caters to 6-15-year-olds with a science lab, literature courses, music, photography, film, art, chess and other activities, as well as a soccer camp.
And there are bicycles for hire for all ages. Some of us took advantage of that service, heading out to catch even more of Mother Nature’s gems in the vicinity, riding through the village of Klais en route to an idyllic spot complete with lake wherein we took a dip.
The overriding sense one gets from Schloss Elmau is a well-thought out place that does its best to satisfy its guests’ every request, need and/or pleasure, and even anticipate them. After the evening concerts in the roomy auditorium, we could just laze around while a jazz pianist does their magic. We had the silkily skilled Guy Mintus doing the honors the first two evenings.
I got another inkling of the breadth and depth of the Schloss Elmau offering when I asked a waitress about the whisky selection to be had there. Instead of reeling off a couple of names of the usual suspects, I was presented with a list that ran for seven pages. Mind you, there was a mix-up the first evening and my fine single malt never made it over to me. A couple of evenings later, however, an amiable Syrian-born waiter made sure I got my hands, and lips, on a glass of Mortlach whisky from the northeast of Scotland. It was worth the wait.
The laid-back cosseting ambiance was complemented by the log fire whispering in one corner. There were several strategically positioned open hearths dotted around the expansive leisure area, which added to the homey unfussed sense of wellbeing.
Dining at Schloss Elmau
THE FOOD was a joy to behold and ingest. One evening, in particular, we were right royally wined and dined at the tastefully appointed Fidelio eatery, with an Italian wine server ready to top up our glasses at the twitch of an eyebrow, while the solids were delivered by the aforementioned Syrian gent. We struck a chord from the off when he was delighted to hear we hailed from the same region of the world. My smattering of Arabic also helped to break the ice, and the sense of informality and familiarity only heightened the gastronomic experience.
The latter was orchestrated by a familiar character. The Schloss management brought over Uri Jeremias, the famed restaurateur from Akko – better known as Uri Buri – to ensure our epicurean pleasures were duly furnished.
The smiley Father Christmas figure, with his trademark flowing white beard, delivered the goods and then some. He popped by our table several times to see how we were getting on, and to shed light on some of the nuances of his creations. The slightly tart apple slices in one dish, he explained, were there to keep the diner interested by surprising them. And the risotto, with excellent cashew nut-based cheese, worked a charm.
But you don’t end up with a place so tastefully and sensitively crafted without at least a little forethought. In the case of Schloss Elmau, several minds put in long hours, and went the extra philosophical yard, to come up with a unique concept.
The resort's history
SCHLOSS ELMAU was founded in 1916 by the current owner Dietmar Müller-Elmau’s grandfather Dr. Johannes Müller. A well-respected theologian and philosopher, Müller built up a sizeable following, designing the Bavarian hideaway as a “space for personal freedom and communal life” without the burden of ideology.
Music and nature were prime ingredients of the Müller ethos, in the pursuance of inner tranquility, but he gained notoriety in 1933 when his viewpoint of the individual’s place in the world crossed the singular-plural tracks. He now advocated subservience of the “I” to the “We”. Incredibly, despite his fierce opposition to antisemitism and his admiration for Jews – Martin Buber was among his many notable followers – Müller became an avid supporter of Hitler. He saw the Fuhrer as someone who championed “the common good over self-interest.”
Schloss Elmau endured a checkered history over the next six decades and, in the early 1960s, the place was returned to the family and was taken over by Dietmar’s father Bernhard Müller-Elmau. One of the first things he initiated was to focus on classical music, which he saw as a means of reconciliation between Germans and Jews. The Jewish – and Israeli – element is very much a feature there to this day.
Music continues to play a major role in the cultural and philosophical life of the Schloss, with many of the world’s leading classical artists playing there, and enjoying residencies for communing with nature, reflection and composition.
Among the numerous strands to his philosophical approach, Dietmar Müller-Elmau maintains his father’s belief in music as a central core of a spiritually healthy lifestyle, for one and all. “The whole staff, everything is here for the artists,” he notes, “but it has to be mutual.” Avishai Cohen goes along with that. “That is the feeling I have here,” he says when we meet up for a chat the morning after his gig.
“The hospitality here is wonderful. You feel wanted here.”Avishai Cohen
Presumably, Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Olaf Scholz and the rest of the G7 summit participants will get a similar sense of home, and of being wanted, when they convene at Schloss Elmau today. It certainly had a calming effect on me, let’s hope our world leaders get the tranquility vibe there, too.
For more information: https://www.schloss-elmau.de/en/
The writer was a guest of Schloss Elmau.