We knew a fellow, an Englishman in fact, who once, standing amidst the magnificent mountain scenery of Bad Hofgastein, Austria, uttered the scornful observation that “once you’ve seen one alp, you’ve seen them all”. We had him shot next day for naked cynicism and forgot about the incident until last week, when we found ourselves in Berchtesgaden.
Berchtesgaden is about an hour’s drive from Bad Hofgastein and offers equally stunning alpine surroundings. It is actually in Germany but in that knob of southern Bavaria that sticks into and is surrounded on three sides by Austria. To the casual eye it doesn’t make much difference anyway, because here the snowy peaks and lush meadows of Germany and Austria are interchangeable.
We have come to Berchtesgaden for a few nights for a couple of reasons, the first of which is to visit the newest Kempinski hotel in the region around Hungary. The second is historical, to see Obersalzberg, the area where the Nazi elite relaxed between the industrial-scale slaughtering.
Having already been to eight luxurious Kempinskis in the countries surrounding Hungary we do have some idea what to expect, but we determine not to be blasé and fall into the trap of saying that “once you’ve been to one Kempinski, you’ve been to them all”, at risk of being shot.
As pointed out in this newspaper previously, the hotels in this chain, Europe’s oldest since 1897, are individually owned but with a common commitment to showering five stars on their guests and even perhaps adding the word “superior” to their ranking, as does the Kempinski Hotel Berchtesgaden.
These days there are some 465 Kempinskis in more than 60 countries. They are all different. This one in the Bavarian Alps is owned by Bayerische Landesbank (Bavarian State Bank) and opened only on May 1 last year after being built nine years earlier as an InterContintental.
Already high enough itself at 1000 metres above sea level, Kempinski Hotel Berchtesgaden is spectacularly set between the mountains Watzmann (2713 metres), Untersberg (1973 metres) and Kehlstein (1834 metres).
We drive in via the motorways to Vienna and Saltzburg, the latter only 30-plus kilometres from the hotel. However, for an arrival with a bang, we recommend rustling up a helicopter from somewhere and flying into the helipad, right outside the hotel’s front door and driveway.
The Kempinski sits on the Eckerbichl summit, and on the drive up the winding road guests pass through blooming meadows in summer or silent, snow-covered slopes in winter, giving them a first taste of the special location this hotel enjoys.
The horseshoe-shaped building is a striking piece of modern architecture among the green, with clear lines and lots of wood and glass. High-quality and alpine materials dominate the interior design and 138 rooms and suites on three floors all have a balcony, a terrace or panoramic windows, drawing the surrounding nature inside.
Our room has a large floor-to-ceiling window opening onto a private terrace directly facing snowy peaks, and just off to the side we can see the Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle’s Nest, way, way up on Kehlstein. More of which in a moment.
Located directly opposite the lobby entrance, a huge lounge offers a large sunken seating area with comfy armchairs and sofas to socialise around a large fireplace, a cup of tea or coffee, or else a glass of champagne or digestif in hand, and enjoy the immense view or read the enormous books provided. In winter, the crackling fire makes the lobby even cosier, while the snow sparkles outside. A singing piano player arrives in the evening.
Le Ciel restaurant offers first-rate regionally inspired cuisine and is the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the Berchtesgaden region. Next door the Johann Grill offers the most lavish alpine buffet breakfast you can image, again against a backdrop of mountains.
Guests are served a different vitamin shot each day before turning to an amazing spread bursting with regional products such as a variety of milk, alpine cheese, organic eggs, fresh rustic bread, multiple cereals, sausages, seeds, fruits, cold meats and fish, hot food, jams, pastries, cakes, yogurts, juices, teas, coffees and healthy fruit and vegetables. And sparkling wine, of course.
Wine lovers can find an extravagant sanctuary in the Vinothek, which features a long bar and an exclusive atmosphere for private functions. The wine list includes some 400 varieties from around the world. Red wines are kept in a dark red walk-in glass cube, while whites are displayed in a transparent cabinet. Around 4000 bottles take up the entire wall space.
It would be remiss not to mention the relaxing spa with its indoor pool (29 Celsius), outdoor pool (34 Celsius), nine treatment rooms including private rooms for couples, meditation lounge and its waterbeds, relaxation area, Finnish sauna (90 Celsius), herb sauna (65 Celsius), steam bath, infra-red cabin and tanning bed.
The signature treatment, a salt stone massage, uses warm salt stones extracted from local crystalline halite. Combined with an organic olive oil, these salts have a mineralising, energising and cleansing effect on the skin and the body as a whole.
Finally, the hotel offers its very own “activity concierge”, the first and only one of his kind in the entire Kempinski group. This is Manuel Huber, a lusty outdoor type who will gladly whisk you off for golf, skiing, summer and winter sledding, mountain hikes, mountain climbing, mountain bike tours, kite flying, paragliding, river rafting, canyoning, fishing, carriage rides, tennis or a visit to a falconry.
Obersalzberg, a mountainside retreat situated above the market town of Berchtesgaden, is where Adolf Hitler and his leading Nazis had retreats. Hitler’s was the Berghof, where he and his friends and senior party officials enjoyed the terrace and its sweeping view.
It is less than a 15-minute walk from the hotel. Also nearby is the Documentation Centre, where you can find out how the Nazi leaders terrorised their fellow Germans at Obersalzberg, making them an offer they couldn’t refuse: sell your house to us or lose your job or be sent to a concentration camp.
Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring and Albert Speer also had homes here and there was an SS barracks. It was all blown up in and after the war, and of the Berghof only a rear retaining wall remains and, surprisingly, some brick and concrete foundations not chipped away by souvenir hunters.
It is possible to wander the original bunkers under the Documentation Centre, bolt-holes for the human rats above.
The Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle’s Nest, is one Third Reich-era edifice that remains. It was presented to Hitler on his 50th birthday as a retreat and place to entertain friends and visiting dignitaries. Today it is open seasonally as a restaurant, beer garden and tourist site.
The British had a plan, Operation Foxley, to smuggle in a sniper to pick off Hitler on his daily walk to his favourite teahouse, the nearby Mooslahnerkopf (again demolished), but didn’t go through with it because, for one thing, suppose somebody cleverer took over the running of the war?
The Führer eventually shot himself after swallowing cyanide in the bunker in Berlin. Here, in the clear air of beautiful Bavaria, he could have been content with Eva Braun and Blondi, his German Shepherd, which would have saved millions of lives. There is plenty of lebensraum. It is all food for thought on our visit to the Kempinski Hotel Berchtesgaden and the remains of the Berghof.
Kempinski Hotel Berchtesgaden
Tel.: (+49) 8652 9755 0