A Castle with Culture

Schloss Elmau is a Bavarian resort offering highbrow pursuits along with indulgent R&R

Schloss Elmau isn’t an ordinary alpine retreat. Yes, it’s a five-star establishment with food-for-the-soul views that draw guests there: enveloped by thick swathes of Black Forest fir trees that give way to the sugar-dusted Wetterstein alps, the hotel has to-die-for panoramas that can be glimpsed from nearly every one of its seven spa pools and from the floor-to-ceiling windows found in many rooms. 

But what elevates Schloss Elmau from the pack of luxury five-star establishments is that guests can also tap into a vast menu of highbrow pursuits, thanks to the vision of Schloss Elmau’s owner, Dietmar Müller-Elmau. Since acquiring the hotel from his family 25 years ago, he has continued and refined its reputation as cultural hub, with a packed weekly calendar of classical and jazz concerts and talks by renowned authors. Artistes come on a ‘play to stay’ basis, indulging themselves at the hotel in exchange for performances in the hotel’s celebrated concert hall. On the 2023 calendar are pianist Behzod Abduraimov and violinist Daniel Hope, a chamber music week, a weekend seminar devoted to the work of Ingmar Bergman and another celebrating the 75th birthday of the state of Israel. Such lofty culture alongside indulgent amenities landed Schloss Elmau the honour of hosting two recent G7 summits attended by the world’s political leaders, in 2015 and 2022. If it’s good enough for Obama… 

At the same time, Schloss Elmau offers all the accoutrements one expects of a high-end resort – state-of-the-art spas, a Michelin-starred restaurant, rooms and vigorous activities for the sports-minded. 

On our trip in early winter we capitalised on its R&R offerings. Our room was in the more modern of the hotel’s two buildings, The Retreat, opened in 2015. We walked into a vast suite with gigantic windows and balcony pointing towards that breath-taking vista, a feast for the eyes each morning. The room’s décor is quite eclectic – decorated in welcoming tones of russet and yellow, it mixed oak parquet floors, plump sofas, striking structural lighting and Asian-style furniture to create a quirky and warm space. Also noteworthy is the hotel’s signature elephant motif woven into the bed board and soft furnishings, which reflects Muller-Elmau’s penchant for the Fast East. The hall and dressing room had enough closet space to satisfy a Kardashian. The bathroom boasts a wet-room style shower, bath and double sink unit. There’s a separate state-of-the-art toilet that doubles as a bidet and perhaps other appliances, but I wasn’t able to read instructions without my glasses and didn’t take any risks. 

The original hotel building, The Hideaway, looks more like the castle you’d expect of a Bavarian outpost, with spiky steeples and turrets and handsome inner courtyard. It has a more varied mix of room sizes and is home to a sizeable lounge, bookshop, library and the renowned performance space. It’s all been strikingly upgraded since a 2005 fire destroyed much of the building. 

We hung out in the lounges at both The Retreat and The Hideaway – they’re cosy places with snapping fires and squishy furniture in which guests are invited to relax, read, chat and enjoy a drink. Watching the sun set over the alps while sharing a bottle of Grüner Veltliner was a particular delight. Currently my favourite white wine, the Schloss provided a delicious full-bodied example from over the border in Wachau, Austria. Drinks were a perfect prelude to dinner in Tutto Mondo, The Retreat’s main restaurant. The Italian-themed eatery, which makes great use of local produce, turned out some standout dishes – the tagliolini with truffles in a Prosecco foam was a particularly lovely flavour combination.

My favourite main course was a sole filet in a tomato vinaigrette, the sauce providing a piquant contrast to the buttery fish, while my partner raved about his sea bass surrounded by a colourful riot of Amalfi lemon, carrots and chard. The restaurant occupies two handsome rooms on the ground floor of The Retreat, decorated in deep reds and russets – a bit of a theme throughout The Retreat – with swathes of fabric separating the tables. The focal point is a handful of booths situated under arches that are painted in shimmering gold, giving real wow factor to the space. The food and atmosphere proved a magnet for families on the early shift, as well as couples and groups who’d wander in later for a more leisurely experience. 

And we were back in Tutto Mondo 12 hours later to refuel from a stocked breakfast buffet of fruits, cheeses, meats, muesli, pastries and an array of those dense dark breads that Germans do so well. A made-to-order menu features organic eggs cooked every way as well as fluffy American-style pancakes I can recommend. 

But dinner isn’t all Italian haute cuisine. The hotel also owns an authentic old alpine chalet in the hills, Elmauer Alm, that serves warming Austrian fare including potato soup and Kaiserschmarrn, the raisin-filled shredded pancakes found on every mountain menu. We devoured a rustic meal at Kaminstüberl, the hotel’s cosy fondue eatery whose décor mimics a chic alpine lodge. We polished off a sizeable urn of molten cheese, a bellyful of bread and bowls full of potatoes and pickled onions, in a mountain meal that absolutely warrants honouring in a swish hotel. At the other end of the dining scale, Schloss Elmau is also home to two Michelin-starred Luce D’Oro, which offers elevated European fare served in imaginative and artistic fashion. 

Every day after breakfast we’d venture out on sojourns into that glorious Bavarian landscape. On e-bikes that can be rented at the hotel, we followed well-signposted paths to negotiate a scenic, car-free route to two nearby lakes in the shadow of the alps, the Ferchensee and the Lautersee. The powerful bikes helped us to whizz up even steep hills, taking the strain of any challenging terrain. It was absolutely exhilarating to venture so far into the countryside. On other mornings we walked in woods closer to the hotel, admiring the tall pines and enjoying the silence and the crunching of frosty leaves under our feet. 

Then back to the hotel to seek a more indolent sort of serenity in the spas. The hotel boasts six of them. The Retreat is home to the Shantigiri Spa, one part for families and the other for adults. The latter boasts a spectacular 20-square metre Japanese Onsen pool at a piping 40 degrees – it was bliss being immersed in a hot bath with fresh air on my face while drinking in that alpine panorama. There’s also a Nature Spa in the grounds of the hotel next to the Ferchenbach creek, open only in summer. No problem – there was plenty of spa action to be had elsewhere. In our bathrobes we ventured the few minutes’ walk from The Retreat to the Badehaus, featuring another Family Spa, an adults-only spa and a marvellously authentic Turkish hammam. The options for whiling away the hours immersed in water, steam or intense heat were numerous and inviting. For me, punctuated by stints dozing on a cosy lounger in the relaxation room with windows facing the alps, it enabled me to achieve the sort of delicious, indulgent rest I had sought in coming here. 

Schloss Elmau offers double rooms from €380 per person per night based on two adults sharing on a half board basis. This includes Yoga & Active programmes, access to the spa in the Hideaway, admission to cultural events and spas. For booking, please visit schloss-elmauHoliday Extras is the market leader in UK airport parking, hotels, lounges, and transfers. To book, visit HolidayExtras.com or call 0800 316 5678. 

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