Making the right choices at Ayurveda Resort Sonnhof wellbeing retreat in Austria

Kathryn Ludlow attends a short wellbeing break at Ayurveda Resort Sonnhof in Austria and finds stylish design, a nurturing atmosphere and sublime food

After a hectic few weeks I was glad of the opportunity for a short wellbeing break at Ayurveda Resort Sonnhof, an ayurveda retreat in Austria in the impossibly picturesque village of Hinterhiersee in the alps. You can come here for a short stay to rest and relax, or for a longer ayurveda-based cure. I was here for only a couple of days, but I still found a place in which I started to relax almost as soon as I arrived.

Coming in from sub zero temperatures, I was struck by an immediate sense of warmth and cosiness. There was a pleasant scent of incense, as friendly young staff directed me to my suite. This was utterly delightful, and from enormous windows on three walls I took in the beautiful mountain scenery, covered in thick snow in February.

As I had missed lunch I was pleased to discover an afternoon buffet serving herbal teas, juices (there is a juicer for your own creations) as well as healthy snacks and home made cakes (which, I confess, I immediately selected!) It occurred to me, having already spotted the well stocked bar and wine fridge, that to be on a cleansing or weight loss diet here might be challenging for those not blessed with rock solid self control. But the ayurvedic approach here is not about deprivation – it is about nourishment and being kind to yourself. Meat is not served but, otherwise, nothing is ‘banned’. Temptation will always be in your path, and guests are encouraged to make the right choices for life. Interestingly, the next day I chose a small bowl of stewed apple over the cakes!

I had never experienced ayurveda before I came here and was intrigued. My consultation with resident ayurvedic specialist, Dr Sharma, started with an examination of my face, tongue, hand, eyes and pulse, and he determined that, whilst of the three ayurvedic dosha types I should naturally be more Pitta, I had become too Vata, overactive and thinking too much. Glancing disapprovingly at my ipad, he said that I was taking in too much information with my eyes and should listen more, especially to music. I should breathe more slowly and deeply too.

Curiously, he thought that we all drink too much water – had my mother told me to drink more water when I was a child, he asked? It is quite true that she had, although I had spent many years as an adult telling her to drink more! We should also not drink and eat together, the doctor told me, and a glass of red wine is better with a meal than a glass of water (hurray!) I should eat local, seasonal produce, warm foods in the winter, animals which are lighter than me (my mind wandered at this point to consider the average weight of a pig or a lamb!) and cook with local oils (like butter – again, hurray! ) All this sounded common sense and easily achievable.

‘This nurturing place is not about deprivation, and guests are encouraged to make the right choices for life. I am sure that I detected an approving glance when I asked the characterful Daniel for a pre-dinner prosecco’

I had a range of treatments to rebalance my doshas and deal with my Vata during my stay. My first was a massage with Barbara, a young woman blessed with the most beautiful of smiles. I tend to avoid massages which are light on touch and heavy on oil. But on this occasion I left the room feeling the most wonderful sense of calm. I was less calmed by the Shirodhara treatment, which includes warm oil being poured on to your forehead for 20 minutes. It is a very well known and popular ayurvedic treatment, and works wonders for many people, but I couldn’t relax. My indifference to it was blamed on my inability to switch off, a state which was confirmed by Yvonne, another lovely therapist, who said my cold feet was because all my energy was in my head. I confess that I personally didn’t take to the oily massages, but I was surrounded by fellow guests who adore ayurveda and had been coming here for years.

Over dinner each night I experienced the exceptional five course Sonnhof menu of a salad, soup, pasta, a main course (with a choice of fish, vegetarian or ayurvedic) and dessert. The food is produced locally (much on the Sonnhof’s own farm) and utterly delicious. By the time dessert came I was usually full but too curious not to sample it – the buttermilk panna cotta with fennel and mandarin orange was particularly sublime.

Inevitably given the wintry outdoors, I hung out in the delightful spa quite a bit, where I preferred the wet heat of the steam rooms and sipped some of delicious and calming homemade Vata tea. After each treatment I went back to whichever of the saunas I was instructed to by my therapist, though I confess I never stayed as long as I might, simply because I don’t find I can relax when surrounded by naked strangers. Like at most spas in Austra, swimsuits and towels are actively frowned upon here, and other guests looked at me askance as I entered the saunas protecting my modesty in a towel.

I joined a yoga class or two in the lovely studio which overlooks the garden. Andrea had an impressive talent for effortlessly moving between German and English in ‘yoga speak’, so that I was able to fully to participate in the class along with my 12 German-speaking classmates.

When not in a treatment, doing yoga or enjoying the spa, I found myself in the Spirit Lounge, a stylish area with comfy armchairs and a log fire and the only place with wifi. Herbal teas are always available and one of the charming staff will bring you a cappuccino or glass of wine if you want it. (I am sure that I detected an approving glance when I asked the characterful Daniel for a pre-dinner prosecco). Many guests congregated here, and there was a good vibe in the afternoons and evenings – like an intimate house party.

Sonnhof caters primarily to German speakers, and it was not until my last day that I heard the voice of another English guest. This presented me with no practical problems, since the staff speak good English, and some of my schoolgirl German even started to reemerge. But I’d advise sociable non-German speakers to travel with a like minded friend – or, unless you’re on an intense detox, even a lover, for Sonnhof is a very spiritual and romantic place.