“Do we have to go cycling?” This isn’t what I need to hear two weeks ahead of our trip to the Tyrol. A trip I’ve arranged with family biking in mind.
I wasn’t an outdoorsy youngster. We went family camping. Once. And it was to a French Eurocamp, not the wilderness. But when I look at my own daughters, glued to screens, childhood-me seems like a mini Bear Grylls.
Could an e-bike — cycling with the help of an onboard battery — convert my two kids to a trip without sun-loungers or shopping malls? For me, this is also partly a revisit. I spent a summer week in Kitzbühel as a teenager.
“I’m supposed to be finding out if city kids like you can enjoy an outdoor active adventure,” I explain.
“Does this answer your question?” Lili replies, re-inserting earphones and pulling the duvet over her head.
In the saddle
Austria’s mountains strongly evoke The Sound of Music and emerald pastures; verdant and dramatic, rather than spiky, bare and gauche like their Alpine neighbours. This landscape and its people are unshakeably genteel. The cashpoint even politely asks what denominations I’d like my €100 in.
St. Johann, where we’re based, is more than just a convenient jumping-off point. Its small centre is corralled by the carefully stencilled balconies of timbered Tirolean chalets. They’re draped in window boxes overflowing with petunias. Consecrated in the 1730s, its twin-turreted church is a baroque delight with a gilded interior in stucco and marble. Indeed, more than once during our stay we’re grateful to the town for rescuing us from ‘variable’ mountain weather. We even spend day one indoors at Panorama Badewelt, a pool complex in the town centre with slides and a heated outdoor pool, safe from the rain falling outside.
E-biking is big news around here. Already, around 70% of bikes sold locally are e-bikes. It’s not always easy, however, to find e-bikes to rent for kids. Bike Nature, close to our hotel, equips us with new full-suspension mountain e-bikes, including a 24-inch model for Ruby. One minor hiccup later, when Lili claims to have ‘dislocated her hip’ getting aboard, and we’re away.
The ‘e’ in e-bike stands for electronic; it could equally be ‘easy’. Every time we hit an incline, I press one button and the onboard battery quadruples my pedal power. Maintaining 10-12mph uphill is a doddle; battery assistance cuts out at 15mph on the downslopes.
“This is my kind of cycling,” Lili hollers, within a few minutes of setting off. She now only has an earphone in one ear, I notice. So, 50% engaged. More than usual, anyway. Plus, the dislocated hip seems to have healed.
We follow a quiet, mostly asphalt Roman road through the meadows to Kitzbühel. Navigating is quite easy: we just keep the peak of the Kitzbühler Horn on our left, passing the Bauernhaus Museum en route, a typical Einhof-style barn farm that’s been preserved as a museum of rural life. An hour or so later and we’re zooming down into a Tirolean icon, complete with a 14th-century church and pastel-painted houses.
Kitzbühel is as I remember it. A little more chic, maybe busier. During one afternoon, we cover 15 miles by bike with barely a word of complaint, not even when I miss the turn for Schwarzsee Lake.
By dinnertime, we’re ravenous and make for the street cafes and restaurants of St. Johann’s main square. At Dampfl we feast on hearty grub, washed down with Tirolean black beer from St. Johann’s Huber brewery. Even full of fresh mountain air, it’s a challenge to polish off Dampfl’s trio of knödel — three dumplings with spinach, fried cheese and speck all topped off with a wonderful chanterelle mushroom sauce.
Leave them wanting more, as they say. So, the morning after our Kitzbühel ride, we take the St. Johann cable-car to the mid-station for some treetop parkour at the Hornpark, finishing with a flight on the Flying Fox zip-wire across a little alpine lake. (The adults, that is. The kids sat that one out.)
The rest goes off equally — and unexpectedly — smoothly. After a tasty schnitzel lunch at the Berghotel Pointenhof, we learn a bit of archery, targeting foam animals in a bizarre shooting gallery outside the hotel. The teenager nails a polystyrene ibex with her second shot. Even Ruby hits a baby pig. It helps that I’m totally useless, struggling even to keep my arrows inside the range.
There were, of course, minor mishaps. Lili got a sharp shock from an electric fence and an even bigger one when a heifer evacuated its bowels a mere three yards from her Topshop skinny jeans and favourite Nike trainers.
But we only visited McDonald’s once. Nobody complained about being tired more than twice a day. We even hiked through a larch forest. Admittedly, it was only for 20 minutes, tops. But I’m counting it.
Bear would… wouldn’t he?
Donald and wife Lucia, plus children Ruby (10) and Lili (14).
Pretty much anyone with children aged 9+.
“These e-bikes have completely changed my outlook on life,” said Lili.
Not as hot as we hoped: 11°C, mid-afternoon in July.
Need to know
At Bike Nature in St. Johann in Tirol, a week’s rental for an adult e-bike costs from €182 (£163); child’s e-bike from €149 (£133). Admission to the Hornpark costs €17 (£15). bike-stjohann.at
How to do it
British Airways (return flights from £80 per person), EasyJet, Flybe and Austrian Airlines fly between the UK and Innsbruck. Flight time: 2 hours. Innsbruck Airport is 90 minutes’ drive from the Kitzbüheler Alpen. Four Seasons Travel offers transfers from £180 for up to eight passengers.
Published in the Family Travel guide, free with with the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)