A feast for the senses in Italy's South Tyrol
Arriving at San Luis Retreat Hotel and Lodges' main clubhouse (essentially a humongous timber lodge in the Italian South Tyrol), as soon as that first warm woody inhale hits my system, I can feel the tension flowing from my body.
It's often said that smell is the most powerful sense for evoking emotions, and this is love at first sniff.
Although, turning on the spot to take it all in, San Luis is an absolute feast for the eyes too – from the mighty wood rafters criss-crossing high above, to the soul-pleasing geometry of the wood-tiled floor.
Flickering candles and lily-filled glass vases sit artfully atop rustic-industrial coffee tables next to giant linen sofas – not to mention the huge log fire crackling away.
It's a perfect harmony of style and soothing. I've not even reached the check-in desk and already I'm under a San Luis spell, dropping my bag to warm my hands by the fire, feeling far too much at home.
This is exactly what the Meister family was hoping for when they first opened San Luis in 2015. It's the family's second hotel – they've run Hotel Irma, in the nearby town of Merano, for multiple generations since it opened in 1924 – and there are clear similarities between the two.
Both embody traditional Tyrolean hospitality and impeccable standards and style, both are spas, and both have that personal touch that chain hotels can never quite match. But that's where the similarities end.
Despite the name, San Luis isn't really a hotel at all, rather a 40-hectare Alpine oasis nestled at around 1480m above sea level on the Avelengo/Hafling plateau, a two-hour drive from Verona Airport. (I flew from Gatwick, but airports across the UK and Ireland offer direct flights.)
Instead of rooms, guests stay in their own private chalets or 'tree houses' on stilts; some scattered around the resort's 5800-square-metre lake, others sat a little further back, hugged by the forest beyond.
There are currently 26 chalets and 16 tree houses, from romantic two-sleepers for couples (or empowered singletons), to six-sleepers for groups and families (although San Luis only allows kids aged 12 and over and there are strict spa and restaurant curfews to ensure a peaceful, grown-up atmosphere).
Each has its own kitchen, lounge, hot tub and mini sauna, and some have steps right down into the lake. At the heart of it all is the clubhouse, which leads onto the spa on one side and the restaurant and bar on the other.
Here for a weekend, I'm keen to make the most of the chance to relax, so I head straight for a spa treatment. If there was any hint of tension left in my muscles after that Alpine-aroma hit, it's all gone after 80 minutes with Steffan, who intuitively tailors my massage to the areas that need it most, masterfully kneading the knots from my tight, desk-worker shoulders.
Spa treatments start from €44/£38 and booking ahead is advised.
However, there's no doubt a big chunk of the spa's therapeutic magic lies simply in its setting and design. There's a well-equipped modern gym, a generous steam room and sauna – but a swim at San Luis is next level.
The indoor pool, cocooned in that bewitching timber goodness, has a roaring fire at one end and gigantic floor-to-ceiling windows with views onto the lake at the other. A sliding glass door lets you swim out to a heated infinity pool, where after a few dreamy laps, you can clamber out for an invigorating dash down the jetty to the Jacuzzi on the lake.
The South Tyrol is a nature-lover's dream, with miles of trails to explore – and it's those hills, trees and the fresh mountain air that works the biggest wonders on your wellbeing. Forest-bathing may now be a wellness buzzword, but mountain folk have always been tapped into Mother Nature's healing powers.
San Luis guests can grab an e-bike and cycle around the winding valley roads, or head out on foot for a hike. The trails are well marked and you can pop to reception to grab a map and chat through suitable routes.
We take a three-hour meander through the forest up to Wurzer Alm (wurzer-alm.com), a secluded mountain hut with pigs, goats, ponies, rabbits, hens, cats and peacocks, where cyclists and hikers can refresh and refuel.
Host Ulli gives us a traditional dumpling-making masterclass (€150/£129 for a group, which you can book in advance through San Luis), and we spend a merry hour-and-a-half sipping prosecco with elderflower and mixing chunks of stale bread, eggs, milk and flour with our hands (you can pretty much add whatever other ingredients you fancy; our veggie version has spinach, nutmeg and garlic), before moulding it into balls.
After 10 minutes in simmering salted water, our dumplings are served steaming and coated with melting Parmesan, alongside piles of crunchy chopped cabbage, and we all find ourselves reaching for seconds and thirds.
The following day, we stretch our legs with a 45-minute walk to Knottnkino, which translates to 'rock theatre' – a rocky clearing on the hillside where rows of seats have been installed, so 'theatre-goers' can sit and watch the spectacular ever-changing scenery.
We're treated to a show of wispy cloud wrapping its way around the endless layers of peaks stretching across the horizon, while meadows in the valley below are green and glossy from the morning rain.
It's only really in recent years that UK tourists have started to cotton on to the Alps and Tyrol regions being great year-round destinations, and not just for ski holidays. While magical under blankets of snow (at San Luis, you can skate on the lake when it freezes over too), each season offers its own rewards, and even in heavy mist, the scenery is spectacular in its earthy, autumnal splendour.
Of course, another treasure of the Tyrol is the food, particularly this sliver of northern Italy, which has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-star restaurants in the world. At San Luis, breakfast arrives at your chalet or tree house in a hamper each morning (you select your options from a menu when you check in – but expect a generous spread of granola, yogurt, fruit, eggs, breads and pastries galore).
The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner, where you can tuck into a sumptuous salad buffet alongside a daily-changing a la carte or six-course dinner menu, with meat, fish and plenty of veggie options, and a cheese table of dreams to finish things off.
Here, sustainability isn't a trend or buzzword but simply the way of life; meals often come with a hearty dollop of community connections (the Meisters have been working with the same family bakery for generations, for example), and rich with free-range, organic, seasonal goodness.
Their traditional Schlutzkrapfen – a butter and sage ravioli – is Italian simplicity at its finest, so good that I order it twice in one weekend, and find room for dessert and cheese (yes, even after all those dumplings). Well, all this luxurious R&R is hungry work...
Need to know
San Luis offers chalets and treehouses from €305/£263 per person on a half-board basis. Visit sanluis-hotel.com