Green high ground: Holidaying in a luxury resort needn't cost the earth
Responsible traveller Rhiannon Batten unwinds up a mountain in Italy
Published 27/11/2007 | 14:15
'You didn't miss anything in the restaurant car," said Judith, ricocheting pinball-style down the train carriage and into the couchette I was sharing with her and three of her friends. "You wouldn't believe the vegetarian option. It was hilarious. We were given a plate of sprouts and three huge chunks of cheese. That was it."
Members of a Shropshire book group that was heading off for a literary tour of Venice, Judith and her friends had, in a moment of environmental conscientiousness, decided to travel overland rather than take the plane along with the rest of the club.
There were more challenges to come as the overnight train rolled south from Paris towards Italy. "Do you mind if I get undressed for bed in here?" said Val, another of the party, a little later on. "I would have got changed in the toilet, but it smelt so much I just wanted to get in and get out."
"I'm sorry I put you through all this," huffed Mary, the instigator of the trip and a dedicated train-traveller.
"No, no. It's fantastic. It's an adventure," insisted the other two, unwrapping the provided stack of linen sheets and woollen blankets and settling in for the night.
I was also on board for literary reasons, though less high-brow ones; the journey, for me, was part of a much-needed break after writing a guidebook. During the previous four months, I had spent 6am to 11pm each day engaged in a monogamous affair with my laptop. The urge, now, to put some distance between myself and my keyboard was overwhelming. While my initial instinct might have been to run for the nearest airport, the book I'd been writing was a guide to travelling responsibly.
Producing it had inspired me to jettison my toxic stack of insect repellents and sunscreens in favour of biodegradable alternatives; steer clear of golf courses in arid countries; avoid all-inclusive resorts in favour of small, independently owned hotels and restaurants; and swear off a constant supply of plastic mineral-water bottles. It had also persuaded me that, while spending a substantial amount of time in a chic, community-friendly lodge might justify a long-haul flight, it was environmentally irresponsible to fly off on another short-haul trip. If I really cared about the environment, I needed to cut down on the number of flights I was taking.
That didn't mean I wanted to spend the rest of my holiday life camping in France, or working on an organic farm in Wales. The idea that responsible travel is a niche activity, only for those who don't mind roughing it, and somehow different from an "ordinary" holiday, is outdated. I was looking for style and ecological substance. My destination, the Vigilius Mountain Resort, promised to provide both.
Set 1,500 metres up a mountain in Italy's South Tirol, the resort was opened in 2003. It was designed by a local architect, Matteo Thun, to a brief that specified minimal environmental impact and low energy use. The result is a model of responsible accommodation, from the giant cowhide sofas corralled in the lobby to in-room toiletries made from organic local pine oil. Almost everything in the resort has been designed to reflect the surroundings. Even the building itself, wrapped in slats of timber, is so well camouflaged against the adjacent forest that it looks like a huge fallen tree.
The resort's respect for nature is more than skin deep. For insulation, the building has three-pane thermal glazing and a grass roof. Each room features a stamped clay wall (prettier than it sounds), underfloor heating and a combined ventilation and heat recovery system for radiant heating. General heating is provided via a woodchip boiler, with fuel supplied, sustainably, by local farmers. And almost all waste is recycled, including the concept itself: the resort is built on the site of an old Tirolean hotel, which had become too decrepit to salvage.
This all makes for a pretty spectacular experience. But, however responsible it is, a luxury resort succeeds or fails according to how much its guests enjoy themselves. And Vigilius has taken the nurture message to heart. With armchairs by B&B Italia, lights by Philippe Starck and textiles by Frette and Kvadrat, this is no shabby chic "eco oasis".
Likewise, there is a well-stocked wine cellar. A free-flowing stream of prosecco fizzes by the resort's minimalist open fire every evening. And the cooking, while robustly Tirolean in size, is presented in a resolutely urban way; roast lamb came with a delicate teacup of polenta, venison broth with a single porcini mushroom (picked on the mountain) and a delicate disc of ravioli practising synchronised swimming on its surface.
Most tempting of all for a burnt-out writer looking for guilt-free pampering, however, is the resort's spa. Not only does it look the part, all clean lines and floor-to-ceiling views over green and gold larch trees and the white-tipped, craggy peaks of the Dolomites, but it's as sustainable as the rest of Vigilius. Instead of the usual energy, water and heat-guzzling set-up, with gallons of non-biodegradable potions being pumped out into the drainage system, here the facilities work in harmony with their surroundings. Water comes from a mountain spring, salt is used in place of chlorine and treatments include a joint-easing hay bath, where you can wallow cocooned in the warm – but tickly – clippings from a neighbouring meadow.
Now all I had to do was get there. According to the website CO2 Balance, flying from my nearest airport, Glasgow, to nearby Bolzano and back would produce around 0.86 tonnes of carbon emissions. A similar journey by train would be responsible for only 0.30 tonnes. Yes, the time on the train would eat into my trip but, having accepted that travelling responsibly is about getting there as much as arriving, leaving a substantially lower carbon footprint felt like the right step to take.
On a sleeper train across Europe, you avoid the time and money spent getting out to airports. Then there's the atmosphere. Leaving sprouts aside, railways are the most romantic way to get from A to B, or Z. Not only do you avoid that disorientating feeling you get when a plane tips you, blinking, straight into a new destination but, on this journey, I would wake up in the Italian mountains after a night on the rails re-energised and unplugged from daily life.
And so, more or less, it was. The first part was frustrating: a two-hour drive from my home in Scotland to Carlisle, the nearest mainline station, where I boarded a train to London; a sprint across the capital (pre-St Pancras) to reach the Eurostar to Paris; and a frenzied dash between stations in the French capital that was made more stressful by a transport workers' strike. Once on the Italy-bound train, though, I found myself agreeing with the Shropshire book group travellers. I left the train at Verona, hopping on to an easy connection to Bolzano, and was picked up by car from there for the final few miles to Vigilius. The journey proved an integral, and relatively comfortable, part of the adventure. I had had a surprising amount of sleep en route and it even ended with a dramatic cable-car ride, as only residents can drive on the dirt tracks that loop up the mountain to the hotel and beyond.
Two days later, having tried "Five Tibetans" yoga, taken Zen-inspired archery lessons, listened to a gentle jangling chorus of Alpine cowbells and experienced Watsu, a kind of watery shiatsu, the decompression was almost complete. Most relaxing of all had been simply walking along the trails that zigzag their way around Vigilius mountain, winding past wide, dimpled meadows, twisting Hansel and Gretel-style through the forest beneath low-slung, mossy branches or stopping off to fill up on apple strudel and espresso at a scattering of mountain cafés.
On my final day, I headed up the mountain one last time. The previous day had been crisp and sunny but, today, winter was on its way. Tiny flakes were trying to form in the damp mist that hung between the trees and the rumpled topography had taken on a chilly purple hue.
From up above, it was easy to appreciate how well Vigilius fits into its environment, drawing on it but not dominating it. With foie gras on the menu and little plastic bottles of toiletries (albeit organic) in its bedrooms, it isn't yet the perfect responsible retreat, but it had come pretty close.
Had it been worth getting there by train? I can't pretend that I was feeling as scrubbed and serene when I got home as I had when I left Vigilius, but I felt pretty good. And next time, I'll know to leave enough time between trains in Paris to pack a hamper en route.
'Higher Ground: How to Travel Responsibly Without Roughing It' by Rhiannon Batten is published by Virgin Books (£12.99)
The writer travelled with Rail Europe (08708 371 371; www.raileurope.co.uk ), which can book rail tickets from London St Pancras to Bolzano via Paris and Verona. The journey time is 12 hours and returns start from £160. From Bolzano, a taxi to Lana, at the bottom of Mt Vigilius, costs about €35 (£25).
Vigilius Mountain Resort, Vigiljoch Mountain, Lana, South Tyrol, Italy (00 39 04 73 556 600; www.vigilius.it ). Double rooms start from €320 (£229), including breakfast and use of the cable car.
Tyrol tourism: www.suedtirol.info ; 00 39 04 71 999 999;
Italian Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk