Innovation and elegance in the Austrian Alps

View from a guestroom at the Biohotel Schwanen in Austria’s Bregenz Forest.
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When hiking the Austrian Alps above Lake Constance, it's probably best not to wear boating shoes. For one thing, the Bregenzerwald region in Vorarlberg practices three-level farming, meaning that the province's famed dairy cattle roam the same mile-high alpine pastures that you're hiking on the day's eight-hour culinary hike. Proper footwear is imperative should you wish to arrive at the Jagdgasthaus Egender lodge with a modicum of dignity.

Austria's westernmost province is probably best known for its Bregenz Festival, the summer arts celebration beloved for its spectacular operas performed on the Seebuehne, a floating stage built over Lake Constance. Borne of postwar deprivation and destruction in 1946, the monthlong Bregenz Festival attracts more than 200,000 visitors to 80 events each year.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this bucolic alpine region is its cosmopolitan cultural scene amid the sylvan splendor of the Bregenz Forest. Alongside the chorus of cowbells clanging in the velvety green valleys, there's also the annual Schubertiade, the world's largest Schubert festival, held in the pastoral villages of Schwarzenberg and Hohenems.

Clad in glass panels that shimmer along the lake, Bregenz's Kunsthaus hosts large-scale exhibitions by international artists such as Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Ai Weiwei and Adrian Villar Rojas, all of whom are given the entire four-story structure for single artist installations. At the Vorarlberg Museum, the wall-size window on the top floor of the inventive new addition frames the lake like a painting from the museum's collection of 150,000 Vorarlberg artifacts.

And yet, when hiking the hills high above the lake, perhaps after a long night at Bezau Beatz, Bregenzerwald's urban music festival, one is more often spellbound by the breathtaking vistas. From the Bezau aerial tramway's mile-high summit at Baumgarten mountain station, the panoramic view encompasses the foothills of Switzerland, Germany and Austria rising from the pristine waters of Lake Constance.

Agrarian traditions have been honored in Bregenzerwald since the establishment of a 14th-century "farmers' republic" with its own constitution. Similarly, the region's celebrated wooden architecture derives from the 17th-century architects' guild whose members revolutionized the architecture of monasteries, churches and libraries.

Today, Bregenzerwald's embrace of craftsmanship and design as practiced by "construction artists" has blanketed the region with innovative architecture that has generated international recognition. A commission for bus stops in the hamlet of Krumbach resulted in seven bus shelters designed by world-renowned architects. Few other villages of 1,000 people can boast of a bus shelter designed by a Pritzker-winning architect.

Another tribute to the interplay between tradition and modernity can be found at Werkraum Bregenzerwald, where 90 regional firms interact in a showroom designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Complete with restaurant and shop, Werkraumhaus also functions as a community center for locals and visitors.

Biohotel Schwanen

Similarly, the Biohotel Schwanen fuses local traditions with a modern take on hospitality fueled by fifth-generation owner Emanuel Moosbrugger, who trained in New York and San Francisco, where he worked alongside Corey Lee at the three Michelin-starred Benu. Moosbrugger and his chef mother honor the culinary principles espoused by the 12th-century German polymath Hildegard von Bingen while using all-organic seasonal produce. The only certified organic hotel in the Bregenz Forest, Schwanen offers a seven-course Wild Women tasting menu in either the traditional Walderstube or the stylish dining room sheathed in silver fir.

Schwanen's streamlined rooms exemplify the region's artistry with high-quality furnishings in sustainable timber.

In keeping with its organic philosophy, toiletries at Schwanen are by Metzler, the Bregenzerwald dairy and cheesemakers who introduced a successful line of whey-based skin care products celebrated for their natural potency.

Health and happiness are inextricably linked throughout Vorarlberg, where spas, saunas and bathing houses are as ubiquitous as hiking trails through the mountains. Throughout the summer months, the shores of Lake Constance are lined with sunbathers and swimmers, while biking paths meander through covered wooden bridges to the marshlands of the Rhine delta. Five thousand acres of protected nature reserves harbor indigenous fauna and flora.

Hotel am See

Brilliantly clad in a gleaming brass facade, the Hotel am See is situated along the Dorfbach port with a stream that flows through the property. Sunlight pours into the hotel's public areas, illuminating the cocktail lounge and the expansive wellness oasis overlooking the lake. Private terraces adjoin each guestroom, all of which are exemplars of sleek modernism. Walk-in dressing rooms and bathrooms are wrapped in frosted glass and blond wood.

Opened in 2011, the two-building complex embraces Gasthaus Kath'r, a traditional Bregenzer inn with beer garden and sun terrace where guests enjoy regional specialties. So amiable is the staff and atmosphere at the Hotel am See that one might be tempted to remain on property.

Nonetheless, a trip aboard the historical paddlewheel steamer Hohentwiel is a must. Built in 1913, Hohentwiel has hosted numerous royals throughout its history and was once the state yacht of the king of Wurttemberg. Currently the oldest passenger ship on Lake Constance, Hohentwiel offers four-course dinner cruises around the lake with a docking at the floating stage of the Bregenz Festival.

As the sun sets across the lake, bathing the region in a rosy mauve scrim, it's easy to believe that Vorarlberg represents the best of Alpine life.

Nightly rates at the Hotel am See during the Bregenz Festival begin at about $250. Nightly rates for the Biohotel Schwanen average $150 per person for room and half board, including sauna.

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