Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Wellness Week in the Schwarzwald

M and I just returned from a wonderful week at the Hotel Engel Obertal, during which we fully spoiled ourselves by relaxing, doing nothing in particular, and eating like royalty. The Engel is a Wellness und Genuss Resort in Obertal, only 45 minutes from home! The wellness culture thrives in the Black Forest with the crisp, clean air, meandering valleys, and variable weather, and many of the towns are labeled Kurorte (health resorts or spa towns). People come from all over Germany - Europe, really - to bask in the good life.

We have been to the Engel before - in 2007 for two days. That was my introduction to the German sauna culture, which was quite a shock for me initially (we Americans are real prudes). When we decided to do a wellness week, we knew we wanted to come here again.

The hotel is located in a very quiet village with plenty of walking paths and trails of all difficulties. One can choose to stay in the valley and walk along the stream or venture up into the hills and forest for a more strenuous hike. In hindsight I recommend doing some good hiking when the weather cooperates to offset some of the calories you'll put on during meals!

The Engel offers a well-organized activity program which includes outings, hikes, fitness classes and training, water aerobics, and specialized classes in Qigong, Smovey-Gym, and Pilates. The activities are spaced well apart so that one could participate in every class they offer during the day. Being the Fitnessmuffel that we are, we only nodded appreciatively at the offerings and later watched some of the exercise classes while sipping wine on our balcony. 

outdoor saunas, jacuzzi, and ice cold bathing pond, as seen from our balcony
fitness pavillon is out of sight to the right
We actually did brave that ice cold bathing pond! I dipped in to my knees the first time, almost my waist the second time, and nearly to my chest the last time. Softly whispered profanity was part of that process, but sitting in a blazing hot sauna afterwards is a wonderful feeling. M went in once and up to his neck, crazy bugger brave lad!

Each evening before dinner the lounge is open for Happy Hour with a different mixed drink featured.

Side note: I was not compensated in any way for this blog post. I had planned on writing it because we really like this hotel and the wellness experience they offer. We celebrated my birthday during this week, and I was greeted warmly that day by everyone on the staff who knew. They left a birthday card and a bottle of wine in our room while we were at breakfast and had decorated our breakfast table with rose petals. I asked about taking pictures and was told by the managing director that I could photograph anything as long as other guests were not pictured, and she gave me permission to use photos from their website as well.

Every morning at breakfast guests find the Urlaubsblättle at their table detailing the day's offerings, a "thought of the day", wellness tips, the evening menu, products offered in their wellness shop, and a thoughtful story encouraging one to reflect on the positive things in life. The weather and the menu were the important bits for M, but I read most of it.

The service personnel is exceptional. Every single person we passed or interacted with made us feel special, welcome, and appreciated. Each staff member greets the guests with a genuine smile and a "Schönen guten Morgen!", "Guten Tag!", or "'Nabend!", and when we had the slightest need it was fulfilled almost immediately. The housekeeping crew was rarely visible, but they swooped in and out expertly while we were otherwise engaged - at breakfast or dinner, normally. Fresh towels, folded or turned-down sheets, chocolate on the pillows, clean water and wine glasses...To them this is standard and expected for the level of service they promise, but guests like us enjoy these little details and recognize that the behind-the-scenes team is sadly underappreciated.

There are cozy seating areas at every turn, which we would have been happy to use had our favorite place not been our suite! There's even an easy chair with footrest right before the Toilette near the restaurant in case one needs a rest on the way there. One can check out books (we brought our own, though we hardly touched them) or purchase magazines and newspapers from the reception. A complimentary copy of  Die Welt awaited us each morning, and I always intended to read it...

Wolke 7 reception area with bistro
The real highlight for us, and I dare say for most guests, is the Wolke 7 Wellnessbereich (Spa). It opens at 11:00 and closes at 19:00, and I was already looking forward to our time there while enjoying a delicious and extensive breakfast buffet. (Just as a side note, the pool area is open longer: 7:00 to 22:00.) We went there once or twice a day to sit and sweat as long as we could stand it. The area begins with a group of Dampfbäder - steam saunas. Each one has a different atmosphere, scent, layout, and temperature. This area is a textilfreie Flüsterzone - a fabric-free (nude) whispering zone. The focus is on relaxation and wellness. And sweating.

There is one dry sauna in this area - the Schwitzstube - in which there is an Aufguss session each afternoon with a different featured scent. There are several showers for rinsing and cooling off between saunas and plenty of places to hang one's towel and robe. In the Dampfbäder you don't bring in a towel because it's steamy and wet in there, and your towel would be sopping after your first session. Each Dampfbad has a hose for rinsing off the seats between visitors, which seems a good idea but probably doesn't actually matter.
We settled into a familiar routine: after we did our three favorite Dampfbäder we showered again, had a glass of water from the drinking fountain between the saunas and resting area, and headed outside - although it got cold this week! Outside are two Finnish-type saunas, the Kaminsauna at 90°C and the smaller Erdsauna at 110°C. These are both fabulous! Guests wear their robes or towels to these saunas, but inside they are textilfrei. Germans - M included - can't imagine sitting in a sauna wearing a swimsuit. How uncomfortable that must be! For my American readers I'll write another post about the sauna culture here vs. the body shaming we (women) are constantly exposed to in the U.S.. Believe me for now that it is a unique and liberating experience, and it's not at all strange.

The Engel offers several pools and a zillion lounge chairs for resting from all the relaxing. Especially in the afternoons lots of people camp out on the lounge chairs to read, nap, and enjoy the gentle spa music.

One crazy experience is the floating pool. This is a small indoor pool of water as salty as the Dead Sea, and you just...float. It's not for swimming, you're asked not to splash, and they recommend you don't spend more than about eight minutes in there because the skin doesn't tolerate the salt well. After you wade in, you lift your feet off the floor and float around.

resting area surrounding the salty floating pool (through the doorway)
You can book many different types of massages and beauty treatments, though we didn't this time. One of my favorite overheard quotes of the week was related to a beauty treatment. Several Swabian women in the Kaminsauna were chatting about a honey massage from another spa: "Des macht net schee. Des macht bäppig!"

Truly, the food and those who prepare and serve it deserve their own blog post. We booked the Halbpension, which meant that dinner was included with our room, along with breakfast and a lunch buffet, which we skipped half the time to save room for dinner. Each dinner was a multi-course delight ending in a sheepishly deserved food coma. We learned to skip either the starter or the soup, I gave up the cheese course before dessert, and by the second last evening we could both make it through the last course without feeling we'd eaten way too much. The regular menu was a starter, a choice of soup, a salad buffet, a Zwischengang (a light in-between course), a choice of three for the main course, the cheese buffet, and finishing with a dessert or dessert buffet.

Here's a teaser for my future post about the dining experience in the main restaurant and the elegant Andrea-Stube:

Roh mariniertes Rinderfilet

Crepinette von der Milchkalbshüfte
My main course is reflecting the food coma face I'll be wearing shortly...

dessert from the buffet

This was truly a wonderful and relaxing week, and we will surely come back. We made notes about what to pack next time so we can avoid driving home on day two for a wardrobe change. One of the best things for me was seeing M actually relax into the experience and partially forget about work for a while.

And that's what wellness is all about.

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