Each winter, we frequently stay in a child-friendly hotel at the top of the tallest mountain in the Black Forest – the Feldberg. It's a one-potty-break drive from Frankfurt and a beautiful one at that.
But this year we decided to visit the region right outside of the southwestern city of Freiburg for the first time during the summer. As we hiked around the area, I kept pointing out the slope where we sledded recently and the spot where someone built a giant igloo.
What keeps bringing us back to this same spot is a particular hotel that is part of a network called Familotels. It's designed with a simple philosophy: If the children are happy, the parents are happy. And this place, called Feldberger Hof, does a good job of keeping little ones engaged in a wide variety of activities.
The philosophy is apparent even before families check in. Step out of the car near the entrance and you'll see children petting rabbits below a terrace where parents sip coffee and eat homemade strudel. A few metres away, kids might be digging in the sand with miniature, antique excavators.
I have never really been interested in all-inclusive vacations geared toward children. The idea of too many people who are in my current life situation can be overwhelming. But Feldberger Hof offers this option – minus the typical McDonald's-like atmosphere. The hotel's décor is tasteful and fitting for a Black Forest venue, yet it is playful and practical, with nooks and crannies designed for children. The guests come from across Europe, many from Holland and Belgium, giving the place an international flair.
For our stay, we booked an apartment in the hotel rather than a room, and we woke one morning to the sound of cowbells jingling. A farmer was moving his herd across the open fields near the summit of the Feldberg. These same fields will become ski slopes in just a few months and will be dotted with groups of little children in ski school and big kids on snow boards. On one of the first days, we hiked to a lake below the peak. Called the Feldsee, it is part of a preserved nature area.
We underestimated this hike from the hotel, thinking we'd just slowly descend on a road and reach the lake. Instead, we could have used our hiking sticks, and we were wondering if our four-year-old would make it back up the steep incline.
The next day's hike took us around the Feldberg, back down to the Feldsee and up again to the hotel. Our daughter stayed in the hotel's day care centre. It was Pippi Longstocking day, and the kids rode the hotel's ponies just like Pippi does in the storybook. When we picked her up, we hardly recognised her for the braids and freckles. On the hike, we passed a waterfall and several creeks, and we took a rest at two guesthouses along the path.
On another sunny day, we visited a nearby lake called Titisee. The last time I had seen that lake, people were ice skating on it. This time, it was warm enough to take a dive off our rented peddle boat. Traffic was quite heavy on the lake and in the nearby town, which is why I actually preferred the next day's visit to the Schluchsee, yet another lake visible from the top of the Feldberg. The lake is larger, its beaches are not so crowded, and visitors can rent small sailboats for a tour of the shores.
Back at the hotel, I chatted with the owner and manager, Denise Banhardt. Born in Cape Town, she eventually met her German husband there. They worked in the cruise industry for years before purchasing the hotel, which is 145 years old and was once used as barracks for the French military. Banhardt's children were young when she and her husband were looking to work on land instead of at sea. They bought the Feldberger Hof and joined the Familotel network with the idea of designing a place where children are welcome and not simply tolerated.
Each hotel in the network is individually owned and operated, and the design of the hotel is left up to the owners. However, the hotels must offer a base package of services and facilities for families to qualify for membership in the network.
Felberger Hof offers daycare from roughly 9 am to 7 pm for babies and young children. It employs 12 people just for child care, but has a choice of activities for young and old. For example, Banhardt leads a hike with her dog, Chico, once a week, and we participated in a marshmallow roast and a night hike with torches.
But this isn't just one big kiddie wonderland. Many serious sportsmen are attracted to the Feldberg region, quite a few hotels offer wellness treatments, and then there's the air. At 1,395 metres, Banhardt says the Feldberg offers “champagne air” – preciously thin and prickly.
During our stay, we came across the Dutch ice skating team wanting to train in the thin air and make use of the 120 kilometers of trails that are designed for cross-country skiing. The team was training for the winter with a summer form of cross country skiing called Nordic skating.
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For those who seek peace and quiet and rejuvenation, a variety of hotels, such as Wellness Hotel Auerhahn on the Schluchsee, offer spruce needle peelings for the whole body with products made locally.
Of course, should all this healthy activity be too much to handle, you can always balance it out a bit with some delicious Black Forest cake tempting you at every turn.
Trains leave Freiburg's main station every hour to the Feldberg. The trip takes 50 minutes.