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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe
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Biohotel Grafenast: Where Sustainability is More Than a Buzzword

Updated on 08.03.2020 in Bits & Pieces

Natural materials are merged with contemporary, sustainable design. Photo by Charly SchwarzNatural materials are merged with contemporary, sustainable design. Photo by Charly Schwarz

Respecting the natural environment in Pillberg where Grafenast Hotel is set within, Unterlechner Family has been placing eco-friendliness and sustainability at the forefront of everything it does for decades—long before it became an international trend.

Grafenast Hotel is not a place you happen to stumble upon. Getting there you need to make a well-considered decision. If you don’t arrive by public transportation (e. g. by train to Jenbach and by taxi shuttle or bus service), you will have to battle the long and winding mountain road up to Pillberg by car, which will definitely test your strength—particularly in wintry conditions. Nestled at the end of the road at an elevation of 1,300 meters above sea level, Grafenast is the ultimate rural retreat. High up in the Alps, there is access to Kellerjoch Ski Resort but not much else. Having arrived there means that you have already slowed down from the stresses of everyday life. Or you feel worked up from the demanding drive… anyway; you will be ready to immerse yourself into that oasis of calm that is the Grafenast Hotel.

Grafenast Hotel marries old-world glamour with contemporary, sustainable design. Photo by Charly SchwarzGrafenast Hotel marries old-world glamour with contemporary, sustainable design. Photo by Charly Schwarz

“Slowing down!” is the word that Peter Unterlechner chooses to best describe his hotel, and it couldn’t be more accurate. “It goes down to the values and the philosophy of the people behind this special place; it’s down to the way it’s run. It’s about preserving and protecting the place we love the most. This is an approach that cannot be marketed to guests, but this caring attitude is our biggest gift. If you frame it that way, travelers respond,” he says.

Putting Sustainability First is a Matter of Common Sense

In an age where the environment has truly become an emotive topic, green travel is on the rise with travelers inspired to choose eco-friendly travel options as they think more about conservation, organic foods and sustainability. “Which has definitely helped us to put our hotel on the map,” as the hotel owner frankly admits. “During the last few years the term “sustainability” has been a buzzed-about trend, however, to my Granddad this was all about common sense. When it comes to sustainability, we are actually talking about social responsibility. It means consciousness and concern about societal and environmental impacts and it means caring for future generations. There is certainly potential for greenwashing from profit-driven people looking to cash in on the eco-friendly movement these days, but all in all I appreciate this development a lot.”

The family-operated “Biohotel” (translating to eco hotel) is run by Peter Unterlechner and his wife Waltraud in third generation. Photo by Charly SchwarzThe family-operated “Biohotel” (translating to eco hotel) is run by Peter Unterlechner and his wife Waltraud in third generation. Photo by Charly Schwarz

The above-mentioned Granddad, who was lovingly dubbed “Rodel-Toni” (‘sledge Toni’) by locals, was not keen on taking over the family-run tannery as he was supposed to. Instead, he decided to erect what he called “Rodelhütte” (‘sledders cabin’) halfway between Inntal Valley and Kellerjoch Mountain. This snack station enabled him to turn his passion for skiing and mountaineering into a profession. By the middle of the 20th century the modest cabin had already been transformed into a stately hotel with 80 beds for guests. For three generations, the Unterlechner Family has expanded and remodeled the quaint original cabin, which still serves as the heart of today’s “Bio Aktiv Hotel”, which has only 23 rooms anymore.

Today’s guests can still wander through decadently decorated parlours and hallways to admire antique furnishings. Photo by Charly SchwarzToday’s guests can still wander through decadently decorated parlours and hallways to admire antique furnishings. Photo by Charly Schwarz

A Decisive Time for Pioneers

The early 1980s were a decisive time for the Grafenast Hotel and its environs. This was when local authorities decided to ban the further development of tourism infrastructure in the area—much to the contrary of what the rest of the country did. “The result of that brave decision was that the hoteliers developed more responsibility for their properties,” explains Peter. “My parents were passionately committed to make their personal interest in health and nutrition the key concern of their lodging, which led to the birth of the brand “Bio Aktiv Hotel Grafenast” (eco-friendly and active hotel’)—they were pioneers in blurring the line between sustainability and a truly unique vacation experience.”

46-year old Peter has been trained in the hospitality industry and has been working abroad for many years. “I could have imagined living everywhere, even at the other end of the world,” he says. “The high quality of life that Pillberg offers was something I had to discover in the course of time,” he adds. Which apparently has something to do with the fact that Peter met his wife Waltraud and that they got two children (Moritz, 19, and Rosa, 15). It was obvious to him at an early age that his life would revolve around the hospitality theme. “During the school holidays, I was running the hotel bar on my own at the age of ten or eleven. I loved this job and the responsibility involved.”

The hotel has always been an important part of Peter’s life. Photo by Charly SchwarzThe hotel has always been an important part of Peter’s life. Photo by Charly Schwarz

“We have come a long way since we first attempted to use organic ingredients to the green dining experience the Grafenast offers today,” explains Peter Unterlechner. In the restaurant, which has been awarded a “Green Toque” for years (an Austrian certificate for award-winning vegetarian and vegan cuisine), local, organic and seasonal food is a priority. The Grafenast chooses organic produce with most of the fresh edibles supplied from the on-site gardens and from local farms.

When it comes to sustainability, the Grafenast Hotel has taken 101 steps to improve their green credentials, such as heating with wood chips. Photo by Charly SchwarzWhen it comes to sustainability, the Grafenast Hotel has taken 101 steps to improve their green credentials, such as heating with wood chips. Photo by Charly Schwarz

Having won several awards for sustainability, the hotel prides itself on green practices. To name a few, the Unterlechner Family uses renewable solar and wood-burning energy sources throughout the property. From TV-free rooms to minimizing electromagnetic radiations, every effort has been made to implement its sustainable intentions. Wireless Internet service is provided in only one room.

Wireless Internet service is provided in only one room. Photo by Charly SchwarzWireless Internet service is provided in only one room. Photo by Charly Schwarz

The rooms are decorated with natural materials and soothing pale tones, placing emphasis on the natural surroundings. Photo by Charly SchwarzThe rooms are decorated with natural materials and soothing pale tones, placing emphasis on the natural surroundings. Photo by Charly Schwarz

Offsetting the Hotel’s Carbon Footprint

Even Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swede who has made waves on climate change and inspired millions of people internationally, could easily enjoy a good night’s sleep at the Grafenast when it comes to the carbon footprint. Peter Unterlechner: “Running a hotel in a self-sustainable way is impossible, however, year on year, we have progressed our sustainable approaches to ensure that we are consistently improving and minimising any negative effect our procedures and systems have on the environment. From offsetting carbon emissions by using renewable energy sources, public transportation and local, organic produce to eco-conscious composting and recycling programs, it is hardly surprising that today we are close to self-sustainable, or carbon neutral. Whereas in most hotels, guests will leave a carbon footprint of up to 12 kg of carbon dioxide per person per night, the nightly impact of guests at the Grafenast is a mere 3.4 kg. What’s more, we compensate our remaining emissions by supporting an Amazon reforestation project. This program is very befitting to us—after all we are kind of forest people, too,” laughs Peter.

Natural materials are merged with contemporary, sustainable design. Photo by Charly SchwarzNatural materials are merged with contemporary, sustainable design. Photo by Charly Schwarz

What’s up in the near future? “We must fight against sensory overload,” says the hotel owner. “We have to reduce to the essential, to become emptier, clearer, and flatter. That is what we need to do right now.”

„Reducing to the essential“ is the philosophy of the upcoming years. Photo by Charly Schwarz „Reducing to the essential“ is the philosophy of the upcoming years. Photo by Charly Schwarz 

If you want to get in touch with the Grafenast, send an email to sehnsucht@grafenast.com. The silence and stillness of this mountain retreat allows guests to recover from their busy worlds and to connect and immerse in nature. Staying at this magical place run by Unterlechner Family, cocooned from the outside world, allows guests to slow down to a more ‘human’ pace.

Witty and sharp-tongued, Irene Heisz is a journalist and author who writes blog posts about Tirol, Tiroleans and their peculiarities—and there are many of them!

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