Minty Clinch went skiing in the Dolomites three times last year. With several new hotels opening in the region, she runs down an overview of the area’s best skiing, accommodation and restaurants.
Skiing, dining and staying in the Dolomites is all downhill from here
Food, glorious food. Where the Tarentaise contrives amazing dishes from exotic delicacies, the Dolomites dig them out of local hillsides. In summer, Michelin-starred chefs are a familiar road hazard as they leap off their bikes to harvest fungi, herbs and berries for their latest concoctions. In winter, the results are on display in mountain restaurants that provide a framework for unforgettable ski safaris.
Formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Südtirol was gifted to Italy at the end of the First World War. In many ways, it was a marriage of inconvenience, with the Teutonic element determined to protect its language and culture from its impulsive hosts. One hundred years on, 70 per cent of the citizens choose to have their children educated in German rather than Italian. If that means that they’ve achieved their goal, it’s at the expense of integration. At the most basic level, reading road signs in three languages – the Ladino dialect must also be catered for – slows down traffic in a very congested area.
In foodie terms, however, the union was made in heaven: Austrian drive and Italian flair have produced the finest concentration of restaurants in the Alps. Street snacks and pop-up? Not here. The Dolomites do slope food by day and serious feasting by night, with mouthwatering excellence guaranteed.
It’s not a diet destination, but as the Super Dolomiti lift pass, 1,220 kilometres of pistes served by 450 lifts, is the most extensive in the world, there’s no better place to ski off calorie overloads. The Sella Ronda is the heart of a huge area stretching from Brunico near the Austrian border down to Val di Fassa and from Bolzano to Cortina d’Ampezzo. Some of the outlying resorts, notably Kronplatz in the north and Cortina itself, are a bus ride away from the linked lift complex in the centre, but there are runs to last a lifetime, let alone a week.
Arguably, the Dolomites are Europe’s most beautiful mountains. As they emerged from a warm, shallow sea millions of years ago, they evolved into towering cliffs rich in fossils and minerals that gleam rainbow colours in the sun. In the 18th century, the French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu grabbed the glory as he pursued his studies in the region. When he left, his name stuck, assuring his legacy.
The heart of the area is the Gruppo Sella, a menacing volcanic core that’s ringed with villages with household names. The main ones are Selva Gardena and Val Gardena, also known as Wolkenstein, Arabba, Corvara and Canazei, each separated by a mountain pass, but efficiently linked into the celebrated Sella Ronda ski circuit. For intermediate skiers on a mission to cover as many mellow pistes as possible, this is heaven. The routes are clearly marked, clockwise orange, anti-clockwise green, with both taking in roughly 23km of piste. The need to spend downtime in chairlifts – not entirely unwelcome – means that a round that takes no prisoners lasts for a minimum of three-and-a-half hours. A more civilised approach, incorporating a long lunch, makes a memorable day of it.
The Dolomites are seriously addictive but, in such an extensive area, choosing where to stay is key. Experienced snow users favour Arabba for its ski-in, ski-out, steep black slopes, something of a rarity in these parts. The village also has rapid access to the Marmolada glacier, the top of skiing at 3,343 metres. Pause in the thin air to check out the Dolomites in their pomp as they unfold into the blue haze in the distance, then clip in and blast it back to base. Dreaming of Olympic downhill glory in advance of the Sochi Games in February? A sweeping 1,490-vertical-metre descent, with pitches, rolls and flats, is the perfect place to play out your fantasies, especially first thing, when it’s rewardingly fast and empty.
In sleepy Arabba, fanatics head home early so that they can ski until they drop the next day. In Selva and Val Gardena, regulars prefer to go to bed at dawn and rise in time for lunch. With rapid entry into the Sella Ronda via the high-speed Dantercepies gondola and a chance to straight-line it on the Saslong World Cup downhill track at Ciampinoi, the resort has fine skiing, but it’s even better known as the party capital of the Dolomites.
As is now customary, the action starts before the lifts close, with dancing to a DJ in an on-mountain restaurant, in this case Piz Seteur. The Stua is more traditional, with drinks served in large steins, live oompah music, and an obvious follow-up, not least because everyone has to pass it as they complete the final run. Later on, the style options are Cafe Mozart for civilised tranquillity, Yello’s for contemporary buzz and the Luislkeller for “great craic”. Late means the Dali club, which stays open until 3am.
The Dolomites are spoiled rotten when it comes to five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. Selva and its satellite resorts have their fair share, notably the plush, five-star Gardena Grodnerhof (www.gardena.it; 0039 0471 796 315) in Ortesei and the minimalist Nives (www.hotel-nives.com; 0039 0471 773 329) in the village centre. Currently, the high-end focus is drifting east across the Passo Gardena into Corvara. The flagship of this large resort is the 52-room La Perla (www.hotel-laperla.it; 0039 0471 831 000), which has been run by the Costa family for three generations. The Michelin-starred La Stüa de Michil owes its culinary reputation to its long-serving chef, Arturo Spicocchi, and its chutzpah to its mastermind, Michil Costa.
San Cassiano, set a little apart down the Alta Badia valley, is capturing the hearts and wallets of skiers and boarders in pursuit of peace as well as excellence. The catalyst is the Rosa Alpina Resort and Spa (www.rosaalpina.it; 0039 0471 849 500), a work in progress for the Pizzinini family for the past 70 years. As masters of interior design, attention to detail and meet and greet, they thoroughly deserve their loyal global following. That’s before you hit the spa, the flagship of the Daniela Steiner empire, and the St Hubertus restaurant, a two-Michelin-star classic run by Norbert Niederkofler, a local boy made very good.
For years, the Rosa Alpina stood unchallenged on San Cassiano’s only picture-postcard street, but classy rivals are crowding in to share the show. The Lagació Hotel Mountain Residence (www.lagacio.com; 00 39 0471 849 503) is a locavore B&B – immaculately designed apartments in stone and wood by night, home baking and home preserves on laden tables in the morning.
This season, the upscale operators Abercrombie and Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) are introducing catered chalets, notably Lergyl, a four-bedroom farmhouse in the village centre, and Penthouse Alpina, a two-bedroom hideaway near the main lift. The San Lorenzo Mountain Lodge (www.sanlorenzomountainlodge.com; 0039 0474 404 042), a converted 16th-century hunting lodge on a private, 42-acre estate overlooking three rivers, is even more exclusive. With four bedrooms, pampering to die for and an innovative “vertical” golf course, this is a place where guests are encouraged to feel that they rule the world.
Alta Badia also leads the slope-food revolution, a season-long initiative to link 14 chefs with international reputations to 14 mountain lunch huts. San Cassiano and its neighbours, La Villa and Armentarola, link into the Sella Ronda through Corvara, but they also claim 1,000km of pistes without using road transport. These include the Hidden Valley of Lagazuoi, a magical descent among frozen waterfalls that’s accessed by a cable car on the road to Cortina. The return includes a frenetic horse-drawn ski tow across the flats back to Armentarola.
These predominantly easy slopes are the domain of the Slope Food Card, a pass costing €30 (Dh152) that entitles a guest to try three dishes in different venues in a week. This year’s chefs are a departure from the all-male norm. Niederkofler and Spicocchi head up seven Italian men, leaving the rest of the world – represented by Taiwan, Luxembourg and Slovenia, as well as Italy – to provide gender recognition for female chefs.
Foodies could focus on the Chef’s Cup Südtirol 2014, a hectic week of ski safaris, feasting and cookery classes on and off the mountain. (www.chefscup.it; January 19 to 24). Early-bird skiers may prefer the Breakfast with Powder Snow programme (www.altabadia.org), which offers daily snowcat departures at 6.50am or 7.20am, a South Tyrolean feast in a mountain hut and first tracks in virgin snow for €15 to €25 (Dh75-Dh125).
The Südtirol factor runs out in Cortina, a quintessentially Italian town where loads of chic, rich Milanese in matched furs walk leashed poodles down the Corso at dusk, seduced by an irresistible mix of cafes and shops selling Oriental rugs, designer labels and jewellery. For many, this is a better option than the winter sports that are scattered around the outskirts. Cortina is where the Dolomites are at their most magnificent – think Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger – and the ski terrain is the equal of the towering rock faces, although the lifts remain stubbornly mid-20th century.
Who cares? Certainly not the Italians, who have tans to top up and treatments to take. For visitors, the slopes are rewardingly empty, which makes the inconvenience worthwhile. The central Hotel de la Poste (www.delaposte.it; 0039 0436 4271) is old style, with linen sheets, painted ceilings and top-class service. The Parc Victoria, a new Inghams chalet-hotel (www.inghams.co.uk) for the 2013/14 season, is a congenial and affordable alternative.
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