Never have I skied in the shadow of such dramatic mountains; every run in the Dolomites was dominated by craggy vistas that diverted your attention; pure magic. OK, the Matterhorn is stunning but is not the focus on all points of the compass. There was drama on another front as well; there had been no snow for weeks and this was mid-January; the plan was to tackle our ‘Ski Safari & Gourmet in The Dolomites’ so we were expecting to cover a large number of different runs. I had been depressed at the prospect of little snow but a very pleasant surprise was in store; the whole of the enormous Dolomiti Superski area with its famed Sella Ronda has a forest of snow cannon plus Piste Bullies, so virtually every normally pisted run was open. Quite an achievement as, amongst other matters, they claim it to be the largest ski lift linked area.
The main attraction for many people is the variety of activities in the various resort villages, much of the pisted slopes could be deemed intermediate with plenty of easy runs. However, normally there are a vast number of real challenges off piste to keep most advanced skiers happy.
There is a very appealing trend to create signed and patrolled off-piste slopes that graduate in difficulty which creates an effective and safe means for skiers to advance their skills. Back on piste, the manicuring of the runs with man made snow produces a consistency of smooth runs. We did not encounter any moguled slopes at all so the few black pisted runs could be tackled by skiers who would normally he happier on red runs.
It is a question of sharp edges and the nerve to see people looking like little Stephen Lowry figures way below. There were one or two slopes, including one on the side of the Val Gardena World Cup course where you could not see the snow until you were right on it. The competitors apparently pass over it at some 70MPH. The profiles of the mountains in numerous places enabled skiers to enjoy either a more challenging run or to take an easy option. Of particular appeal was at the end of one run that passes right through the centre of Val Gardena village with houses tightly knit on either side; reminiscent of the steep, contorted Lombard Street in San Francisco!
Surprisingly the lifts were uncrowded to the point that at 09.00 one morning there were literally a handful of people in the tele-cabin. The slopes were similarly empty, the proximity to relatively large towns, means that weekends are very different especially on the long circuit of the famed Sella Ronda.
Years ago, legend had it that Switzerland always had the newest lifts, when out-dated they were sold on eventually finding their way to Italy for their final operations. Today, the lift system in the Dolomites is second to none; they have been installing new, bigger capacity lifts all over. None we used was in need of modernising; their current investments are mainly to eliminate bottlenecks on the Sella Ronda. Unlike some other resorts the signposting is very effective throughout the Dolomites.
Our hosts had organised the widest scope of style in accommodation imaginable. Our first night in Alta Badia was in the very comfortable 4* Ciasa Salares Hotel. The wine tasting and chocolate room both in the cellars were special experiences, others added the pleasures of the spa. We dined well in the La Siriola restaurant and enjoyed the homely comfort with views across the mountains to match. If your budget is very elastic, then the 5* Rosa Alpina Hotel and Spa will indulge you with their two star Michelin restaurant, sumptuous rooms, suites and apartments as well as atmospheric lounges, whilst the wellness and spa facilities can keep you fit and in good shape. The hotel is owned by the Pizzinini family (they seemed to own half the village) and they set out and achieve the best standards on all counts, whilst it does come at a price.
Nearby both hotels is a notable ski hire shop; Armentorola Ski Service, they sorted everything out and none of our party had any concerns about the kit over the whole trip. The now essential helmet has seen a lot of development of late, despite costly chase to keep up to date; I was given a latest model helmet.
I used to think that Bohemian lifestyle started with en suite facilities such as one can find on the Greek islands but with the fast growing ‘Glamping’ concept, it takes a step backwards with shepherds’ huts and a dash in the rain to the loo. We found the Refugios in the Dolomites are a little different here and need to be redefined. Some have dormitories with a dozen beds (very popular with ‘the young’) at one extreme and at the other end of the scale; en suites to large cellars with fine wines.
Softened up by the Ciasa Salares hotel, the next two nights were in Rifugios; happily we did not have to carry our luggage on our ski safari as that went ahead by car and lifts. The location of the first; Rifugio Fuciade was in a big bowl in the Passo San Pellegrino with numerous mountain huts to serve and store the hay from the alpine meadows; it was miles from anywhere. The welcome was warm both in temperature and atmosphere; my room under the eaves had an en suite with shower; a rarity. We drank local grappas in the bar near to the old kitchen door. The resident dog had worked out the door opened automatically by breaking a beam; his high jumps were comic. Beyond was a big modern kitchen with acres of stainless steel from which a wholesome dinners emerged, that was not all; the newly extended cellars contained 1,500 different wines. Not quite the image of Rifugios but who was going to complain. We departed in the ultimate of mountain chic, a snow cat.
Our second rifugio; the Scoiattoli was much more basic in the accommodation, there were two person bunk rooms so cramped, that two people would struggle to get dressed at the same time. There were a few loos and showers which lead to some queuing that evening. To miss the anticipated long wait, I got up very early to shower expecting queues later; I could have had a lie-in. We were at the top of a lift that served a fabulous red run, steeper than some of the blacks; just the thing to get the adrenalin running. We also visited another Rifugio (with a big dormitory) during the day in a similar location. Overall, the concept is obviously very popular but is rather spoilt for me as these hostelries were large mountain lunch restaurants with masses of capacity and many features found in hotels. Overnight, the numbers are appropriately small and the nearest neighbour is miles away so a much more intimate atmosphere is needed to fulfil the idyll of remoteness.
I was glad that I had visited the Rifugios as it has become an experience that so many people are now seeking frequently to complement skiing, hiking and biking, but back to luxury.
Cortina d’Ampezzo is the most stylish ski resort in Italy and they really know how to present themselves. No need to mention the views but the most elegant hotel in the resort is the 5* Crystallo Palace Hotel which overlooks the resort with rooftop views under the backdrop of the mountains. This classic hotel is a destination in its own right with restaurants, bars and lounges, not forgetting a great crèche all served by an army of staff. The swimming and Jacuzzi pools are a great relaxer after a day’s skiing whilst the spa has many offerings. There is a range of bedrooms and suites some of the latter are interconnecting. The boutique Ambra hotel has a very different style and scale reflecting lots of local character; it is in the town centre so the hotel “garni” arrangement is not an issue with so many good restaurants around.
It was a shame that there was no off-piste skiing, maybe fortuitous as some of the challenges were somewhat extreme but doubtless too tempting. Nevertheless, whilst our party was of very mixed standards of skiing, we all had both some very positive ski experiences and many compliments for the standard of service throughout. Everything worked like clockwork even all the numerous transfers on the Ski Safari were on time. I shall certainly return both to ski off piste and to enjoy the warm hospitality. There were of course plenty of very indulgent meals to complement the hotels, so all in all, there was something for everyone to enjoy.
Ski rental Armentarola: