White haute

Italy’s Dolomites are becoming as notable for their high-end hotels and restaurants as their skiing. Minty Clinch searches for the best of all three.

November 08 2010
Minty Clinch

If big is beautiful, the Dolomites are the place to ski. This is even more true if you favour a combination of Italian alta cucina and Austrian schmaltz, with heart shapes punched out of the backs of chairs and waitresses in frilly dirndls. For skiers who don’t speak German, Italian or Ladin (the local dialect), the Dolomites experience is pleasantly idiosyncratic. Are you on holiday in Selva Gardena or Wolkenstein? Who cares, when they’re one and the same place? And so, to size. Winter-sports fanatics who want a lift pass entitling them to ski for a week without repetition almost always head for The Three Valleys in France, where 600km of piste and 180 lifts link Courchevel, Méribel, Val Thorens and outlying resorts. Big enough, maybe – but a minnow in Dolomiti Superski terms. This pass, covering 1,200km of piste, accessed by 450 lifts, is one of the largest in the world. Until recently, the area has relied on family-run hotels with cherubs on the ceilings and roses on the sofas; but over the past few years, a handful of luxury new-builds have added a more contemporary, and most welcome, hospitality dimension.

With so much on offer, the key question is where to base oneself. If you choose by ski convenience rather than creature comforts, the core is the Sella Ronda ski circus, a rough square with a resort town (Selva Gardena, Corvara, Arabba and Canazei) at each corner and a mountain pass on every side. This well-signposted ring around the Gruppo Sella’s superb peaks imparts a rewarding sense of adventure to anyone who can tackle a red run with confidence. Almost all the Sella Ronda runs are wide and inviting, but the clockwise orange route flows better and is slightly quicker, while the anticlockwise green will appeal more to chilled, crowd-averse skiers. Either requires 23km on snow and well over an hour on the lifts. Blast it, and you’ll be round in three and a half hours – but that’s to miss the point, which is a long day and a long lunch on a sunny terrace gazing at the scenery. Make sure you take yours at Club Moritzino, named for its charismatic owner and founder, at the top of the Piz La Ila gondola. In winter, he serves fresh lobster with due theatre to an enthusiastic cast of celebrities and discerning guests.

Experts looking for ski-in ski-out should choose Arabba for its genuine black runs, something of a rarity in these parts. The village, until recently just a handful of buildings clustered around a church, has now expanded up the hill to improve access to the lifts on Portavescovo, the start of the steepest descents. Arabba’s slopes are short on sunshine, but the vertical is decent and the predominantly north-facing aspect guarantees consistent snow. The village also has lift links to the Marmolada glacier – technically off the Sella Ronda, but with utterly spectacular views from its 3,200m summit. The red run from top to bottom has an impressive 1,490m vertical; cruise it without stopping, and you’ll know you’ve got out of bed.

But the hardest-core regional challenge is Val di Mesdi in the Gruppo Sella, reached by hiking across the massif from the top of the Passo Pordoi cable car. Set between towering cliffs, it is steep, fierce and a test of endurance as well as expertise. When it reopens after a blizzard, the moguls stretch ominously into infinity under the new snow. No point pausing to calculate the hundreds of precision turns required to get to the bottom; by the time you fully grasp what’s involved, it’s way too late to turn back. And unless you are truly expert, don’t skimp on a professional guide. In my case, the price of not taking one is a permanently dislocating shoulder.

For many, Val Gardena is the best base, not least since Selva is a nightlife hotspot. Val Gardena, which includes Santa Cristina and Ortisei resorts, qualifies as a ski area in its own right. Selva’s Dantercepies gondola locks quickly and easily into the Sella Ronda, but there are even more appealing alternatives in other directions. The Saslong downhill track on Ciampinoi – used for the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup in December – is open for recreational speedsters to maximise their racing tucks on the rolling piste through the forest.

The Alpe di Siusi, above Santa Cristina and Ortisei, has a network of unintimidating, evenly pitched slopes, perfect for relative beginners with ambitions beyond the nursery slopes. Its profile this year is enhanced by the new Resciesa funicular, which replaces the chair lift, improving access from Ortisei to Seceda, a canyon zone with majestic views towards Trentino and Austria. The 1,300m vertical descent narrows dramatically in places, allowing skiers to get up close and personal with the encircling cliffs.

The other relatively new appeal of a ski holiday in the Südtirol is the opportunity to eat one’s way round the area’s Michelin-starred restaurants (as stern a test of stamina as any black diamond in the Val di Mesdi). Val Gardena is justly famous for its tempting pit stops. The family-run Danielhütte on Seceda is outstanding, both for its speciality cheese and spinach dumplings and its live accordion music. Ortisei also offers the aforementioned creature comforts, in the form of the Alpin Garden Wellness Resort, just above the village. Owner Markus Hofer is a natural hotelier, creating the sort of relaxed good cheer that goes nicely with the state-of-the-art Cleopatra spa, replete with steam and hammam rooms. Those who fancy sleeping in a massive bed enclosed by a circular palisade, at the centre of a vast timber-clad sitting room, need look no further.

Anna Stuben, in Ortisei’s Hotel Gardena, should also sit near the top of your list. It’s a cosy home from home, though even the most domestic goddess would find it hard to cook as well as Michelin-starred chef Armin Mairhofer. When he’s not harvesting local blueberries and algae, he oversees the laying on of beautiful seafood. The results are delectable, but it’s the service and the expertise about the wines of Alto Adige – not as well known as they deserve to be outside the Südtirol – that make the Anna Stuben stand out.

Selva is home to Hotel Nives, a minimalist boutique hotel in the heart of town. It’s built on the site of a 60-year-old predecessor, but the interiors are ramped up to 21st-century expectations. Rooms strike a nice Zen-chalet balance, with wood panelling and platform beds. The star attributes, however, are the street-level café-bar and wine cellar, which have become the starting point for Selva’s riotous après ritual.

Meanwhile, in lively Corvara and its quieter Alta Badia neighbours, San Cassiano and Armentarola, many runs are on the mellow side of blue, encouraging the less confident. Armentarola is the gateway to the “Hidden Valley” of Lagazuoi, reached by taking a taxi to the base of the Passo Falzarego cable car. The easy red descent is utterly magical due to its total lack of crowds, its frozen waterfalls, old-world Rifugio Scotoni shelter – and the return to Armentarola, which is by horse-tow across the valley floor. The residents of San Cassiano, meanwhile, claim with pride that it’s possible to ski for 1,000km from their doorsteps without road transport.

The benchmark for luxury in the latter is the Rosa Alpina, owned by the Pizzinini family since 1940. It owes its iconic status in part to Daniela Steiner, an Austrian beautician who introduced steaming mud cleansing and candlelit Cleopatra baths there in 1989, rapidly gaining the momentum to turn herself into a global brand. Her expertise is complemented in the kitchen by that of Norbert Niederkofler, a local boy who trained in some of Europe and the US’s finest eateries before returning to open the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant St Hubertus, named for the patron saint of hunters. Norbert is living proof that a chef can be great and thin, perhaps because when he’s not cooking he cycles around the mountains gathering nettles and dwarf pine needles for his risottos.

However, the Lagació Mountain Residence, located 100m down the road, is poised to challenge the Rosa Alpina’s dominance. Luxury apartments are still quite an innovation in the Dolomites. These are immaculately designed, crafted in local stone and wood. In what’s become such a gastro-centric region, the cutting-edge kitchens may be underused; but the pantries can, by prior arrangement, be stocked with organic foodstuffs, and the sumptuous breakfast (included in the rates) will keep guests around in the morning hours.

Corvara’s smartest hotel, meanwhile, is still the four-star La Perla, home to La Stüa de Michil, another Michelin-starred restaurant. Michil, a scion of the founding family, has an eagle profile and a black velvet coat evoking an 18th-century German maestro. His restaurant is just as remarkable. The risi e bisi, a sort of green-pea ice cream embellished with crunchy squid, was unforgettable. But consider passing on La Perla’s creepy Mahatma cellar tour; 30,000 bottles of wine don’t need a backing track of Jim Morrison and Roger Daltrey to speak for them.

Of the resorts with no lift links into the Sella Ronda, two stand out. Cortina d’Ampezzo is half an hour’s drive from San Cassiano over Passo Falzarego, but as it’s in the Veneto region, it is part of a parallel, all-Italian universe. Men and women in matched furs stroll down the Corso, pausing to window shop or eat delectable cakes in pasticcerie. On blue-sky days, tanned Milanese and Torinese are settled in the loungers outside the best restaurants by mid-morning, their designer skiwear impeccable, as it never feels the impact of snow.

Cortina’s slopes are scattered over several mountains, none of them particularly convenient for the town centre or each other. Herein lies their appeal, as they’re often almost completely empty. The rockscapes are utterly unsurpassable too. The most demanding steeps are on Tofana and Pomedes. For many of us, the schuss through the gap in the rocks on the Forcella Rossa is the nearest we’ll get to flying on skis. The slim Staunies couloir on the Cristallo side is even more white-knuckle, but often closed. At the other end of the scale, the broad snowfields on Socrepes tempt beginners to believe they rule the world.

It’s no surprise that the Dolomites are a Unesco World Heritage site. Named for 18th-century geologist Déodat de Dolomieu, their vertical faces are rich in fossils and minerals that glow coral, purple, green and gold in the sun. These towering cliffs emerged from a warm prehistoric sea, before taking their present form around 12,000BC. For those who appreciate magnificence, the Dolomites are as good as it gets. Ski all day, eat until you drop; but by all means leave time to stand and stare.

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