High and mighty

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16

Sublime scenery, exhilarating runs and exquisite cuisine make the Dolomites a must for sophisticated skiers with nothing to prove, says Arnie Wilson

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16

Sublime scenery, exhilarating runs and exquisite cuisine make the Dolomites a must for sophisticated skiers with nothing to prove, says Arnie Wilson

Retro style on the slopes at Sella Ronda
Retro style on the slopes at Sella Ronda

Wide-eyed first-time visitors arriving in the Dolomites can be forgiven for wondering how on earth they’re going to ski down those jaw-droppingly steep limestone massifs. Then someone explains: unless you really want to, you don’t ski the steep stuff. You generally ski around the Dolomites, not down them. 

And that, coupled with the magnificent grandeur all around you, is the real beauty of the Dolomites: it’s a destination for skiers with nothing to prove. There are no über-scary runs to brag about, no death-defying couloirs, no steeper-than-hell journeys into space – just some great, relaxing yet exhilarating cruising runs, and some of the best cuisine in Europe. 

Oh, and there is that extraordinary scenery. It’s most spectacular at dawn and sunset, when the sunlight on the peaks – for the geologists among you, they are formed of calcium magnesium carbonate, with a covering of malleable calcite – creates a sumptuous glow, splashing pink on the jagged brown crags. 

Natural beauty aside, for many skiers the standout quality of the Dolomites is that even the least skilled of intermediates will be able to enjoy most runs here, which makes it ideal for groups with mixed abilities. On my last trip to northern Italy, my skiing companions included a talented chef, Jeremy, whose skills in the kitchen were not quite matched on the slopes, and a mutual friend, Leo, who spends most of his time in Gibraltar. Yet both swooped happily down the slopes for all the world as if they were regular skiers.

And Jeremy rhapsodised about the food. The region specialises in long, lazy mountain lunches, which is as it should be when the cuisine is so exquisite, in part thanks to the unique cultural mélange of this region, much of which was Austrian territory prior to the First World War. The largely Italian-speaking province of Trentino sits next to the largely German-speaking South Tyrol. Occasionally you will also hear Ladin, a language associated with Roman settlers and spoken by an estimated 30,000 people in the valleys of Badia and Gardena in South Tyrol and Fassa in Trentino, as well parts of Switzerland and other isolated pockets of northern Italy.

Consequently, regional dishes encapsulate everything from polenta with venison or chamois (the native mountain goat) to Wiener schnitzel and speck. The area’s vineyards, meanwhile, produce some of Italy’s best wines. Outstandingly crisp, refreshing whites are made with grapes more typically associated with the Germanic regions, such as gewürtztraminer, lagrein and riesling. Alta Badia, home to three Michelin-starred restaurants, even offers a Gourmet Ski Safari. Local chefs each create a dish for 12 of the resort’s mountain refuges or “huts”, so that one can work up a hearty appetite in between courses. Slope Food, as the venture has been labelled, is based upon strictly local, seasonal ingredients, and each dish, such as pig’s cheek browned in South Tyrolean honey, is available at the hut throughout the season.

Two huge lift companies dominate the skiing. The biggest, Dolomiti Superski, offers the largest fully interchangeable lift ticket in the world, spanning 12 major sections. A perfect way to explore the Dolomites on skis is the scenically splendid Sella Ronda, a colourful and fairly easy 16-mile circuit round the Sella massif, via the Ladin valleys of Fassa, Gardena, Livinallongo and Badia. Sometimes it feels as if you could reach out and touch the soaring crags, which create a thrillingly primeval backdrop to one’s outdoor adventures.

As you progress across the Sella, Pordoi, Campolongo and Gardena Passes, you may be unaware that above them in the rugged heights are some rather more dramatic descents (fear not, these aren’t part of the circuit). One of these is the Val Mezdi, a steep-sided gully with a dramatic entrance between towering rock walls, reached by cable car and a substantial hike. The run starts on the rim of an inverted archway near the summit of Sasso Pordoi, a lofty peak in the Gruppo Sella. As you take the plunge, small stones fall almost continually and rather unnervingly from the towering rock faces on either side. By the time you reach Colfosco, you’ll have descended well over 1,200 vertical metres. 

When you’re tackling the popular Sella Ronda, it helps to have a quieter base to approach it from, and San Cassiano is just the place. This pretty village between La Villa and Cortina is linked to the circuit via Corvara. Here you’ll find the region’s legendary Rosa Alpina Hotel. Dating back to 1850, it has been run by three generations of the Pizzini family over the past 70 years, and its devotees return year after year.

For those looking for more of a challenge, one of the longest runs in the Dolomites is Armentarola, a five-mile red descent from the Lagazuoi refuge, also reached by cable car. You can even stay the night here and wake, as I did, to mesmerising views of peaks right in front of your bedroom window. As you make your way down this rollercoaster of a run, huge cliffs tower above you. At the bottom I was amused to find the celebrated horse-drawn ski lift, whereby two horses dutifully tow lines of skiers by rope back to the main ski area.

Hotel La Perla's tiramisu and shrimps with bacon and black truffles
Hotel La Perla's tiramisu and shrimps with bacon and black truffles

Lofty Cuisine

The Alta Badia region is famed for its gourmet cuisine and superb vineyards, which use several grapes unique to the Dolomites. The area is known for producing sparkling wines such as Trentodoc Spumante, an excellent vino santo and the fiery spirit, grappa.

When it comes to dining, Alta Badia is unique among skiing regions in that it boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants, all located within a ten-minute drive of each other: Hotel La Perla’s La Stüa de Michil, Hotel Ciasa Salares’ La Siriola – headed by Italy’s youngest Michelin-starred chef, Matteo Metullio – and Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina, with its world-renowned restaurant St. Hubertus and ever-popular Hug’s Bar. The hotel’s executive chef Norbert Niederkofler – a former local ski champion – has two Michelin stars and is involved in a number of winter events that combine ski racing with the region’s legendary mountain cuisine, including the Chef’s Cup and a Gourmet Ski Safari. The Chef’s Cup is a three-day meeting between hundreds of local chefs (and their friends) and an opportunity to catch up and talk about new culinary trends. No wonder skiers come to the Dolomites to eat. And gourmets come here to ski.

Heading west from here, south of Bolzano and towards the border with Switzerland in the Brenta Dolomites, is the town of Madonna di Campiglio, with skiing located across three linked resorts: the Madonna slopes are connected with the Val di Sole (Sun Valley) ski areas of Marilleva and Folgarida. You can also ski at nearby Tonale, Pinzolo and Peio. The ski area has 57 lifts serving 93 miles of runs which reach as high as 2,600m, and is famous for its legendary Canalone Miramonti World Cup slalom slope, which has such an ideal pitch that it makes even lower intermediate skiers feel like gods.

The windswept Passo Groste area, at 2,423m, delivers skiers and snowboarders to the very walls of the spectacular mountains that dominate Madonna’s skyline: the Pietra Grande (Great Rock) side by side with the Cima Brenta massif and Cima Tosa, both of which soar to well over 3,050m. Nearby Passo Tonale has a good mix of beginner and intermediate pistes, with some more challenging off-piste and ski touring possibilities.

And this in the end is the great joy of the Dolomites – its ability to serve up relaxed skiing to suit all abilities, with the occasional thrilling run in the heart of some of Europe’s most peaceful and spectacular scenery. Add exquisite dining, intriguing wines, and a unique, ever-shifting amalgam of language and culture that’s guaranteed to captivate, and you have ski country that all at once manages to be sophisticated, challenging and laid-back.


Call Scott Dunn on 020 8682 5050 to arrange your tailor-made holiday to the Dolomites
Images: Alamy, Getty Images

The famous horse-drawn ski lift at Armentarola
The famous horse-drawn ski lift at Armentarola

Scott Dunn Suggests

The dramatic Dolomites soar up to 3,000m offering guaranteed snow and crowd-free skiing in beautiful scenery – plus the finest dining in Europe

The Scott Dunn Dolomites Ski and Venice itinerary combines one of Europe’s most sparkling ski regions with its most enchanting city. Stay in the resort of San Cassiano, which offers great restaurants and boutique shopping. From here you can access the Alta Badia ski region and the vast 12 valleys of the Dolomiti Superski area. Stay at the elegant five-star Rosa Alpina Hotel & Spa with two-Michelin-star restaurant St. Hubertus. After a few days’ skiing, transfer to Venice. Take a gondola or vaporetto ferry, see the Rialto and the Doge’s Palace, visit the glassblowing factories of Murano and stay in Bauer Il Palazzo – a boutique hotel in an historic 18th-century building on the Grand Canal.

Scott Dunn’s Dolomites Ski and Venice Voyage costs from £1,960 per person, staying four nights at the Rosa Alpina, San Cassiano (deluxe double) and three nights at the Bauer Il Palazzo, Venice, in a deluxe double on a B&B basis, including road transfers, water taxi and flights from the UK. Note that seasonal factors influence the price.

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