On a glorious morning, we stumble out of the helicopter on to the top of the world. At the summit of Marmolada, 3,343 metres above sea level, we gaze over the Dolomites – wave upon wave of mountains designated as a Unesco World Natural Heritage Site in 2009. Then we click in and zoom down the boy racer track, a rolling red that demands high-velocity turns and tucks. At this early hour, we have the 1,490m vertical drop all to ourselves. Once at the bottom, we flash our Super Dolomiti passes – 450 lifts on a single magnetic card accessing 1,220 kilometres of marked runs, undeniably as big as it gets.
Most of the Super Dolomiti resorts, with the exception of Veneto’s Cortina d’Ampezzo, are in Südtirol (South Tirol), a province that is culturally and linguistically German but politically Italian. When the First World War ended in 1918, Italy received the wealthy province from Austria, the promised reward for being on the winning side. Overnight, the Südtirol became part of Italy, but it didn’t have to like it – and it still hasn’t totally come to terms with it. In an officially bilingual area, schools offer German or Italian tuition. Nearly 70 per cent of the population favour German, but many locals speak Ladin, a combination of a group of dialects, so there is plenty of scope for confusion.
For visitors who speak none of these languages, the identity crisis is enjoyably quirky. Selva Gardena or Wolkenstein? No matter: they’re one and the same. Many outsiders see the combination of Italian cooking and Austrian schmaltz as the best of both worlds, but it’s not easy to find the right base in such rich diversity.
The Sella Ronda, the famous ski route that rings the magnificent, rocky scapes of the Gruppo Sella, is the heart of the area. On the map it’s more star than circle, with Arabba, Corvara, Selva Gardena and Canazei on the major points. The circuit connecting the four resorts can be taken in either direction, both requiring 23km on snow and a couple of hours on the lifts. Complete it in three or four hours of hectic intermediate hustle or enjoy a day’s cruising and a quality lunch. In its turn, the Sella Ronda is ringed with outposts, many with speedy connections to the central network. For example, La Villa, an attractive village on the road up to Brunico near the Austrian border, locks into 1,000km of pistes through Corvara. More distant resorts require bus connections, notably Kronplatz, a stand-alone dome with modern lifts on the Super Dolomiti’s northern fringe.
Until recently, staying in Südtirol meant a family-run hotel with floral sofas and painted cherubs, but contemporary new hotels are multiplying fast, as are Michelin rosettes, with stellar chefs competing for bragging rights on and off the mountain. Whatever you need is out there: you just have to find it.
The grande dame in what is seen as an area of upstarts is a quintessentially Italian town with a handsome Corso patrolled by poodles led by wealthy Milanese in matching furs – the upper echelons of Italy don’t subscribe to fakes. Cafes and branded boutiques cater to their wallets but the surrounding rocks reveal the potential for more active pursuits. The Dolomites (named for the 18th-century French geologist Deodat de Grendel) emerged from warm, prehistoric seas around 12,000BC, creating fossils and minerals that glow coral, purple, green and gold in the setting sun.
Cortina’s lifts, built between the World Wars when Südtirol was still climbing on skins, rely on antiquated cable cars accessing slopes widely scattered around the town. Blame the Italians: Cortina claims 300 days of blue skies per year, conditions that prompt locals – in immaculate designer ski apparel – to start tanning outside prime lunch spots at 11am each day. Despite many unfulfilled promises, no one sees an urgent need to upgrade such underused lifts.
The slopes really deserve better because this is great terrain. The most demanding slopes are on Tofana and Pomedes: for many of us, the schuss through the gap in the rocks on the Forcella is nearest we’ll get to flying on skis. At the other end of the scale, the broad snowfields on Socrepes tempt beginners to believe they rule the world.
The Cristallo (www.cristallo.it; 00 39 0436 881 111) and the Miramonti Majestic (www.geturhotels.com; 00 39 0438 493 500) are Cortina’s trusty flagships. The Grand Savoia (www.grandhotelsavoiacortina.com; 00 39 0436 3201) offers more understated luxury but my tip is the convivial four-star Hotel de la Poste (www.delaposte.it; 00 39 0436 4271).
If Cortina, with 6,000 permanent residents, is the largest resort in the area, San Cassiano, with barely 200, is among the smallest. Like La Villa, it fast-tracks into the Sella Ronda through Corvara, but its more immediate ski area, accessed by the Piz Sorega gondola, is super-mellow. Armentarola, its even smaller neighbour, is the gateway to Lagazuoi (Hidden Valley), reached via the Passo Falzarego cable car on the road to Cortina. The easy red descent is magical for its lack of crowds and the Rifugio Scotoni near the bottom. The return via Armentarola to San Cassiano includes a horse-drawn tow across the valley floor.
The picturesque hamlet, sumptuously decorated with hanging flower baskets in summer, owes its international popularity to the Rosa Alpina Hotel (www.rosaalpina.it; 00 39 0471 849 500), a Relais et Chateaux property owned by the Pizzinini family since 1940. Its high profile is due in part to Daniela Steiner, an ambitious Austrian beautician who married the patriarch in the 1980s and established a global brand on the back of a pioneering spa.
After training with top European chefs, local boy Norbert Niederkofler took over St Hubertus in 1994: the restaurant, named for the patron saint of hunters, won Niederkofler his first Michelin star in 2000 (he got his second in 2007). He runs an open kitchen, inviting favoured visitors to taste canapés stove-side before tackling the main event in a dining room appropriately decorated with mounted deer skulls.
Selva, Val Gardena
Selva is the undisputed après ski capital of the Dolomites. Val Gardena, which includes the linked resorts of Santa Cristina and Ortisei, is a substantial ski area. While the Dantercepies gondola provides instant access to the Sella Ronda, there are appealing options in other directions. The signature run is the Saslong, downhill through the forest on Ciampinoi. It is used for World Cup events every December but is otherwise open to recreational speedsters with a liking for racing tucks.
On the opposite side of the valley, the Rasciesa funicular, introduced two years ago, has improved access from Ortisei to Seceda, a canyon zone with majestic views towards Trentino. The 1,300m vertical descent from top to town narrows dramatically in places, allowing skiers to get close to the encircling cliffs. The local specialities in the mountain restaurants are excellent.
Anyone who'd like to sleep in a bed in a circular wooden palisade in the centre of a timber-clad sitting room should check into the Alpin Garden Wellness Resort (www.alpingarden.com; 00 39 0471 796 021) above Ortesei. In the downtown area, the Nives (www.hotel-nives.com) is a minimalist boutique and a convenient launch point for any après ski tour. Set into a slope, La Stua is famous for oompah après, while Lorinkeller and Luiskeller cater to the post-midnight crowds.
Alpe de Siusi
Perched above Ortisei, Alpe di Siusi is an escape to nature on the outer limits of the Super Dolomiti pass. Lifts access 60km of blue cruising and there is limitless scope for cross-country – as gentle or as demanding as you care to make it.
Until now, few foreigners took the swift cable car up from Ortisei, but the imaginative design and cooking at the Alpina Dolomites Health Lodge and Spa (www.alpinadolomites.it; 00 39 0471 796 004) at the top has changed all that.
Eating your way round the tantalising restaurants scattered across the Dolomites is a stern test of stamina but don’t miss Anna Stuben in the Hotel Gardena (www.gardena.it; 00 39 0471 796 315) in the same ownership back in town. With seven tables in two rooms, this is a cosy home away from home, presided over by young head chef Reimund Brunner, whose inventive menu, featuring local and regional ingredients, has won him a Michelin star.
Arabba, on the Sella Ronda star’s southeastern point, is the perfect choice for experts looking for ski-in, ski-out black pistes. The main gondola rises 900m to Porta Vescovo, the launch point for stern challenges down the back of the mountain, augmented by intriguing off-piste options. Although largely sunless, the north-facing aspect guarantees excellent snow.
The original village, a cluster of buildings around the church, has now expanded up the mountain into a satellite complex near the gondola station.
Arabba is generally short on Dolomite glitz but Sporthotel Arabba (www.sporthotelarabba.com; 00 39 0436 793 21) is a convenient and welcoming family-run four-star; the international menu in the Barracks Room in the Weiss Stube restaurant is recommended.
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