The Italian Dolomites is the destination heating up with more Michelin stars than you can count on one hand and a clutch of high-end hotels. Here’s what we made of a snowy escape to the world’s largest ski area
Words Helen Brown
Absolutely get a taste of la dolce vita on the slopes of the Italian Dolomites…
If top-grade skiing, exceptional food and a sophisticated but welcoming ambience are your thing, I can recommend no place better than the Italian Dolomites. Consisting of 450 lifts and 750 scenic miles of piste, this is the world’s largest ski area and arguably one of the most impressive mountain ranges around. Rapid access to the slopes is guaranteed by way of a modern lift infrastructure and with one ski pass you’ve access to 12 ski resorts, each as beautiful as the next and suitable for all ski levels.
More laid back than its rival snow-capped regions in France, Austria and Switzerland, the Dolomites offer a quieter and less-crowded alpine experience. Having returned to the French Alps season and after season and on occasion to the Swiss, I’m well-versed with the flashy resorts in the western region – France’s Courchevel, Switzerland’s Verbier – and their Moët-swigging, Prada-wearing clientele. And while you’ll find that a lot of these ostentatious snow bunnies choose to sit beside the run, their top-of-the-range skis propped up somewhere on a sun-drenched restaurant terrace, the pistes cutting through the Alps are renowned for their congestion and long queues, especially during school holidays. Quieter Dolomite villages like San Cassiano attract Italian families season after season to ski its powdery slopes and make the most of its exceptional food scene.
Of course, technically speaking, the Dolomites are still very much a part of the Alps, flourishing from the chain’s southeast foothills. But like the estranged branch of a family tree, the region feels very separate. Geographically they sit in northern Italy but remain Austrian in character after Mussolini annexed the region from the latter in 1918. His intent for Italianization never quite stuck and even today most of the locals speak in the mountain dialect, Ladin, rather than in Italian.
A total new-comer to the area, I’m beholden to my snowboard instructor for showing me what this vast, snowy playground has to offer, and boy does it deliver. Since the Dolomites are protected from unbridled northerly storms, we are blessed with clear, blue skies and soft, well-blanketed pistes for the entirety of the trip. I’m told that 100 days of sunshine during winter is the norm. The vistas are staggeringly beautiful, the lines dramatic and sharp. I imagine the place loses none of its charm come summer.
Peppered across the pistes are traditional mountain restaurants serving cuisine from Ladin, Tyrole and the Mediterranean, along with exceptional wines. Like most, we take the opportunity to rest tired limbs and remedy nervous ski legs with a Glühwein (or three), a plate of hearty ragù and the requisite espresso between runs. Thankfully the area accommodates non-skiers too, as one in our group wishes to forgo the risk of broken limbs. She is perfectly at ease to hop on a lift and let it whisk her to the top of the mountain where she can bask in the alpine gorgeousness of it all and sip hot chocolate while the rest of us hit the slopes. From our excellent instructors to the incredible mountain food and spectacular weather, it’s safe to say that I am completely sold on the Dolomites as a ski destination.
Although this also has a little something to do with our home-from-home for the week which is the sumptuous Rosa Alpina. Almost 170 years old, this family-run hotel epitomises quiet glamour. It sits in San Cassiano, one of the six villages that make up South Tyrol’s Alta Bada municipality and is conveniently placed for flights into Venice and Innsbruck airports.
On entering, the place is utterly charming. A welcoming log fire crackles in the lobby which leads through to the wine bar and grill, a cosy and comfortable restaurant famous for its wood-oven pizzas. After an early start and a delayed flight from London, we devour said pizza, mounds of prosciutto and a Pinot noir Riserva (the wine list, by the way, is extensive) among fellow guests and locals. Warm and convivial, the wine bar and grill epitomises the delightful, small-town charm that oozes from every brick and fibre of Rosa Alpina, thanks no doubt to the Pizzinini family who live upstairs. The hotel has been in the family’s keeping for three generations and while they’ve added luxe touches and all of the mod-cons you’d expect from a 5* stay, it’s heritage and original features take pride of place.
The three Michelin-starred St. Hubertus Restaurant is undoubtedly the culinary highlight of not just the hotel, but of the region. Celebrated local chef Norbert Niederkofler is at the helm and has been since it opened in 1996. With just nine tables and a chef’s table, you’ll want to book well in advance. Expect food at its most innovative and indulgent thanks to Niederkofler’s resolution to serve only that which has been sourced from the Dolomites. It really is exemplary dining.
Rooms are elegant, spacious havens for relaxation with large seating areas, wood panelling and open fireplaces. Luxury apartments come with their own Turkish bath and sauna but to really ease away the aches of the day, guests can head down to the spa. Located in the basement of the building and kitted out with an indoor swimming pool, Finnish sauna, steam bath and luxurious treatment areas, there really is nowhere better to rest and rejuvenate. Kick your skis off for an afternoon, enjoy mountainous views from the pool and book yourself in for one of the hotel’s signature Alpine Herbs Muscle Relief massages; it’s so worth it.
From now until April, regulars will be getting their winter fix at this astounding region of excellent skiing, phenomenal eating and exuberant Italian hospitality. For an even greater taste of la dolce vita, Rosa Alpina offers all of this and more. There is no place better for your next snow-filled holiday. I will wholeheartedly be back and I can guarantee, you will too.
Abercrombie & Kent offers 7 nights B&B at Rosa Alpina in a Deluxe Double Room from £3,322 per person, based on two sharing and including return flights from London Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers. rosalpina.it.