Glance around at the scenery from the slopes of the Dolomites mountain range in Northern Italy and you would be 100% absolved for wondering if you were, as promised, in the Alps.
Geographically, of course, the answer is yes. Visually, however, this place is so different from its neighbours as to seem entirely unrelated. Named after the limestone rock that’s found naturally in the area, the 18 peaks of the Dolomites are a Unesco World Heritage Site and feature some of the most sublime landscapes on Earth. These include vertical walls, sheer cliffs, gloriously jaunty flat-topped summits that wouldn’t feel out of place in an old American cowboy film – were they not wearing a thick coat of snow, of course – and a high density of narrow, deep and long valleys.
The varied terrain is not only take-your-breath-away stunning but also means that there’s something for every sort of skier and snowboarder to enjoy out here, making this the perfect destination choice for mixed-ability groups of mountain-hounds.
Although, as established, we most definitely are in Italy it’s not only the look of the place that gives pause for thought. It has to be said that the vibe up here doesn’t feel inherently Italian either. Mussolini won the area from Austria in 1918 but you’re still far more likely to find schnitzel and sausages than great varieties of antipasti or pizza on local menus and guten tag is much more frequently deployed than grazie. Having said this, it’s the local dialect Ladin that takes preference over everything else and provides another constant reminder that you’re somewhere entirely unique and happily self-sufficient.
For the most beautiful scenery not to mention incredible cuisine, it’s the very core of the Dolomites that is the best place to head for. This area is also home to the famous Sella Ronda – a circular network of lifts and 14 scenic miles of pistes around the Gruppo del Sella, a majestic limestone massif which takes in a host of resorts.
Fabulous food is so intrinsic to the skiing experience here that each season the resort is taken over by a culinary initiative called the Gourmet Ski Safari
Corvara is the main ski village of Alta Badia – alta means high and since we’re 2,000m above sea level here it’s apt – and my favourite of those accessible to the Sella Ronda. About 50 miles northeast of Trento, Alta Badia is known as one of the most prestigious ski race venues on the World Cup circuit. It also has the most technically demanding giant slalom courses – on the Gran Risa above La Villa. Everyone knows that food and skiing go hand in hand and foodies will find themselves in heaven. There’s a veritable host of spectacular restaurants featuring some incredibly heavy Michelin starring for such a relatively small area.
Fabulous food is so intrinsic to the skiing experience here that each season the resort is taken over by a culinary initiative called, deliciously, the Gourmet Ski Safari. Given that this season is its tenth anniversary you can expect to find some even more spectacular offerings than usual. The region invites a number of Italian chefs who work in Italy or abroad to celebrate the culinary excellence of their country and emphasize the motto ‘ski the Italian way’, which basically means that a winter holiday in Alta Badia encompasses much more than a simple downhill ski experience. Big name chefs such as Giorgio Locatelli, Enrico Bartolini, Matteo Metullio and Nino Graziano were just a few of those involved last year.
Three-Michelin-starred chef Norbert Niederkofler was in situ at Club Moritzino Mt 2,100 when I visited. What ensued was an orgy of truffles shaved onto fried eggs, pasta and various meats, all adorned with fresh, edible mountain flowers. Trout was garnished with its own eggs and strewn with local foliage. A year on, I am still dreaming about the lobster linguine and the superlative apple strudel. This was a masterclass in the perfection and exquisite taste of simplicity.
Eateries are referred to as huttes if they are up the mountain and restaurants if based in the valleys. Alongside the spectacular Michelin fare you can also find amazing examples of more traditional Alpine treats. Jimmi’s Hutte in Colfosco, to name just one example, serves up the most insanely pleasing kaiserschmarrn – a plate of shredded pancakes dusted with sugar and served with bowls of jam and custard for dipping. One thing you won’t find in these parts is giant canteens dishing out chips and trays of lasagne to thousands of punters an hour. There are no self-service huttes here, thank you very much.
Since lunch is as big a part of your experience as the skiing it is advisable to book tables in the most popular places as you don’t want to miss out
The food is just as good down the mountain and Hotel Sassongher in Corvara is a case in point. This charming place is a 15-minute stroll from the centre of town and has been family run since 1938. Indeed, the current general manager Francesco Pescosta grew up here and took over from his 78-year-old uncle who still lives on site. It takes its name from the tooth-shaped Dolomite rising up majestically behind and, for those who don’t mind liberal use of chintz and antlers, is a total, old-school Alpine treat.
The team rightly pride themselves on exemplary service and extravagant hospitality – it would be impossible to go hungry here. The menu changes every day but always uses local ingredients and is always seasonal. To name just a few of the joys I consumed, there were various incredible pasta dishes, slow-roasted venison, beautiful local beef and stunning stews all preceded by groaning plates of salad, carpaccio and fish tartare from the huge starter buffet served every night. Breakfast is top-notch too.
The hotel aesthetic is traditional, right down to the huge antlers which hang above the indoor pool in the serene basement spa area. Deer skulls watch over diners in the 15th-century Hunter’s Stube – a cosy, wood-panelled eating parlour adjacent to the main dining room. There’s a lot of wood, a lot of skulls, carved ceilings and even a collection of vaguely terrifying porcelain dolls in a cabinet. It’s all in keeping and it all works. The chalet-style bedrooms are also comfortable rather than cutting edge but rarely have I slept better on a skiing holiday, fresh mountain air filtering through the slightly open windows.
Back on the slopes, people are generally polite and you don’t get heavy crowds pushing and shoving into lift queues. Since lunch is as big a part of your experience as the skiing it is advisable to book tables in the most popular places as you don’t want to miss out. There are tonnes of destinations around the world where you can ski in stunning surroundings but only a few where you can also consume serious cuisine at the same time. Luckily for us, Corvara is definitely one of them and also easily accessible from London. On your marks…