Although I have been involved in the ski holiday business for over two decades I am ashamed to say that until last December I had never skied in the Italian Dolomites. Of course over the years I had heard of, and read, many reports all describing the charm of the Sella Ronda and surrounding ski areas. These reviews and comments also unilaterally praised the food of the region. I used to think that the reports on the charm, scenery and food of the region was just a fight back against the large ski resorts of France and Switzerland that could boast far higher skiing, more efficient lift systems and far longer pistes. The Italians had to come back with something to out-do the French and Swiss, the food and scenery were the only possible arguments they could use but I never thought these arguments really carried much weight.
However, my sister had a lovely ski holiday in San Cassiano (within the Alta Badia ski region) which has direct links to the ski area of the Sella Ronda. She and her family simply raved about the fantastic restaurants they found for lunch, the huge ski area and the wonderful scenery. So I got to wondering – perhaps all the claims that I had heard and read over the years were true? Last December I had the opportunity to sample the region and find out for myself if the hyperbole matched reality.
I flew BA with Louise, my wife, into Venice where we picked up a small but none the less serviceable hire car. I have driven in Italy on a number of occasions and on each occasion I have discovered just how good the UK road signage is, and just how bad the Italian road signs are by comparison. Signs to and from Italian airports start well but tend to peter out, often they are completely missing on the crucial roundabout with frustrating results. However, the journey from Venice airport to Cortina was a smooth as silk. There was no need even for a map.
A very straight forward journey of less than two hours saw us arrive in Cortina d’Ampezzo. This romantic and glitzy resort is not actually part of the Sella Ronda but it is just East of the Alta Badia region, separated by the mountain pass. The mountains surrounding Cortina are truly spectacular and the views from the town are delightful in all directions.
We stayed for two nights at the very grand Cristallo Hotel Spa & Golf which is situated just above the resort, giving lovely views over the resort centre with the church and its towering Campanile. The Cristallo Hotel is privately owned by a wealthy family from the North of Italy and although large it still very much retains the feel of a private hotel. The staff were always friendly and very courteous – really it was impossible to find fault. The room we had was spotlessly clean and very comfortable, the food was delicious, the bellinis from the hotel bar almost up to Ravello standards and we very quickly felt at home. As we were there in early December the snow was decidedly patchy so we spent most of our time either relaxing in the glorious hotel spa or mooching about the pedestrian centre of Cortina. This is normally something that I loathe doing in a ski resort, yet somehow in Cortina it seemed both natural and very enjoyable. There is no doubt that a ski holiday in the Dolomites is a totally different experience to skiing in the Western Alps of France and Switzerland.
One night we ate out in the Ancora Hotel restaurant, in the centre of Cortina at the lower end of the Via Corso – the main pedestrian street of the resort. Like the best Italian food it was simple but also simply delicious!
After a couple of days in Cortina we drove West towards San Cassiano. As we climbed over the pass the first serious snowfall of the season began to fall, covering the road at an alarming rate. Fortunately the car was fitted with good winter tyres and these, combined with plenty of winter driving experience meant we arrived in San Cassiano without mishap.
The Rosa Alpina Hotel in San Cassiano is the best hotel in this sleepy village, and many would argue that it is in fact the best hotel of the entire region. Enthusiastically run by the young and glamorous Pizzinini family the hotel is impeccably managed. Food is taken very seriously in San Cassiano and for a very small village it quite remarkably boasts 4 Michelin stars. There are two single star restaurants in neighbouring hotels and then the restaurant St Hubertus, the pride and joy of the Hotel Rosa Alpina, which has two Michelin stars.
The Pizzinini family and the head chef of the Hubertus, Norbert Niederkofler, are well connected in the culinary world. There are only a few restaurants in the whole of Italy with two Michelin stars and the influence of the St Hubertus reaches far and wide. Through its influence Norbert has gathered together the minds of the best chefs in Italy, each chef assigned with creating their own signature dish that uses the local, fresh ingredients of the Dolomiti region. The recipes and the means to cook them have been given to 11 mountain restaurants in Alta Badia ski region (Corvara, La Villa and San Cassiano). The net result is that the on-mountain dining in this region really is better than anywhere else in the World – Michelin starred food at local restaurant prices. Delicious dishes served without pretention; World class cuisine delivered in a very local way – truly a gastronomic delight and worth the trip to these resorts on its own.
We drove on further West for 45 minutes to reach Corvara, which forms the North East corner of the Sella Ronda ski circuit, and is home to the World famous La Perla Hotel. Although not without fault I have never been to a hotel that exudes more romantic atmosphere or charm. There is no dining room as such, instead there are a series of small but charming stuberls – wood panelled and with low level light they drip with romantic ambience. If you want to impress a loved one you would be hard pressed to find better.
There is also a Michelin starred restaurant at the Hotel La Perla which offers more of the same romantic decor and ambience. We went for the ‘taster menu’ which was as delicious as one might expect. I am not sure if it entirely warranted its Michelin star but the service was impeccable, discreet and attentive, and the setting delightful. If you could eat a romantic atmosphere then it would most definitely deserve two Michelin stars!
The spa at the La Perla was large, well fitted out and catered for all tastes. We enjoyed the saunas, steam room, cold paddling pool (not sure what the technical term is for one of those), charming indoor swimming pool and various relaxation areas.
There is no doubt that the Hotel La Perla is one of the really special hotels of the Alps. It possesses a wonderful atmosphere, bags of charm, Michelin starred dining and a fantastic spa. Oh, and in case I forget to mention, it also offers guests true ski-in and ski-out convenience.
I have still yet to explore the area fully on skis but with over 1,000 kilometres of pistes it’s not hard to imagine that there is plenty of scope for all standards. However, with the amazingly high standard of on-mountain dining, skiing in the Dolomites tends to be little more than a gentle cruise from one gastronomic delight to the next. And that sounds just about perfect to me!
To find out more about luxury ski holidays in the Dolomites please speak to Simon. Telephone: 020 7801 1080.