Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Dolomites: A Skier's Paradise

When I was 17, my parents sent me off for a week of skiing in Chamonix, France, with a group from my high school in Connecticut. It was my first trip to Europe and it was a life-changing experience for me. My favorite part was the day we skied into Italy. Something deep inside of me really connected with the place in a way I had never experienced before. It felt like coming home, and I am sure it is a big part of the reason why I call Italy home today.  I have always wanted to relive that experience and finally last week the opportunity arose when my friend Marco invited me to join him for four days in the Dolomites.

The drive from Florence to the vast, stunning mountain range comprising the Dolomites, a UNESCO World-Heritage site in the Alps that forms a border between Italy, Austrian and Germany, normally takes about five hours. However, Marco, being a bit of a lead foot, made it to the Val Gardena, which he says has the best skiing in all of Europe, in just over four hours. He had booked an all-inclusive, three-night stay at Hotel Diamant, a lovely little lodge with an impressive wellness area between the charming alpine towns of Ortisei and Santa Cristina.

After we checked into our room with a balcony framing a postcard-perfect rock formation called Sassolunga, we drove a few kilometers to Ortisei where we rented skis and poles at Carlo’s ski shop. Back at the hotel, we immediately changed into our bathing suits and spent the next few hours soaking in the indoor and outdoor whirlpools, steaming in the Turkish Baths (one scented with a soothing blend of eucalyptus and other herbs), and drying off the warm, hot and infrared saunas.

Dinners were included in our hotel package and our meal that night featured a buffet of local cuisine with a wide variety of pork dishes and beef tongue which Marco heartily devoured while I tried not to watch. I opted for the dumplings, a heaping pile of potatoes and the salad bar and we enjoyed a bottle of fruity, light Muller Thurgau from Bolzano, a large town we drove through in the foothills of the Dolomites in the Alto Adige region. Northern Italy, and specifically the Alto Adige, is famous for its white wines and I was particularly excited to sample a few different varietals on this trip.

The next morning the mountains were blanketed in a layer of fog and it was snowing pretty hard so we took our time at the substantial breakfast buffet. Eventually we boarded the hotel shuttle and headed to the gondola in Santa Cristina. As we ascended the mountain, I became increasingly nervous about the lack of visibility and my lack of familiarity with this ski area. Fortunately, Marco, who is an excellent skier, proved to be a very patient and supportive guide. We were enveloped in a shroud of fog and I couldn’t see more than four feet in front of me most of the time, but we did hit a few clear patches with fresh, untouched snow.  Lunch for me and my tired, tense legs came none too soon. We dined at a little chalet on the mountain and I ate another bowl of dumplings as we watched the snow fall out the picture window. Eventually a group of large, boisterous German men drinking massive beers descended on our table so we ventured back out into the fog and blindly worked our way down the mountain. Needless to say, we were relaxing in the whirlpool within minutes of arriving back at the hotel.

The following day we awakened to periwinkle blue skies, warm sunshine and a magnificent view out of our hotel room window. Finally I was able to see the incredible stretch of wild beauty all around me that I had only been able to imagine the day before. The Dolomites are truly awe-inspiring. (According to Wikipedia, the term “dolomite” was coined by a French mineralogist in the 19th century and is a kind of carbonate rock that causes the striking formations and colors of these mountains). 

The Val Gardena area of the Dolomites is huge and I was wide-eyed and speechless as we rode the bus ascended the gondola that morning. Thankfully Marco knows this area well and the snow was hard-packed and very fast so we were able to cover a lot of ground which included passing through an adorable alpine village called Selva. 

We stopped for a hearty lunch of polenta and fontina cheese at the same chalet we dined at the day before, but this time we were able to sit outside, catch some rays and take in the views.
We continued skiing until our legs gave out then headed back to the hotel for a final round of relaxation in the warm waters. 

I have to admit that I was feeling a little melancholy at dinner that night knowing that we would be leaving this beautiful, romantic alpine paradise the next morning. So over glasses of limoncello and grappa we plotted out our next Dolomites adventure, this time in Corvara, Marco’s  favorite town in the Val Gardena, with a side trip to Cortina to check out the legendary apr├Ęs- ski scene.

The weather had turned for the worse the next morning so we opted to go for a walk around Ortisei before driving back to Florence. Painted in pastels and nestled in a valley with the majestic mountains rising above it, Ortisei is a charming village with some nice shops and a few interesting churches. The highlight is the Adler Spa & Resort, which has one of the best-rated spas in the Alps and the “largest and most impressive water world in the Dolomites.” I highly recommend this little gem to those who prefer a more a luxurious, indulgent mountain experience. I, myself, look forward to staying there during a future ski trip to the Dolomites, of which I now know there will be many.