The South Tyrol was once Austrian and, on first impressions, it still is. Brunico’s kitsch Christmas market is awash with nativity scenes, carved figurines, cute cowbells and dirndls. Paired with some mulled wine and apple strudel, festive cheer is the way forward for my Dolomites ski break. Dominating the skyscape in the Alta Badia valley are the transcendent Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m still not convinced it’s Italy, but the scenery makes that immaterial.
With their witchy pinnacles and towering spires, the Dolomites are famed for the dazzling enrosadira effect, when the dying rays of the sun bathe the jagged mountains in a rosy glow. Alta Badia’s snow-sure resorts are stylish rather than snooty, romantic rather than ritzy. In keeping with the mellow mood, celebrity skiers tend to keep a low profile, from the Swedish royals to Prince Albert of Monaco. San Cassiano, turning peachy before my eyes, is one of Alta Badia’s most charming ski resorts with an onion-domed church, quaint chalets framed by craggy mountains and homely taverns adorned with antlers, embroidered hearts and gingham tablecloths. The Heidi quotient is high.
I almost feel compelled to buy an edelweiss kerchief and stack neat log piles. Coming to my senses, I instead sip a fruity, Vernatsch red wine and chat to the head-scarfed farmer’s wife who mentions that George Clooney once popped by for cheese. As one of the region’s A-list regulars, Clooney used to whizz around these log-piled hamlets on his trusty Harley Davidson but is now more likely to be found hiding out in St Hubertus, the gastrodome in the Relais & Châteaux hideaway, Rosa Alpina Hotel & Spa.
Sporty Norbert Niederkofler, the hotel’s Michelin-starred chef, is keen to take South Tyrolean cooking to the skiers themselves. His aim is to “cook the mountain”, with a tasting menu featuring Alpine cheeses, hay-cooked beef, smoked meats and local berries. When not in the kitchen of St Hubertus kitchen, rustling up suckling pig in juniper, the chef is on his beloved slopes.
As an eternal boy-racer, Niederkofler set up the annual gastronomy event, Chef’s Cup, which began with ski challenges issued to three local chefs. Today, the event – marked by a series of cook-offs, ski races, charity events and gala dinners – attracts a thousand skiing chefs and has a cult following. “It’s a chance for chefs to chat about culinary trends while fighting it out on the ski slopes instead of in the kitchen,” says Niederkofler. So, ski rage rather than Hell’s Kitchen.
Michelin-starred cuisine and top shelf drinks are standard in the Italian Alps
Along with Niederkofler, the mountains are brimming with Michelin-starred chefs working hard to reinvent a Tyrolean gourmet scene that’s more luxe lodges and lobster ravioli than cowbells and cheese, doing away with starchy dining rooms and superior sommeliers to introduce creative Italian cuisine with a garden-to-plate philosophy. Even breakfasts are a focal point, using the region’s yoghurt, honey, cheeses and farm-smoked meats.
A coterie of Michelin-starred chefs are also showcasing the Alpine face of Italian cuisine to the world. These talented chefs have devised festivals to lure skiers into lingering over lunch in mountain lodges in Alta Badia, and the feasting carries on well through the season. December signals the start of the Gourmet Skisafari, which matches seven Michelin-starred chefs to seven Alpine lodges. All are asked to concoct a masterly regional dish suitable for ravenous skiers dining at altitudes of over 2,000 metres, allowing foodie skiers to whizz from one pop-up restaurant to another.
The festival segues into A Taste for Skiing, which focuses on surprising food pairings presented by 14 ski lodges. This season, the event pairs Tyrolean dishes with southern Italian wines, cleverly mixing classic southern Mediterranean recipes with Tyrolean wines. More epicurean festivities follow in February and March, when Sommeliers on the Slopes closes the season with guided wine tastings at altitude.
Locally sourced ingredients make for explosions of flavour
Before the feasting begins, I’m keen to tackle the Sella Ronda, a circuit every avid skier wants to ski at least once in their lifetime. As the loveliest, fully linked circuit within the vast Dolomiti Superski carousel, the Sella Ronda loops its way around the Sella, a majestic limestone massif. I’m soon drunk on the scenery, passing pinnacle-crowned mountains, chocolate-box villages and cutesy inns.
The Italians are fair-weather skiers and favour morning skiing followed by a leisurely lunch. Skiing comes a poor second to preening, phoning and flirting on the slopes. Endless piste bashing is for the rest. Cobalt skies melt into apricot-hued sunsets but most locals have abandoned their ski boots long before then. And one thing is for certain: few party on the pistes like the Italians. Après-ski is in the Italian DNA. While the foreigners are still out on the slopes, the Italians are sunning themselves on the terrace.
My friend Raffaella has already moved into Club Moritzino (Piz La Villa 154; +39 0471 847 403; www.moritzino.it) by the time I collapse over my hot chocolate. Set at the top of the Piz La Ila cable car, this legendary hut boasts the hottest après-ski and the coolest ice bar. Après-ski gets going by mid-afternoon, with the Ferrari flowing as freely as the dance music. Ferrari Brut, Italy’s finest sparkling wine, is finally being recognised abroad and was even served at this year’s Emmys.
'Starchitects' like Zaha Hadid have designed spectacular architecture in the Dolomites
Ferrari in hand, we gaze across the vertiginous runs and rival peaks such as the Marmolada, topping 3,342 metres, rightly judged the Queen of the Dolomites. For beauty, there’s stiff competition from the peach-hued Tofane peaks, a forgotten First World War frontline, and the battleground between opposing Austrian and Italian forces. Once dusk falls, the sensibly sozzled know only the foolhardy ski down a black run after dinner, guided by the light of a snowcat.
Split personality or not, the Dolomites deliver, whether for food and wine buffs, fanatical skiers or those more interested in holing up in a luxurious abode. The South Tyrol may be Italy with an Austrian soul but it does a nice line in stylish Italian boutique hotels. For Alpine retreats, it’s a tempting choice between several pampering hideaways. The new Adler Mountain Lodge, set in UNESCO Heritage wilderness, offers serenity, spruce chalets, a sybaritic spa and ski-in, ski-out convenience.
Rosa Alpina suits both spa babes and foodies while Vigilius Mountain Resort (Monte San Vigilio; +39 0473 556 600; www.vigilius.it) is a design hotel that doubles as a secluded eyrie accessible only by cable car. In San Cassiano, Las Vegas Lodge (Piz Sorega 15; +39 0471 840 138; www.lasvegasonline.it) is great before the last run home. Just be warned: There’s a very real possibility of being waylaid by the prospect of sledge rides, partying DJs and candlelit cuisine. It’s a wonder how the locals can eat four-course meals and manage to ski downhill in style. Back in the Tyrolean valleys, snug, wood-panelled taverns, known as stube, await – places far more atmospheric than Teutonic bierkellers.
Luxury lodges amongst snow capped mountains
In Alta Badia, food is never far from mind; depending on mood, we dine like princesses or peasants. The culinary clash between Italian and Germanic traditions produces hearty slow food and Michelin-starred feasts, and just to complicate the picture even further, the region is also home to the Ladins, an ancient minority who speak a language close to Latin and cultivate robust Alpine home-cooking. In the inns, we tuck into comfort food, Ladin-style, from barley soups and spinach-stuffed ravioli to venison with polenta and sauerkraut followed by apple fritters and blueberry tarts. What you might call a light supper.
From San Cassiano, it’s on to castle country, where I have a chance encounter with Reinhold Messner, arguably the greatest mountaineer of all time. On Mount Kronplatz, Messner surveys the sweeping views from the Zillertal to the Dolomites. “These are the mountains of my childhood,” the Alpinist says proudly, pointing across the valley, “and the Messner Mountain Museum (MMM) Corones is the final piece in my series of mountain museums.”
Designed by Zaha Hadid, the museum (on Kronplatz between the Puster and Gader valleys; +39 0471 631 264; www.messner-mountain-museum.it), which resembles a cross between a subterranean spaceship and a Bond-villain’s lair, is perched at 2,275 metres at the summit plateau of Kronplatz. The collection, highlighting the “supreme discipline of mountaineering” mirrors Messner’s world in art and stories.
Most famous for making the first ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, Messner celebrates his sixth mountaintop museum in South Tyrol and Belluno, and there is no disguising his pride in his homeland: “I have done 2,500 climbs in the Dolomites,” he says. “For me, they are still the most beautiful mountains in the world.”
My inner Heidi agrees. In fact, she’s already bought the dirndl.
Degustation Italian style