Peak of luxury: Italian Dolomites

25 Oct 2006 by BusinessTraveller

Tucked away in the Italian Dolomites, far from the well-worn Alpine slopes of Courchevel or Chamonix, is a mountain village called San Cassiano, which few people outside northern Italy seem to know about. Close to the spectacular scenery and skiing of the well-known Sella Ronda circuit and blessed with more than its fair share of Michelin-star restaurants, it should be heaving with well-heeled Europeans in designer ski suits by day and glossy fur coats by night. But although it’s just a peak or two from the image-conscious Italian ski resort of Cortina – scene of the 1956 Winter Olympics and backdrop for the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only – it couldn’t feel more different.

San Cassiano has the luxury hotels, extensive ski runs, fine dining and world-class spas you would expect of a cosmopolitan, upmarket ski resort – what it doesn’t have is the crowds of trendy people. Along with five other villages, San Cassiano forms the Alta Badia community, a ski resort with 1,200km of ski runs, but the village itself is home to just 700 people and has a peaceful village feel that so far hasn’t been diluted by outsiders.

This means local businesses are just that, and have been owned by the same families for several generations. But life here hasn’t always been easy. San Cassiano lies in the South Tyrol, which once belonged to Austria and is now an autonomous region of Italy with its own language, Ladino. Children grow up speaking three languages fluently – German, Ladino and Italian. In the Second World War a pact between Hitler and Mussolini gave locals a difficult choice – stay at home and agree to the Italianisation of the area, or leave. Those who opted to stay are fiercely proud of their Ladino heritage.

This distinctive sense of identity is matched by an equally distinct backdrop: the jagged peaks of the Italian Dolomites are markedly different from the more familiar Alpine scenery, and every day the afternoon sun sends a pink blush across the mountain faces – as though they’re embarrassed by their own good looks.

The most luxurious place to wake up to this scenery is Relais & Chateaux property Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina, one of the oldest buildings in San Cassiano. Its first incarnation was a parish priest house in 1850; more recently it has been run by three successive generations of Pizzininis, a Ladino family with strong local connections (the grandfather of current owner Hugo Pizzinini was responsible for building the village’s first ski lift).

The hotel is charmingly rustic and homely, with wooden beams and roaring open fires. The 47 guestrooms and 15 suites are large, furnished thoughtfully with one or two carefully chosen antiques, and decorated cleanly with wood, marble and wall frescoes.

The hotel’s atmospheric signature restaurant, St Hubertus, accounts for one of the area’s Michelin stars, and specialises in low-fat cuisine using ingredients from the surrounding area. An average dinner costs E98, and signature dishes include meadow-fed lamb from the Badia valley with beans and potato terrine, and local river trout poached in a mountain herbal broth with potato and chive purée. An excellent tasting menu can be sampled by groups, who can opt for the separate dining room overlooking the kitchen. Dishes include risotto with apples and marinated sturgeon, fillet of red mullet with eggplant caviar served in an artichoke heart, and beef fillet poached in extra virgin olive oil served with truffle purée. Local wines are recommended to accompany the meal.

The Rosa Alpina also has the laid-back Wine Bar & Grill, with steaks, pizza and other hearty dishes (around E40 for a meal); and Fondue Stube, which charges E35 for a cheese fondue and E48 for a meat fondue – the fondues are delicious and a sociable option for a group of diners.
If you can stumble out of the hotel, an unmissable excursion for dinner is another Michelin-starred restaurant, La Stüa de Michil at Hotel La Perla, in the neighbouring village of Corvara. As well as sublime cuisine, the restaurant has a wine cellar to die for – one of the best in Italy, which you can tour before dinner (afterwards you may be too stuffed).

Back in San Cassiano, a good spot for lunch is Restaurant La Terrazza at Hotel Ciasa Salares, where the highlight is the delicious antipasto, which arrives in jars for diners to dig their forks into, including roasted peppers, marinated tuna, olive pate and salmon to enjoy with crusty bread.

La Terrazza is a good place to stop off when you have completed a rather unusual skiing experience, the Lagazuoi ski tour. After taking the Lagazuoi cable car you can ski the Armentarola slope, a superb intermediate run that leads skiers on a journey through 7.2km of mountain and forest scenery and encompasses a 1,130-metre altitude difference from start to finish. It’s important to pick up speed on the last stretch because the slope flattens out and leads to the Sass Dlacia campsite, where you can be pulled by horses back to the ski lift to start the whole process again. Skiers line up and hold on to a long rope, which is attached to a horse-drawn cart, then it’s just a matter of hanging on and enjoying the view (and keeping one eye out to avoid any fresh horse manure en route). From there, it’s a five-minute stroll to La Terrazza.

Flat sections are a feature of ski slopes in this area, which can be frustrating – although performing that ungraceful shuffle forward while colliding with skiers to your left and right at least helps burn off some of the calories from the huge lunches between runs. There are some gourmet treats in the mountains as well as in the village. Restaurant Club Moritzino at Piz La Villa specialises in seafood, which is a strange concept for a high-altitude restaurant in the Dolomites, far from the sea, but one that seems to work. Lunch here costs around E50; the giant seafood salads and the lobster pasta dish are superb. Another, cheaper option at La Villa is Rifugio Bioch Hütte, which serves warming dishes like soups and pasta.

If it seems all too tempting to ski for an hour in the morning then spend a leisurely few hours at lunch before skiing back down to visit the hotel spa, then you won’t be the only one doing this. Still, you can draw some comfort by reassuring yourself that it is the Italian way – after all, such delectable cuisine was not invented for the purposes of a quick snack and then back to work.

But there is plenty here to keep fanatical skiers occupied, including the famous Sella Ronda merry-go-round, of which the runs around San Cassiano are an off-shoot. The Sella Ronda is described by Where to Ski and Snowboard 2006 as “one of the world’s classic intermediate circuits”, with 23km of runs and 14km of lifts, though, again, there are a few flat parts. A trip to the Marmolada glacier is a must, where you can take a ride in the cable car to the top and ski back down with wonderful views (queues for the cable car can be long). The Dolomiti ski pass (see box for prices) gives access to an unprecedented 450 ski lifts – enough to make you feel even guiltier for spending hours lunching.

The spa at Rosa Alpina is tranquil, and highly welcome after a day on the slopes. As well as a pool and gym, the spa has 11 treatment rooms, a Finnish sauna, steam room and solarium. I tried the 55-minute energy facial (E130), which entailed deep cleansing and moisturising followed by a neck and shoulder massage. The spa is run by Daniela Steiner, who is married to ex-hotel proprietor Paulo Pizzinini, and has expanded her holistic spa concept to hotel spas in St Moritz, Zermatt, Monte Carlo, Cairo and Sharm el Sheikh.

There is a noticeable bias towards Italian visitors in San Cassiano, which hints at the fact that this is not the easiest ski resort to reach from elsewhere. One way to do this is to fly from London Gatwick to Innsbruck (see box). It is a two-hour transfer to San Cassiano, but it is well worth it. It’s summoning up the discipline to do more than an hour’s skiing a day that is more of a challenge.



Skiing in San Cassiano

For more information about Alta Badia, visit altabadia.org, tel +39 471 836176. Ski pass details are available from dolomitisuperski.it: a six-day ski pass costs from €171 to €194, depending on the season, giving access to 450 ski lifts. Ski hire is available from Break Out Sport (breakoutsport.it). Hiring for six days costs €65-E110, depending on the model of skis. Boot hire for six days costs €34.

Where to stay

Rooms at the Relais & Chateaux Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina cost from €200 per room per night in winter. Tel +39 0471 849500, rosalpina.it. The hotel opens December-April and June-September. For Hotel Ciasa Salares, visit siriolagroup.it; for Hotel La Perla, hotel-laperla.it.

Getting there

Innsbruck Airport is 150km from San Cassiano. Hotel Rosa Alpina can arrange a taxi transfer for €230 one way for two people. BA flies to Innsbruck from Gatwick seven times a week from December 16. Return fares start at £79 (ba.com, tel +44 (0)870 850 9850). Another option is to fly to Verona airport and proceed by train to Brunico, the nearest train station, at 38km, to Alta Badia and San Cassiano. From here, a taxi/hotel pick-up can be arranged. Visit altabadia.org for lists of taxi firms. BA has daily flights from Gatwick to Verona, with fares from £68.

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