Pistes and pasta: ski the Dolomites at Val Gardena
A delightful Italian ski resort with gorgeous vistas, great powder and no shortage of grappa
There’s something about the Dolomites that offers a spectacular extra frisson to a ski holiday. The sight of those pink-tinged mountains, looking like giant pieces of sugar-dusted crystallised ginger jutting into the sky, is enough to turn even the most single-minded snowhead into a poet. Not to wax too lyrically, but the sight is awesome in a food-for-the-soul kind of way.
Gazing at those snowy peaks during every gondola journey was one of the many attractions of a ski trip to Val Gardena. The valley, consisting of the resort towns of Ortisei, Santa Cristina and Selva, enjoys a breath-taking setting under the Sassolungo, Puez and the Sella Massif mountains, its crests giving way to picture-postcard views of thick forests and snowy slopes.
Of course, Val Gardena is most famous for the Sellaronda ski circuit, a circular 42-kilometre tour around the giant Sella massif that skiers can negotiate without taking a single ski lift twice. The well-marked clockwise and anti-clockwise routes mean there was no wrestling with damp paper maps while trying to complete the course. Taking three to four hours without stops and encompassing the resorts of Alta Badia and Arabba, it provides a very satisfying day’s skiing for intermediates, punctuated with a few stops for a chilled beer or an al fresco lunch.
It helps enormously that Val Gardena has kept on top of its infrastructure, unlike resorts that still feature those oh-so-chilly old wooden chairlifts. The valley’s latest bit of kit is an €18m gondola with heated seats, the Piz Seteur, which follows last year’s installation of the eight-seater Gran Paradiso, Italy’s first chair lift with heated seats. In many spots, including Selva, skiers will appreciate the added touch of escalators up to the gondola entrance, removing the sweaty trek upstairs in ski boots at the start of the day.
Val Gardena boasts more than 175km of runs connected by 79 lifts, and for those inclined to venture further afield, it’s part of the huge Dolomiti SuperSki area, which encompasses 1,200 kilometres of pistes. But that would require a car, taxi or long bus ride, and there’s plenty in the valley to keep a once-a-year skier happy for a week. Best suited to intermediates, Val Gardena has 67 red and 34 blue pistes but only 11 black and most of them short (blacks cover only 18km in total), plus very little off-piste skiing. So it’s not ideal for expert skiers, although they’ll find some consolation on the legendary Saslong slope, famous for the annual FIS World Cup downhill race.
Selva, where we were stationed, is a handsome alpine town with pointy-spire churches and a bustling main street featuring a mix of high-end ski wear and souvenir shops, restaurants and bars, as well as two gondolas that access the Sellaronda. It’s low-key and family friendly. If you stay there, do carve out time to visit Ortisei, a bigger market town with a cobbled pedestrianised shopping street featuring high-end delis like Avesani, offering local cured meats and honey, plus shops like La Zipla, selling the wood carvings for which the area is famous. Adding to the luxe feel is a range of high-end hotels like the glass-and-wood Adler Dolomiti. Don’t leave without dining at Ortisei’s Tubladel restaurant, where thick steaks are served on hot slates and the truffle gnocchi is out of this world.
Part of Val Gardena’s charm is its idiosyncratic mash-up of three cultures, which certainly adds unpredictability to any interaction with locals. Situated in Italy’s South Tyrol province, the valley was for centuries part of Austria and so German is spoken more than Italian and strudel can be found on every menu. Some places have two names – Selva and Val Gardena are known as Wolkenstein and Gröden, respectively, in German. But the more common language of locals is Ladin, an ancient tongue derived from Latin that’s also related to Switzerland’s Romansch language. As a result, some places in Val Gardena have three names, but if your O-Level German lets you down, you’ll find the locals have a good grasp of English as well.
Despite its disconcerting Italian-German-Ladin heritage, Val Gardena feels decidedly Italian in its devotion to knockout cuisine. You can get fine dining and fresh seafood even on the mountains, not a common occurrence halfway down a red slope in most ski resorts. We ate fresh grilled prawns and deep-fried squid at the sleek Rifugio Emilio Comici (named after a famous mountain climber), which sources its fish daily from the family’s Venetian fish market. Channelling the same rustic chic is Rifugio Fienile Monte, a cosy, upmarket mountain hut of glass, wood and rough plaster that serves white truffle pasta (at €37, it’s not cheap) and fillet of Angus beef. Baita Daniel is more of a traditional family affair serving first-rate pasta – their speciality is a tagliatelle made with Schüttelbrot, a local crispy rye bread – and offering diners homemade grappa flavoured with local ingredients like hay and pine cones. If you’re lucky, the family’s teenage son will serenade the room on the accordion as you burn your throat on a shot of grappa.
Val Gardena offers excellent skiing, up-to-date lifts and a selection of eateries that wouldn’t be out of place in Milan, let alone as a pit stop on a snowy mountain. No wonder it’s been named Italy’s top ski resort several times, including last year, in a poll conducted by the Snowplaza website.
After each mountain meal we’d head back out to the slopes, to ski the last few runs while watching the late afternoon sun turn the Dolomites’ mountain peaks shades of purple, gold and pink. It wasn’t just the grappa giving us a nice warm feeling.
Inghams offers a seven-night ski holiday on a half board basis at Selva’s four-star Hotel Continental, at the foot of the Dantercepies gondola, from £1,099 per person based on two sharing in January 2019. Price includes return flights to Innsbruck and resort transfers. To book, visit www.inghams.co.uk/ski-holidays or call 01483 791 114.