The Times: On a ski safari in the Dolomites
We invited Christian Wolmar on The Dolomites Ski Safari. Here is his article published in The Times …
Why stay in one place on your ski holiday? Go for a tour of mountain refuges in Italy instead, says Christian Wolmar
It’s at dawn when I most appreciate this ski safari in the Dolomites. First, there is the pink sunrise through the mountains, often highlighting the woolly cloud nestling in the valleys below. Then there is the treat of the first run of the day.
We’re staying in high mountain rifugi, or refuges, skiing from one to the other with a small rucksack containing a few clean clothes and necessities, which means that in the morning we can launch ourselves down the silent mountain before the first lift has even started. There is nothing to beat the experience, particularly in the wondrous beauty of the Dolomites, with their craggy rocks and imposing cliffs.
It’s the perfect place for this ski holiday with a difference because, alongside larger areas such as Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Sella Ronda, there are numerous small ski areas, many of which aren’t sufficient for a week’s holiday, but which make for a great uncrowded day’s skiing. The weather is also better than in the Alps, as the local climate is determined more by the Mediterranean than by the standard Alpine pattern of winds.
This was certainly borne out by the five-day trip from Ortisei I took with my partner, Deborah. Although there was a white-out on the first day, which took the form of a find-your-ski-legs local tour around the slopes of the Alpe di Siusi, after that the sky was, for the most part, cloudless.
The acclimatisation day is to check that both your equipment — and you — are up to scratch; you need to be a confident red-run skier and have reasonable fitness to attempt this trip. That’s because, once on the safari, the pace is fairly fast, as there is a non- negotiable requirement of reaching the next rifugio before the lifts close.
And so we set off, skiing on numerous different pistes, with very little repetition. We used the occasional bus to connect between ski areas, and were also towed by horses at one point to avoid a long walk; this is not a high-mountain tour using skins, as all the uphill is done using the large number of chair-lifts and spectacular cableways dotted around the area and the skiing is all on piste. We soon forgot the rucksacks on our backs, except on lifts when it worked out better to put them on our laps, as we covered more than a hundred miles of skiing in five days.
Lunches were a particular highlight. The mountain restaurants in the Dolomites are a class above most of those found in the French Alps — and cheaper. We feasted on fabulous plates of homemade ravioli with mouth-watering fillings for a mere €8-10. There is, too, a mix of cuisines, as a great part of the Dolomites is in the Austrian-speaking part of Italy where speck and wurst are top of the menu rather than spaghetti and penne.
The rifugi also provide pretty good food, varying from basic-but-nutritious to some fabulous dishes served, remarkably, at heights above 2,000m courtesy of skidoos, which bring fresh deliveries every day. The accommodation has also changed in recent years, thanks to increased demand. Gone, mostly, are the youth-hostel-style dormitories with bunk beds adorned with drying socks and poorly washed-out underpants, and in their place are simple but stylish double rooms with en suite bathrooms. One rifugio — Baita Cuz, Buffaure, even had a sauna where we were encouraged to smear ourselves with snow after suffering the heat. I loved the evening ritual at sunset while sipping a thick, velvety Italian hot chocolate or one of a variety of aperitifs such as a bombardino — basically an egg nog.
So, the next time you are sitting slightly bored on the fifth day of a typical “ski-in-ski-out” holiday, think about a different type of skiing trip which involves staying in several different places and a fantastic variety of different pistes. I cannot now imagine a skiing holiday that does not involve those early morning runs and watching the sunset at 2,800 metres.”
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