Climbing and Drinking Our Way Through the Dolomites
A few years ago, we named the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy one of the best places to travel in 2019. And while so much has changed in the last three years, the appeal of the Dolomites has not waned, especially for outdoor pursuits all year long. Contributing editor Jane Larkworthy reports on the action.
DOLOMITES, Italy – The Dolomite Mountains have been on a roll. Long a favorite of skiers, this range in northeastern Italy became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, and the Olympic Committee has named Cortina d'Ampezzo the home of the 2026 Winter Games. (Technically, they’re sharing the hosting with Milan. Is runway walking a sport?)
My family are mountain people — sort of. We live in New York City, but spend every weekend hiking in the Berkshires, and most vacations involve skiing either the Colorado or Canadian Rockies or Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. The summer before the pandemic, we packed our passports, hiking boots, and expandable pants and headed to San Cassiano in the South Tyrol province in Italy to see if we could hike and eat speck at (nearly) the same time.
There are two ways to reach San Cassiano, where we spent our first night. Either head west just north of Lago di Santa Croce, or make that westward turn further north at Cortina d’Ampezzo. If being near a Moncler boutique is important, park yourself at Cortina. If, however, food and hopes of re-creating the opening number from Sound of Music are more your speed, drive the extra 40 minutes to explore Corvara, Colfosco, San Cassiano, La Villa, Badia, and La Val — the six villages that comprise the breathtaking area known as Alta Badia. Each delivers some serious Heidi-style mountain charm, and while these hamlets probably aren’t close enough to traverse by walking, each does seem practically around the bend from the one you just went through, so the drive among them is a quick one.
The Austrian influence is pretty ubiquitous, which makes sense since South Tyrol was part of the neighboring country until World War I, when it was annexed by Italy. It’s also in the fashion (hats, lederhosen, dirndls ) and within the menus (Craving speck? Strudel? Sure!).
The street signs explain it all. Written in three languages — German, Italian, and Ladino (the neo-Latin native tongue) — it also pretty much sums up most of the people, too.
You will be charmed by the utter and total commitment to one architectural style, which we’ll call Chic Chalet. Nary a McMansion in sight, even the modest chalets are still chalets.
Lay of the Land
No matter how you get here, a series of hairpin switchbacks can’t be avoided, so prepare for some mild stress sweating behind the wheel. Look at it like this: It just makes the arrival all the more rewarding. Or let someone else do the driving and roll down your window to gape at the breathtaking, snow-capped peaks which compete with imposing jagged El Capitain impersonators at nearly every new curve.
If You Only Do One Thing
Devote a morning to hiking Fanes-Senes-Brais Natural Park. Hire a guide. We booked ours through Dolomite Mountains, who organize ski safaris, as well as summer and fall hiking, biking, and multi-sport trips. The guide led us uphill to Col de Locia, where the spring waters are actually drinkable … so long as the cows haven’t migrated there yet. (Ask your guide before filling your bottle. Cows usually pass through around late June/early July.) The reward for this heart-pumping, snow-crossing climb (it’s nothing a hiking boot can’t handle) is a quick plunge in the emerald-green and freezingly bracing Lago di Lagazuoi. From there, it’s just a short declining switchback to Rifugio Scotoni, where the mushroom polenta is a must.
What to Do
If you’re here, you’ll want to be outside. The Dolomites are all about the outdoor activities: hiking and biking in the warmer months, skiing in colder times.
The novice but adventurous should test their climbing skills at Sass de Stria mountain. A new via ferrata (a protected climbing path) was recently built and can be reached just beyond the parking lot of the World War I museum, Forte Tre Sassi. The first part of the hike involves passing through tunnels that were built into the mountain during said war. After the tunnels deposit you to the other side of the mountain, it’s a quick traverse hike to the via ferrata. I’ll say it again: Hire a guide!! This route is not to be attempted without one, no matter how perfected your knot skills are or how nimble you believe your feet to be.
Should you not be ready to slip into a climber’s harness, there is no shame in reaching the mountaintop via chairlift, gondola, or cable car. More than a dozen resorts have theirs open year-round, and, given the vast popularity of bikers visiting the area, many are equipped to allow mountain bikes.
Speaking of mountain bikes, cycling of most kinds is pervasive here. Don your best Cinzano spandex and tour the winding roads, or rent a hybrid (E-bikes are available) and meander the trails that parallel miles of roads and streams.
History buffs will want to visit that aforementioned Forte Tre Sassi, whose displays of World War I ammunitions, uniforms, and other artifacts are fascinating, heartbreaking, and occasionally even smile-inducing. We were quite bemused by a restored list of services from what appeared to have been a local brothel.
Given that this is the country that gave us Prada and Bruno Cuccinelli, there is no shame in shopping here. Fortunately, there is no shortage of boutiques, especially in Corvara, whose long stretch of shops proved an enjoyable jaunt before dinner. Sport Kostner offers a vast array of gear for the hiker and biker, but I found a gorgeous felt tote I still regret not snagging, and they even sell traditional dirndls and leiderhosen. Or stay luxe and pick up a cashmere wrap at Duca di S. Giusto.
When the snow arrives, the activities shift from biking and climbing to skiing and snowboarding, while the hiking morphs into backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. Of course, there are the less, eh, vigorous offerings, like ice skating and sleigh rides, horse drawn or not. Should the cold be too much, you can always warm up with a Bombardino, Italy’s chicer (tastier) version of eggnog, at your hotel’s bar.
Where to Stay
Many hotels openly wear their ratings on their exteriors, with stars painted next to their names. (Italians love a star system.) I suppose that helps remove the guesswork and help plan a future trip. Also, Airbnb is alive and well here, should parsimony or wanting your own kitchen be a concern.
Ladin influence and charm is everywhere at Ciasa Salares in San Cassiano. Four in-house restaurants provide plenty of choices in this cozy lodge, so it’s no surprise it’s a favorite of cycling tour groups. That said, it’s the specialty-food rooms that will blow your mind (more on that below). The hotel recently underwent a lovely renovation, and any room is really win-win. Our newly designed room had a warm Skandi feel, but our kids’ classic room was retro-yodel-chic cozy, and they loved that their balcony overlooked the hotel’s vast herb garden.
Those who would rather stay in a village should check into Hotel La Perla in nearby Corvara. My post-hike muscles received an excellent massage at their spa, tucked away downstairs. Every meal included a proclamation from one of us that involved the words “this is the best…” — and we didn’t even experience the hotel’s Michelin-star gem, La Stua de Michil. What we marveled at most was the fact that, despite being in the center of town, we were steps from several mountain paths and a gondola lift.
The two other Fathom-recommended hotels in the area are Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano, home of renown chef Norbert Niederkofler and an Aman Partner hotel, and Cristallo, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, in Cortina d'Ampezzo.
Where to Eat
If Heidi’s grandfather owned a restaurant, it would be Maso Runch, perched above the village of Badia. Try to arrive a little early so you can walk around a bit, say hi to the cows in the barn across the road, and, given the magnificent views, procure several Instagram shots. Inside this charming 200+-year-old house, Runch’s specialty is its fried turnovers, a Ladin favorite, but be sure to save room for the rest of the tasting menu, most notably delectable spinach and ravioli ricotta and homemade ice cream.
In Ladino, Cocun means “bottle cork,” an apt name for Ciasa Salares wine cellar restaurant where guests dine among its 24,000 bottle stash, overseen by third-generation C.S. family member and somm Jan Clemons, whose passion is bio-dynamic wines. (Interesting wine note: Rosés are hard to find here, but sparkling rosés? Not a problem, thanks to the legendary Prosecco Road about an hour south.) If dining on fondue with three meats and eight sauces isn’t enough, venture over to Nida, the cheese room, or round the corner to Nodla, where 120 different forms of chocolate await. Clemons may even gently push a wall to reveal the Liquid Spirits room, backlit like a hi-tech Broadway set and filled with mind-blowing grappas, vermouths and other aperitivi.
This part of Italy has a high concentration of Michelin stars, and though we didn’t make it to Saint Hubertus, the three-star resto at Rosa Alpina, I sure wish we had.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Fly to either Venice or Innsbruck airports. Both take about two hours, give or take. Tip: If you’re renting a car at the Venice airport, try not to rent too large a car. Maneuverability through its tight ramps is tricky, and so is finding your way out.
A rental car is a good idea for the freedom, but drivers are available to deliver you from one chalet-filled village to the next, which pop up every few miles.
When to Go
If you want your mountain time warm, venture between June and early September. August can be super busy, so June and July are probably wisest. That said, Dolomite weather can be mercurial. Some autumns, hiking can go through all of October; some summers, they have snow in June. If you’re in it for the skiing, come December through March.
Tipping is not expected but deeply appreciated. If you enjoyed your service, consider tipping 10-15 percent.
What to Pack
Hiking boots and a lot of sunscreen.
Book Your Trip
Yes, you could do it yourself, but planning is so much easier when you work with an expert. Dolomite Mountains can arrange your whole trip — hotels, restaurants, excursions, and more. They also do custom and group trips focused on hiking, biking, running, or multi-sport adventures. Tell them Fathom sent you!