Dolomite Dilemma

From a base in Cortina, your main challenges are which cable car to hop and which gourmet restaurant to choose for dinner.
001. Dolomites

When it comes to skiing the Alps, most Americans (to say nothing of the English, Russians and others) gravitate to Switzerland, Austria and France. If you’re at all crowd-averse—and if you’re more into the relaxing aspects of a mountain holiday than feats of downhill athleticism—consider Italy instead. Like so many aspects of the good life, the Italians seem to have perfected the ski vacation. 

Nowhere has this art been elevated higher than at Cortina, the chicest of the Italian Alpine resorts. Like St. Moritz, Cortina has its century-old grand hotels, mansions and elite social scene. But the flavor is less international and more, well, Italian. Wealthy Romans and Milanese have long favored this ancient mountain town, where they seem as focused on fine dining, shopping and their evening passeggiata as they are on the ski scene.

Not that the skiing is less than magical. Cortina sits in the Ampezzana valley near the Austrian border, completely circled by the high, jagged peaks of the Dolomites. There are three ski areas nearby, and one pass gives access to all.

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Piazza Venezia comes to life at night.

Lagazuoi 5 Torri, which can be accessed by bus from the center of town, is ideal for the sight-skier. Consider taking the Super8 tour, which has been laid out to highlight the most panoramic vistas of the Dolomite peaks. Then, with or without a guide, be sure to experience the 5-mile-long Armentarola. It’s the most famous ski run in Italy and certainly one of the most beautiful in the world. 

Next up is the trio of Faloria Cristallo Mietres, accessed by cable car from town and boasting a wide range of trails, from beginner to expert. Those with tots in tow (or timid travel partners) can drop them off at Mietres, which offers gentle forested runs, and then be free to explore he 893 meters of vertical the Cortina-Mandres-Faloria cable car provides. Between 27 miles of slopes and 12 refuges, or rifugi, as the small lodges here are called, this area boasts plenty of room and variety, whether your preference leans toward racing or resting.

The third ski area, Tofana, also is accessed from Cortina by cable car. Above the beginner slopes, you’ll find some of the most challenging terrain in the Dolomites (the Women’s Alpine Skiing World Cup is held here each year). You might take the Olympia tour, which lets you ski in the tracks of the 1956 Winter Games athletes. From the famous “Schuss” to the forbidding “Vertigine Bianca,” the steep upper runs of Tofana demand skill and nerve.

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A circa-1920s advertisement for the region.

If the three ski areas surrounding Cortina don’t give you your fill of downhill, opt for the Dolomiti Superski Pass. It gives you access to 12 valleys, 745 miles of trails and 450 lifts—enough to keep you busy for a week or a winter.

When your quads are torched and it’s time to relax for the day, you’ll find a lively après-ski scene in town. The main street, the Corso Italia, is lined with clothing boutiques and antiques stores. It’s pedestrian-only, and here you’ll find elegant Italian women in fur coats and men in ski garb shopping up a storm. As twilight descends, a party atmosphere prevails, especially in the Piazza Venezia, where boisterous crowds gather to begin their evening stroll. After dark, gravity shifts indoors to wine bars and restaurants.

Where to stay? The classic choice is the Hotel Cristallo, the most iconic mountain resort in Italy. The Cristallo opened in 1901, catering to European aristocracy and literati. Leo Tolstoy was an early guest, and Ernest Hemingway wrote Out of Sea-son here. Surviving occupation during both world wars, the hotel went on to have a second, jet-setting heyday after the 1956 Olympics were held in Cortina. Audrey Hepburn, an avid skier, was a frequent visitor. Frank Sinatra stayed at the hotel, as did Peter Sellers. (Much of The Pink Panther, the movie that launched the series in 1963, was filmed here. More than a decade later, Roger Moore camped at the Cristallo during the filming of For Your Eyes Only. You probably remember the high-speed chase that opened the movie, with James Bond on skis being pursued by bad guys on spike-wheeled motorcycles down the Olympic bobsled run and various ski slopes.)

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The pools at the Hotel Cristallo.

Massively refurbished for its centenary in 2001, the Cristallo has kept pace with modern luxury. Named Italy’s Best Ski Hotel in 2013’s inaugural World Ski Awards, the property offers everything you’d expect—spa services, winter swimming, a jacuzzi in every guest room and a choice of fine restaurants. The glass-walled Il Gazebo offers gorgeous views of the mountains. The more rustic La Stube 1872 is the place for hearty après fare, such as venison chops with cabbage pie and speck. And the Monkey Lounge lets you relive the Swinging Sixties, perhaps channeling the wit of Peter Sellers over cocktails.

The only potential drawback to the Cristallo is that it’s not in the heart of town. If you prefer a more bustling environment, try the four-star Hotel Ancora. Built in 1826, the Ancora is long on traditional charm, with wooden balconies and carved, painted decoration. Run by the same family for four generations, it’s situated in the heart of the pedestrian district and serves excellent food.

One of the reasons foreign hordes have spared Cortina is its dis-tance from major airports and lack of a rail line. That said, once your plane lands, getting to Cortina is not that much more difficult than, say, driving from the Denver airport to Beaver Creek. If you drive the 101 miles from the Innsbruck airport, granted, you’ll find the winding roads of the South Tyrol to be a bit more challenging than good old I-70. But the scenery is also more spectacular. An easier alternative is to fly to the Treviso airport, just north of Venice, and drive 85 miles north to the resort. 

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Ski biking on a Cortina trail.

However you approach it, you’ll feel a world apart when you get to Cortina and experience its renowned Alpine landscape from the cradle of Italian winter luxury.

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