By Everett Potter
After two days in Cortina, Italy’s chicest ski resort, I had chalked up many firsts. I had enjoyed the craggy beauty and challenges of the snow-covered Dolomites, skiing between jagged pink rock spires under ever-changing Alpine skies. I marveled as Italian skiers forsook alcohol apres ski, indulging instead in gelato, which they ate alfresco so they could grab the last rays of the weak winter sun. As I strolled through Cortina, I saw my first-ever Porsche dealership on the main street of a ski town, the windows filled with dazzling candy-colored sports cars. Then there was the constant parade of fur coats during the passeggiatta, which turned Corso Italia into a Milan catwalk every evening.
But one thing I had not seen in two days of intense exploration were moguls, the irregular bumps that form on busy ski trails and can offer a formidable challenge to skiers of any ability. So I turned to my guide, an amiable woman named Christina, and asked her why.
She looked at me like I was to be pitied.
“Moguls?” she said. “Of course there are no moguls. We groom every run every night. What would the nice ladies from Rome do if they saw a mogul? They would go home .”
Indeed, skiing in Italy is not like skiing in the United States. Or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter. Simply staying in a resort like Cortina counts as a ski trip for a certain class of Italian, who motors up from Bologna or Venice or Rome for the wintery good life. Sometimes for the entire season, if you’ve got a name like Prada or Agnelli.
Regardless of the resort, the bella figura remains the one constant. One must look very good, very pulled together and as chic as possible whether on the slopes or making the evening passeggiatta on village streets. Sure, you will see well-turned out skiers in Stowe, Aspen or St. Anton. But it’s not a mandate at these resorts. In Italy, skiing is as stylish as most everything else Italians put their minds too. Why else do you think there are mirrors at the base of ski lifts in Cortina?
The skiing itself can be challenging, if you know where to look, especially at resorts such as Sestriere. After all, this is the country that produced Alberto Tomba, who learned to ski in Cortina, and whose accomplishments both on the slopes and apres ski are legendary, oft repeated and oft embellished.
That said, many Italians seem to prefer easy cruisers. In a resort like Cortina, the classic Italian ski day starts with a slopeside appearance no earlier than, say 10 AM, and often later. Eager Americans who need to be on the first chair of the day will usually have that chair to themselves. And the next one, and the one after that.
The late-ish start is followed by a few runs before lunch, which can easily consume two hours or more. After a few more of runs, it’s time for apres ski, then steam or sauna or nap. Then you dress for the passeggiatta with fellow fur-clad Romans, Bolognese and Milanese. Followed by drinks, dinner, and postprandial mischief.
Food is another aspect of the Italian ski experience. You can’t argue with the menu in French resorts such as Megeve or Courchevel, and you’ll eat well in Zermatt and Verbier in Switzerland. But then there’s Italy. In simple mountain rifugios or huts, you’ll find extraordinarily good pastas and game dishes, as well as local mountain specialities. In Cortina, for example, there’s casunzei, ravioli of beets and poppy seeds found on lunch menus. In the Sella Ronda area, it’s not uncommon to come across an outdoor ice bar, a giant block of ice hollowed out for locally made grappa in frosty bottles. In the evening in Cortina, you can head to Enoteca, run by Gaspari Girolamo, a gorgeous wood-paneled bar, perfect for savoring some Parmigiano Reggiano anointed with antico balsamico, along with a glass of prosecco. At night, finding somewhere for a simple repast or a Michelin-noteworthy restaurant isn’t difficult.
But here’s what else you should know about skiing in Italy. At many Italian ski hotels, you must book a one week stay, from Saturday to Saturday. Most resorts work on a half board plan, offering you breakfast and dinner in the price of your room. If you’d rather go to different places for dinner each night, look at bed & breakfast offerings. By far the easiest way to book an Italian ski vacation is to go through a tour operator, such as Ski.com or Ski Europe , or a specialist like Chips Lindenmeyr at Lindenmeyr Travel. Here’s a look at the best resorts in the country.
More of an historic mountain town than a ski resort, Bormio has long been known for offering good value. Located in the Rhaetian Alps near the Swiss and Austrian borders, it lies just across the border from St. Moritz in Switzerland. There are both open alpine pistes and wooded runs on the mountain. If you need more challenges, there are three other ski areas nearby: the Valdidentro Valley; Santa Caterina; and Livigno, which about an hour away. They’re all covered by a common ski pass. But it’s the medieval village that may be the most memorable part of your trip. The Hotel Posta is located in the heart of the old town, a four-star property.
Many Americans discover Cervinia almost by accident. The discovery comes when they’ve booked a ski vacation in adjacent Zermatt, Switzerland and then learn then can ski over to Cervinia for lunch. That lunch run is a glorious seven miles of cruising, and the wide open and frequently sunny cruisers exemplify this popular resort that lies in the shadow of the Matterhorn. While the architecture won’t win any awards, the snowfall is justifiably acclaimed. Cervinia is one of the highest ski resorts in the Alps, with a village height of 6,500 feet and a ski area that rises up to 11,400 feet. Which means that it has the most reliable snow from early December until late April in all of Italy. Considering that you can live La Dolce Vita and ski over to Zermatt’s slopes, there’s a lot to offer. The Hotel Hermitage Cervinia is a Relais & Chateaux property offering the most comfort in the village.
For a single resort town that offers the best Italian ski experience — albeit at a price — you can’t beat Cortina. It’s a picture-perfect Alpine town, with cobbled streets set amidst the jagged Dolomites and it played host to the Winter Olympics in 1956. Cortina is Italy’s answer to Aspen, St. Moritz and Couchevel 1850 and has more style than all of them combined. The main ski areas are all accessible by shuttle bus and there are lots of long, relatively easy cruising runs. Very good snowmaking substitutes when an erratic winter season strikes, which it does all too often. In a place with many fine on-mountain restaurants, the Rifuigio Pomedes, with its panoramic views and local cuisine, is a fine choice. Hotel de la Poste is an 81-room hostelry that epitomizes Italian style, from tapestries and antique pewter to Tyrolean furniture.
Courmayeur, which lies in the Aosta Valley not far from the Italian end of the Mont Blanc tunnel, is a medieval market town of considerable charm. It has a car-free center, a good array of shops and restaurants to keep you happy, along with a great view of Mount Blanc. The skiing isn’t bad either, thought its largely an intermediate’s paradise, with short runs. If you’re eager for more challenging pistes, you can go heli skiing or cross into neighboring France, and go to Chamonix and tackle the famous Vallee Blanche run. Courmayeur has long been popular with well-heeled residents of Milan and Turin, many of whom have second homes here. The weekend passeggiata may not rival Cortina’s, but it’s stylish indeed. The Romantik Hotel Villa Novecento is a good choice, located in a renovated mansion in the heart of town.
MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO
Madonna Di Campiglio, situated on the shores of a scenic lake in the Brenta Dolomites, is a bustling resort yet also a charming alpine ski village. There are four ski areas around the town, with 49 lifts and 90 miles of trails. The largest area is Groste, which offers the world’s longest gondola ride, about three miles. The runs from the top are long and exhilarating as well. There’s also Spinale, where World Cup races are held, and nearby are Folgarida and Marilleva, for many more miles of trails. Madonna is also one of the best snowboarding resorts in Italy, with a half-pipe, fun park and boardercross. The visitors are chic Italians for the most part, who frequent the stylish shops and restaurants, as well as the four star Cristal Palace Hotel.
Not far from Cortina is the vast Sella Ronda area, a circular ski safari that links four villages: Selva di Val Gardena, Corvara, Canazei, and Arabba. The circuit is about 24 miles long, and local ski instructors often challenge each other to do it in one day. But as a visitor, there’s no need to race. Instead, you can linger in the villages, enjoy the steeps in Arraba and head to the Marmolada glacier for more challenges. You’ll hear Ladin spoken in these villages, and the dumplings and Germanic sweets in the shops are reminders that the Austrians held onto this land until 1915. The most enjoyable part of the Sella Ronda is that it gives you a sense of exploration, skiing on a vast network of interconnected slopes amidst the Dolomites. Nightlife tends to be quiet, the pace far slower than nearby Cortina. The Sporthotel Arraba is one of the best choices in the area.
Sestriere is the wintry weekend retreat for residents of Turin and was the site of the 2006 winter Olympic Games. The resort has north-west-facing slopes, which gives it the best shot at snow in this corner of Italy. There’s also very good snowmaking, too. There are not only a variety of pistes for skiers of different abilities but Sestriere is part of the Milky Way area, with links to neighboring Sauze d’Oulx and Sansicario. For Americans, Sesetriere would be a great weekend ski escape if you were visiting Turin, because that’s when it comes alive. During the week, it can be sleepy indeed. The Hotel Savoy Edelweiss is arguably the most comfortable four star property in town.