With staggering mountain ranges and the highest concentration of Michelin stars anywhere in the Alps, Alta Badia in the Italian Dolomites is not your average ski resort. Every winter renowned chefs from around the world flock to the region to participate in the annual Taste for Skiing festival. From a wine-tasting ski safari to the local Ladin cuisine, travel writer Lizzie Pook discovers exactly what is on offer.
For the sake of full disclosure, I should put my cards firmly on the table: I am not a good skier. While exhilarating, no life affirming, for others, hurling myself down the side of a mountain while encased in salopettes and thermal socks up to my knees, has simply never come naturally to me. But while lying prone, post-tumble (I’d estimate my eighth in as many minutes), in a sugar-soft snow drift in the pretty north Italian Dolomites, I have something of an existential revelation. Gazing up at the faces of the skiers who swoop delicately around me, dodging my sprawled limbs like some sort of sub-zero road kill, I can see their beatific expressions – the unbridled joy they are experiencing at whizzing through this chocolate box landscape with the wind weaving through their hair and the sun beating down on their backs. If I can master skiing anywhere, it has to be here.
The slopes of Alta Badia, a collection of six villages in the Dolomites’ South Tyrol region, are some of the most picturesque in the world. Fringed by quaint wooden huts and forests of pine trees, with craggy mountain ranges rising in the distance like goddesses, it’s home to a network of nerve-shredding black runs – for those into that sort of thing – as well as some of the quietest, most pristine blue and red slopes in Europe; a far cry from the busy, glitzy resorts of Courchevel, Verbier, or Lech. The region also serves up some of the most exquisite slope food around. In fact, no other valley in the Alps boasts a higher concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants than the postcard-pretty Alta Badia. And you won’t find much fondue round here. From Strangolapreti (spinach dumplings literally translated as ‘priest strangers’ because a gluttonous priest once reportedly ate so many of them he strangled himself by swallowing them whole), to Bombardinos, a devilishly potent concoction of warm rum, egg nog and whipped cream, food and drink is a comforting, belly-filling blend of Italian and Austrian fare.
I’m actually here to experience the region’s annual Taste for Skiing festival, a season-long celebration of fine food which runs every December to April. With ‘Sommelier-on-the-Slopes’ wine-pairing safaris – where you spend an afternoon skiing from hut-to-hut with an expert sommelier, sampling some of the finest Tyrolean wines – to a Gourmet Ski safari (where guests don their skis and meander along the slopes to taste five different dishes in five different restaurants); plus a whole week dedicated solely to Ladin – the food of the region – it’s a veritable foodie extravaganza. With a crisp one-and-a-half metres of added snow, of course.
Last season, chefs from some of the world’s most famous ski resorts, including St Moritz, Gstaad and Aspen took part in head-to-head cook-off battles. But this year, 13 Michelin starred chefs – including world-renowned Norbert Niederkofler (three Michelin stars) from Restaurant St Hubertus in nearby San Cassiano – will be conjuring up warm and cosy nostalgic dishes from their childhoods and serving them up from their resident huts to rosy-cheeked skiers. Expect warm, hearty meat dishes, cloud-soft desserts and unctuous plates of delicious pasta.
Questionable skiing aside, my three glorious days here are spent under piercing blue skies, pottering around picturesque mountain retreats and indulging in the spoils of some of the most accomplished chefs to be found at 3,900 metres above sea level. I wolf down roast bleggo rabbit (complete with its livers), served with pumpkin, chestnuts and Sauris ham powder; a smorgasbord of local cheeses and piles of salty specks with pillowy soft beef cheek tortellini. I also discover the delights of Kaiserschmarrn – a sort of sweet pancake dish dusted with drifts of floury icing sugar and flecked with cranberries. My feasts are all topped off with many liberal rounds of Bombardinos, crisp Brut from the local vineyard (the highest in Europe) and many glasses of grappa. I become particularly fond of two cosy Alpine restaurants: Edelweiss –where motherly patron Maria doles out warm hugs alongside free-flowing Gingerinos (a bright orange, slightly bitter aperitif) – and Jimmy’s, where we feast on hot chocolate, prosecco and even more speck.
The hotels around here are superlative, too. The family-owned Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano boasts not one but two spas and minimalist Scandi-chic interiors. Scattered with local antiques and intricate wooden carvings, the original building dates back to 1850 – with wood-panelled ceilings, roaring fires and frescoed walls. The real draw here, though, is the show-stopping restaurant St Hubertus, which was recently awarded its third Michelin-star. Head chef Norbert Niederkofler has garnered nine culinary excellence awards over the years and all of his dishes are crafted entirely from locally-foraged ingredients (including around 450 different types of vegetables). Order the lacquered eel, pumpkin and buckthorn paired with the 2012 Vitovska Vodopivec for a pleasant surprise.
Slightly further afield, San Luis Hotel, some two hours away, is reached via serpentine roads winding through staggering mountain ranges and pretty Alpine valleys. Step one foot in the lobby you’ll be taken aback by the soaring ceilings, crackling fireplace, parquet floors and floor-to-ceiling windows, which look out over a vast mint-green lake and swathes of snow-topped pine trees raising their lofty branches to the sky. Rooms come in the form of scattered chalets which teeter on the edge of the lake, and treehouses which disappear into the tangles of the surrounding forest with a whisper. Many of the rooms – filled with open fires, billowing fabrics and lots of wood panelling – also have their own hot tubs and saunas. Perfect for wallowing in after a day of snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing or wine-sampling.
Tables in the hotel’s restaurant practically groan under the weight of Italian-style antipasti, and many of the ingredients are sourced from the large market garden that supplies the hotel’s kitchen. To fuel up ahead of a day on the slopes, tuck into a plate of locally grown Mediterranean vegetables by raw food fan and Michelin-starred chef Artuto Spiocchi in the hotel’s clubhouse hub. There’s also an airy double-height spa with windows looking out over the soul-soothing treetop views and black linen loungers aching to be sunk into (ask for physiotherapist Francesco; with just a touch he’ll know things about your muscles that you never even knew yourself). If you’re feeling particularly ballsy there’s also a pontoon which stretches out onto the chilly waters of the lake; perfect for plunging into for a spot of ‘winter bathing’, proven to boost mood and improve mental health.
For something more remote, head to Adler Mountain Lodge – a bewitching hideaway perched on one of Europe’s largest plateaux: the majestic Seiser Alm. Sitting at a staggering 1,800 metres above sea level, you can while away afternoons soaking up the sweeping views across the Dolomites and gazing upon the jagged edges of the commanding Langkofel peak. Being this high up means there’s also no better spot from which to view the enrosadira – the local name given to the colour of the mountains changing at dawn and dusk. There’s also a gloriously heated outdoor wrap-around infinity pool that provides panoramic views of the ethereal mountains. The main lodge, constructed from local larch and spruce, houses 18 suites, but pick your way further up the slopes and there are 12 sprawling two-storey chalets providing immense views across the rolling mountain pastures and soaring mountain peaks. Each has its own private balcony, intimate sauna, vast fireplace and their very own sundowner terrace. Here, days start with a calming yoga session surrounded by snowy forests, or an amble along the Nordic Walking Trails, followed by a breakfast of authentic local omelette with meadow herbs.
The Dolomites has to be one of the world’s most beautiful places, with its deep mountain valleys, babbling rivers, dense forests and still, cold lakes. Sadly, during my stay I don’t quite master the art of skiing, but I do succeed in wobbling down some blue runs in tact and hurling myself through the doorways of some of the warmest, most welcoming slope-side restaurants around. Come hungry, with an open heart and mind and you’ll be sincerely rewarded.
For more information on The Taste for Skiing festival, visit altabadia.org
Rooms at Rosa Alpina start at £390, rosaalpina.it, San Luis Hotel offers rooms from £264 per person in a chalet or treehouse when booking a seven-night stay, sanluis-hotel.com and suites at Adler Mountain Lodge start at £670, adler-lodge.com