Italy’s Hidden Gems: The Dolomites
“You may have the universe if l may have Italy,” Giuseppe Verdi, the prolific composer, once said, a trade-off that generations of Italophiles might concur is a pretty good deal. And while the splendors of cities like Rome, Venice and Florence can’t be overstated, there’s a deep inventory of lesser-traveled national treasures packed into th is boot-shaped cradle of modern civilization that remain, at least to outsiders, relatively unsung — places where you’ll find more actual Italians than people holding guidebooks.
True to character, Italy’s most rarefied escapes offer something to fuel every passion. For momentum junkies, there’s skiing down the largest glacier in the Dolomites — a mesmerizing mountain range — or ripping through the Tuscan countryside on an all-terrain Ducati. Those in search of off-the-grid privacy and wine — in that order — can find it on the wind-swept island of Pantelleria, while gourmets and autophiles will savor the distinct charms of Emilia-Romagna, home to Italy’s greatest gifts to the world: artisanal cuisine and supercars.
The rugged beauty and mystical aquamarine waters of Sardinia’s east coast will rope in yachtsmen and explorers, and Lake Como — that sanctuary to the leisure classes that’s inspired writers and artists for centuries — will satisfy aesthetes looking for grand villas and even grander views. These are the hideouts of bella Italia that celebrate the art of living well, where you’ll come away understanding that la dolce vita is that much sweeter for the journey.
The Dolomites – High Adventure in The Italian Alps
If Italy represents the unrelenting opportunity to gorge oneself on pasta and negronis, well, that’s just part of the magic. Nothing goes better with carbs than exhilaration, and the Dolomites, Europe’s premier winter playground, have plenty to offer.
Rising over 10,000 feet in the northern Italian Alps and bookended by Cortina d’Ampezzo to the east and Bolzano to the west, the world’s largest ski resort — named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009 — encompasses nearly 750 miles of trails and impossibly gorgeous valleys. Once described as “the most beautiful natural architecture in the world” by French design master Le Corbusier, the mountains, which Italy annexed from Austria after World War I, have an ethereal quality, thanks to their vertical rock formations, verdant valleys blanketed with evergreens, and clouds that seem close enough to touch. A natural phenomenon called enrosadira (“becoming pink”) gives the outcrops an otherworldly glow — depending on the hour, their color changes from bright yellow to fiery red to violet.
With a variety of terrain (only to percent of its trails are expert level), the Dolomites accommodate every type of skier. For an all-out skiing safari, purchase the Dolomiti Superski lift pass, your seven-day ticket to its 450 chair lifts and 12 ski areas — or enlist the expertise of Dolomite Mountains, a luxury tour operator with an office in the U.S. The company’s highly curated trips include multiday, off-piste ski expeditions from the top of Marmolada, the region’s highest peak, complete with helicopter transfer to the base. For those who prefer hairpin turns on asphalt, Drive Elements offers over-the-top Dolomites driving experiences like the “Dolomiti Hero,” where a 200-plus-mile course and 13 hair-raising passes put even the most intrepid motorists to the test. Choose the ultimate itinerary and you’ll be picked up by helicopter at your arrival airport (Munich, Milan or Venice) and flown to a top-tier hotel to unwind in the best suite in the house.
From there, the chopper transfers you to a mountain pass, where your supercar — a Bugatti Veyron, Lamborghini Huracan or Ferrari 458 — awaits. And you don’t have to pick just one: The Drive Elements team will follow behind with the rest of the fleet, so you can switch out cars on the fly. Its photogra-phers will capture the drive from the road and the air, and a film crew will shoot and produce your very own version of a James Bond film, with you in the starring role.
An extensive network of rifugi, or slope-side restaurants, means that Italy’s gastronomic pleasures extend to the very top of the range.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Alta Badia, a region comprising six villages in the southern part of the Val Badia valley that’s considered the bona fide foodie paradise of the Dolomites. Every December, through its Sciare con Gusto (“taste of skiing”) program, a group of world-class chefs descends upon its 14 ski huts to compose a series of signature dishes, which are then served until April. For an unforgettable taste of Alta Badia culinary artistry, head straight to Hotel Ciasa Salares. Hidden away in the sleepy village of San Cassiano and frequented by Italian VIPs — like former Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo and Olympic ski champion Alberto Tomba — it’s home to La Siriola, where Italy’s youngest Michelin chef, 27-year-old Matteo Metullio, presides over the kitchen. (South Tyrol, the province in which Alta Badia is located, has mom Michelin stars than any other Italian province.)
Metullio offers five multicourse menus inspired by trees — “Fir,” for example, includes dishes like hazelnut gnocchi with goat cheese sauce and quail breast, and pigeon with Jerusalem artichokes, cherries and nettles — or a 10-course tasting menu for the table; all of them include a visit to the restaurant’s chocolate room, which features 40 varieties from around the globe and a fountain of olive oil-tempered Venezuelan chocolate.
La Siriola’s wines — each personally selected by third-generation owner Stefan Wieser — come from the hotel’s atmospheric, amber-lit wine cellar. Housing nearly 25,000 bottles and 1,850 different labels during the winter season, its one of the largest cellars in the country, with an annual turnover of around 350 labels. You can host a dinner around its hand-hewn wooden tables for groups of up to 22, or try a wine and cheese tasting in the cheese room, where 50 to 70 selections will spoil you for choice. Upstairs, Wine Bar Siriola‘s elevated comfort food includes spaghettone cacio e pepe and an organic egg, bacon and asparagus salad with Parmigiano sauce and black truffle, while La Terraza the hotel’s open-air restaurant, serves plates of credo Montali (Italy’s best prosciutto di Parma, according to Wieser) with fried potato bread and spinach ravioli in brown butter sauce, alongside wide-angle views of the surrounding valley.
Though the Dolomites beckon in winter for obvious reasons, their appeal in summer is steadily growing. The Dolomiti Supersummer pass offers access to some 100 lifts from June through early November, allowing intrepid climbers and hikers to explore hundreds of vie ferrate mountain routes, connected by suspended bridges and fixed ladders.
First built by Alpine guides at the end of the 19th century, they later came in handy for moving troops and supplies along the ltalo-Austrian border during World War I. Down on terra firma, road and mountain bikers can choose from hundreds of miles of cycling routes at varying altitudes. Alta Badia alone offers twice-daily road bike tours three times a week, as well as six electric-bike rental stations.