In the bubble car lift, from the bottom station in San Cassiano, a fellow skier introduces himself as Giovanni from Trieste. “Your first time here?” he asks. “In the winter months, yes,” we say. He nods and smiles: “It’s paradise…”
Our short ski-break to the Alta Badia region of Italy, tucked away in the northeast corner of the country, didn’t have the most promising of starts. We drove up from Venice in a hire car the night before; the Googlemap directions from the airport to our hotel were effectively “turn right, turn left, turn right” — but with 150km between the first two instructions. The last section is a 30km ascent of corners and cunning after the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, and, in the desperately snowless January of 2015, we saw little white coverage through the darkness to inspire us as we pulled into the Ciasa Salares hotel in Armentarola. (That’s the second “turn right”, by the way).
GLORIOUS BLUE SKIES
In the glorious blue skies of the following morning, all fears are swept away: the pisses are immaculate. Despite the absence of a decent dusting in weeks, the resort is more than 90 per cent open. Alta Badia takes in the communities of San Cassiano, La Villa, Corvara and Colfosco. Buy a ski pass for the areas around these towns and you’ll be happy for a couple of days. But the principal draw here is the mighty Gruppo del Sella — an indomitable central massif — and the tour that circumnavigates it, known as the Sellaronda. Like many other resorts (particularly in France), a more expensive pass grants you passage to the expansive “Dolomiti Superski” — four regions around the Sella, which you need to complete the Sellaronda. And seeing as a trip to this part of the world would be deficient without that tour, you should budget for the pass. (A three-day pass for the 2016-2017 season starts from €130 during pre-season rising to €163 in the peak season).
Orientation (and eating) is the order of the first day of our long weekend. Five minutes’ walk from the Salares and we’re on a Poma lift. Now, these pistes won’t challenge black-run addicts. This is very much a kingdom of long blues and reds, ideal for beginners and intermediates — but against a landscape that knocks your standard Alp into a cocked hat. So lean back and enjoy the scenery.
Indulge in the food too. During the winter, 14 mountain restaurants participate in the Sciare con Gusto (Gourmet Skiing) programme, each serving a signature dish designed by a leading chef. At lunchtime we find ourselves in the Utia (hut) de Bioch, sampling, first, a trio of appetisers presented like mini ice-cream cones and delivered on a piece of Dolomite stone: potato and sprinkles; speck with horseradish and ham; cream cheese with sauerkraut. Very tasty! This is followed by a seafood and lemon linguine with a matching glass of pinot bianco. You can quite easily drift from kitchen to kitchen if you so wish, though we drag ourselves back to the slopes to complete our orientation for the day.
Next day, the big day, is the Sellaronda — skiing around the great geological buongiorno! that is the Gruppo del Sella. The challenge is to complete the round trip in a day. Let me say from the outset: you can do it. Even if you mess up your route, or repeat some of the runs, or end up in a dead-end, or dawdle about in a cafe, it can be completed in a day. Minimum expectation, for the dedicated or hurried, is four and a half hours.
Our party of three is on the first drag at 8.45am. Three lifts and a chair to traverse the valley (the Braia Fraida) and we are installed on the first genuine chair for our anticlockwise circuit of this ‘must-do’ route.
From there, there’s one tricky-ish descent, but otherwise decent wide reds and a generous blue, to get us to the base of Arabba (an adjacent ski field). We plough into the gondolas adjacent to the cable car. (Don’t do this! Go straight to the 80-capacity car: it’s a much more efficient way of getting to the top. There’s a reason I know this…)
By 10.30 we’re at the highest skiable point, Portavescovo (2,495m) and the first serious view of the Gruppo del Sella, a point when you can grab a coffee and behold the Dolomitic centrepiece in all its magnificence.
I’ll keep our humiliations brief. There’s a forgiving red from the summit, and as it flattens out, we misread a sign and head down the black (partly because this is not a resort that offers a surplus of technical challenges). Next thing we know, we’re back at Arabba. So… we take the cable car back to the top and do it again.
At another point, we choose a beckoning intermediate piste at a crucial T-junction, and, without checking the map, pursue the immaculately groomed white corridor until… nothing. It just stops, unceremoniously, with a sign saying “end of run” and a gravel car park. Having walked through the pretty village of Canazei, we are still back on the ‘Ronda’ before midday.
You can take in the extraordinary view, eat, dine, try alternative routes, take a chance or two and correct your errors afterwards (ahem) and still not worry about missing the last lift from Colfosco to Corvara (otherwise you’re walking the last flat section). At a certain point in the afternoon, you might even see the clouds crawling over the Sella: a giant, vaporous crab negotiating a rock pool. Stupendous. Back to Corvara, then, in time for a large stein and loud, inevitably earwormish Europop in an apres-ski bar.
The essential ‘secret’ skiing day out — as if the Sellaronda round robin wasn’t enough — is a trip up the ‘Hidden Valley’, the incomparable descent from the Lagazuoi at 2,778m. Competent guests staying in or around San Cassiano are superbly placed for this unmissable adventure.
Take a taxi for a few euros to the Falzarego Pass, and then a cable car to the top of Lagazuoi. Skiing down the red, a decisive left turn takes you through a ‘valley of the rocks’ — massive granite structures seem to observe your passage — then a number of sweeping corners carry you past frozen waterfalls and propel you to the Scotoni but at 2,040m. A coffee and a photo, as you see watch the mid-morning sun crawl over the cradling cliffs, and we’re back on the trail. Another lazy curve reveals a team of ice-climbers (they’re fellow tourists: the ropes fixed to the rock above the glassy columns gives it away) followed by a schuss through the trees to the unexpected finale: the horse-lift.
Yes, join your fellow skiers holding on tight to the knotted rope behind the pony-and-trap as you are dragged back to the main road (think equine button lift). The Lagazuoi detour is one of the prettiest and impressive runs I’ve ever skied — and the ‘equine button lift’ is the cherry on the icing.
Let me repeat this note for skiers: both around the Sella, and all across the resort, in fact, we found nothing comparable to the challenging blacks of some French resorts. (Descending off the top of the Costabella-Dantercepies lift on the Sellaronda day, one of our party quips, “A Frenchman would laugh in your face if you told him that was a black!”) But that’s not why you come to the Alta Badia region to ski, dine and relax.
You come because it’s fairly priced, it’s pretty, and there are buses and taxis to take you up and down the valley. Whatever cash you spend here, you feel like your getting value for your euro. But you also find something special. As Giovanni from Trieste put it: “It’s paradise.” I’m not arguing. It just possibly is.
Access to Alta Badia is via Venice Marco Polo to the south (2.5hr drive) or Innsbruck to the north (2hr drive). When we travelled in early February, booking the flights a month before, easyJet fares to Venice were, on average, £150 cheaper than those to Innsbruck. Plus, if you book a late flight home and leave Alta Badia early, you’ll have a few hours in Venice.
As noted, Venice to Alta Badia is not a complicated drive, but it is quite a long one. Basically, you need to head north on the A27. You then have the option of the fast route (continue on the A27) or the more scenic route (turn left onto the Strada Regionale 203 at Treviso).