A new direct flight to the Dolomites brings Italy’s gourmet pistes tantalisingly closer - Scotland on Sunday Travel
After a day of thrilling skiing in the achingly beautiful Italian Dolomites, I’m dowsed, dunked, sprayed, gently baked and then showered at my luxurious hotel spa… and it’s utter bliss.
As I gaze up to the shimmering stars, I swear the steam rising from the outdoor hot tub is coming from my throbbing feet as they recover from six hours on the slopes.
I’m reacquainting myself with the delights of Alta Badia in Italy’s South Tyrol, more than a decade after first sampling this foodie-and-sports wonderland. And my only regret is that I haven’t been back sooner – this UNESCO world heritage site is off the scale for gorgeousness.
To my delight, reaching the slopes has become a whole lot easier and quicker thanks to the launch of a new airline, SkyAlps, from December 2023. Every Sunday and Wednesday, the Italian company’s 76-seater turboprop-powered aircraft makes the two-hour and 35-minute trip from London Stansted to Bolzano on the edge the Alps.
With complimentary wines and snacks on offer, plus plenty of room to spread out, it feels more like a private jet than a commercial airline. And it claims to offer one of the greenest eco-footprints, with much lower CO2 emissions than a turbojet.
It takes 90 minutes to reach our classy Ciasa Salares gourmet hotel through towering alpine trees laden with snow – that’s a good hour-and-a-half quicker than my last visit to the region via Milan Bergamo Airport. (The mountains can, in fact, be reached in 40 minutes, but the Ciasa is only a snowball’s throw from button lifts that take you to the main gondolas, and oh so worth the extra effort.)
My first experience of this region was at the exclusive Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano, where chef Norbert Niederkofler found tastebuds I didn’t know existed at his neighbouring three Michelin-starred St Hubertus restaurant. The hotel is currently undergoing an extensive refurbishment.
It’s a hard act to follow, but the five-star Ciasa, with its chocolate and cheese rooms and unique cellar restaurant, is a more than adequate substitute.
After a hearty breakfast, I meet up with my easy-going skiing tutor, Marco de Lazzer, whose previous clients have included Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall and his family. He patiently puts me through my paces and I quickly get up to speed on one of the easier blue runs, slicing through the perfectly groomed show with surprising agility, considering I’m now into my 60s.
“It helps to think of music,” he tells me through broken English. “For rhythm?” I suggest. “Yes, that’s it. For rhythm. Just enjoy it.”
I take his cue and hum Simply Red’s classic track Fairground, a favourite of holidays gone by, and wish my two grown-up children were alongside to share the experience.
Fearing Arctic conditions, I’m wrapped up like a polar explorer, but with temperatures dropping to a bracing -2C, no wind and the low-lying sun breaking through the clouds (typical conditions for Alta Badia in January, according to Marco) – I soon shed a layer or two.
After a gentle introduction on the slopes near Corvara, we head up a series of gondolas and chairlifts to trendy Jimmi Hut on the edge of the Sella Ronda ski circuit for some Dutch courage before tackling the more challenging runs.
It’s packed with skiers from all over the world, all enjoying the stylish Tyrolean charm, hearty meals and stunning views. We order a round a potent Bombardino cocktails, a popular local drink of half Advocaat (eggnog) and half brandy served hot with whipped cream, which immediately hits the spot.
Back on the piste, and feeling emboldened by my Italian hot toddy, I launch myself down my first red run – that’s one down in technical difficulty from the death-defying black runs – swaying from side to side and trying to keep up with Marco.
“Bravo! Well done,” he exclaims, as we finally reach the bottom.
I’m relieved to make it down in one piece and, feeling exhilarated, happily agree to head for lunch. We slide down one of the quieter blue runs, take a right turn and happen upon a small, idyllic hut. Outside, the owner Maria Sofia is already pouring glasses of local white wine and laying out snacks of salmon and locally-caught river char and fennel on a large pine table dug out from the snow.
It’s an exquisite, solitary spot, perfectly framed by the blue-tinged Sassolungo mountains and pines, and made possible by the launch of The Brunch Tribe, a new gourmet offering by locals. We indulge in delicious carrot soup, polenta with cheese and sauerkraut, melt-in-your mouth venison with blueberries and lemon and blueberry cake, washed down with fruity Picolit and Sauvignon wines.
For many, a winter trip to Alta Badia, with its 500km of pistes and 50-plus modern ski lifts, is more about the aprés than the actual skiing. Some are drawn to the region by the annual Gourmet Skisafari, a culinary indulgence laid on by some of the most decorated chefs in Italy, including culinary whizz Massimiliano Alajmo and Ana Ros, voted the world’s best female chef in 2017.
Skiers can sample some of their finest dishes, using ingredients from the Dolomites landscape, by swish-swishing between nominated partner huts for each course. The huts are relatively close so no one goes hungry, but far enough to build up an appetite, and courses can be taken in any order.
The following day we head for one of the restaurants taking part, Edelweiss hut in Colfosco, a nod to when the region was ruled by the Austrians prior to the First World War. Outside it’s a hive of activity as skiers young and old feast on freshly-baked pizzas, but inside it’s warm and welcoming – a perfect base from which to rest weary muscles and soak up the wonderful views of the Sella massif.
We indulge in an array of Ladin cuisine – meat and cheese dishes that hail from the 30,000 Ladin-speaking people who live in the Dolomite mountains, including Marco – as well as Mediterranean delicacies. My favourite dish is beef cheeks with mash, carrots and fennel, accompanied by an intense and aromatic Burgum Novum pinot nero.
Sated and just a little intoxicated, I squeeze my feet back into the ski boots and, humming along to Simply Red, join the dozens of other skiers weaving down the silken snow. Holding back the years, I head for the Ciasa Salares for a rendezvous with a beer and the hot tub. After all, if you don’t know me by now…
How to plan your trip
Ski Solutions (skisolutions.co.uk) offers a seven-night ski holiday to Ciasa Salares from £1,945pp (two sharing) on a half board basis. including return SkyAlps flights from London Stansted to Bolzano, and private transfers.
SkyAlps (skyalps.com) operate twice-weekly flights from London Stansted to Bolzano, starting from €184/£157 each way.
Chris Wiltshire was a guest of the Alta Badia Tourism Board. For further information, visit altabadia.org