Winter or summer, the Dolomites' outdoor activities, huge landscapes and mountain cuisine will recharge the batteries of even the most jaded visitor, says Rachel Roberts
Just a hop, skip and a jump (well, a two-hour flight and ridiculously gorgeous two-hour drive) from Gatwick transports you to a unique, and magical, pocket of northern Italy.
It’s a place that seems to have been plucked straight from the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairytale, where jagged mountains pierce clear skies, soft green Alpine meadows carpet the lowlands and the locals - some wearing traditional Dirndls and Leiderhosen - speak in Ladin, a language only spoken in the immediate area.
Located in the region known as the South Tyrol, Val Gardena comes into its own in the winter season, when the ski crowd descends to traverse the dramatic Dolomite mountains that provide the jaw-dropping backdrop to the area. But here are five reasons why it’s an enchanting destination whatever the season.
1. Climb every mountain
There’s a reason the Dolomite mountains were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. Catch them on a sunny day – and the odds are high, with an average of 300 a year – and the so-called ‘Pale Mountains’ blush the prettiest shades of pink.
The magic happens when the light hits the white-grey rock, revealing the Dolomites’ ancient past as a giant coral reef in the primordial sea. At 3181m high, the Sassolungo is undoubtedly the jewel in the massif's crown, and one of the loftiest.
2. Wildlife wonders
Animal lovers will be in heaven during a hike around the Puez-Odle Nature Park. With a network of around 300km well-signposted walking trails in Val Gardena, there are plenty of routes to choose from and you’re bound to encounter the native wildlife, including the wild but tame Haflinger horses (nicknamed ‘Blondies’ because of their distinctive white manes. pictured), donkeys, nimble mountain goats and hear the curious calls of the marmots, although binoculars are required to spot these.
The flora is impressive, too, with the renowned white and blue Eidelweiss springing up in every nook and cranny.
3. Food, glorious food
After working up an appetite skiing, walking or even exploring by electric bikes, which make short work of the steeper hills, there are some great places to eat, with around 36 mountain restaurants and ski huts offering typical haute savoie fare, like Piz Setteur Hütte.
This place also boasts a fantastic sun terrace to drink in the staggering views while tucking into Speck, creamy cheeses and delicious home-made breads.
Tubladel in Ortisei is perfect for a special evening, serving up mountain-man-sized steaks, dessert planks [pictured] and a slice of local life. And do try a Hugo: this refreshing aperitif, made from Prosecco, fresh mint and elderflower syrup (made from local plants) is a popular drink in the region.
4. The sound of silence
If someone could bottle and sell the soul-soothing silence that fills the air in Val Gardena, they would be very rich indeed. Stay in any of the mountain ‘villages’ of the area – Santa Cristina, Ortisei and Selva [pictured] – or the ‘three stars’ as they are also known, and you’ll experience the kind of delicious hush that happens in altitudes above 1500m, although the peace may be interrupted on occasion by a yodelling guide or two.
It’s why spa hotels are big business in the valley, too, offering refuge and rejuvenation from the stresses and strains of modern life.
Many of the hotels also collaborate with local activity companies, offering inspiring things to do every day. From picking up tips on landscape photography to learning Ladin and even trying your hand at traditional wood-carving - an important industry here from the 17th century - it’s all on offer.
5. Let it snow
Ski season is just around the corner and in the winter months, the combined population of around 10,000 in the ‘three stars’ explodes to around 270,000 as the ski crowd arrives. They come mainly from Italy, Holland, Russia and the UK to get direct access to the extensive Dolomiti Superski area – the largest ski area in Europe which boasts the world-renowned Sellaronda ski circuit.
Selva [pictured], with its groomed slopes and range of open and wooded red runs and ‘ski in – ski out’ facilities, is perfect for intermediate skiers.
Ortisei offers gentler slopes for beginners and less-confident intermediates. The resort also offers some great après ski for the night owls of the pack. New for 2016/2017 and marking a first for Italy is Gran Paradiso, an eight-seater chairlift with heated seats. The lift, on Piz Sella, will whizz skiers towards the Sellaronda in under four minutes.
For more information, visit valgardena.it/en