Discovering Italy’s Dolomites

Written by  Geri Bain

With 18 sculpted peaks that soar above the tree line to heights of over 3,000 meters, expansive high meadows that change with the seasons, and meandering river-carved valleys, the beauty of Italy’s Dolomite Mountains is astounding. Here, small colorful villages with onion-domed churches and flower-box adorned chalets are tucked into the mountainsides and cows and horses graze on hillsides too steep to plow. 

The area is also unique for its culture. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I, and German, along with Italian, is one of three official languages here. The third, whose roots go back to the days of the Roman Empire, is Ladin. A Romance language, it is still spoken in a number of once-isolated valleys. English is widely spoken at hotels and tourist facilities.

Exploring the Region
During a fall visit, my adult daughter and I discovered how wonderfully organized the area is for recreation and sightseeing. Interconnecting lifts and bus routes (with free tickets provided by local hotels) and well-laid out trails for hiking, e-biking, skiing and other outdoor activities, make the area easy to explore. In winter, skiers can tap into Dolomiti Superski. Among the world’s biggest interconnected ski areas, it traverses four valleys and three provinces and can be explored with a single ski pass. For those more rugged and reckless than I, the Via Ferrate requires helmets, ropes and harnesses to follow trails connected by ladders, metal rungs and steel cables; many are remnants from WWI, one of many periods of history when control of this pastoral crossroads was hotly contested.

Our home base was Adler Dolomiti Spa Hotel & Sport Resort in Ortisei. Located in Val Gardena, a deep valley hemmed in by steep mountains, Ortisei is about 1.5 hours by car from Innsbruck, Austria and three hours from Venice or Munich. The scenery alone is worth the drive; there’s also bus service from several airports (including Munich) with drop-offs at local hotels. The resort is in the center of Ortisei’s picturesque pedestrian-only center. The area is known for its woodcarving, which is sold in shops and displayed in the Museum Gherdeina, a treasure-trove of Ladin culture.
A family run property dating back to 1810, Adler Dolomiti revels in tradition with cozy fireplaces, a lodge-like interior, and displays of historic items like bills of sale and vintage sleighs. At the same time, huge window walls, sleek guest room design and fast wi-fi have brought the hotel into the 21st century. On its half-board plan, all the complimentary inclusions made it feel like an Alpine version of a modern all-inclusive. Daily breakfast, multi-course dinner, teatime buffet and guided excursions on foot and e-bikes (and in winter, on skis and snowshoes) were all included in our half-board plan. And for families, a kids program is also included.

Our four-night stay took on a delightful rhythm; we started each day with the hotel’s extensive breakfast buffet before setting out on a hike or bike ride. One of my favorite outings was a guided e-bike excursion to the Alpe di Siusi, a 2,000-meter high alpine meadow-the largest in all of Europe. The steep trails and e-bike were intimidating at first, but once I mastered the effort-boosting settings, I was thrilled to be able to zip up the steepest slopes via low-effort pedaling. From the top, we could see peaks all the way to Austria. The trip included a lunch stop at a “mountain hut” where we sat at picnic tables and ordered specialties such as spaetzli, dumplings with a local smoked ham called speck. On one day, we headed out on our own, armed with a map and directions from the resort and found the route well-marked and easy to follow. Each day, we returned to an afternoon spread including meats, cheeses, yogurts and pastries.

As memorable and exhilarating as the natural beauty was indulging in the resort’s “Water & Wellness World,” an expanse of indoor and outdoor pools, mini-waterfalls, whirlpools and relaxation rooms. There’s also a fitness center with cardio and strength training machines as well as yoga, Pilates and other classes, and an array of saunas and steam baths with infusions such as organic hay, floral blossoms and lavender and lime-all available at no charge. (Note: towels, but no swimsuits, are permitted in saunas for health reasons; all are co-ed except one women-only area.) The spa also offers an array of excellent, reasonably priced massages, wraps and other treatments featuring natural regional ingredients, and an atmospheric salt grotto.

Each dinner at Adler Dolomiti brought a new set of scrumptious choices, both on the elaborate buffet and the waiter-service menu, with authentic regional dishes such as braised duroc pig and venison with lingonberries. There was live music after dinner, but we never did more than peek in.

Fellow guests were mostly from Italy and Germany, along with some French, British and Americans. The resort caters to families with children’s programs and a select number of family-friendly accommodations; we visited during a German school holiday but the hotel didn’t feel overrun with kids. (For tranquility seekers, an adjoining adults-only sister property, Adler Balance, also has a medical/health center focused on preventive medicine and anti-aging.) Sitting in the outdoor whirlpool, we met many European couples and families who come here several times a year. Looking out at the surrounding gardens backed by high peaks and the brightly-painted buildings of Ortisei, we could see why.
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