Hiking Italy’s Mighty Dolomites

Dolomites, Italy
Dolomites, Italy

Northern Italy’s almighty Dolomites are a year-round adventurer’s paradise. Endless peaks make for endless challenges, but the rewards are abundant at all altitudes

“Good morning, buongiorno!” It’s a pretty standard greeting from concierge in an Italian hotel, but what followed was slightly less typical. “There,” he announced with grandeur, arms opening wide, “is your playground.”

And what a playground. I am standing in the lobby of Alpina Dolomites Lodge, an inviting space which opens up to a spectacular panorama of the famous Italian peaks.

“What would you like to do today? Mountain bike, road bike or hiking in those mountains, or all of the above?” he laughed, but I was tempted. All of the above, after all, is exactly why I am here.

My adventure playground for the next week, the Dolomites have long played this role for Europeans, particularly in winter when the setting becomes an extensive ski network. In the warmer months, the mountain range becomes a renowned hiking and biking destination, and I plan to get a solid fix.

Spanning the provinces of Trentino and Alto Adige, and encroaching on neighbouring Veneto, the UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises numerous peaks, 18 of which rise to 3000-metres-plus. Looking at the soaring range, it is hard but fascinating to imagine the high-altitude battles that took place here between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies during World War I. How brave such men – boys even – must have been. This rich and bloody history only fuels my desire to explore.

My first stop is Ortisei, a small village in Val Gardena and home to about 4600 people. The area ranges from around 1125 to 2518 meters above sea level and is famous for its artfully carved and decorated wooden sculptures, which can be seen dotted throughout town. Traditional hotels and buildings, and a quaint main street, bolster the village charm, but it’s the gondola that captures my attention. It is, after all, how I will be heading up the mountain.

Once on high, and surrounded by incredible 360-degree views, trails are well signposted and the terrain is mostly flat and walkable. Until, that is, you’re ready to continue the ascent. Jagged peaks beckon at every turn and there are hikes for all levels – steep, flat and gradual.

The next morning, we take the adventure to the road. Hairpin turns make up much of the 20-minute journey from Ortisei to Suisi, where Alpina Dolomites Lodge is located. Sitting atop the Alpe di Suisi plateau, with the gondola lazily gliding by, the lodge is perfectly positioned for all things outdoors. This is also celebrated within, with the hotel design inspired by nature and natural materials used heavily throughout.

It’s not long before I noticed the lodge’s mountain bikes – available on a first come, first serve basis – and I am off, starting out with a 10-kilometre ride to the base of the 2956-metre Sassopiatto. I have my eye on reaching the summit – the very one I’d been admiring from Alpina’s oversized windows. Riding is easy at first, the flats between lush cattlefilled pastures providing the perfect warm-up. After a five kilometre uphill grind to the beautiful Zallinger mountain hut, we stow our bikes and continue on foot.

At the base of Sassopiatto, also known as Plattkofel or Sasplat, we change our plan. Given an overnight dumping of snow, we decide we are a little lightly dressed for the conditions and continue on an alternate loop trail, slightly off-piste in sections, back to the bikes.

By late afternoon, we’re back at the lodge, exhausted and deeply grateful for the fresh apple strudel and hot chocolate on the deck. As the sun drops, I take stock. An incredible adventure behind me, the spa ahead of me – what a life!

The spa, which includes pools, saunas and steam rooms, isn’t the only way to relax at Alpina Dolomites Lodge. The lobby bar is well patronised thanks to the comfy chairs and lounges, and the stellar views. There is also an expansive deck with comfortable seating and blankets – a wonderful spot to settle in with a book and a drink – and two restaurants, including the fine-dining Mountain Restaurant. But first, sink into the luxury of the cigar lounge for an aperitif.

I am sorry to leave, but I must as the village of San Cassiano beckons. Located in the valley of Badia, San Cassiano – population 900 – is another quaint town, located at 1537 metres above sea level and at the foot of the Dolomites’ Lavarela and Conturines peaks.

“Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the province of Belluno, is my final destination and the renowned tourist resort puts on the glam. Also known as Cortina, the ‘Queen of the Dolomites’ is larger than my previous pitstops. It boasts great shopping and dining, helping create a buzzing atmosphere, but the village feel remains.”

I am staying at Rose Alpina, a beautiful heritage hotel dating back to 1850 and oozing boutique charm. A lazy buffet-style breakfast is strategic – today I plan to reach the Lagazoui summit and sustenance is key.

Walking switchback after switchback, it is about 45 minutes before we arrive at Rifugio Scotoni, where we pull up for a snack, to rehydrate, and to take in the beautiful meadow surrounds. I crane my neck to preview the journey ahead. It is steep and this rest will serve me well.

Up we climb for another 90 minutes, past alpine lakes, snow flurries and imposing sheer rock faces, and through rocky boulder fields, before finally reaching the summit, 2750 metres above sea level. The panorama of surrounding peaks and neighbouring valleys is the stuff of postcards, but there’s just nothing like the real deal.

After covering 25 kilometres, with a vertical gain of about 1500 metres, we feel we’ve earned our celebratory drink, and the wood-fired pizzas don’t hurt either. Food is no afterthought at Rosa Alpina with dining to suit all tastes, including the most refined palates – in-house Restaurant St Hubertus is the proud recipient of three Michelin stars.

Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the province of Belluno, is my final destination and the renowned tourist resort puts on the glam. Also known as Cortina, the ‘Queen of the Dolomites’ is larger than my previous pitstops. It boasts great shopping and dining, helping create a buzzing atmosphere, but the village feel remains.

Home of the 1956 Winter Olympic Games, Cortina is gearing up to host the 2021 Alpine Ski World Championships and will co-host the 2026 Winter Olympics alongside Milan. My visit is considerably less masterful, although not for want of trying.

I am back in the saddle today, albeit with a little assistance. I have never used an electric bike before and, as a traditionalist, I baulked at the suggestion. No way, I think. I won’t do it. I’m fit enough to climb anything or die trying.

Within minutes, I am converted. Remarkable as they are, these mountains can and will be torturous, even for the experienced rider. Whether you rely on it heavily or just call on it every so often, the e-bike makes sure you reach your destination without hurting your feelings and falling over from exhaustion.

We ride for more than eight hours, covering many more kilometres than we could have on a traditional bike. We’re aiming for Prato Piazza, a plateau located 2000 metres above sea level. With every turn, a new and dramatic vista is unveiled and, thanks to the e-bike working in the background, we can truly take it in.

As we continue our ascent, the fog thickens and soon the views have fallen away. We are surrounded by clouds. And it’s just like heaven.

The Details

The international airports of Venice, Italy and Innsbruck, Austria, are both about 150 kilometres from the Dolomites. Rates for Alpina Dolomites Lodge start from €485 (about A$790) per room.

Rates for Rosa Alpina start at €740 (about A$1200) per room.

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