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  • Entertainment

TRAVEL: Living the high life in cool Cortina

Saturday, 15th December, 2018 9:00am

Story by Tony McCullagh
TRAVEL: Living the high life in cool Cortina
TRAVEL: Living the high life in cool CortinaView More Images

IT’S difficult to write about Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy without wondering whether it’s going to end up as a feature about skiing or food. But as anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit the town known as ‘Queen of the Dolomites’ will attest, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Cortina d’Ampezzo, located in the far north east corner of the Vento region, is just 44km from the Austrian border. History buffs will know that the region was the scene of ferocious battles during the First World War as Italian forces fought to reclaim the area from Austria. The victims of this bloody conflict have been honoured through the restoration of the battle sites into a vast war museum which is open all year round. 

On a lighter note, Cortina d’Ampesso, has also graced the big screen in films such as the James Bond classic, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, ‘The Pink Panther’ and ‘Cliffhanger’, starring Sylvester Stallone. And, in case you were curious, the answer is yes: Ford did name its iconic car after the area.

These days, Cortina still manages to attract the rich and famous. I’m reliably informed that George Clooney has been spotted cruising around the town on his motorbike. With all this talk of Hollywood royalty, it’s not surprising that the town has earned a reputation for being an upmarket holiday resort.

But don’t let that put you off. Mere mortals like myself are also welcomed with open arms by this most hospitable, friendly, beautiful place. Local business people effectively operate as a co-op to promote tourism and coordinate the services they offer. This results in a highly personalised experience for visitors, be it in the hotels and restaurants or in ski hire outlets.

The Hotel Panda, run by sisters Monika and Erika Pian and their charming family, is a case in point. Room rates for a double or twin at this cosy, intimate three-star hotel, which is located in the centre of the town, start from €120 per night, including breakfast.

There has been skiing in Cortina d’Ampezzo for more than a century but it really came into its own as a resort after it hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics. There are three ski areas – Cortina Cube (Cristallo, Faloria, Mietres), Tofana and Lagazuoi/5 Torri, all connected by a free ski bus. Locally, there are 115km of slopes, with 95 percent of the area covered by snowmaking facilities to ensure piste-perfect conditions. Cortina is part of the Dolomiti Superski, one of the world’s largest ski circuits, with 1,200km of slopes across 12 regions, all accessible with a single lift pass.

Irish skiers will have to travel independently to get there but it’s extremely manageable and comparable with journey times to many of the popular European resorts booked through tour operators. 

We flew to Venice with Aer Lingus and arranged a private transfer to Cortina, which took just under two hours. The cost is €250 each way but this represents good value if you’re sharing with a group and is more convenient than taking the public bus option.

We skied in Faloria, which tends to get the best snow due to its shaded location. In fact, even when the winter season officially ends in the neighbouring ski areas at the end of April, Faloria remains open for business until the beginning of May. While this area is more suitable for intermediate skiers, there is so much to love about its long, wide, cruising runs. Even when we inadvertently ventured down a black run, the uncrowded, perfectly groomed slopes made it easier to navigate the steeper sections.

We also got to try snowmobiling, an exhilarating experience made all the more memorable when our expedition was cut short by a minor avalanche. It was not as dramatic as it sounds, I must admit, but was still a good story to bring home.

It’s hard to describe the sheer majesty of the Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ever-changing pink to orange hue of the mountains as the sun sets in the evening is a spectacle that will stay with you for a long time. Visitors to Cortina d’Ampezzo can fully immerse themselves in their beauty by staying overnight in luxury glass mountain cabins where you can drift off to sleep while gazing at the stars.

In Italy, the pleasure derived from a day on the slopes can take second place to eating. It often feels that skiing is simply an entertaining interlude between meals (or a way to burn off calories from the night before!). In truth, a winter holiday to Cortina d’Ampezzo is as much about the food as it is the snow.

There were many highlights: lunch al fresco at Pezie de Paru, washed down with a glass of their milk-based grappa; arguably the best gourmet pizza on the planet at the Hotel Cristallino; the fine mountain fare at Capanna Tondi in Faloria; the exquisite food and the opulent surroundings of Ospitale (a former hospital for pilgrims); and the farm to fork produce of Brite de Larieto where I experienced the best gnocchi I’ve ever tasted.

Our final meal at SanBrite was particularly memorable. Run by chef Riccardo Gaspari and his wife, almost everything served at this restaurant is sourced from the family farm and organic garden. The seven-course tasting menu costs €90 per person and each dish can be paired with wine for €135. As gourmet experiences go, this one will be hard to beat.

Cortina d’Ampezzo is the epitome of cool; a holiday destination for all seasons that showcases everything we love about Italy – its food, its style, its people and way of life. One thing is certain: its ‘Queen of the Dolomites’ moniker is more than justified.

FACT FILE

• We travelled to Cortina courtesy of Aer Lingus. The direct flight to Venice takes two hours, 20 minutes. Aer Lingus, Ireland’s only 4 star airline, operates up to seven flights per week to Venice from Dublin. Fares start from €60.79 one-way, including taxes and charges. Visit www.aerlingus.com

• Transfer costs from Venice airport to Cortina d’Ampezzo are around €250 each way with Talamini Alessio. We recommend you share the cost with seven to eight people or you can use public transfer bus services.

• Cortina d’Ampezzo is on the official list of ‘Best of The Alps – Classic Mountain Resorts’.

• For skiers and boarders, Cortina has over 100kms of slopes and is part of the Dolomiti super ski region, with over 1,200 kms of piste to choose from. A six-day lift passes costs between €246 and €273, depending on time of season. A free ski bus operates between all the ski areas of Cortina. Hiring a ski guide for one day with Snowdreamers costs €200 for up to three people.

• In summer, there is a huge variety of walking, hiking and climbing routes, including WWI and WW2 historic trails. There are excellent routes for road cycling, ebiking and mountain biking with a big choice of bike hire (we recommend Jgor Ski & More).

• For groups, it’s a good idea to take a local guide who can also assist in booking of Refugios, if required. The cost is around €200 per day.

• We stayed at Hotel Panda (www.cortinahotelpanda.it), an excellent 3-star hotel in the centre of Cortina. Prices start from €120 for a double or twin room, with breakfast. City tax of €3 per day is added. See also 4-star Hotel Cristallino and 4-star Superior Hotel Falloria.

• Recommended eating: Pezie de Paru, Capanna Tondi, Ospitale, Brite de Larieto and SunBrite.

For more information, visit www.dolomiti.org/en/cortina/

Snowmobiling in the Dolomites is highly recommended.

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