by Alison Wood
Eschewing familiar territory, jettisoning ski lessons, choosing a hotel without childcare or children’s mealtimes. We cut fresh tracks this February. And it turned out to be a case of ‘right place, right time’.
In our lifelong pursuit of a ‘good value February half term ski holiday’ we have tried many approaches. Research told us our euro would go further in the Italian Dolomites than the French Alps (and buy better coffee). So, having not skied in Italy before, we set off on something of a voyage of discovery. Confident only that there would, at least, always be pasta, pizza and frothy milk available. We were feeling brave, the youngest hit 135cm recently so this was our first trip beyond even the booster seat zone.
The towering Dolomites are home to a vast terrain covered by the Dolomiti Superski pass. Clusters of villages and small towns are linked together by lifts, the occasional bus and even horse-drawn sleighs. This veritable geological treasure trove is dotted with gentle cruising blue and red runs set amongst the trees giving ample opportunity for circuits that last as little as half the day or as long as a week from mountain hut to mountain hut.
The nearest airport to the slopes we’d chosen was actually in Austria. However, flights there came with the usual eye-watering loading that half term attracts. The same applied at the nearest Italian airports (even as I settled down to book eight months in advance). Looking at the map and talking to a few tour operators we settled on Venice Marco Polo’s shiny new terminal for its regular reasonably priced scheduled flights. It made the transfer two and three quarter hours instead of nearer to two but since we’d already concluded that the only viable transfer was in a hire care this wasn’t going to be a massive inconvenience and fully charged iPads are miraculous things whether you are seven or 11 (or in fact 43). Within 45 minutes of Venice the flat Veneto was behind us and we climbed towards the Passo Falzarego through seriously picturesque backdrops, although the only sight that really got the kids’ eyes off the iPads was Cortina’s ski jump, built for the 1956 Winter Olympics.
Hotels rather than chalets dominated here and we found the friendly Hotel Kolfuschgerhof in the village of Colfosco, Alta Badia through Inspired Italy. So close to the Austrian border, more German than Italian could be heard, with the locals speaking the Ladin dialect that sounded something like a cross between the two. The food also came with a distinct Austrian goulash influence on the Italian staples! Our comfortable family room had a spacious mezzanine with beds for the children and a view of one of the awe-inspiring peaks of the Gruppo Sella. The hotel ticked many boxes. There was a decent quality buffet at breakfast and dinner, plus the chance to order freshly cooked hot dishes…although given a free choice of course my daughter would have lived on pasta pomodori. We encouraged the kids to graze at both and my son took the job of squeezing the orange juice in the ruthlessly efficient press each morning very seriously. And they enjoyed the independence of going up for seconds. We were free to wander down between 7.00am and 11.00am for breakfast and 7.00pm to 9.00pm for dinner. It was Carnevale (Shrove Tuesday) during our stay and the restaurant went to town with animal masks and dressing up costumes for the children. Plus a wandering magician.
One of the hotel’s big selling points is its 12 metre indoor pool and ‘wellness farm’. There was a separate hushed spa into which I never really got beyond the front door but the steam room, sauna, Jacuzzi and ice-cold plunge pool were family friendly (in fact it was mainly the kids doing handstands in the plunge pool) and the hotel supplied child-sized robes, which made them feel very grown up!
The hotel arranged ski passes and we’d booked ski hire online before arrival so the hotel shuttle bus dropped us off in town for fitting and away we went. The piste map was, we were told, designed to make the Italians look good as they skied from morning espresso (just over a euro!) to their lunch in the sun. It also has the healthy advantage of giving confidence to newly competent youngsters used to the harsher piste gradings in the Alps further west. We stayed close by the village to start with but gained confidence with the map and struck out a little further afield each day.
Our really big adventure arrived towards the end of the week. Inspired Italy specializes in ski safaris, taking groups from hut to hut across the region. Whilst they’d never had a seven year old before they were game if we were to organize a guide for an overnight tour. In the words of the Lego movie (and my daughter) everything was awesome. A long leisurely morning’s ski brought us to the Rifugio Averau at 2409m and, with the daytrippers departed, we saw the most amazing sunset as we played cards and sipped the obligatory Aperol spritz. ‘Mountain hut’ doesn’t really do this place justice. Newly renovated it offers a couple of lovely family ensuites as well as the traditional dormitory accommodation. The owners have a justifiable reputation for turning out gastronomic dinners. This was probably the one night my daughter was too tired for dinner and we had some tears but, to be fair, none of us could quite believe she’d got this far! Suited and booted by 8.30am the next morning we were first down past the Cinque Torri – a collection of rock formations that actually number three and a half rather than five following some toppling over. At minus 17 it wasn’t just the scenery that was breathtaking but a gorgeous run and a short bus ride later we were heading up the Lagazuoi cable car to ski the stunning 8km Armentarola before the crowds arrived. Topping out at 2800m this descent begins with a thought-provoking reminder of the Great War. The vertical cliff face below the cable car was on the front line between the Austrians and Italians and is pock-marked from shell fire and machine gun emplacements and riddled with tunnels. The meandering run drops into the valley between spectacular mountains and includes a wall of frozen waterfalls. You can’t help but wonder if a man from Disney sought inspiration here for the sets of another recent popular film. The wow factor ran a little thin as we poled out at the bottom but it got a boost when we reached the horse-drawn tow back to the roadside. My daughter rode on the sleigh and the rest of us grabbed a rope and let the horses do the work.
The Dolomites’ reputation for sunny days ran out the afternoon before we left as the snow began to come down heavily…and it was still falling the next morning. Despite repeated requests in our hire car booking for winter tyres, all we had been given was a pair of chains. The drive back over the Passo Falzarego was on the hairy side of comfortable but the kids seemed to think this was all part of the adventure and we did arrive safely back in Venice in time to enjoy a whistle-stop tour of the city. Leaving the luggage stowed in a large locker at the airport we caught the bus into town and wandered through Santa Croce with a gelato before flagging down a water taxi for a tour. The kids I think were as impressed with being on a boat and taking pictures of other boats as they were by the more traditional sights. We disembarked near the Rialto bridge and strolled to Piazza San Marco before catching the water bus back to the airport.
The trip reminded us how far kids come, so very quickly. At seven and eleven they are pretty self-sufficient now. We didn’t need to fret with the steep steps to their mezzanine eyrie; they could carry a plate of scrambled egg across the restaurant without incident (most of the time); we could watch from the side as they played in the pool. But best of all we skied together all week with barely a cross word. That relentless search for the perfect holiday is never ending, because its definition changes each year. We came pretty close with this one.