Cortina d'Ampezzo, travel poster for ENIT, By stab A. Marzi, Roma ca. 1920, PD-US
Cortina d’Ampezzo, travel poster for ENIT, By stab A. Marzi, Roma ca. 1920, PD-US

After four visits to Cortina during the ski season, I believe I know it fairly well. My travelling companions and I have got to the stage where the hotel staff give us hugs on arrival, where our favourite restaurant gives us a bottle of red to take home after every meal, and the local pharmacist knows what brand of muscle rub we want before we ask.

We’ve tried every run within our limits, perched on every tow, taken road trips and stayed local. We’ve been to just about every restaurant on the slopes in the Cortina area, and about half down in the town. We’ve sought out michelin stars on mountain highways, delis in back alleys, bars with drilled Prosecco glasses and the best place to stop for a bombardino mid-ski.

The rundown

Many have a sharp intake of breath and a sweet low exhale of “Oooohhh, Cortina!” when you mention travel plans here. Holidays here were a symbol of wealth in the middle of the twentieth century, and this continued in the following decades thanks to the Winter Olympics, epic movie scenes (James Bond, The Pink Panther and Cliffhanger) and a retention of close ties to the arts and glamorous celebrities and families. Indeed, a stroll down Cortina d’Ampezzo’s ‘Corso Italia’ will send you back to the opulence of the 1960s with brands like Chantecler, Gucci and Moncler holding stand-alone stores, and then the decadent local boutiques like Franz Kraler, which are stocked with furs and Louboutins, just like the ladies who walk the street alongside you.

Cortina d’Ampezzo’s Corso Italia

This luxury is partnered with a distinctly sporty vibe, but veers towards the elite again. We’re talking Paul and Shark, winter polo and heli-skiing, rather than Columbia, tobogganing and snowballing. Everybody seems to have a dog at either size extreme – Bernese mountain dogs and Czechoslovakian wolf dogs boom warnings to skittish terriers and dachshunds in Dolce and Gabbana cloaks. The main lifts are at either end of the village, and so at any time during daylight, you’re likely to see some glamorous ski-bunnies stopped for a refuel at an al-fresco bar, mid-stomp up the corso.

Despite this, Cortina is neither expensive nor pompous, at least compared to other ski resorts. It’s possible to get a double room in a 3-star hotel at the peak of season for €125 per night, and a bowl of pasta chased with a glass of red for €15. Of course, you could stay in a suite at Cristallo and dine at Al Camin for five times that. The local ski pass is around €100 for three days at its peak, and €160 will buy you a pass that takes you all around the region, including Alta Badia (and also includes free bus transport). Shopping varies from discount teen stores, through traditional department stores and discount ski-gear popups, up to the higher level sporting stores, designer labels and art collections. There really is something for all budgets.

(below – Roger Moore dodging bullets and baddies in a periwinkle parka)

The skiing

Skiing is varied in style and quality. Three mountain ranges connect here, and there are runs at heights from 1200 to 3000 meters. This means there’s guaranteed snow in season (November to April), but being in the Southern Alps, a warm year may mean it’s predominantly man-made.

The view from Lagazuoi

There are plenty of runs for all skill sets – beginners will head to the strings of blues and greens at Socrepes, and as they improve, advance towards the easy reds on Faloria. These link up with some excellent blacks and the long red at Cristallo. Back at Socrepes, there are also some more advanced reds and blacks at the top of the mountain (they get icy in the late afternoon), but a ski through Col Druscie will connect with the Ravalles tow, and the bucket-list black, Forcella Rossa.

Short drives open up possibilities at Lagazuoi (including the spectacular Hidden Valley run, 8km of varied red slope running through the Falzorego pass, past frozen waterfalls and ending in a horse-drawn tow to Armentarola village), and slightly further to Alta Badia, which has 130km or groomed runs and the day-long ski route, the Sella Ronda.

The food and drink

Casunziei Ampezzani – beet ravioli with poppy seeds, Parmesan and browned butter.

Cortina d’Ampezzo is in the Belluno province in the Dolomite mountain range, just outside the borders of the Südtirol, which itself abuts Austria. This close proximity to the border brings a melding of cultures and cuisines. The town is not so heavily influenced as many of the villages over this Tyrolese border, where you’re more likely to be understood if you speak German, but you’re just as likely to be dining on schnitzel or knödels as you are to be eating ravioli or burrata.

Drinks, likewise might follow a more Germanic pattern – this is the place I was introduced to Hugos, an aperitif that now sometimes surpasses my previous favourite, an Aperol spritz. On the slopes, most are on the Prosecco by 11am, but it’s still perfectly acceptable to drink something non alcoholic – the hot chocolates are dense and covered in whipped cream, just as heart-warming as an early morning glass of sparkling wine.

The restaurants and nightlife

Despite its reputation for wealth and luxury, Cortina is a relatively inexpensive place to dine out. Perhaps it’s because the proliferation of restaurants all serving similar menus has possibly brought competing prices down, or maybe it’s the access to good primary ingredients, a waning of fame in the area, or an aging tourist population… Who knows – we won’t complain!

Around 80% restaurants in the village are pizzerias, cafes or bistros. There are also plenty of bars with good snack food (cheese plates, panini, charcuterie). Then there’s a small number of hotel restaurants that offer a more classic (and expensive) service. Just outside of town are country restaurants with style and character, and the odd Michelin star.

Restaurants and cafes are all over the mountain, including on the slopes, sometimes even mid-run. There are spectacular places to stop for a drink and a view, most of which you can pull up at in your ski boots, and order at a bar on the snow. There is a full restaurant at the end of nearly every tow, serving sit-down meals, usually continuously. Beware the 1pm rush however, it’s always best to book if you can.

The accommodation

Cortina is not known for its ski-in, ski-out accommodation. Taxis and buses are just a part of the skiing day in the village, and most of the hotels and ski schools offer drop-offs to the tows. You will get used to it, especially each evening during “La passeggiata” – the evening stroll along the Corso Italia, an essential part of Cortina culture – when you realise that it’s better to be in the midst of the action in the village.

Airbnb is fortunately rife in the region, and if you’re looking for something right on the slope, you may have some luck with a private chalet (e.g. this one). Companies like booking.com also advertise apartments (look at Villa Franchetti and Lacadel for tow proximity) – watch the “ski to door” notation on this site however, it’s not entirely accurate. Buildings and decor in the region are very traditional in the main – if you want true luxury with a contemporary feel, you’re not going to find that on standard booking sites. Look to operators like Leo TrippiBlack Book Villas and  Scott Dunn.

As mentioned above, a 3-star hotel stay is not badly priced in the village, and this is probably because there is a plethora of reasonable family hotels in the area. We always stay at Hotel Aquila, family run with spacious connecting rooms, a steaming-hot indoor pool, and a cozy lounge bar with supreme spritzes and a window that looks onto the main street for some covert people-watching in the evening. The hotels are not just in the village, but extend along the highway, meaning that those who are only there for a ski and a sleep may be able to find a bed closer to the tow (e.g. Hotel Villa Argentina).

There’s not a great deal of luxury accommodation in town. The solidly 4-star, yet very traditional hotels Miramonti Majestic and Cristallo are just out of the centre, a long walk or a quick drive in their courtesy car. Hotel Armetarola would be my choice for a more pampered stay, with a more contemporary look and feel at the start of the Alta Badia tows.

Transport

The closest international airport to Cortina is Venice (2 hour drive), serviced by some big internationals like British Airways, Emirates and Lufthansa, along with many budget airlines and regional carriers. Innsbruck is 2.5 hours drive. Calalzo di Cadore (35km away) has a train station accessed via Venezia S.Lucia, and connected with a direct bus to Cortina. There are buses in and around Cortina, but no dedicated airport public transport, so most organise a hire car or private transfer.

Once in the village, you don’t necessarily need a car. The Dolomiti skibus runs in the immediate area all season, and your ski pass includes all your fares. Dolomiti buses also run across the towns of Armentarola, Alta Badia, Trevisio, Venice and Bologna, although there are only a couple per day. Taxis are plentiful, and as mentioned, many hotels have a courtesy vehicle.

Saying that, it’s definitely worth having your own car. There are wineries, restaurants, markets and villages to explore outside town, especially on poor weather days. The centre of the village is free of cars, but most hotels have access at least for luggage/ski drop-off, and a valet service.

But what if you don’t ski?

I’ve travelled twice to the region with companions who cannot ski, and the village still holds plenty of appeal for those who cannot get on the slopes – there are shops, cafes, ice skating, galleries and cooking classes. Many of the slopes are accessible by cable car, so pedestrians can still meet ski-mates for lunch on the snow. Outside of ski season there are magnificent hikes, bike trails and parcours activities (more information here).

The ski day mid-season in the Dolomites usually lasts until around 4pm, with 90% of the lifts closed as the sun begins to set around 4:30. This means that non-skiers will have all the evening hours with their skiing buddies, the all important routine of passeggiata, and the indulgence of a little apres-ski, even if they didn’t touch the snow.

Coming soon, what to eat in the Dolomites, and where to eat in Cortina, both on- and off-slope…

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