Wednesday, February 21, 2007

And We Won't Mention Corvara

Last year at this time, I put my relationship with my brother-in-law on the line by writing about Corvara, an unheralded gem of a ski resort located in the Alta Badia region of the Dolomites in Italy which he wants to keep all to himself. This year, I invited a posse of “Alpha” skiers from the US and Europe to stress- test that overused phrase, “this is the best kept secret in the Alps”. A risky business considering that this season, European resorts have experienced some of the worst conditions on record. But I am happy to report that we had plenty of snow, conditions were excellent, we skied, ate and drank ourselves silly and now I run the risk of alienating not only my family but most of my best ski buddies by writing about Corvara.

Getting my Corvara converts to join me this year was no easy matter. The Dolomites have never commanded the international attention of skiing cognoscenti and there were some in our group who felt the terrain would be too easy, some who could not understand why we weren’t going to Cortina and a mild climate of disbelief that a resort no one had ever heard of could deliver a world class ski experience. To make matters worse, we were going to an untested hotel that, although ideally situated on a run next to a ski lift, was 1.5 kilometres out of town. If we didn’t like the place, we were isolated and stuck. My worries were endless. What if there was no snow? What if we don’t like the hotel? What if my love affair with Corvara and the Dolomites was not contagious? How do you get into a witness protection program?

Things got off to a bumpy start. The Cortina die-hards turned a 2 hour drive from Treviso into a 5 hour marathon, which included several turns around the Cortina one way system, a few stops at local establishments to recuperate, and several wrong attempts at finding the right mountain pass. Well, I did much worse than that three years ago having directed my family to the wrong Corvara (be forewarned, there are two) on the other side of the Dolomites which turned a three hour journey into eight. Even if your marriage can endure these drives, I would encourage you, if you are renting a car and driving to Corvara from any of the gateway airports (Venice, Treviso, Verona, Brescia, Milan or Bergamo), to get yourself a good map. Otherwise, you can order a taxi (roughly €700 round trip for 5 people) to take you to and from the airport. If you can get a flight to Bolzano, the taxi ride is shorter and cheaper. But the bottom line remains that transport to Corvara ain't easy. The assumption is that you are an Italian or German family, you speak the languages and know the roads. In the end of the day, it is probably what saves the place.

As for the skiing, my Alpha skiers were more than sold. When we arrived there was not a lot of snow and some of it was man-made, but what was there was superbly maintained. Overall, conditions were good and at higher elevations, excellent. Forty eight hours into our adventure, it snowed 6 to 8 inches, turned cold and the sun came out. Perfect. With 1,220 kilometres of prepared slopes and 460 lifts to choose from, we skied with abandon and without a lift line in sight.

As good as the skiing was, ultimately it was the drama and majesty of the Dolomites which won the hearts and minds of my friends. Even good photographs rarely do these mountains justice. “I just can’t believe how beautiful this is” was the constant refrain. Two highlights of the week were the ski tour to the Sanctuary of Santa Croce, with a church begun in 1485 by Archbishop “Konrad” of Bressanone with a good restaurant and the Lagazuoi Ski Tour which includes eerie views of World War I trenches set in cliffs almost 3,000 metres above sea level, an 8 kilometre run which descends Mount Lagazuoi (1,130 vertical metres) and a rope tow pulled by draft horses which transports skiers across the valley.

This is skiing about as far away from the maddening crowds as you can get. It has history, phenomenal natural beauty, and no crowds. This is my idea of alpine heaven. And if it is testosterone runs you are looking for, head over to Arraba where you can meet up with the snow boarders for more thrilling slopes. If it is three hour gourmet dining sandwiched between a little skiing and sunbathing that turns you on, try either the terrace restaurant Moritzino at Piz La Ila (the best mountain restaurant I’ve ever eaten at) or the terrace of the Armantarola Hotel near San Cassiano. For an inexpensive but good lunch in an out-of-the-way location, head for the Rifugio Passo Incisa in Arabba.

And what about our hotel? We loved it. The Parkhotel Planac is comfortable, well appointed, well run, fantastically situated and good value. The owner and staff deliver that hard to find combination of being “laid back” and “on top of their game” all at the same time. We were a large and noisy bunch but this fazed Planac not a bit. When we were making too much of a ruckus for our elderly German neighbours at dinner, they were discretely and happily moved to quieter quarters. Throughout our stay, requests were dealt with quickly and with charm. We paid €109 per person for a standard room with breakfast and dinner. Deluxe rooms are also available for €20 more per person per day and if that is in your budget the rooms are beautiful and more than worth it. We ran a pre-dinner bar for the group out of one of the deluxe rooms, Club 111, which saved us a ton of money on our bar bill and it was very “gemuetlich”.

T he food at Planac is classic Sud Tyrolese fare which combines elements of both the Austrian and Italian kitchen. Meals were well prepared, there was plenty of choice and portions were generous. Our waiters were professional but fun. The Welllness centre is run by a delightful and enthusiastic young woman who will massage, exfoliate and beautify you to your heart’s content. The sauna and whirlpool are included in the price of the room. There is a free shuttle service which takes you into town in the morning and afternoons. During the middle of the day, a trip to town is €5 for the journey for a group. Internet and wifi access are available.

If you happen to be at Planac in February for Carnival, get ready for the party of your life. We were all given “behaviour transforming” hats and wigs by hotel staff who were dressed as monks, Chez Guevara, angels, transvestites and more. With the help of a good live band, we danced the night away. My nine year old daughter Eloise was shocked at our behaviour. We were shocked at hers! The next morning, the entire kitchen staff complimented us on our party skills. I can’t remember when I have had more fun and that pretty much sums up our week in the Dolomites.

The bottom line is this. Corvara really is the best kept secret in the Alps. If you want a resort that will impress your friends, go to Lech or Zurs or Zermatt. If you want to pay less, wait less and enjoy yourself more, get a map and head for Corvara. Just be sure not to mention it.

Useful Addresses

For taxi service to and from Corvara
Pescosta Alfredo
Tel 0471 836393
Cell 347 261 5525

Parkhotel Planac
Via Planac, 13
I-39033 Corvara in Badia
Tel: 39 0471 83 62 10
Fax: 39 0471 83 65 98

Moritzino’s Ristorante Gourmet
Piz La Ila
Tel 0471 847407 – 847403
Fax 0471 847395
Cell 335 600 94 56

Hotel Armentarola
I-39030 San Cassiano
Tel: 0471 84 95 22
Fax: 0471 84 93 89

Rifugio Passo Incisa
32020 Arabba
Tel and fax 0436 79313
Photo courtesy of the Alta Badia Tourist Board website

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