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Our Trip to The Dolomites -- the Eastern Side -- Cortina d'Ampezzo

By Carolyn Grote

As the owner of a vacation rental agency specializing in France and Italy, I have been to Italy many times on my own vacations. Each time I go, I love finding new places I can recommend to my clients. While planning a recent August trip to Italy, my husband Ray and I knew we wanted a location that would be cool enough so we could incorporate some physical activity into our daily schedule. As August in Italy can be scorching, the north was the natural choice. And as always, we wanted a place where we would find physical beauty, tasty local food and a distinct regional character.

We decide to explore the Dolomites and it turned out to be one of our most wonderful trips ever. We flew into Venice as a starting point for a loop trip. The plan was to explore the Dolomites and then wrap up the trip in one of our rentals in Venice.

Just a two-hour drive from Venice, Cortina d'Ampezzo in the eastern Dolomites has a reputation as a charming small town. A major ski resort in winter, and the site of the 1956 Olympics, Cortina is located in a beautiful valley surrounded by high peaks. In summer when the snow is gone, it is an ideal location for day hiking. In addition, as Cortina d'Ampezzo is far from the German border, it retains a greater Italian character than some of the towns further north. Locals do speak Italian, prepare Italian specialties in the kitchen and feel a deep connection to their Italian heritage. Lastly, the Dolomites is a UNESCO World Heritage site so we knew we were in for something special.

We drove out from Venice on a major highway. About an hour and a half into the drive, we turned off the main road onto a smaller road along the Cadore River. Here we drove through a long, beautiful valley with lush green mountains on both sides. As we passed one charming, tiny village after another, the mountains got higher and higher on both sides of the valley. Eventually the green mountains sides were topped by pink-grey peaks! It was breathtakingly beautiful. We had arrived.

The Dolomites

At an elevation of 1,200 meters (4,000 feet), Cortina d'Ampezzo is the jewel of the Dolomites. Situated in a green basin surrounded by 3,300 meter (10,826 foot) peaks, it is a truly jaw-dropping setting. The town has a pedestrian-only center, and lovely buildings decorated with frescos. Elegant shops line the streets, and cable cars leave from the center of town to the mountain tops. Even in summer, it is a breathtaking experience.

Cortina d'Ampezzo

In fact, we discovered that summer is the ideal time to go. Winter is high season here, which means crowds and high prices. In summer, the area is pleasantly active, but not at all busy. Hotel prices are low. Restaurants do not require reservations. For two weeks in early August (Ferragosto) the "beautiful" people descend on the town, and it is indeed crowded. But otherwise in summer, the area retains a nice lively feeling without the tourist crush. Everywhere you look, you see folks strolling through parks, biking on trails, hiking into the mountains and simply enjoying the lovely outdoors. It is an inspiring environment for those who appreciate nature.

Ray and I decided to stay outside Cortina in a tiny village called Borca di Cadore. We selected the Hotel Boite in the Corte Delle Colomiti ski resort. It has comfortable but simple rooms that are all exactly the same. A big selling point for us was that each room boasts a balcony and stunning views. The resort also has a new spa with a beautiful heated soaking pool that opens to a wonderful terrace with a view of the mountains across the narrow valley. As the hotel was hardly filled, it was a treat to go to the spa each evening and have the pool almost all to ourselves. We would soak in the pool while looking out the large glass windows marveling at the views. Then we would wrap ourselves in big towels and stretch out on the lounges on the deck enjoying the sun as it slowly sunk below the mountains. There was even a weight room if one wanted. One evening, Ray got a massage which he said was excellent. I couldn't drag myself from the deck and the view.

The area has many mapped hiking routes. Go to any Tourist Office or bookstore and there are maps galore. We picked up a bunch of maps and then enjoyed discussing our hiking possibilities with the concierge at our hotel. Hikers will be happy to know there are many refugios in the area, and you will see signs directing both cars and hikers to them when you are out and about. A "refugio" is a small chalet usually with a restaurant and often with rooms to rent. Some you can reach by car; some are only reachable on foot from mountain trails.

We selected Refugio Senes, set at 1,214 meters (3,982 feet) midway up one of the nearby mountains as the starting point for our day hike into the higher trails. In the early morning we drove to the refugio, parked our car and hiked up a marked trail leading towards the summit at 2,287 meters (7,503 feet) We hiked for about two hours, reached a beautiful upper meadow with great views across the valley, and then retraced our steps back down. We arrived back at Refugio Senes almost mid-afternoon. A few groups of Italian families who had already enjoyed their mid-day meal were now in the meadow, playing ball with their children, walking in the tiny stream or relaxing on colorful lounge chairs in the sun or shade. Ray and I ordered a delicious, local lunch served on a table in the sun. Then, like the Italians, we each took a folding lounge chair that was stacked nearby, picked out our spot - Ray under a tree, me nearby in the sun - and snoozed in the still air.

Another day, we drove to Cortina d'Ampezzo and took the main cable car, the Faloria, up to the ski lodge perched on a ridge at 2123 meters (6,965 feet). From here the view is truly extraordinary, and you can see the entire valley. Even at this elevation, there are trails for hiking or even mountain biking. Like other folks, we walked another 200 meters to the top of the ski slope so we could enjoy the feeling of being on top of the world. Then we carefully walked back down the grassy slope and had a delicious lunch in the ski chalet followed by a ride back down the cable car.

Hiking the Dolomites

Day by day, as we would drive up and down the valley, we noticed that many folks were biking on a trail that paralleled the road, but was off the road, cutting through woods or meadows. In fact, we learned there is even a bus that picks up bikers at the villages lower in the valley and takes them uphill to Cortina d'Ampezzo. There bikers get out and bike the easy direction, downhill, back to their village. Our hotel had bikes to rent, and it was exhilarating to get on the path and just take off without worrying about cars. The journey from Cadore to Cortina d'Ampezzo was slightly uphill and took us about 90 minutes by bike. Very doable. It is fun because the path is sometimes paved, sometimes dirt and crosses and re-crosses the road making the route interesting. Sometimes the trail took us above the road on the side closest to the mountain. Other times we followed biker tunnels under the road and biked on dirt trails near the river that runs through the center of the valley.

Biking in the Dolomites

As we approached Cortina d'Ampezzo, we passed the old ski jump from the Olympics and could imagine the area in winter. Then we biked past pretty vacation homes set in lush meadows. We arrived in Cortina and enjoyed a tasty lunch in a local pizzeria. After lunch, biking back to our village was the easy part as it was all downhill. Even though it started drizzling, it was a quick ride down the valley and gave us a terrific feeling of satisfaction to have biked round trip!

One of our most special experiences was dinner at the beautiful Refugio Da Aurelia - 40 kilometers away, high in the mountains. On a cloudy evening, we set out, driving from one mountain peak to another. At one point, we really thought we had reached the end of the road we seemed so high. But, in fact, we were at the Passio Giau, the mountain pass just beyond which is the tiny Da Aurelia, located at 2175 meters (7,135 feet) with even higher peaks beyond.

Da Aurelia is a family-owned chalet with a well-known restaurant. It also has two guest rooms to rent if you feel like staying here and exploring the high trails nearby. As we ate an elegant meal, we could see through the windows as the sun set and the skies got dark. The clouds rolled in again, briefly obscuring the view, only to clear afterwards to reveal the spectacular night sky. We enjoyed a lovely final evening under the stars in the beautiful eastern Dolomites.

After five days in the eastern Dolomites, we would head out for Trento on the western side of the Dolomites. But I'll leave that to another article.


Carolyn Grote is the owner of Ville et Village, an agency offering vacation rentals in France, Italy and Spain. She has been selected as a top villa agent for France by both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure magazines.

© Carolyn Grote, 2011

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