The Dolomites, a range of dramatic limestone spires rising to nearly 11,000 feet, lie a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Venice. Renowned for summer hiking and climbing, as well as for winter skiing, the region is also well-known for its many thermal springs and wellness spas.
This secluded corner of Italy is culturally unique. After World War I, Austria lost Südtirol to Italy, and it became known as Alto Adige. Today, signs in the autonomous province are in both German and Italian. Most of the residents speak German first and Italian second, with a small minority also fluent in Ladin, an ancient dialect of Latin.
Enrosadira is the Ladin word for the rosy glow that dusk regularly brings to the mountains here. As we arrived at sundown on one of the longest days of the year, clouds bloomed pink and purple against a darkening June sky. And driving along the narrow road that wound through the Val Gardena — one of the region’s famed ski valleys — we were flanked by vertiginous walls of rock.
The [Hotel Gardena Grodnerhof], a chalet-style resort in the picturesque hamlet of Ortisei — famous for its wood-carving — has a prime location overlooking the Rio Gardena. There is a decidedly Tyrolean flavor to the white turreted buildings, with their window boxes bright with trailing geraniums. We were greeted with refreshing glasses of chilled herbal tea before being shown to our room, where angled wood beams, striped armchairs and pale wood furniture engendered the atmosphere of an upscale mountain cabin. Gold-accented lamps and a red floral-motif carpet seemed rather dated, but the marble bath was modern. The hotel lobby and lounge area were redesigned in summer 2012 and now have a more contemporary aesthetic, with plush gray wingback chairs and black tower lamps. The hotel staff told us that the 51 rooms and suites will eventually be revamped in a similar style.
Like the rest of Ortisei, the Hotel Gardena Grödnerhof is almost completely deserted during the day, as virtually everyone is up in the mountains. On our first morning, we took the cable car to the famous Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest high-altitude plateau, and spent several hours hiking in alpine meadows bright with wildflowers, at an altitude of 6,500 feet. The well-maintained trails range from gentle tracks suitable for families to steeply graded climbs. Along the way, there are numerous restaurants with open-air patios. We had purchased a return ticket on the cable car, but found the hiking so pleasant that we opted to walk down the mountain, taking 90 minutes to descend to Ortisei on shady switchback paths.
Back at the hotel, we decided to relax in the Anais spa, which has a lovely tiled pool enclosed by glass. Mrs. Harper was intrigued by the “Grape Pack” treatment, which takes place on a specially designed bed and involves a full-body application of pulverized grapes (grape skins reportedly have great antioxidant value for the skin). Having been floated in water for 20 minutes, she then indulged in a head massage and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
Throughout our stay, the service was exceptionally kind and attentive, from the front desk staff, who greeted us by name at every turn, to the multilingual waiters in the dining room. We enjoyed excellent meals in the hotel restaurant, La Stues, where chef Hubert Fischnaller serves Tyrolean- inspired dishes made from organic local ingredients. The hotel’s gourmet restaurant, Anna Stuben, boasts a Michelin star. Overall, the Hotel Gardena Grödnerhof is well-suited to active individuals who require comfort rather than the pinnacle of luxury at the end of a strenuous day.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Exemplary location for hiking; attentive, personalized service.
DISLIKE: Dated room décor; subterranean feel of spa’s treatment areas.
GOOD TO KNOW: Make advance reservations at the michelin-starred Anna Stuben; room ambience is more upscale lodge than luxe hotel.
[Hotel Gardena Grodnerhof], Rating 89 Superior Room, $695 for two, breakfast and dinner included; Deluxe Suite, $770. Vidalong Street 3, Ortisei. Tel. (39) 0471-796-315.
Just over 40 miles to the west, the spa town of Merano has long been renowned for its ancient grape cure, which involves eating grapes, drinking grape juice and soaking in inordinate quantities of grapes each day. Merano is the kind of place that promises to restore you to rosy good health. Exquisite paths wind through its old town to the 11th-century Castel Tirolo, which houses a museum dedicated to the history of Südtirol. Though most visitors come here to take the waters, we spent much of our time just wandering along the cobblestoned lanes or sitting quietly in a piazza.
The thermal baths on the south bank of the River Passer are now enclosed in a state-of-the-art glass cube as part of the Terme Merano, a 50,000-square- foot spa park created by the Bolzano-born architect Matteo Thun. He also designed the affiliated Hotel Terme Merano, which is linked to the spa via an underground walkway. (Thun is a former creative director of Swatch, the iconic Swiss watch company.)
The modern wood-and-stone structure is ringed by mountains, and each of the 115 rooms and 24 suites has an open-air balcony or loggia. Our spacious and tranquil suite looked out to the leafy promenade that runs along the River Passer and to the moody peaks beyond. It came with diaphanous drapes and polished wood floors. However, we spent much of the time lounging on our balcony, breathing deep drafts of mountain air and contemplating the glorious view. The hotel’s design takes full advantage of the abundant natural light with floor-to-ceiling windows, and its public spaces are accented with jewel-tone furnishings, cowhide rugs and tongue-in-cheek gold stag-head lamps.
The hotel’s Passer spa doesn’t disappoint: It has an intimate feel and offers a menu of custom treatments. The pavilion features two pools, indoor and outdoor lounge areas, and a series of saunas. Mrs. Harper tried the spa’s signature “Rosalpina” scrub and massage, which uses local alpine rose, mountain pine and arnica to refresh and soothe. In her judgment, the spa technicians were expert and merited high marks.
We also passed a portion of each day sunning and swimming at Terme Merano, Italy’s largest public spa, with 13 indoor pools, 12 outdoor pools and eight saunas. Although the complex can be rather intimidating at first sight, you soon become accustomed to its layout. There, the 15,000-square-foot spa has 26 treatment rooms and features exclusive products made with local apples, grapes and hay.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Private access to the Terme Merano spa complex; mountain views; location right on the River Passer.
DISLIKE: Mediocre in-house restaurant, Olivi; opt for the more casual and open-air Bistro “La Piazza.”
GOOD TO KNOW: The town is well worth exploring, especially the 15th-century castello Principesco.
Hotel Terme Merano, Rating 91 Superior Room, $430 for two people, breakfast and dinner included; Suite, $510. Piazza Terme 1, Merano. Tel. (39) 0473-259-000.
Although we greatly enjoyed our time at the Hotel Terme Merano, Thun’s masterpiece is just 20 minutes to the south in Lana, atop a 5,000-foot peak. Accessible only via private cable car, Vigilius Mountain Resort is a magical floating world of light-filled wood-and-glass buildings, arranged along a mountain ridge. Everything about the property reflects its designer’s commitment to renewable resources: It is car-free; the heating system uses wood chips provided by mountain farmers; and local springs are the source of excellent drinking water.
The resort comprises 35 rooms and six suites. With an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and doors that opened directly to a grassy, tree-lined knoll, our expansive suite was the ultimate in indoor-outdoor living. Pale larch wood was the dominant material for floors and walls, while deep red accents added warmth and comfort. Well-chosen furnishings — dark-gray wool blankets, curved glass carafes, an antique painted armoire, circular log tables — provided elegance and Tyrolean character. The exceptionally stylish tub and vanity area was done in the same lovely larch wood, and came with a separate tiled shower.
The great luxury of staying at 5,000 feet is, of course, world-class hiking right from the front door. We walked all the way up to the Romanesque stone church at the summit of St. Vigilius Mountain, located at 6,235 feet, but you can also take the chairlift. The hotel provides Nordic walking poles, mountain bikes and hiking maps, and can arrange for a knowledgeable guide. After an energetic hike through the mountain pines, the transition to the resort’s tranquil spring-water infinity pool was extremely welcome. We loved the invigorating indoor-outdoor whirlpool and the two levels of sun- drenched terraces for reading and lounging. The excellent spa has an extensive menu of treatments with an emphasis on natural oils infused with mountain herbs; Mrs. Harper found the signature Sodashi refining massage and gentle jojoba scrub especially restorative.
There are many secluded spots to hide away with a book or a drink at the Vigilius. The lounge has an open fireplace and an adjoining outdoor terrace, and there, you’ll find afternoon tea or a wine and aperitif station in the evening. The intimate library area is better suited to individual reading. There are two very good restaurants. The more rustic Parlour Ida serves food typical of the Alto Adige/Südtirol: gnocchi-like dumplings with fresh slaw; chicken broth with barley and vegetables; homemade cakes and strudel; and an assortment of local wines. Upstairs, Restaurant 1500 offers light contemporary cuisine against a backdrop of soaring mountain views. The kitchen is overseen by elBulli alumnus Mauro Buffo, and his pedigree shows in flair-filled dishes such as roasted squab with chanterelle mushroom cream, foie gras and Port wine sauce; followed by wonderful apple fritters with spicy fruit mustard and lavender ice cream. The local cheeses are memorable, and the wine list is exceptionally strong. Lingering over dinner and gazing out at the glorious mountain panorama, we felt privileged to spend time in such an astonishing place.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Wonderful location at nearly 5,000 feet; hiking trails from your room; remarkable architecture.
DISLIKE: The hushed atmosphere is at times a little too reverent.
GOOD TO KNOW: Make reservations at both the excellent in-house spa and the fine-dining restaurant, as they book up early.
Vigilius Mountain Resort, Rating 96 Deluxe Double, $520; Suite, $835. Vigiljoch Mountain, Lana. Tel. (39) 0473-556-600.