Greedy eyed – that's the way this Italian Dolomites vista makes me feel. Ominous clouds are gathering and we should hot-foot it back to our cosy digs, but the urge to look just one more time, for a bit longer, to take yet another inadequate photo, keeps halting us on the path.
We are on Alpe di Siusi - which at about 1800 metres is Europe's largest high plateau - looking across to two rocky peaks, Sasso Lungo and Sasso Piatto. Spectacular and saw-toothed, they sit close together and look a bit like an Elizabethan collar from this angle. The plateau is a series of rolling meadows dotted with late summer flowers and sketched with hiking trails. To these Australian eyes - accustomed to flat, dry landscapes and Pacific beaches - the high peaks and European alpine-ness of it all are nothing less than wondrous.
The other delightfully un-Australian aspect of Alpe di Siusi is the hospitality. Up here, there's no staggering for hours between bare huts with a squashed sandwich and a bag of body-temperature trail mix in a backpack. There are knife-and-fork symbols dotted all the way to the edge of our map of Alpe Siusi's hiking trails, signifying that one is never far from a comfy chair, an Aperol spritz and a freshly prepared charcuterie board. Combine this with the easy grading on most of the hiking trails, even if they stretch a fair distance, and you have a heaven on Earth for those of us who like to enjoy the great outdoors in gentle, kilojoule-laden style. In winter, the area is a skier's paradise, arguably as good as but less busy than Cortina d'Ampezzo, the superstar ski resort nearby.
Earlier in the day, we had chosen at random to head west (confession: towards a restaurant visible on a rise in the distance), responding to others on the trail with a hearty "hal-lo", which seems to be the universal greeting in this multi-lingual part of Italy that's very close to Austria. Now, tired, not from the pace or distance of our walk so much as from the shock of inhaling so much fresh air, we finally drag our eyes from the vista and hop onto one of the round red cable cars strung like beads down the side of Val Gardena, and return to our hotel in the tidy little town of Ortisei. We have steaming to do before dinner.
Gardena Grodnerhof Hotel & Spa is a five-star member of the Relais & Chateaux group with two restaurants, one with a Michelin star, and a new spa.
The spa is a glorious, ultra-contemporary space featuring several pools and saunas as well as treatment and relaxation spaces. My favourite spot is the steam room: lined with black stone benches, softly lit and magically misty. Subtly-scented steam issues from a mysterious plinth at its centre. While sitting naked among strangers makes me tense, the gentle heat and steam are the more powerful force and I can almost hear my muscles unwind. My second favourite spot is the Finnish sauna: spacious, super-hot and blissfully timber scented, with views up the side of Val Gardena.
Afterwards, almost drunk with relaxation, we enjoy a hearty meal in the hotel's main restaurant, choosing with difficulty from an expansive wine list and a menu that features local ingredients such as speck, mountain cheese, venison and chanterelle mushrooms. Afternoon teas, guided outdoor activities, wine tastings and performances are all part of a typical week at Gardena Grodnerhof, and we end our day listening to a gentle session of live acoustic guitar in the lounge while making plans for the following day. Spectacular Alpe di Seceda, another Dolomites peak, and more time in the spa, are top of mind.
Val Gardena is a four-hour drive east from Malpensa Airport, but it's worth taking as much time as you can for the journey as there is much to enjoy along the way. Try Sixt for car hire. See emirates.com, sixt.com.au
Services and hospitality venues in and around Ortisei are operating as (COVID) normal. People aged 12 and over must show their EU COVID digital certificate (Green Pass) to use some services and carry out some activities in the area. The pass is currently required for eating and drinking at tables in most restaurants, cafes, bars, patisseries and mountain huts etc. There are no restrictions on use of the chairlifts at present, but that may change with the start of the winter season.
Lissa Christopher travelled at her own expense and stayed as a guest of Hotel Gardena Grodnerhof.