Dolomites of Italy: The coral reefs of heaven

The article below first appeared in The Kaiserslautern American and is reprinted here with permission.


Italy's Dolomites glow pink at sunset

Italy’s Dolomites glow pink at sunset


The Dolomites are like no place you’ve ever been.


For one thing, though you’re in Italy, the predominant language is German and the culture is equally distinctive. You are also in a top alpine ski destination (over the last several years the insurance company ADAC has named Alpe di Siusi one of Europe’s best family ski areas), but won’t find any of the attitude lurking at more familiar locations.


Thirdly, the surrounding peaks, a UNESCO World Heritage site once described by architect Le Corbusier as “the most beautiful natural architecture worldwide,” glow pink at sunset due to unusual geology: They were formed from ancient coral reefs which were hoisted from the sea into the heavens by the violent clash of continents that created the Alps.


We were lured to the Dolomites not only by these unique qualities but by the Dolomiti Superski pass, which covers a whopping 12 resorts, 450 lifts and 1,200 kilometers of trails, including the Sella Ronda, a day-long unbroken loop; the World Cup venue Val Gardena; and the world’s highest alpine pasture, the breathtaking Alpe di Siusi, whose gentle slopes are a beginner and intermediate dream come true.


Alpe de Siusi Dolomites Italy Alps

The gentle environs of the Alpe de Siusi


Which is why it seemed impossible that I was lingering in a tiny wooden hut, enjoying the company of new friends while my lonely skis and poles waited in powdery snow outside. Maybe the altitude and that glass of La Graine, a local red wine, was getting to my head.


The high elevation is responsible for more than a diminishing alcohol tolerance; it also provides a long ski season (ending April 7 in 2013, with limited lift operation through April 14). Multiple kid-friendly areas near Alpe di Siusi ensure fun for all ages throughout the duration (Look for ski obstacle courses with tunnels and cartoon characters; free sledding runs up to 4.7 kilometers long; music; and a DJ who shouts encouragement to each child by name as they ski past. “Brava, Maria Valentina! Brava!”).


Non-skiers in the group can take advantage of hiking, snow shoeing, rock climbing, ice skating, sledding, horse-drawn carriage rides, mountain tours of the nature park, alpine herb farm tours, spa treatments, visits to castles and churches, plus wine tasting and culinary experiences.


The most quintessential of culinary experiences – the one responsible for my reticence to get back on the slopes – is dining in a mountain hut. Not only are they quaint venues with rustic interiors and limited seating, but they are known for the farm-to-table freshness of their menus.



mountain huts South Tyrol Dolomites Italy

Foodies in South Tyrol should make a beeline for mountain huts


The polenta was creamier and the meat tastier than seemed possible. There was delicate mountain herbs in the seasoning that I’ve never tasted before, and wish I could taste again. I lingered over dessert, an airy profiterole filled with buttermilk mousse and sprinkled with dried wildflower petals. If I were in Switzerland, Austria, or even France, maybe I would feel compelled to get back on my skis and make the most out of the remaining afternoon.


But after all, this is Italy.


Fiè allo Sciliar

The church square of Fiè allo Sciliar, backed by the Sciliar mountain




There are few English-speaking visitors to this area, and while most people speak some English, be smart and bring an offline translator or pocket dictionary. 


Getting there

We flew to Innsbruck, rented a car and drove 1.5 hours south (tolls, 14€). Alternate airports are Bolzano, Verona, and Venice. Inexpensive bus transfers are available during high season, or you can take the train to Bolzano, followed by bus or private transfer.


Where to stay

Families will like Ortisei (St. Ulrich in German), which bustles with shops, child ski schools (where the DJ mentioned above is located), and a gondola lift direct to Alpe di Siusi. Serious skiers will prefer a base further up the Val Gardena in S. Cristina / St. Christina, with access to the Sella Ronda. Couples and foodies will enjoy sleepy-but-stylish Fiè allo Sciliar / Völs am Schlern (a five-minute drive to the Alpe di Siusi gondola in Siusi allo Sciliar). It’s also possible to stay within Alpe di Siusi for ski-in ski-out ease.



Author Jenna Harrison shares her favorite destinations on


  1. What exactly was the elevation at which you skied? Did you find it difficult to breathe as you were traversing the mountainsides? Geologic formations look amazing, forbidding and cold!

  2. What fascinating info about the creation on the Dolomites! I had no idea. I think I’d be in awe skiing on a base of coral. And then, there’s the food. It all sounded so good and what a great experience to languish at one of those mountain huts or your quaint hotel with all the beauty around you. Alpe de Siusi looked like a perfect spot to stay. However do you find these hidden gems?

    Absolutely gorgeous photos.
    Thank you, it was a treat to read. Now, I’ll just have to experience it for myself!

  3. I’m adding Alpe di Siusi to my travel destinations for next winter! Breathtaking scenery, plenty of ski activities for young and old (or not so old), and great quality farm-to-table food. Sold! 🙂

  4. Wendy – We were at about 6500 feet most of the time, so it wasn’t too terribly high and I didn’t feel winded. It was just enough to keep nice snow on the slopes 🙂

  5. Kristen – Thanks 🙂 We do stumble upon some fantastic places, luckily. For me, it’s the best part of travel! Finding that places like this still exist, even somewhere as transited as Europe (and the Alps), energizes me to keep searching for other gems.

  6. Annika – You won’t be disappointed. Hold on and we’ll post about a great hotel possibility for you in the upcoming weeks.

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