World’s Best Skiing: Your Perfect Ultimate Ski Trip For This Winter
The entire travel industry has suffered mightily in the COVID pandemic, but the ski and snowboard sector was especially hard hit. A premature end to the 2019-2020 season was one of the first travel casualties as the pandemic began, and in many places the entire 2020-2021 winter was a washout. In the U.S., major resorts instituted capacity restrictions, arcane reservation systems made it sometimes feel easier to just not bother, and some states, like Vermont, the number one ski destination east of the Mississippi, pretty much barred out of state visitors. Europe had it worse with most countries shutting lifts and resorts altogether.
All of this has led to a lot of pent-up demand, and if you are an avid skier or snowboarder, you are probably very eager for some semblance of a return to resort normalcy on the slopes. I for one am salivating at the idea of riding lifts to fresh powder or groomed corduroy. That’s why I am heading to the Dolomites.
I’ve been to this part of Italy twice in recent years, summer and winter, and am increasingly becoming convinced that it is not only one of the world’s best ski destinations (and I’ve skied all over the world), but for Americans also one of the most overlooked. For many reasons it is worth a look. A long look.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, COVID. While headlines screaming of restrictions on Americans traveling to Europe have led to confusion, misunderstanding and cancellations, the truth is that it is easy to go to Italy, and for responsible Americans, safer than it has been until now. I also believe it is safer than traveling within most of the United States, both for flights and when you get there. It has been well documented that despite the CDC ratings, almost all nations in Western Europe have lower infection rates than most U.S. states and Italy has some of the best numbers in Western Europe. So, while I would not risk going to Florida, I just got back from Italy, felt extremely comfortable the whole time, and would go back tomorrow.
Under the newest restrictions, Italy is welcoming fully vaccinated Americans and requiring a negative test within 72 hours of arrival. That’s great news, because no one who cares about their safety wants to fly with unvaccinated or infected people, though if you travel domestically this is almost a certainty on every flight (so, if possible, it’s best to fly directly abroad from a gateway rather than transfer first on a domestic flight, even if you have to change at a European hub). In addition, Italy has maintained a high-level of precautionary rules and in the week-plus I just spent there I never saw an unmasked person anywhere indoors except when dining, and everyone took their societal responsibilities very seriously. I’ve also seen plenty of unmasked retail and restaurant staff here, but zero in Italy.
Likewise, hotels all are taking substantial precautions, from enhanced cleaning to requiring reservations to visit spa and pool facilities to adding outdoor dining and rethinking meal service. For example, if you have been to Italy, you know that a self-service buffet breakfast is the standard at just about every hotel at every price point. Not now. You still choose whatever you want but it is all served to you with a focus on touchless guest experience. Finally, skiing is inherently an outdoor, socially distanced activity, and Europe has always had a much bigger focus on outdoor mountain dining if that’s what you want.
Now back to the fun stuff.
Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to skiing, but it doesn’t hurt, and there is no bigger ski “resort” anywhere on the planet than Dolomiti Superski. We are talking about 30,000-acres, nearly 6000’ of vertical and just shy of 900 marked trails served by 450 lifts, many of them modern heated chairs, bubbles, gondolas or trams. All of this sprawls across multiple valleys and about 50 villages, many totally ski in/out. While they get a lot of snow, reliably early enough that this has become an important mid-December stop on the World Cup circuit, the Dolomites also boast some of Europe’s best snowmaking - just in case.
Technically Superski is a dozen different resorts, each individually owned, but that hardly matters when they all share a single lift ticket and most are interconnected to one another. It is similar to the big French multi-resort complexes like Les Trois Vallees, only bigger, and for this winter upgrades make Dolomiti Superski significantly better. First, a new gondola is linking the slopes at Italy’s poshest ski town, Cortina, the “Queen of the Dolomites” and the 2026 Winter Olympic Games host (also famous as the setting for 007 film For Your Eyes Only) with the huge, interconnected trail systems of Alta Badia and Val Gardena. The gondola connects the slopes of the Tofana and Cinque Torri resorts and creates what many believe is the longest continuous point to point skiing route in the world, around 25 miles - one way! This gives ski-mad visitors more transit-free choices of where to stay than ever before.
The second big change is that this year Dolomiti Superski has joined the popular Ikon Pass, and if you have one, you can ski free here, all over the place, for up to there for a full week (7 free days).
Here’s what’s to love about the region in a nutshell:
Even by big mountain standards, the Dolomites are breathtakingly beautiful, so geologically unique the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ve skied in the Alps, Rockies, Tetons, Andes and other ranges, and there is nothing quite as jaw dropping as the Dolomites. Google some images.
A big part of the appeal is that this is Italy, perennially the number one most desirable vacation destination for Americans and justifiably so, with amazing food and the la dolce vita lifestyle. The towns are stunners, and in most cases they are set on valley floors with the slopes and lifts surrounding them - not only are almost all the best hotels ski-in/ski-out, but entire towns are.
Then there are the refugios. These are often described as mountain huts, but that’s a lame translation. Refugios are family run, full-service alpine rustic restaurants up on the slopes, and many also have lodging in dorms, rooms, luxury rooms or all of the above. There is no real equivalent in the U.S., decidedly non-corporate and in this region, refugios are known for stellar cuisine, some boasting wine lists that would put gourmet urban restaurants to shame. There are refugios elsewhere in the Alps, but the Dolomites are famous for them and have a much denser concentration. They are all over the place, virtually foolproof for lunch, and since many are located at gondolas for downloads, some also serve dinner. You can even do a hut-to-hut ski safari and stay in refugios for a week, though this misses out on the action below.
Prefer ski touring (AT) to lift served downhill? Incredibly popular here, the Dolomites are also one of the best skinning destinations for all abilities, thanks to great on and off-piste terrain, the refugios, and you always have back-ups for less than ideal conditions with the extensive lift and trail network. There are a lot of professionally guided and fully supported trip options for vacations or instruction ski touring off-piste or backcountry here.
One big highlight of the region is the famed Sellaronda, a lift served ski circuit and iconic one at that - many consider this the best day of skiing in the world. It is basically a skiing loop around the stunning, rocky, Sella massif that passes through four valleys (Val Gardena, Alta Badia, Arabba and Fassa) spanning about 17 miles of uninterrupted skiing that can be done entirely without taking your skis off, though it would be a shame to skip all those delicious refugio stops along the way. It can be a long day, but it is not too daunting, accessible to intermediates and above, all on groomed runs. While good skiers have time to repeat favorite slopes or throw in extra runs, like the famed World Cup giant slalom and downhill courses along the way, you don’t have to and it is very doable in less than a full day. Because you can ski the Sellaronda clockwise or counterclockwise, many visitors do it twice as it feels very different.
Finally, there are a huge array of hotels at all price points, including lots of lower priced ski-in/out options, something you hardly see elsewhere. At the high-end, while most U.S. ski destinations have one to three truly deluxe choices, in the Dolomites you have many, including world famous luxury hotels like the Rosa Alpina, Adler and Cristallo, numerous members of Relais & Chateuax, Leading Hotels of the World and Luxury Collection - plus the refugios and lots of villas.
Cortina is closest to Venice, the major gateway to the region, but the other towns in the Dolomites are also accessible from Milan and Innsbruck. Cortina is just over the provincial border in the Veneto region, but most of the skiing here sits in South Tyrol, which has an excellent tourism website breaking down its half dozen distinctive ski sub-regions and their towns. Yet another bonus appeal of the region is that you can tack a couple of days in Venice on to either end and while Venice is a fantasy Bucket List destination for many, it’s much less crowded (but no less charming) in winter.
It goes a lot deeper but for most Americans there are three major options when it comes to a Dolomites ski or snowboard vacation:
Val Gardena & Alta Badia: These two adjacent regions are politically different but so close to each other that for tourists they form one destination with several villages, and a wealth of ski-in/ski-out lodging. It is a bit further from the airports than Cortina but has the biggest array of immediately accessible skiing. Top hotels in Val Gardena include the family-owned hidden gem 4-star (Italian rating system, not Forbes) Hotel Tyrol in Selva Val Gardena, which doesn’t look like much but has a Michelin-star worthy gourmet restaurant, a second excellent casual eatery, full spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and amazing friendly service (I was extremely impressed!). Nearby Ortisei boasts the famous 5-star Adler luxury hotel, as well as the just renovated Relais & Chateaux 5-Star Gardena Grodnerhof, both with extensive spa and wellness programs.
In Alta Badia’s Corvara the top pick is the famed Hotel La Perla, a 5-star family-owned passion project that oozes charm and personality. It is a Leading Hotels of the World member with Michelin-starred eatery, three other dining outlets, a legendry après ski scene, amazing wine cellar boasting one of the world’s best collections of Super Tuscans, and full spa. All of the above are in the walkable hearts of their respective towns, have premier ski-in/out access, and sit right on the Sellaronda circuit.
Cortina d’Ampezzo: Cortina has a long luxury reputation and has been referred to as Italy’s Aspen, but while there are certainly swank boutiques and a fashionable clientele, it is not as stuffy or pretentious as the comparison suggests. Sir Roger Moore famously visited in his Lotus Esprit Turbo as fictional superspy James Bond and skied the town’s classic bobsled track. Cortina hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics and in partnership with Milan will reprise that role in 2026, assuring the town and region a much higher profile in coming years - get ahead of the crowds! Cortina is less than a two-hour drive from the Venice airport, easy to get to, and offers more of a one-stop shopping town experience, but it’s not quite as a ski-in/out with the best hotels a few minutes shuttle from the lifts of the town’s resorts. As of this winter the slopes above town will be linked to the extensive neighboring systems and the new gondola also gives Cortina skiers direct access to one of the region’s most famous runs, the 5-mile “Hidden Valley,” for the first time. For more than 120 years the top luxury hotel here has been the elegant 5-Star Cristallo, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa (Marriott Bonvoy). This winter will also see the opening of a new luxury boutique property, the Hotel de Len. The stylish property will have 22 rooms and suites, a local terroir-driven restaurant and extensive spa facilities. For Cortina tourism information see here.
Madonna di Campiglio: This jewel of a town is in the Brenta Dolomites, a smaller separate mountain range that is still part of the UNESCO World Heritage Dolomites. It sits in Trentino, the Province immediately south of South Tyrol and the “regular” Dolomites, closer to Lake Garda. The town is completely encircled with several of its own ski resorts forming a contiguous circuit and making the entire village ski-in/out. I wrote extensively about Madonna di Campligio here at Forbes earlier, so you can read that piece for more details, and it is charming, though without the amazing breadth of terrain Superski offers.
Any one of these three areas makes for its own ski vacation, but if you don’t mind paying for transfers, they are also combinable.
While you can book any of the above-mentioned luxury hotels yourself and make the other arrangements, skiing in Europe is always more complex, even though the Dolomites are more turnkey than most of the Alps. Between ground transportation, flight and airport options, local restaurants and booking guides, rentals, instruction and refugio meals, it is best to use the expertise of a wired and experienced ski travel specialist or go through your own high quality travel agent or advisor. I have used Italian-based active travel specialist Dolomite Mountains, which also has a U.S. office and offers summer hiking and biking trips, and I have been very happy. They offer very reasonably priced small group scheduled departures for their “Ski Safaris,” using either hotels or refugios, and these are available in both lift served alpine and ski touring versions. But the majority of their trips are customized privates based on client budgets, from moderate to top tier luxury.
Pray for snow!