When it comes to travel, “luxury” is a subjective concept. For some it’s all about Frette sheets, seat 1A or mooring up on the waterfront in Cannes. For others it’s as simple as a lie-in, no flashing red light on the BlackBerry and a freshly-baked baguette from the boulangerie down the road.
For an increasing number, including me, it is the chance to escape one’s fellow man: to not be crammed on an underground train on a Monday morning or to avoid being involuntarily smothered by a stranger’s bellowed mobile phone conversation.
I’m pondering this while ski touring in the Dolomite mountains in northeast Italy, about 30km from the Austrian border, on a gloriously sunny spring morning. My own mobile phone signal has long ago given up the ghost. Only two other people are with me in this splendid isolation – a jovially gruff mountain guide, Marcello Cominetti (who plays Pink Floyd covers with his band Frozen Rats), and an expat Argentine, Agustina Lagos Marmol. Both are striding ahead as I use the excuse of soaking up the exquisite beauty of the limestone peaks to stop frequently so I can catch my breath.
This is ski touring but with a difference. We still move from valley to valley through the mountains, using a combination of lifts and our own legpower. But instead of spending each night in a mountain hut with a bunch of snoring, cracked-knuckle types huddling over a packet of dried pasta, I am staying in different five-star hotels over a long weekend and stuffing myself with fantastic Ladin, Italian and Austrian-influenced cuisine from Veneto and South Tyrol. It’s a concept that Lagos Marmol introduced to the international market last year through her company, Dolomite Mountains, which also offers longer backcountry tours as well as innovative itineraries travelling from resort to resort without leaving the marked pistes.
I’d spent my first night cosseted in the Grand Hotel Savoia in Cortina d’Ampezzo, and then trudged through fresh, welly deep snow to reach Ristorante al Camin for ravioli stuffed with beetroot, mopped up with cumin-flecked puccia bread and a simple assortment of local cheeses paired with honey and mustard. This morning, my coffee at the Rosa Alpina hotel in San Cassiano, whose St Hubertus restaurant has two Michelin stars, came from a silver pot rather than a jar of Nescafé plucked from a rucksack. While there I could have had a reflexology session or a facial and sports massage to prepare me for the rigours of the mountains.
It’s a good job I didn’t, because I don’t think Cominetti, who prefers an old woolly hat to a helmet, is the type who would approve of a bloke having a mani-pedi. At the top of the Piz Sorega lift we had attached our pelli (textured strips of material that stick to the bottom of the skis to allow walking uphill) and then begun our escape from humanity, striking out in the direction of the Col di Lana, site of bloody Austro-Italian first world war battles. These open, backcountry spaces are Cominetti’s natural home, rather than the groomed pistes of the area’s Sella Ronda circuit. “Going downhill isn’t sport, it’s just gravity,” he says.
In some ways the Dolomites are more spectacular than the Alps, and the area was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2009. Numerous peaks top 3,000m and throughout the day the light changes as it reflects off their jagged spires and pinnacles. In the morning you may bask in the glow of a deep, warm orange; sunset renders them a rich purple.
We are aiming for Cominetti’s home village of Corte. The only sound on the mountain is a rhythmic crunch as our touring skis plant in the snow then slide forwards. Luckily for me, the least fit of the three, our trajectory is generally more across than up. However, every now and again, our plans necessitate a change of direction, which means lifting one ski, then the other, up, across, over and down on the slope, severely testing the flexibility of my usually desk-bound hips, as well as introducing Cominetti to some colourful Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.
We pass from ridge to ridge, pausing often, before finally reaching the crest that marks our high point. Cominetti has the well-honed, service-oriented knack of making me feel like we have conquered the north face of Everest, even if he probably could have skipped up in half the time.
Here we remove and pack away our pelli, enjoy some drinks and prepare for our descent – more than an hour of whooshing through meadows deep in virgin powder and forests where the only tracks are those of animals. Warm spring sun cascades through branches to cast eerie shadows as we pass underneath.
We reach Corte and Cominetti’s house, from which a taxi would later collect me for the transfer to my next hotel. The house had been almost hit by an avalanche a few days earlier but now all is calm. We sit on a bench outside the kitchen, warming in the sun while icicles drip from the gutters, eating a late lunch of home-made focaccia, horseradish, Dobbiaco cheese and speck (dried ham) with some local Tyrolean apples and wine. None of us talk, we just eat. Happy, tired, alone and a bit smelly. Pure luxury.
Will Hide was a guest of Dolomite Mountains (dolomitemountains.com) and British Airways (ba.com). Dolomite Mountains offers four-day ski safaris from £1,675pp (based on four participating) in half-board, five-star properties such as the Grand Hotel Savoia, Rosa Alpina and San Lorenzo Mountain Lodge including guiding, luggage transfers and lift passes where needed. BA flies to Venice (a drive of about two hours from Cortina) from London Heathrow, Gatwick and City airports