On a sunny Saturday morning in December, six fellow travelers and myself stood on the side of a road in the extreme northern Italian province of South Tyrol, having just realized that due to icy road conditions our bus wasn't running and no vehicle would be able to pick us up.
For a few pregnant moments, I wondered just how long we'd be stuck in this spot, and how much it would cut into our plans to spend the day skiing South Tyrol's famed Sellaronda ski circuit.
But it didn't take our guide Claudia Rier long to come up with an alternative way of getting to a main roadway.
"Well then, we ski," she proclaimed.
Several chairlifts, a healthy bit of traversing a ski area called Alpe di Siusi and one steeply descending gondola ride later, we had arrived in the village of Ortisei, where a shuttle waited to chauffeur us to the Sellaronda.
Ski slopes, gondolas and chairlifts, I learned that morning, are so abundant in South Tyrol that they can practically be used for public transportation.
The Christmas market in the South Tyrolian capital of Bolzano is a good place to eat, drink and shop during the holiday season. Photo Credit: TW photos by Robert Silk
Land of mountaineers
South Tyrol, which encompasses 2,900 square miles immediately to the south of Austria, is in many ways as connected to its northern neighbor as it is to Italy. Part of Austria until 1919, some 70% of its inhabitants still speak German as their primary language. Since 1972, South Tyrol has been mostly autonomous from Italy, with its capital of Bolzano retaining the lion's share of taxes it collects in the region. Such independence from the political chaos that so often defines Rome is one reason South Tyrol is Italy's wealthiest province per capita.
Dominating the South Tyrolean landscape, especially for those who venture to the region to ski, are the Dolomites, a mountain range of the southern Alps characterized by its dramatic rock faces. Never in my many years of skiing the Rockies or the Sierras have I seen mountains that loom so directly over the slopes the way some of the Dolomites do. The 10,436-foot-high Sassolungo mountain, for example, forms such a bold backdrop to the ski areas in South Tyrol's Val Gardena region that upon first getting off my first lift there, I could scarcely look away long enough to tighten my boots.
Naturally, the sheer walls of the Dolomites make South Tyrol a rock climbing mecca, and as such it should come as no surprise that one of its most acclaimed native sons, Reinhold Messner, was the first person (along with climbing partner Peter Habeler) to summit Mount Everest without oxygen and the first person to summit all 14 of the world's peaks of 26,000 feet or higher.
Six Messner museums dot South Tyrol, including the newest one, Messner Mountain Museum Corones, which sits at the top of Mount Kronplatz ski area, offering exhibits on mountain climbing history. Designed by famed architect Zaha Hadid, the museum blends almost seamlessly into the mountain and offers wide views of the surrounding Dolomites.
In my eyes, however, the Messner museums take a back seat to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, which houses the 5,300-year-old skeletal remains of Otzi the Iceman, the oldest natural mummy found in Europe. Otzi was preserved in glacier ice until discovered in South Tyrol in 1991, and I was fascinated as I toured the museum, which also houses Otzi's weapons, tools and even his clothes, including a bearskin hat that looks to be in good enough shape to protect against the cold of an Alpine winter even today.
Skiing in South Tyrol, Italy
Fine dining and upscale refugios
Augmenting South Tyrol's cultural attractions are a wide assortment of upscale lodging, ranging from centuries-old hotels to high mountain refuges, known as refugios. On one night during my jam-packed, five-day trip through the province, which was sponsored by the local tourism board, I stayed at Hotel Elephant in the town of Bressanone. Dotted with classic artwork, the hotel dates back to the 15th century and housed the legendary elephant Suleiman for 14 days in 1551. One night later I snowshoed into the mountains to the ultramodern Hotel Zallinger. Reachable only by foot, snowcat or snowmobile during the winter months, the 36-room lodge offers a luxurious spa and a nightly three-course meal of South Tyrolean cuisine.
On the topic of cuisine, South Tyrol offers 19 Michelin-starred restaurants and is the home of speck, a thin ham that is cured in spices prior to being smoked and aged.
Among the fare I most enjoyed in the region was gilthead fish at Hotel Petrus near the town of Brunico and the assortment of refined cheeses I sampled at Degust near Bressanone, a cheese shop presided over by the Michelin-starred chef Hansi Baumgartner.
Swordfish and other fresh seafood on display in Bolzano. Photo Credit: TW photos by Robert Silk
But above all else it was the Dolomites, and South Tyrol's vast skiing terrain, that captivated me during my visit. The region's Dolomiti Superski, a collection of a dozen ski areas that are available on one lift pass, offer 750 miles of trails serviced by 460 lifts and gondolas. No, that's not a misprint — 460 lifts and gondolas.
Daily rates for the pass this year peak at $69, less than half the cost at some Colorado mountains.
The interconnectivity of the various ski areas is also a draw. One day, for example, I skied at Three Peaks Dolomites, which on its own offers 60 miles of trails serviced by 32 lifts and gondolas, then popped off my skis, boarded a train right at the bottom of the mountain, and rode directly to the base of Kronplatz, where I spent the afternoon sampling its even more robust 74-mile network of slopes.
But it was on the Sellaronda that I gained my greatest sense of just how thoroughly skiing is intertwined with the South Tyrolean way of life. The 25-mile circuit, which is accessible for intermediate skiers, passes by and sometimes through villages and towns while affording constant clear-day views of the Dolomites' rock faces.
We traversed the circuit with happy abandon, relenting frequently to the impulse to photograph the surrounding scenery. As the day gave way to early evening, our guide rushed the group to catch the last lift at the Alta Badia ski area before it closed. But somehow, I wasn't worried. I knew we'd find our way.
"It's South Tyrol," I imagined our guide Rier saying. "We ski."