Where the locals know how good they've got it and take great care to keep it that way.
The business of tourism is on hold for the moment in Cortina d’Ampezzo. Shop doors are curiously locked at midday. Tourists regard scrawled “back in an hour” notes with puzzlement.
Then the bells of the village campanile ring out high above the unusual silence, echoing off the limestone walls of the valley. The doors of the lovingly frescoed church open, and from its dim interior a funeral procession emerges, priests and altar boys at its head. The village grows quieter still as the families of Cortina process solemnly, two by two, down the Corso Italia—men at the front, women and children at the rear, all respectfully arrayed in funeral finery.
It’s a poignant reminder: Cortina might be a world-class ski destination famous for glamour and luxury, but it was first—and for centuries foremost—a community of interdependent mountain people. Its families—the Ghedinas, Menardis and Manaigos—having survived the dark days of World War I, when the Ampezzo was a bitter and bloody battleground, have made a nice living off the tourism industry, which blossomed when Cortina hosted the 1956 Olympics. But while they’ve prospered, they’ve also been careful to guard the natural beauty of their home. Credit goes to wise forefathers, who centuries ago developed rigorous land-use laws, the Regole. Originally employed to ensure the health of forests and to prescribe and protect the rights of landowners, the laws are nowadays used to moderate growth and preserve the splendid sense of place Cortina visitors love.
Royals, billionaires and movie stars are famously captivated by the winter beauty of Italy’s foremost ski destination, and it’s easy to see why. Surrounding the five-star hotels of the tidy cobble-and-stucco village are mountains as spectacular as a skier will ever hope to see. Even by Alpine standards, the Dolomites are extraordinary. They began life as sea bottom, and by geologic miracle have been thrust skyward over the eons. They stand in giant pillars with exceptionally sheer, vertical faces, most of them far too steep for skiing.
Americans should bring different expectations to a proper Cortina vacation. For starters, learn to slow down and relax. The ski day starts later here and incorporates a long, languorous lunch with wine and views in one of the Ampezzo’s many splendid mountainside rifugios. Perhaps a few more runs in the afternoon, then sunning, dining and clubbing late into the night.
It takes some exploring to find the steep terrain. Well-groomed cruisers are the norm. Just as well. The views are dangerously distracting, and the third glass of local red wine at lunch improves neither coordination nor ambition. But that’s the Cortina way. Beware: It’s easy to get used to.
The Cristallo Hotel Spa and Grand Hotel Savoia offer two flavors of five-star luxury: The former overflows with Old World charm; the latter pares it all down. For a family-run inn, try Hotel Menardi.
EAT & DRINK
Rifugio Averau, at the top of the resort, is a local favorite. Ristorante da Beppe Sello is known for its beef tartare (and its fiery owner, Carlo). Regardless, don’t leave Cortina without trying casunziei, the local dish of beet ravioli.
Enoteca is a rustic wine bar with a long Cortina tradition (and, last we checked, an Italian bartender named Tex). The swanky Hotel de la Post bar is great for people-watching. Late night? Hit LP 26.