Think sun, not snow.
You'd be forgiven for crossing the Alps off your summer destination list, but discover a green paradise of sparkly lakes, mountain tops and some of the best food Italy has to offer.
The Dolomites are Alpine babies, pointy and young, they're only 250 million years old. Theory goes that weather erosion throughout millennia rounded the tips of these mega structures, quite a thought, but try get your head around this - the Dolomites were once a Triassic, tropical, coral-rich sea bed! Years of fossilised and volcanic sediment gradually emerged from the sea during the famous tectonic plate shift between Africa and Europe, leaving a wealth of fossils in the mountain tops.
Their uniquely jagged appearance is down to erosion occurring at different rates in the composition mix. Drastically dipping into green rolling pastures and peaking into wispy, flying clouds, these mountains craft the most beautifully dramatic landscape but this is nothing until golden hour because here's when they truly dazzle. The Dolomites are known as the 'Pale Mountains' (Monti Palidi) but when the sun dips low and hits rock face, all of a sudden they light up to become the 'Pink Mountains'. With orangey-pink hues, dusk and dawn is spectacular around here.
Where to go
The Dolomite Mountains stretch over three north-eastern Italian regions - Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol and Friuli Venezia Giulia. As an UNESCO site of 141903 ha, containing 18 peaks over 3000m, there's a lot of ground to cover. The Dolomites is driving territory, a good base to explore from is Cortina d'Ampezzo in the province of Belluno (2 hours drive from Venice Airport) but this VIP, snazzy spot can become frustratingly busy, so I would avoid it in peak summer season i.e. July and August. The bustling, charming capital of Bolzano (Südtirol), and its surrounding countryside, will transport you to serene Austrian settings, think 'The Sound of Music' - a good option for castles, lakes and high-up, mountain hideaways and only 1.5hr drive from Verona's Airport. Alternatively, our suggestion would be stunning, crystalline Sesto (Sexten) - a gem of Südtirol on the Austrian border (2.5hr drive from Innsbruck or Venice Airports).
From any of these three bases, you can easily explore by car, but before you decide on your base, if you're here to hike, search your favourite trails first (and book your rifugio/mountain huts - more on that later).
Sesto and Bolzano especially are full of activities and managed well by tourist information offices in town. You'll hear many recommending San Candido or Agordo as typical towns to stay in, but these are highly popular and always feel a little crowded, plus we love to get (even slightly) off the beaten track, don't you?
How to travel
Driving by car is by far the best. There are trains and this is an alternative, as well as buses and coaches but you'll catch yourself staring through open windows in awe at the ever-changing Alpine scenery along your scenic drives, which is holiday therapy in itself. Fly into Verona, Milan, Venice, Treviso or Innsbruck, rent a car and drive the few hours towards your chosen starting point stopping for lunch wherever takes your fancy. You'll notice the landscape and architecture morph along the way, becoming more 'Austrian' by the minute.
What to do
Head up! The busiest cable cars and ski lifts are in operation throughout the summer and while you don't need a ski-pass to see you through (you can buy tickets on the day), it's thrilling to watch pine forests disappear below your dangling feet as you clock up the 'metres above sea-level' towards blue skies and jaw-dropping panoramas (and cold beer, Alpine huts and apple strudel).
Check the Dolomiti Superski website for a list of lifts with the dates they open.
Bike it! Main lifts also remain open for bikers and the odd tobogganist!
There's a network of trails ranging in colour according to difficulty, if you are an enthusiast look into a Dolomiti summer card here. It's a big world of bike trails out there, with one of the famously cutest (and easiest) stretching from San Candido to Lienz along a gentle 44km track running the Val Pusteria valley and a comfy train ride back (handy for bambini).
Find masses of information including maps and accommodation here on the official Dolomiti website.
Hike it! What can we say? This is pure paradise if you're a hiker - the quality of organised trails and mountain huts is astounding - decked out from BYOB (bring your own bedding and huddle around the fire) to luxury chalets and Michelin-quality restaurants. Always bring a map and always bring serious warm gear as the weather changes in an instant. If you love something quirky, tap into the Via Ferrata - a series of iron ladders and anchors you must attach yourself to, reaching perilous places and extreme thrills. Here's more info.
There are so many stunning trails up to heights where snow lingers all year round and views which take your breath away, where a sense of perspective and proportion are reached sitting beside a cyan-blue mountain-top lake, seeming almost unreal.
If we must narrow it down, here is a arguable bucket-list for any Dolomite hiking fan, but be warned that these places get super busy so if you can be there early, be there at the crack of dawn and if you can dodge peak season, pack an extra fleece and plan your trip with care:
Top hiking spots:
Le Tre Cime - Val Pusteria
Summer tobogganing is a blast! With runs up to 2km and super speeds - kids of all ages (and adults) adore this! Go treat the family to some proper mountain fun!
(Information on the sud-tirol website here.)
How long and where to stay
From a jam-packed weekend to two weeks of smooth cruising, you'll find itineraries to suit all tastes. Always refer to the dolomiti.org site for up-to-date information, many lifts only open in July and as much as all we feel the summer vibes in June, the Alps certainly don't. July, August and September are the hottest months to visit (and you'll still need a warm fleece) but as we mentioned before, avoid August if you're intent on seeing the top spots con calma.
Use your trusty booking.com or dolomites.org for accommodation options - truly there are so many! The mountains are dotted with rifugi - mountain huts which are always incredible to lodge/dine in but do get booked up very quickly so check the visitdolomites website well in advance for availability. Many larger hotels will be equipped with luxurious spas and pools. These are a brilliant option for a stress-free family holiday where you can opt for half-board or full-board and not have to lift a finger, spending the afternoon by the pool and the nights in the sauna.
What to eat
What not to eat?
Last but not least, the food in this place is unreal.
Don't expect gloopy Amalfi pizza or spaghetti con freshly-caught vongole, amatriciana or focaccia genovese. Make the most of all that space after lots of walking for proper mountain food. We're talking creamy, rich cheeses from cows that graze on the slopes, foraged herbs and flowers in cakes, preserves, berries and traditional dumplings. Red Lagrein, floral Müller Thurgau wines and jugs of clear ales, alongside slow-cooked, meaty stews. Stop at mountain huts and wooden lodges along the way for genuine Italian hospitality and mega-portions of Austrian heritage. It doesn't feel like Rome or Tuscany here, this is a region with a chequered history of ownership where signs are written in three languages; Italian, German and Ladin.
As we always say, skip the tourist menus and if it's true anywhere, especially here!
Pizza and pasta are not the Alps' forte so be brave and try the local wares. If in doubt, ask - everyone speaks English and loves to talk food!
Here are some beautiful local dishes not to miss:
Un tagliere - a board of local cheeses (like Casolet), pickles and meats, tasty Tyrolean Speck and crunchy rye bread, Schüttelbrot or salted Bretzel.
Canerderli - bread-based dumplings flavoured with beetroot, spinach or cheese and/or Speck, served either in broth or butter (definitely get butter.)
Casunziei - ravioli stuffed with pumpkin or spinach, in more melted butter.
Gnocchi alla Cadorina - potato gnocchi with smoked ricotta cheese.
Spätzle - wheat gnocchi served in a creamy sauce, often made with spinach (a family favourite).
Polenta with Venison stew.
Pastin (spiced sausage meat) or Formaggio Cotto (grilled Dobbiaco cheese - another favourite) served with polenta.
Kaiserschmarren - sweet dessert pancake.
Apple Strudel - with lashings of Alpine cream.
Linzer Cake - buckwheat and cranberry jam torte.
Black Forest Cake - cherries, dark chocolate and apricot jam.
The list goes on, and we promise to get a more detailed blog post out soon about 'What to Order in Bolzano/Cortina/Sesto' but for some therapeutic travel-candy, start reading up on what to see and where to stay before your hiking boots hit lush, green grass and the tinkle of cow bells fills your ears because the Dolomites await you...