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Sellaronda, March 31 to April 5, 2013

oakapple

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Last week, my son and I visited the Dolomiti Superski, a mega-sized ski area in Northern Italy. I thought that readers on this predominantly Northeast U.S.-based board might be interested in a trip report from Europe, especially if you've never skied there.

This region in the north of Italy has been much contested over the centuries, and it was not always under Italian control. Many towns have two names, German and Italian. Some restaurants and inns, though geographically in Italy, seem more German than Italian. Restaurant menus are nearly always in at least two languages, and often several. The indigenous language is Ladin, or Ladino, which has about 40,000 native speakers, all in this mountain range: it's a variant of the Swiss Romansh (another little-spoken tongue), though most residents speak Italian, German, and at least a bit of English. Visitors to this region are from all over Europe. I did not hear an American accent all week.

We had never skied outside of North America. Although I had researched the trip extensively, I hadn't quite appreciated the contrast between North American and European skiing. I thought I'd briefly describe some of the differences, as we saw them.

Based in the Dolomite mountains (the southern Tyrolean alps), the Dolomiti Superski consists of a large number of formerly separate ski areas covering hundreds of square miles. Skiers purchase a pass for one of the constituent areas alone, or for the whole group. There is also, I gather, the option to put money on a card, and "pay by the drink" every time you use a lift. A small surface lift might charge €1.50, while a major gondola might charge €8. I don't know of any ski area in North America that offers this option.

To accommodate this feature, every lift is electronically scanned -- even a small surface lift covering just a couple of hundred feet. In North America, most places I've visited have manual scanning (or visual inspection), and to save money, they don't bother checking your ticket at mid-mountain lifts (those you couldn't have reached without taking another lift first).

At the core of the Dolomiti Superski is the Sellaronda, a continuously lift-linked ski tour around the enormous Sella Massif. You can ski it in the clockwise or counter-clockwise direction (we did both), which takes 3-5 hours depending on crowds, conditions, skier ability, etc. Counting stops for lunch, etc., it is nearly a full-day tour in either direction.

If you begin anywhere on the Sellaronda, you have direct access to about 225 lifts and hundreds of kilometers of trails, limited only by how far you can travel in one day. The Dolomiti Superski pass gives you access to about twice that amount of terrain, although some areas require connecting taxi or bus service.

Whistler-Blackcomb is the largest ski area in North America. We were there two years ago. According to one pretty reasonable list, it is merely the 33rd largest in the world. The Sellaronda is fourth. So we were skiing in an area way beyond the scale of anything we had ever seen. No ski area in the United States is in the world's top 50, all of which, except for Whistler-Blackcomb, are in Europe.

At a North American resort, you typically spend all day going up and down, and up and down, from one base area, or perhaps a few base areas that are reasonably close to one another. At a resort the size of the Sellaronda, you travel from one town to the next, across long distances that would cost €50 to 75 if you had to take a taxi.

To give but one comparison: Killington, which is usually considered the largest ski area in the Northeast, has 21 lifts. (That is a generous figure, as it includes three magic carpets.) That would be less than 10 percent of the number of lifts on, or connected to, the Sellaronda, and less than 5 percent of what you can ski on the Dolomiti Superski pass.

At a North American resort, the signs at the top of a lift direct you to particular trails. In the Dolomites, they point you to towns and villages, perhaps many miles away. The trails themselves are generally well marked. For instance, a sign might tell you take trail #5 to the village of Corvara. All along the trail will be signs every few hundred feet, bearing the number 5, to tell you you're still on the right path.

At North American ski areas, usually the whole resort is under the control of one operator, so there is a homogeneous feel to the place, sometimes a bit like Disneyland. In the Alps, the hotels and most of the on-mountain restaurants are independently owned and operated. The landscape is dotted with cute little Italian trattorias and pizzerias, good enough that I'd probably visit them regularly if they were in my neighborhood. We also visited the region's three Michelin-starred restaurants, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'll skip the gastronomical review.

The lift facilities are generally newer and better than in North America. Almost all lifts have timing gates, and most have conveyor belts. Many of the newer high-speed lifts have bubbles. These features are nowhere near as common in North America. Europe has a fondness for surface lifts, which dot the landscape. Many of them seem to be newer than anything I am aware of in North America.

I had worried about booking a trip so late in the season, but the lifts and slopes were almost 100 percent open, and there was tons of snow. We actually had powder days in Arabba (where we stayed) on our first and last day there. However, temperatures were above freezing most of the time, and at lower elevations the snow turned to cream cheese by mid-day. Most of the mapped trails seem to be groomed daily. This is another contrast from North America, where most ski areas take pride in leaving some trails ungroomed, so that they can bump up. (There is plenty of ungroomed terrain, for those who prefer it; but those areas simply aren't considered "named" trails.)

Certainly, one advantage of taking the trip so late in the season, is that crowds were close to non-existent. I don't think we ever waited more than 60 seconds for a lift, and most of the time we just skied on (or walked on) with no line at all. We generally had a chair or gondola cabin to ourselves, and at times (in some of the more remote areas) there was not a single human in sight. That fact, rather than lack of snow, is probably the reason why most of the Dolomiti Superski is closing for the year at the end of this week.

On the Sellaronda itself, the signage is extremely good. We took both the green (anti-clockwise) and orange (clockwise) routes, and there were only a couple of times when we were puzzled about where to go next. Other days, we just chose a destination or a town, estimating that it was possible to get there and back in the same day. We always made it, though one day only just barely. Sometimes, a perfectly normal-looking trail dead-ends in the middle of a village, with the nearest uphill service a lengthy walk to the opposite end of town. But most of the time it's reasonably clear where to go next, as long as you know the approximate sequence of major villages on the way to your destination.

Most North American resorts use a four-tiered trail ranking system, progressing (easiest to hardest) through green circle, blue square, black diamond, and double-diamond. The European system uses just three colors (blue, red, black). On the Sellaronda, the harder blue trails (supposedly beginner level) would be rated intermediate in N.A., and their harder red trails (intermediate) would be rated expert level. The Sellaronda itself is supposed to be within the compass of confident intermediates, and that is largely true, though there are a couple of spots in either direction that can be difficult, depending on the conditions.

Snowboarding seems less popular in Europe than in North America. In North America, at some mountains, the ratio of skiers to snowboarders approaches 50/50. At the Sellaronda, it was more like 95/5 in favor of skiers. We noticed a handful of terrain parks, but they didn't seem to be as plentiful as they are at North American resorts.

The official maps are quite poor: at most points where trails and lift lines meet, you can't even tell which way is up. Dolomiti Superski provides a smartphone app that can plan your route between major destinations, but the numbering of the lifts on that app doesn't match the numbering on their printed map or posted on the lifts themselves.

Arabba turned out to be a pretty good place to stay. It is one of the access points to the Sellaronda itself (one of many). It is also well located for two of the must-see excursions in this region, the Marmolada glacier, and the Lagazuoi cable car to the scenic Armentarola trail, which includes the famous frozen waterfall and ends in a horse-drawn drag lift. Of course, any place you stay in this region involves trade-offs. There are abundant slopes in the Val Gardena - Alpe di Siusi area (at the opposite corner of the Sellaronda) that we never came close to, simply because we couldn't get there and back on the same day.

It was a challenge to find the right place to stay. Most hotels catering to skiers will claim to be hard by the lifts, but it is not so easy to figure out how close they really are. Maps that show the hotels don't show the lifts, and vice versa. Our hotel (the Genziana in Arabba) turned out to be about a 10-minute walk of several blocks uphill to the lifts. It didn't kill us, but if I'd known that, I probably would have booked something a bit closer. Travel and ski sites advised that Arabba is light on après-ski entertainment, and that is true, but the restaurants in town, all unfancy, are nevertheless pretty good.

Overall, it was a wonderful trip. The next time I ski in North America, it's going to be quite a letdown.
 
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abc

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It was a challenge to find the right place to stay. Most hotels catering to skiers will claim to be hard by the lifts, but it is not so easy to figure out how close they really are. Maps that show the hotels don't show the lifts, and vice versa. Our hotel (the Genziana in Arabba) turned out to be about a 10-minute walk of several blocks uphill to the lifts. It didn't kill us, but if I'd known that, I probably would have booked something a bit closer.
It was probably telling all their pictures were of summer activities. It's 10 minute walk with hiking shoes, not with ski boots!

I also happened to have based out of Arabba when I was there (2 years ago). Although it was a good 5 minute walk to the lift, it was owned by the same owner of another hotel "almost" next to the lift. So ski storage was at the hotel next to the lift, and we didn't have to carry our skis back to our own hotel. Some people store their boots there and walk back to our own hotel on regular shoes. I carry my boots there and leave my regular shoes while I'm skiing, reverse at the end of day.

Still, that's one of the big difference between here and "there". Most Euopean skiers think nothing of a 15 minute hike in ski boots. It's not un-common to see a bunch of them dancing in their ski boots at the outdoor bar!
 

JimG.

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Nice pics...very European.

Do some of the ski areas offer more expert terrain than others?
 
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