Deep in the Veneto valleys of Northern Italy sits The Queen of the Dolomites, Cortina d’Ampezzo. There’s no angle of approach to the region that won’t leave you overwhelmed by the colossal mountains fortifying this beautiful region.
Not one to travel solo, I was joined by good friends Ben, a mountain climber, and Avantika, a visual storyteller. We had convened earlier that month to plan our midsummer adventure from the well-known historical beauty that is Venice.
Having set off in the early morning heat, within thirty minutes we were in the shadows of the world famous Dolomite mountain range. In this corner of Italy, all roads lead to Cortina. It’s hard to ignore the passenger calls to pull the car over every five minutes to whip out your phone and capture the beauty of the mountains. As I said, I’m not one to travel solo – though there are exceptions.
As we neared our final approach, it became obvious why this town, the crown wearer of the Dolomites, had been the location for the Winter Olympics in 1956. We were all heady with anticipation to start our adventure before we’d even found the hotel.
The Grand Hotel Savoia is an elegant 5-star hotel, uniquely positioned in the centre of the picturesque resort . The many boutiques and bars are a mere stroll or ski away depending on when you choose to visit. On arrival, feeling eager to park and take a knee, I somewhat hastily ignored the official parking regulation. However, once we had moored up in front of the hotel, we were instantly met by the door team and our luggage was escorted to the fifth floor.
The exterior of the Grand Savoia is very much in keeping with the traditional alpine architecture of the region. Not a plinth of chrome or mirrored glass here. It’s standout feature is that it boasts incredible views of every peak Cortina has to offer.
The décor of the hotel has been considerately modernised to embrace the more rustic wooden finishes, with warm accentuating lighting. That said, the hotel was built in 1912 and hasn’t lost sight of its venerable history. The traditional alpine ideal and architecture still find their place within the property hallowed halls. The Grand Hotel Savoia was a hallmark of contemporary luxury and counted Sophia Loren, Churchill and Tolstoy as welcomed guests throughout the years. I found the aesthetic elegant without losing any of that alpine homelessness that I yearn for when travelling.
Whilst The Grand Savoia is arguably the largest and most impressive hotel for many miles, this standing hasn’t left them resting on their laurels. The hotel has 122 rooms in total, situated over eight floors. They’re contemporary in style, light and spacious. My particular king-sized bed, beautiful oak writing desk and coffee table worked well in the space and still left ample room for apres, perhaps one day. Freshly cut strawberries and champagne on ice were refreshed daily along with turndown service. It is, after all, the little things in life – and sometimes those little things are very regular champagne top ups. All the rooms offer exceptional floor-to-ceiling views of the local pistes and adventure routes around the mountains.
After a long day in the mountains on foot or ski, I need that open fire, that specific glass of merlot and ideally a staff that knows this all already. Honestly, my first impressions of the Grand Savoia left me wanting to build a nest and remain there, coddled in comfort, for the next month or two. In a place as achingly rustic as Cortina, we didn’t stand still for long though.
Our first order of business was to immediately head up the Col Druscie by cable car to see the town from an eagle’s eye vantage point. We weren’t disappointed, as we stepped out and had our first view of the incredible valley and what lay within.
Paragliders soared high in the warm summer air, adventure cyclists ripped through the forests below, and waterfalls could be glimpsed as we ascended up the rocky cliffs.
En route to our first stop, we passed vast construction runs and a new station, where many of the world’s top athletes will be competing in the 2026 Winter Olympics.
Shortly after, we arrived at the halfway point, looking up at the Tofane peak and across the valley to easily one of the most memorable points of the Dolomites. Perfectly situated at this stop of 1778 metres was the Masi “Al Druscié” Wine Bar. The winery has been run by sixth and seventh generations of the family since the eighteenth century. You’ll find an impeccable wine list on offer and sizeable vineyards and cellars in the valley below should you want a further tour. The Boscaini family have been producing wine from the Veneto region since its founding and now provide excellent service through all seasons to hikers and skiers.
Luckily it was lunchtime and both my mountain team and I were understandably famished. Ben ordered a locally famed Charcuterie Board, bountied with local cheeses and meats, whilst Avantika and I opted for the vegetarian equivalent. Ben urged me to recommend the Tavolozza Dolomitica. 18-month-old speck, venison salami, fried cepes, pickled vegetables with masianco wine dressing and tarragon butter.
By recommendation, we opened a bottle of the 2017 Masi Campofiorin, the family speciality. This velvety-smooth complex red goes through a second fermentation process with partially dried grapes. The result is a complex red comparable to plush amarone. 91 points. I sat back, glass in hand on the outdoor terrace looking out at Mount Cristallo, contented. Did I mention the champagne? Well, contended.
Cortina d’Ampezzo offers a plethora of activities to suit all ages. So, as we broke bread high above the valley below, we began to formulate our plans to return to ground level. Ben and Avantika chose to attempt the Via Ferratas trail. For Ben, this was familiar terrain, having spent several years as a daredevil in various famous rock climbing spots. He was halfway into his harness before we finished our mille feuille with chantilly. For Avantika, this was going to be more of a challenge with less mountain experience.
Whilst my two companions ventured toward the south-facing trail, I took the Gores de Federa route. Situated just one mile from the town centre past the camping grounds begins an enchanting path that winds up the mountain. If you’re looking for waterfalls, calm streams gently flowing through the forest and views that leave you speechless, it’s for you. It started with a slow-paced trek that seemed modest enough until I reached the first waterfall. You’d be forgiven for spending twenty minutes here snapping Instagram fodder, but you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re only at the beginning of this rather epic adventure.
The route started out rather challenging, but soon levelled to a much more reasonable incline. I will admit, I was pretty worn out after a sizeable alpine lunch, but the mountain was calling and far be it from me to anger the gods. As always, after an hour of alpine views and fresh air, I felt like a character from Lord of the Rings.
The Gores de Federa follows the river for the most part, so you frequently find yourself passing through miniature canyons and vast waterfalls.
After two hours, I reached the alpine farm: the Malga Federa. This beautifully positioned hotel and restaurant was a welcoming sight. I took a picnic bench outside to look over the valley and see just how far I had come. Reflection, of course, is not complete without a glass of wine whilst reminding myself to hit the treadmill when I return home.
I decided to take the designated road back down the mountain, either because I had already awarded myself a pat on the back or I wanted to reach dinner faster. Most likely the latter.
I found Ben and Avantika back at the Savoia, glasses in hand in our rooms, with a big grin of accomplishment and a healthy appetite. So, it didn’t take long before we had our first official stroll into Cortina d’Ampezzo in search of sustenance.
This beautiful, historic alpine ski town has a wonderfully romantic feel due to its ornate cafes and spaced car-free centre. It’s certainly well equipped for the summer season, but it was easy for us to see how Cortina is the perfect location for a winter break and the Winter Olympics 2026.
We headed to LP 26, a pizzeria off the main tourist trail and with burning appetites, we ordered a little too much of everything. Yes, it’s a pizzeria and might sound a little stereotypical, but we’re in god’s country and pizza is the law. Large selections of incredible local meats and cheeses accompanied the traditional pizzas, all washed down with a few fine bottles of red wine and tales of the day’s adventures.Try the tiramisu and stay late into the night for the local atmosphere.
The following morning I was assured by Ben that the Via Ferratas trail, although very challenging, was accomplishable for most enthusiastic trekkers. “It’s like a dream. The route up was full of history and I had to stop several times to take in the breathtaking scenery” There are other mountain routes, some easy, others more challenging. But to anyone who knows the mountains, the weather can turn against you without a moment’s notice. Needless to say, always bring waterproofs and decent footwear and make someone on the ground aware of your return time.
Ben made morning haste to trek down river and find a spot to take a cold swim (as is his routine). Avantika ventured to the town centre to soak up the local art scene at the Modern Art Museum Mario Rimoldi. Their collection includes twentieth-century Italian masterpieces by Savinio, Garbari, Depero and Guttuso.
I, however, decided to take the scenic drive up to Gola di Fanes. It’s worth noting that you could spend a month in Cortina and still not see all that this timeless region has to offer. So, of course, I wanted to see the most obvious and perhaps less ambitious trails.
I found myself spellbound by the enchanting forest walks and I don’t think anyone tires from a bracing stroll with this much visual majesty on offer.
Back in Cortina, Ben and I met for lunch at the Savoia. He had plans to trek further and take a shot at the Gores de Federa. Myself and Avantika had the opportunity to experience the Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana as part of the Cortina Teatro. Staged as an outdoor live event and held at Cinque Torri, the five towers. The scene of an epic World War 1 battle, the five towers that sit overlooking Cortina make for a perfect place to host a moving movement of theatrical mastery.
As one of Cortina’s top places to ski with sixteen runs and seven lifts, the Cinque Torri sits eleven kilometres from Cortina and has one of the most recognisable summits of the Dolomite regions. We rode up for ten minutes on the ski lift with the view becoming ever more impressive as we ascended to the first station.
Immediately we were in awe of the famous five towers, which sit at 2,137 metres and have an immense cinematic view of Cortina and the valley below. I wasn’t surprised to hear an eagle call in the heat of the summer’s day.
It was early evening and the sun had sunk beneath the horizon, casting a dramatic scene as the towers were illuminated in a variety of artificial red, blue and purple colours. A food and wine pop up bar drew our attention and, as is the Italian way, we proceeded to stock up for our evening of entertainment.
It was then that I met the Mayor of Cortina, Gianpietro Ghedina, who had helped ensure the town was selected for the Winter Olympics 2026. He welcomed guests to the evening’s events with a gracious smile and strong handshake. He left a lasting impression and I only hope my handshake did the same. In a recent statement he made in wishing Tokyo his best for the 2020 Winter Olympics, he said “What we are experiencing is a time of great changes, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, as well as in the world. Changes that need to be addressed with foresight and optimism and with a strategy.”
We strolled down to the amphitheatre, close to the orchestra, as darkness fell. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little taken by the splendour of it all. The crisp mountain air, a well-revered orchestra about to strike up and all played out with all-time views. The musicians were in full preparation before the first drops of rain landed. Softly, at first, but as I said, the weather in the mountains can turn against you in a flash. Play was formally called when the entire orchestra swiftly packed their instruments and formed a line to head for the safety of the refuge. This was met with a vast round of applause and rapid action by the crowd to follow. What followed was a jam session by the Orchestra Filarmonic inside a rather petite alpine lodge, high atop the Dolomites.
The Rifugio Scoiattoli restaurant, a stone’s throw from the five peak summit, became the new venue for the rest of the evening’s performance. The orchestra moved up to the balcony and was ready again in masterful time. The audience politely scrambled for the best view, though we were already lucky enough to be up close, right next to the bar. Magnifico. The playlist included classics from John Williams and an array of Italian greats that I might be forgiven for not being able to perfectly recite. Wine is a part of every occasion here, you see. We all stirred when the main theme from E.T was played. You can consider my penchant for this early 80s classic as folly, but it truly was a highlight of my time in the Dolomites. The memories of being wrapped up in a duvet with my three siblings and a glass of lemonade was very present at that moment.
The following morning, we took a change from the mountain trails and rugged activities. A mere stumble from the hotel, we arrived at The Cortina Golf Association.
Here I’ll pause to mention that I am not a golfer, neither were my two companions so we had an instructor booked to save us all from complete embarrassment. We arrived in good weather to a beautiful forested course, still wet with mountain dew. Softspikes recommended.
Ben and Avantika were at near-perfect posture and showing incredible potential. I, however, whilst striking one in four swings, was quite clearly distracted by the mountain range above me. The sounds of John Williams reverberating around my tiny head and imagining E.T. and Elliot streaking across the sky. That Orchestra had really left an impression.
Upon returning to the hotel, my aching arms and legs were soon to be pampered into serenity at the Grand Hotel Savoia spa. Spread over 700 square-meres, the spa has the obligatory pool, jacuzzi, Turkish bath, several saunas and an ice fountain. Gin and tonic anyone? We took the spa team’s advice and started in the steam rooms. Ben had me humming the low vocals that sounded like ‘The Misty Mountains’ with him as we sweated out the last few days. After a cold shower (again by recommendation), we sank into the jacuzzi and nobody wanted to talk let alone gesture. Pure unbridled serenity.
I’m sure you, like myself, may have experienced exceptional massages in your time, but this particular master of the muscular arts had training. Enough to make me surrender England as she pushed out the knots built up by a year of pulling weeds from my lockdown garden. The lavender-scented oils sent me into a trance that made thirty minutes seem like two hours. The Savoia offers day, weekend, or even week-long spa programmes with customised menu packages. I might need that next year.
That night, we drove up the mountain on the road to the Falzarego pass to dine at the Tivoli Restaurant. With Michelin star chef Graziano Prest at the helm, a truly stunning supper was impending.
Graziano started his career working various hotels and restaurants in Jesolo during the summer breaks. But his real opportunity came in 1987, under the tutelage of Enzo De Pra, at the Michelin star Dolada Pieve d’Alpago. This two year tutelage included two internships at Gualtiero Marchesi in Milan and al Pescatore di Canneto sull’Oglio. Graziano went on to become head chef at Malga Panna Moena from 1991 to 1998, where he received a star.
Prest eventually felt a strong burning urge to return to the mountains. And in 2002, he and his wife Maridilia began a new chapter, taking over the management of Ristorante Tivoli in Cortina.
The Tivoli restaurant offers a menu that sources from the territory, lamb from Alpago, mushrooms from Cadore and beans from Lamon. Not to mention fish that comes daily from the markets of Venice and Chioggia. All of them sourced from the Province of Belluno, like Cortina d’Ampezzo. Try the prawns fried in crunchy polenta and finish with the “carosello ai cinque cioccolati”. You’ll thank me.
It was the absolute perfect location to round off our Cortina adventure. Sadly we left Cortina early the following morning to make the drive back to Venice. I should say it was tinged with sadness, but the views from Cortina really do follow you home.
If you’re a regular to the mountains or if you’ve for some ungodly reason not visited this vast and breathtaking region, Cortina will provide you with adventure, indulgence and ruggedness fit for every thrill seeker through summer and winter.