On safari with a difference we bagged the Big Five. No tigers or lions to be seen – just a massive mechanical snow cat. Instead of tracking the Big Five animals under a burning African sun the Big Five in our sights were top chefs cooking up a snowstorm in an Italian ski resort.
To hunt down the crème de la crème of chefs in deepest Dolomiti mountain terrain we skied, we snow-shoed, we were hauled up slippery slopes on ropes behind a snowmobile, we juddered in the cabin of a snow cat grooming giant, we took gondola rides – anything for a glimpse of our prey. And for a taste of their dishes.
We followed our noses towards the irresistible smells of simmering sauces, in search of the perfect pasta (al dente, of course), the tangiest tartar of shrimp, mouth-watering meats – smoked pork, venison, braised lamb, beef – onion fondue and crunchy chanterelles.
We discovered ancient Italian culinary traditions, tasting original dishes in mountain huts as five Michelin-starred chefs dazzled and delighted with their modern twists on old recipes.
And the pinnacle of our gourmet safari in Alta Badia was eating the spoils of our hunt in welcoming mountain huts or refugio, meeting the Big Five as they prepared their dishes, and savouring South Tyrolean wines served by dashing sommeliers. All with a clear conscience as we burned calories between courses.
Where else could you sample such sumptuous dishes for around 50Euro? In all, 14 mountain huts are offering dishes prepared by the starred chefs until April 12 2015. It was hard to choose a favourite between Norbert Niederkofler’s sweetcorn cream and braised lamb shank, cooked at the Col Alt Hut and the hearty bean broth, crunchy chips, boiled cabbage and lemon shrimp tartar prepared by Matteo Metullio, Italy’s youngest Michelin starred chef, at the Piz Arlara hut. Not to mention Otto Pitscheider’s beef carpaccio with turnip and parsley cream at the Bamby Hut, Claudio Sadler’s cod escalope in Prosecco with polenta at I Tabla and Giancarlo Morelli’s buckwheat tortellino with bitto cheese and smoked onion fondue at Bioch hut.
Not surprisingly, the journey back down to the valley was more safely navigated without skis or boards. There was plenty of time to ski Alta Badia’s runs the next day, flattered by the easy blues, attacking more challenging reds and, in my case, avoiding the tiny number of scary blacks. This is ideal family skiing with low-key night life. If you crave more action the neighbouring villages of Corvara and La Villa are livelier, and buzzing Cortina is only a 30-minute drive away.
We stayed in San Cassiano, a charming and stylish village in one of the four Ladin valleys, with access to the vast Dolomiti Superski area _ world largest ski circus in the claiming 1220 km of marked pistes. Its vast jagged rock stacks, dramatic peaks and unique geology have been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and, thanks to its remoteness, the traditions, culture and cuisine survive.
Ladin valley gastronomy has roots in traditional peasant cookery, mixed with Mediterranean flavours and daily deliveries of fresh fish from Venice.
Skiing in Italy is inextricably linked with good food. There was no a better start to the day than watching a rosy sunrise bathing the spiky Dolomites as pink as coral from my balcony of the classy 4 star Hotel Gran Paradiso and anticipating breakfast on the slopes.
Powder Byrne, at the luxury end of the ski market with over 35 years’ expertise, arranged a piste-basher ride up the mountain for an energy-boosting breakfast at the Las Vegas refuge so we could ski on virgin snow before the lifts opened.
Non-skiers have a host of activities to choose from: skating, 80kms of signposted paths for Nordic walking and hiking, sledging, skittles on ice, sleigh rides, ice climbing. My favourite: chilling in the hotel’s splendid spa with panoramic swimming pool, sweltering sauna and steaming aromarium to ease weary bones and stiff muscles.
My friends insisted on a post-ski massage every afternoon and positively bounded with energy for the bright lights of the après-ski disco at the Toccami bar opposite the elegant La Perla with its tempting teatime treats of hot chocolate and sweet strudels.
And non-skiers can enjoy the gastro-safari too. With finest food, wonderful wines and mountain views to take your breath away, topped by a colourful accordionist serenading with song, safaris don’t get better than Alta Badia’s annual celebration where sleigh bells and lunch bells chime in harmony.
A fitting finale to a gourmand trip to the mountains was a boat trip to a superb seafood feast at Restaurante Oniga in this magical city of canals, veiled in winter mists and mystique, before a speedy water-taxi transfer to Marco Polo airport. Now that’s style.
For information on events contact the Alta Badia Tourist Board, visit www.altabadia.org
Luxury 3 night Ski Weekend prices start from £925 per adult staying in a double room on half board at the 4 star Hotel Gran Paradiso, price includes Powder Byrne concierge service, return British Airways flights from Gatwick to Venice and private transfers to and from the airport.
Luxury 3 night Ski Weekend prices start from £921 per adult staying in a double room on half board at the 4 star Hotel Gran Paradiso, price includes Powder Byrne concierge service, return Easy Jet flights from Manchester to Venice and private transfers to and from the airport.
Luxury 3 night Ski Weekend prices start from £972 (Flying with KLM Airlines from Cologne) per adult staying in a double room on half board at the 4 star Hotel Gran Paradiso, price includes Powder Byrne concierge service, and private transfers to and from the airport.
Car hire from Venice Airport starts from £11.27 per day for seven days hire from Autoescapes. Visit www.autoescape.co.uk or call +44 844 369 0109 for more information.
Car hire from Innsburck Airport starts from £18.49 per day for seven days hire from MegaDrive. Visit www.megadrive.at or call 0800 0800 800 for more information.
A shared transfer service connects Alta Badia with Venice Marco Polo (VCE) and Venice Treviso (TSF) with the Cortina Express, one way tickets cost from £28.
No1Traveller.com offers airport lounge access.