The world-famous resort of Val Gardena is one of Italy’s best-loved resorts. Located in the heart of the breathtaking 360° scenery of the awe-inspiring Dolomite mountains, it is one of the most stunning ski locations on the planet.
The valley is served by fast, modern lifts and fabulous cruising terrain and is part of one of the world’s largest ski areas with 500km of ski runs, inter-connected around the Sellaronda circuit, and all on the Dolomiti Superski lift pass.
Despite this huge ski area, the communities of Val Gardena are relatively compact villages with a strong sense of their history and heritage, living with tourism as a part of their existence, but not swamped by it.
Add into the mix a great snowfall record despite boasting over 300 days of sunshine annually and you begin to see why Val Gardena is so popular with its fans.
The valley is home to three main villages and just to complicate things further each has an Italian and a German name, with the region lying on the “language border” between the two. Best known is Selva (a.k.a. Wolkenstein) but there’s also Santa Cristina (almost the same in German, just an ‘h’ in Christina) and Ortisei (St Ulrich). There’s even a third language here, the local mountain Ladin language, but let’s not even go there, simplest to just call it all Val Gardena! (…also known as Gröden).
I’ve loved the area for four decades, having first visited in the mid-1980s researching some little Italian ski guide books for Berlitz and have returned many times since. The scenery, the snow, the sunshine, the food, the people, the value for money, oh and the coffee! What’s not to love?
Surrounded by the wild, lush Puez-Odle Nature Park and boasting the title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Val Gardena offers a breathtaking view of the South Tyrolean Dolomites’ summits and the symbol of the valley, the majestic Sassolungo Group. It’s one of the most visually spectacular places in the world to go skiing.
A long, long time ago, these peaks were nothing more than atolls in warm seas, when the area was beneath one vast ocean. Val Gardena is so unique precisely because of its ancient, geological history: deep seas have given way to the most beautiful pink mountains formed from ancient corals, the Dolomites.
There are ski slopes every way you look in Val Gardena, perfectly interconnected by comfortable, high-speed lifts. So wherever you stay there’s always a valley station from where you can be whisked up the slopes, the only thing you need to decide is which sector you wish to head to. All are included in the vast Dolomiti Superski pass (of which more below) but if you don’t think you want to travel beyond Val Garden itself – which is big enough with around 175km of slopes in the valley alone – and tackle such enticements as the Sellaronda (again, of which more below), there’s also a Val Gardena only pass.
Much of the terrain here is fast blue and red-graded cruising pistes, all just sheer pleasure to whizz down with the magnificent scenery all around you and plenty of enticing pitstops if you’d like a break en route. There is though, plenty of challenging terrain too if that’s more your cup of tea, with numerous famous freeride routes in the region and of course, the famous Saslong World Cup downhill ski course where the world’s best race each December.
Considered one of the five “classic” men’s downhill races along with Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Kandahar, Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkamm, Wengen’s Lauberhorn and Val-d’Isère’s Criterium, Saslong is infamous for the “Camel Humps”, a series of three small jumps which racers must negotiate in quick succession. You can ski them at a slower pace.
Besides the vast amount of downhill skiing and boarding, Val Gardena offers 30 km of winter hiking paths and 115 km of cross-country skiing slopes.
The World’s Third (or Second?) Largest Ski Area
The ski region that surrounds Val Gardena has long been coy about its size, but the total interlinked terrain is estimated at 500km. Just a little less than the 3 Valleys or Portes du Soleil. Indeed it may be in second place as the Portes du Soleil (which publishes various figures between 550 and 650km for its size is not fully inter-connected). The reticence the ski area around Val Gardena has for publishing its size is perhaps down to not wishing to confuse matters with the strong Dolomiti Superski brand with 1200km of slopes on its pass, albeit made up of various non-linked sectors. But the area Val Gardena inter-connects with pistes and lifts and is largely held together by the famous Sellaronda ski circuit which acts like the hub of a wheel from which ski valleys like Badia, Fassa and Gardena radiate off, giving a vast choice of terrain.
The World’s Longest String Of Pistes and Lifts?
You can now also ski what’s believed to be the longest and probably most remarkable trip from the centre of Cortina d’Ampezzo to the far end of Val Gardena by piste and lift without needing to take a bus, a distance of more than 35km (22 miles). The string of inter-connected lifts and trails was completed just a few seasons ago ahead of the 2021 Alpine World Skiing Championships with gondola and cable cars taking you from Cortina d’Ampezzo (accessible by bus or taxi from Val Gardena) to the top of the famous Hidden Valley. Ski down this then join a (literally) horse-powered drag lift round to the Sellaronda then ski back to Val Gardena.
When I first skied the Sellaronda back in the 1980s it was regarded as a full-day excursion and you needed to be a pretty good skier to be sure of completing the circuit in a day. There were no signposts and my main recollection was of long, fairly flat drag lifts pulling me along for what seemed like hours. And the stunning scenery. These days it’s a very different affair, for the better in most respects. Fast, comfortable queue-gobbling chairlifts have replaced the old drags and anyone with a few weeks of skiing experience can tackle the circuit confidently in half a day. Indeed there’s a choice of routes, clockwise, anti-clockwise, and options to add challenge should you wish. The only downside when I visited in the busiest week of the season, over New Year, was the crowds. There were long lines even for the 6-seater chairlifts and the slopes themselves were unpleasantly crowded, so I looked for alternatives off the circuit itself. There were usually alternative options that were about 95% less crowded. The main thing though, is those stunning views, along with wonderful ‘mountain huts’ (some of these grown to palatial size buildings) for pit-stops all the way around the circuit, remain unchanged.
Selva is a relatively compact resort built on a moderately steep hillside above the Val Gardena Valley floor. The resort’s streets are lined with shops, cafes, restaurants and some large hotels.
It’s a picturesque village with a long history and a beautiful church in the heart of the village adding to the strong sense of tradition and community. The feeling is that Selva is a place that has not been overrun by tourism, or been created just for skiing, but manages to successfully co-exist with it.
There’s an atmospheric Christmas market in the heart of the resort in December and January. Wood carving has been big in Val Gardena for centuries and you’ll find shops filled with intricate carvings. The name ‘Selva’ is thought to come from the Latin and local Ladin language word for wood, “silva”.
Ski lifts ascend from the heart of the resort and are easily accessible from most accommodations, with ski slopes running through the resort centre making it easier to ski from hotels and chalets to the lift stations and back down to accommodations at the end of the day.
There is even a special pedestrian crossing at the base of the ski slope that runs down to the main street through the heart of the village. When the lights turn red for vehicles a barrier at the end of the slope lifts to allow skiers to cross the road and get on the gondola back up the slopes.
If you’re booked in a chalet or half-board hotel it can be easy to miss just how great the dining options in Val Gardena are. But when you do venture out you’ll find many establishments full of Italian families, a sure sign that the food is great and the value very good too. That’s if you get past the first café with enticing cakes and of course incredible coffee as soon as you step outside your door. La Bula fits the bill perfectly, family-run, very busy, booking essential it serves up all the Italian pasta and pizza favourites to perfection and everything else besides. At the fine dining end of the options, the Restaurant Nives housed within the Boutique Hotel Nives in the centre of Selva offers some very special treats, including a contemporary take on the classic fondue, which works remarkably well even if you might think, as I did before I sat down, “Why mess with the perfect meal?”. As the Michelin Guide describes it, “a contemporary, Alpine-style restaurant which focuses on specialities from the local Alto Adige. There are dozen more options for all tastes and budgets.
Val Gardena Holidays
Inghams offer a traditional chalet and a wide selection of hotels in Val Gardena. For chalet lovers, the company’s Chalet Soldanella is almost ski-in, ski-out with the nearest slope about 50 metres from the boot room. The chalet offers a variety of rooms, and chalet board catering to save on resort costs and is only three minutes’ walk from the resort centre.
For the coming winter, 23-24, Inghams have 7 nights from £1219pp Chalet board in Chalet Soldanella. The price includes flights and transfers and is based on departure on 6th January 2024.
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