When I told my family of lifelong skiers I was off on a trip to the 3 Zinnen Dolomites (also known as the 3 Peaks Dolomites), none of them had ever heard of it.
Yet, it is only a couple of hours’ drive from South Tyrol favourite Val Gardena, where I remember completing the 26km Sellaronda ski circuit with them when I was seven.
The skiing area I was about to visit, named because of its trio of distinctive neighbouring battlement-like peaks, is not one of the better known resorts in the UK. Everyone loves the Dolomites, though – with its dramatic scenery and plentiful sunshine – so this resort, a stone’s throw from the Austrian border, had a lot to live up to.
With pastel-hued buildings and the bell towers of centuries-old churches framed by mountain peaks, the centre of San Candido – one of the base villages for exploring the five connected mountains of the 3 Zinnen Dolomites – is transformed into a Christmas scene fit for a Richard Curtis film, from late November each year.
With snow crunching underfoot, traditional festive music drifts from the stalls, as brass musicians sound from the frosted steps and visitors sip mulled wine beside the flaming fire pits. It is one of the most romantic Christmas settings imaginable.
Although, of course it looks very different in 2020. I visited before the pandemic, blissfully unaware of the chaos about to unfold in the coming months.
This season, the resort plans to open in January, over a month later than usual. In Kronplatz, an hour from San Candido, the Olang 1 + 2 cable car is set to launch in what has been described as the biggest project ever realised in the skiing area.
With a speed of 6.5 metres per second and a transport capacity of 3,900 people per hour, it will cut waiting times dramatically for those who want to reach the summit of the areas Olang/Valdaora, Rasen-Antholz/Rasun-Anterselva and Hochpustertal/Alta Pusteria.
All resorts that form part of the Dolomiti Superski’s total network of 1,200km runs – including Kronplatz and the 3 Zinnen Dolomites – are employing a range of measures to ensure the safety of skiers.
Our guide, Christina Senoner, is keen to throw us straight into the action. After a cable car ride from Sesto – the main base village of the 3 Zinnen Dolomites and just seven minutes’ drive from San Candido – we reach the Monte Elmo skiing area. Pure sunshine. Check. Instagrammable views of craggy peaks. Check. We are officially in the Dolomites.
While adrenaline seekers might be pushed to find many steep mogul fields in the total 115km ski area of the 3 Zinnen Dolomites, there are plenty of well-groomed blues and reds for beginners and intermediates.
The 4.8km Monte Elmo-Versciaco run, lined with snow-blushed pines, allows us to blow away the cobwebs and gather just enough speed to awaken the knees. We stop for drinks at Ristorante Monte Elmo. Sat out on the terrace, Christina points over to a cluster of peaks. “This is the Sesto Sundial,” she tells me. “The villagers used to use it to tell the time by looking at the mountains.”
The position of the sun above these five peaks – numbered nine, ten, eleven, twelve and one – can be used to determine the time on clear winter days, forming the world’s largest stone sundial.
Afterwards, we drive over to San Candido where the rest of the group are finishing off their ski lesson in the family-friendly Monte Baranci skiing area. There are a few blue and red runs for intermediates to bomb about on here if you are visiting in a group of mixed skiing abilities. The 3 Zinnen region also has 200km of linked cross country skiing tracks on offer. Tobogganing and ice skating are popular here too.
The wood-panelled interiors and menus of many of the resort’s mountain restaurants show the strong influence of neighbouring Austria. South Tyrol belonged to Austria-Hungary before becoming part of Italy in 1919, and German is still commonly spoken in the province, as well as Italian.
Back at the Post Hotel – a five-minute walk from the slopes and steps from the central San Michele Parish Church – the Finnish sauna, steam room and cosy indoor pool form the wellness equivalent of unbuttoning your boots at the end of the day.
An hour in the car takes us to Kronplatz, which offers a skiing area of 119km. There is a cable car running to the summit of Plan de Corones. While the resort is famous for the high quality of its slopes, on this occasion, we are taking a peek at what it has to offer non-skiers.
There are some magical mountain views to be had on the brief walk to the Lumen Museum – at 2,275m, certainly one of the highest museums you’ll ever visit. It shares the mountain top with the MMM Corones museum, one of six museums created as part of a project by famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner.
The Lumen Museum, perched on the edge of the mountainside and set across four floors, covers the history of mountain photography. In one room, an impressive VR headset takes me on a mountain ascent by helicopter hovering precariously close to the rocky surface.
In one of the final rooms, the walls, floor and ceiling are made of glass and mirrors, with psychedelic patterns beaming all around us. The room would be a highlight of any modern city exhibition, and it is a reminder that South Tyrol is one of Italy’s wealthiest provinces.
Our next stop is the adjoining AlpiNN restaurant. With floor-to-ceiling glass on the three sides surrounding the entrance, on the walk to our table and during the meal, we are treated to impressive panoramic views of the mountain landscape.
The restaurant employs a ‘Cook the Mountain’ philosophy. Each dish represents the mountains, as well as the hard work of countrymen and farmers, their high-quality produce and traditions passed down over generations.
Our starter consists of cheese fondue with crispy polenta, speck and pickles. The cheese is from GenussBunker – a cave complex for ripening unusual cheeses, which also hosts tasting sessions, just an hour away.
The final night is spent at Rotwandwiesen Chalets, a 15-minute drive from San Candido. The newly built two-storey buildings accommodate up to five people and all rooms, including the sauna, overlook the mountainside.
The Croda Rossa/Rotwand cable car takes us to an area that is also part of the 3 Zinnen Dolomites. As we exit the lift, there is an enclosure of reindeer to the left and in front of us, some giant snowmen backed by snow-covered mountain peaks. Our chalet is a quick snowmobile ride away. It is almost impossible not to grin whilst sat on the back watching the scenery whizz by.
I awake on the last day with the snow thick on the ground outside, as I gaze out of the living room window onto the craggy mountains right in front of me. The end of a sunrise is throwing shifting pink and red light onto the cloud covering part of the peak, which turns to orange within minutes.
It feels as if my last few days immersed in the mountains have been leading up to this moment – a memory I’m clinging onto tightly in a world that looks very different today.
How to plan your trip
For more information on the destination, visit suedtirol.info/en.
EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies from London Gatwick to Verona from £54 one-way and to Innsbruck in Austria from £83 one-way.