First article in a Summer and Winter blog series of four.
I had no idea what to expect on my first visit to the Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Park, set in the Dolomites in South Tirol, Italy. We ascended 1700 feet from the road running through the valley floor to a high summer meadow known as Prato Piazza (Plätzwiese in German). It was July, so the hay hadn’t yet been cut. We sat down in the tall grass, surrounded by an orchestra of wildflowers to take a break following our demanding ascent and to talk a bit about the intertwined culture and history of the area.
This region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I, so despite Mussolini’s Italianization efforts, the area is still predominantly German speaking and the residents identify culturally as Tirolians with all the culinary, architectural, and other cultural trappings of their Austro-Hungarian forebearers.
We concluded our break and walked on another 10 minutes through the rolling meadow to the Rifugio Prato Piazza, set at 6200ft/1890m, where we sat on the open terrace and feasted on local specialties—dumplings, dried meats, and mountain cheeses—followed by addictive Tirolian desserts like apple strudel and kaiserschmarrn.
As I was mopping up the berry sauce with my remaining morsels of kaiserschmarrn, I surveyed the vista in front of me and realized such an expansive landscape of gently rolling terrain was the perfect place for cross-country skiing once the first snowflakes fell. I asked our host if people come up here for cross-country skiing in winter—They do. In droves. This remote mountain meadow is connected with the valley to the north by a narrow, often one-lane, mountain road.
The Rifugio Prato Piazza has simple rooms for overnight stays, but the larger hotel next door quickly caught my attention. So I left the table and went to check out the Hotel Hohe Gaisl. This 3-star traditional Tirolian mountain resort dates to 1900, back when Prato Piazza was still part of Austria’s Tirol region. It’s been lovingly updated over the years but hasn’t lost a bit of its romantic Tirolian charm.
My winter return to Prato Piazza was everything I had hoped for. On my arrival in late January I was greeted with the kind of clear sunny skies, dry air, and solid snowpack that makes the Dolomites such a favored ski destination. The Nordic trails are groomed daily, and while they were a tad icy in the early morning, they stabilized in the sun to a texture more to my liking as an intermediate classic skier.
Most of the skiers at Prato Piazza come up from the valley just for the day. But my preference was the two-night stay, which allows you to experience sunrises, sunsets, a full day of skiing, and plenty of pampering at the Hotel Hohe Gaisl.
The Hotel Hohe Gaisl is still a family-owned and operated hotel with just 30 rooms which overlook the Croda Rosa d’Ampezzo (Hohe Gaisl in German) to the south. We were treated to a lavish breakfast complete with traditional pastries, and afternoon snack with soup, salad, and more pastries, and a wonderful 4-course half-board dinner—all included in the nightly rate. Skis, poles and boots were available for our use—also included in the nightly rate.
One of the more recent expansions and upgrades at the Hohe Gaisl is the addition of a spacious pool and spa facility with wet and dry saunas. One of the dry saunas is in the traditional Finnish-style and set at 195°F (90°C). Who knew that humans could survive that kind of heat? But I did and loved it for about eight minutes. Then I retreated to the more relaxing 131°F (55°C) sauna, made especially enjoyable by the aroma of mugo pinecones set atop the rocks and heating element. This stands out as the finest spa I’ve ever seen at a 3-star hotel.
Once the sun goes down there is no noise and no light pollution to keep me from getting a peaceful night’s rest. After two nights it was hard to leave the comfortable surroundings and serene tranquility of Prato Piazza. The stunning nature around the mountain hotel in both winter and summer, combined with the warm hospitality and traditional cuisine assure that we will return.
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