Vito Arcomano  /  AP file
The town of Selva di Val Gardena, Italy which offers plenty of lodging, restaurants, apres ski as well as an access point to the 23-kilometer Sella Ronda circuit and other ski areas. Photo released by Italian State Tourism Board.
updated 12/8/2005 3:04:09 PM ET 2005-12-08T20:04:09

It's 9 a.m. It's 10 degrees. My legs are stiff. A strong wind makes the weather more appropriate for a polar bear. But I'm in heaven.

This is the start of a longtime goal - skiing Italy's Sella Ronda.

To my right, a massive clump of limestone shoots up more than 2,000 feet into the sky, brooding like Sauron's hideout in "The Lord of the Rings." To the left, mellower hills roll up to more limestone cliffs and ahead, a wide snowy trail plunges straight into soupy clouds.

I head down and am quickly immersed in shimmering sparks from the snow, which gain a slight amber tint from my goggles.

The cloud of ice crystals starts the day off with magic.

The nearly 25-mile Sella Ronda circuit includes roughly 16 miles of skiing in a trek that circles the Gruppo Sella - the massive stack of jagged limestone cliffs that shoot up to an elevation of more than 10,300 feet. Bad weather closed the high passes and foiled my attempt to complete this skiing adventure a year ago, but today, I will prevail.

Slideshow: Italian dreams My fiancee is a beginner snowboarder, so I ski solo. I go fast, since I'm something of a speed demon. The circuit offers plenty of opportunities to go fast.

But many of the runs are relatively short and groomed: no bumps here. The entire circuit is made up of mainly intermediate trails, with a few steep descents. An advanced skier would likely want to take a detour and check out the area around Arabba or Ciampinoi.

There are lots of lifts, tow-ropes and gondolas. As the day wears on, the lifts grow more crowded, which can be a bit frustrating for Americans used to orderly lines. Skiers here don't seem to respect the idea of lines and often walk all over your skis. There are a few spots where you have to take off the skis and walk across a road to get to the next lift.

Skiing the Sella Ronda is less about the act of skiing and more about the overall experience.

The views are stunning: jagged peaks as far as the eye can see, limestone cliffs several thousand feet high that look like they might just crush you, beautiful alpine villages and stylish skiers all around.

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Slopeside restaurants serve exquisite food, ranging from pizza with pepperoni and pepperoncini (pickled peppers) to goulash with polenta. Apres-ski ranges from a glass of fine wine with red deer sirloin steak to wild dancing with other visitors - mostly Germans in a festive mood - while listening to a techno version of "Que Sera, Sera."

Selva is located near the Austrian border. The region was stripped from defeated Austria after World War I. The residents, however, have held on to their culture and language and it is officially bilingual, Italian and German.

My favorite trail actually wasn't on the Sella Ronda. It's a very long run from the top of Seceda, which is a peak reached by gondola from the town of Ortisei. La Longia has a vertical drop of about 4,100 feet and winds five and a-half miles along high ridges, down wide fields and through narrow ravines and past a frozen waterfall.

The gondola out of the opposite side of Ortisei gives access to Alpe di Siusi. It's a wide open valley with a huge variety of terrain for beginner to intermediate skiers. Plus it's loaded with nifty features, like timed slalom courses and a straight speed run with a radar gun to tell just how insanely fast you're going.

For the non-downhill skiers, there's a network of cross-country ski trails, toboggan runs and horse-drawn sleighs.

One of the most amazing things about skiing in Italy is the price. Once you're there, it's a bargain. An adult three-day lift ticket that covers 450 lifts throughout the Dolomites runs $120 at peak season. (A similar length ticket at Vail would cost $234). A slice of scrumptious pizza and a half-liter of Ayinger Weisse Beer at the restaurant atop Ciampinoi runs about $7. We stayed in a great B&B, Garni Planaces, in the center of the village of Ortisei, a short walk from ski lifts, surrounded by shopping and restaurants. A standard room runs from $40 a night per person to $61 during the holidays.

When you're done skiing, Ortisei (also known as St. Ullrich) and the nearby towns of Santa Cristina and Selva are loaded with restaurants, bars and shops. We absolutely loved the Ristorante La Rosticceria a few blocks from our B&B in Ortisei. The Tyrolian Spatzle with ham and spinach just melt in the mouth. For a panini and hot chocolate, try nearby Cafe Demetz just a few doors down from La Rosticceria.

There's a pool complex in Ortisei with whirlpools and sauna. And the local hockey team is worth seeing if they're playing at the arena in Selva. The local fans are very boisterous, especially after a few glasses of mulled wine.

Getting to Val Gardena, as the villages of Ortisei, Santa Cristina and Selva are known, can be half the fun. Milan and Venice are the two main international airports nearby in Italy. The train takes a few hours from each. Verona is the transfer spot for the line heading up into the mountains.

Verona, a charming city, is where Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet. You can even visit a courtyard with a balcony modeled on the one from the scene where they reveal their love. Even more impressive, there's an ancient Roman arena that looks much like Rome's Colosseum, but still holds operas and concerts.

Get off the train in Bolzano, which is where you begin to think you've left Italy and arrived in Austria.

Street vendors sell sausages, beer is everywhere and German is more likely to be heard than Italian.

Bolzano is a picturesque town tucked into a tight valley between the mountains.

It is also the home to Oetzi the Iceman. His 5,000-year-old body was discovered frozen in a nearby glacier in 1991. Now, there's a whole museum built around him. You can see his tools, clothes and even his shriveled body in a special freezer vault.

Slideshow: A European tour The museum also recreates a Roman road and has an extensive collection of other artifacts.

Skiing Italy might seem an extravagant trip, but it's really two vacations in one. Plus, the total cost ends up being roughly the same as a ski vacation at a top resort in the U.S. The skiing is a blast, but the cultural (and culinary!) experience makes a ski excursion into a truly memorable vacation. If you can, take two weeks and spend one visiting Rome, Florence or any of the other great destinations, and then the other week in the mountains. The skiing will help work off all the tasty pasta and sinful breakfast pastries from the first week.

If you go:

SELLA RONDA: Located in northeast Italy, near the border with Austria. We stayed in an area called Val Gardena, though there are other towns that offer access to the circuit. At you'll find all kinds of useful information, including lodging.

GETTING THERE: Fly into Milan (185 miles away). Take the train to Verona, about 90 minutes, and another train from Verona to Bolzano, also 90 minutes. In Bolzano, the bus station is about a block from the train station. Buses leave for Val Gardena about once an hour and take about an hour. The drop off spot in Ortisei is about three blocks from the B&B we used. An alternate airport to use is Innsbruck, which is only about 75 miles away. Also, a shuttle bus travels direct from Munich's airport (300 miles) to Val Gardena on Saturdays. We like to take our own ski gear, so there's no wasted time choosing equipment and getting properly fitted. If you travel with skis or snowboard, get a Sportube. The hard plastic carrier protects the gear and has wheels to make the trip easier.

GARNI PLANACES B&B: Strasse Rezia 212, St. Ulrich/Groden; or (011) (39) 0471-796159. Rates: $40-$61 nightly.

LA ROSTICCERIA RESTAURANT: Strasse Rezia 38, Ortisei/St. Ulrich.

SOUTH TYROL ARCHAELOGICAL MUSEUM: Via Museo 43, Bolzano; or (011) (39) 0471- 320100. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Thursdays until 7 p.m. Adults, $10; seniors, students, children, $7.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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