It's big, it's beautiful. But does it offer the best skiing?

Minty Clinch tests the almost unlimited pleasures of the Italian Dolomites
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The Independent Travel

If big is beautiful, the Dolomite Superski area is as good as it gets. With 450 lifts serving 1,220km of marked runs, it is the largest ski circus in the world. By comparison, France's Trois Vallées is a 600km minnow, though admittedly a fully linked one. Being Italian, the Dolomites are not so neatly organised, but their rich variety more than makes up for any shortfall in convenience. And they are distinctively beautiful, dominated by towering cliffs that are menacingly remote in stormy weather and gloriously pinkish gold when the sun comes out.

Most British skiers make for the Sella Ronda, an amazing circuit around Gruppo Sella, with Selva Gardena, Corvara, Arabba and Canazei at each corner of a four-valley square. Yet the Dolomites Superski pass - a snip at €190 (£130) for six days in high season - stretches from chic Cortina to the Marmolada glacier and ultra-modern Kronplatz above the town of Brunico near the Austrian border. As these names suggest, this is an area with a confusing history, for centuries part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but given to Italy under the treaty of St Germain in 1919.

Some confusion remains today. In Val Gardena, for example, named after the river that runs through it, the resorts of Selva and Ortesei are also known as Wolkenstein and St Ulrich. The locals are neither Italian nor Austrian, but Ladino and speak their own language - not always in addition to Italian or German. They have their own cooking, too, sturdy peasant fare emphasising cheese and ham, though pizza is usually also available on restaurant menus.

When considering a holiday in the Dolomites, the first question is where to stay. Keen snow-users will choose the Sella Ronda, but that still leaves a variety of options. Dedicated skiers return year after year to Arabba, a quiet village clustered around a traditional church. It is convenient for the steepest part of the circuit, with fast-track connections to the Marmolada, the starting point for a red piste that swoops smoothly down a rewarding 1,490 vertical metres.

Gastronomes and spa addicts gather in élite San Cassiano, just off the Sella Ronda in Alta Badia. With more than its fair share of luxury billets, of which the best is the Hotel Rosa Alpina, it appeals to rich Italians as well as discerning Brits. Selva Gardena beside the river is the regional hot spot, a party animal's town with the liveliest bars and clubs in the area. It also has its own immaculately prepared pistes, notably the World Cup downhill course on which wannabe racers are allowed to strut their stuff. Canazei and Corvara, large, convenient and convivial, are the best shots for beginners.

From all these places, you emerge straight on to the main event, the classic Sella Ronda circuit where even the more nervous intermediates can ski for ever over user-friendly Alpine meadows. Occasionally they pause to look up in awe at Passo Pordoi, the jagged heart of the Gruppo Sella which is white-knuckle terrain, accessed by a lone cable car. Many ride up to the restaurant at Sasso Pordoi, but only the foolhardy refuse to take it back to base. As I discovered when I made the wrong call in a late-season blizzard, the Passo Pordoi descent can be almost unskiable when transparent ice boulders form among the rocks - I have a dislocated shoulder to prove it - while the classic run to Colfosco via the avalanche-prone Val de Mesdi should never be tackled without a mountain guide.

Safely back at resort level, the 24km Sella Ronda can be skied in both directions. Unlike much of the Dolomite circus, it is clearly marked: the orange signs for clockwise, the green ones anti-clockwise. In optimum conditions, confident snow-users can get round in three to four hours, but that doesn't take account of the rogue queuing factor. Replacing venerable T-bars with high-speed chairs has reduced time on the lifts to less than two hours, but there are still potential bottlenecks, especially at weekends. The orange circuit is the more rewarding, with a greater variety of pistes and less poling, but both circuits offer diversions designed to stretch the Sella Ronda into a full day trip. Be warned that getting stranded in the wrong valley when the lift system closes involves an expensive taxi fare.

For those who prefer old-world elegance, Cortina is genuinely Italian and set resolutely apart from the rest of the circus. Its heart is the Corso Italia, a long pedestrianised shopping street dominated by a magnificent Campanile. Many of the shops look far too expensive to go into, their windows filled with opulent displays of antiques, paintings, carpets, jewels, watches and real furs. But there is no shortage of buyers: at dusk, highrollers from Rome and Milan step out of their glitzy chalets clad in head to foot his 'n' hers animal-skin coats with matching handbags and hats, leashed poodles stepping daintily beside them.

The hotels and restaurants are worthy of their market. Five-star luxury means the Miramonti, set well apart both from the town and the lifts, but the Poste, bang in the centre, is an atmospheric four-star alternative. The Michelin-starred Tivoli is top of the gastro range, but again you need transport to sample Giovanni's sophisticated cooking and enjoy a fine overview of Cortina by night.

The Italian regulars may be stylish off the slopes but they are lazy on them, with an estimated 70 per cent taking lifts simply to bask and lunch on sunlit terraces. Cortina keeps its finger on the pulse of its core clientele with some of the finest mountain restaurants in Europe, but it hasn't come up with the money to update its ancient infrastructure. Museum-level cable cars and chairs serve three mountains, none of them convenient for the downtown area. No matter. Once you're on the slopes the pistes are varied, if alarmingly narrow in places, and the daunting crags where Sylvester Stallone made Cliffhanger are as unmissable as the resort itself.

Cortina is separated from the rest of the circus by the Passo Falzarego, the scene of bitter engagements between the Austrian army and Italy's élite Alpini troops for most of the First World War. During the course of the fighting, the "via ferrata" hiking routes introduced in the late 19th century became an integral part of military strategy throughout the region. Today these trails are popular trekking routes. The less athletic can explore fortifications, artillery positions and underground tunnels along the Dolomite Great War trail at Lagzuoi and Cinque Torri, or visit the Tre Sassi Fort museum on the road to the Sella Ronda.

At the other end of the scale, sleek Kronplatz is the perfect antidote to creaky Cortina, a domed mountain crowned with lifts rising silkily from three base stations at San Vigilo, Brunico and Valdaora. The steep black runs are on the Brunico side, with long blue and red cruisers snaking down in the other directions. Parking is easy and free so anyone touring the Dolomites in a car can stop off here.

Visit all these places and you will have scratched the surface of the area. But your lift pass will still be begging for greater dedication in outlying areas.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Minty Clinch travelled to Selva with Thomson Holidays (0870-606 1470; www.thomson-ski.co.uk), which offers flights from Gatwick to Verona, transfers and seven nights' half board from £509 based on two sharing. She travelled to Cortina with Crystal Holidays (0870-160 6040, www.crystalholidays.co.uk), which offers a similar deal from £655.

Further information

Hotel Rosa Alpina, San Cassiano (00 39 0471 849500; www.rosalpina.it) is open 2 December - 2 April; doubles from €250 (£180) per night with breakfast. Miramonti Majestic Grand Hotel, Cortina (00 39 0436 4201; www.miramonte majestic.it) is open 17 December - 2 April; half board from €185 (£130) per person per night based on two sharing. Hotel de la Poste, Cortina (00 39 0436 4271; www.delaposte.it) charges from €189 (£135) for a double with breakfast. Ristorante Tivoli (00 39 0436 866 400) is at 34 via Lacedel, Cortina.

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