WE ARRIVED at the resort in the middle of the evening, in the dark in more ways than one. Because of an unscheduled influx of World Cup racers, our chosen hotel, the family-run Menardi (charming but not central), had just one room left, and we took it.

Next morning, a minute behind Dave on my way down to breakfast, I found him motionless on the stairs. He was gazing up at what appeared to be an enormous painting of a fabulous, over-dramatised mountain scene. I joined him, and immediately woke up: the picture frame was a window, and the scene was real.

It is not often that you have your breath taken away before breakfast. But the resort was Cortina d'Ampezzo and the scene - Monte Cristallo - is one of a ring of spectacular Dolomitic (and therefore precipitous) massifs that ring the resort. During that day we spent an inordinate amount of time gazing across from one massif to another, with much shaking of heads in wonderment.

There were other surprises, too. The unscheduled presence of the World Cup racers hinted at the first, which was that the snow was generally in excellent condition. This was in mid-January, when various races had to be moved in search of snow. Cortina had not had a serious fall for a month, but it had been a big fall, temperatures had stayed low, and the resort's fair-sized snow-gun installation had played its part.

The second surprise was the extent of the gentle east-facing Socrepes slopes to the west of the town. This is one of the great novice ski areas of the Alps - miles and miles of completely unthreatening but pleasantly varied, lightly wooded pistes, served by chairs and drags. It is highly recommended for timid intermediates.

The third surprise - given Cortina's reputation for good living - was that these slopes were not better served by restaurants. Refreshment spots do exist in this sector, mostly at the bottom of the lifts along the road that leads off towards Passo Falzarego, the Alta Badia and Val Gardena. But they are unremarkable.

The Pomedes racetrack sector, just to the north, is another story. There are charming restaurants at the top, and at the subsidiary peak of Col Druscie. But the highlight is El Camineto, halfway down to the resort. This is a place for serious lunching. When we arrived, at an early hour, the sunny terrace was already half full but there were no other skis in sight - and when we left there were only a few other pairs. Most of the customers drive up from Cortina.

In the intervening hour and a half the polished waiters teased pounds 50 out of the two of us. We hit no gastronomic highs - the lunchtime menu has no such pretensions - but we did enjoy one of the most civilised skiing lunchtimes I can remember, linen napkins and all.

From Col Druscie a cable-car takes you up to Cortina's best snow, in a high north-facing bowl at the shoulder of the fortress-like Tofana, offering a worthwhile 700m vertical. On the way up, new arrivals with claims to skiing competence have ample opportunity to study, with mounting apprehension, the way down - a steep but broad south-facing ledge, starting from a gap in the cliffs.

In the morning, when we skied it, this run was deserted and blissful. You emerge from the Tofana bowl to be confronted by a panorama of the towering peaks that encircle Cortina, which lies prettily at your feet. When you reach the ledge, it turns out to be of genuine black steepness but no more - and with the soft, mogul-free snow we found it a pleasure to ski.

The other highlight of Cortina for good skiers is out of town on the road east to Misurina. The Forcella Staunies is classic Dolomite topography, a steep, narrow chute between soaring pillars of rock, high up in the Cristallo massif. Its steepness and narrowness are, in fact, moderate but there is no denying the drama of the south- facing setting (and the views, again); the red run below it back to the valley station is also long and satisfying.

Our one-day visit left two sectors of Cortina's widely spread skiing unexplored: another spacious beginners' area at Mietres and the elevated north-facing ledge of Faloria, offering a range of intermediate pistes in and above the trees. Happily, this makes it easy to justify a return visit to a resort that has much to offer.

Comments