As I’ve grown older, my need for the great outdoors has increased. I’d now rather unblock a drain than sit at my computer all day. I mean I don’t mind online shopping, I’m not weird or anything, but all the everyday faffing involved in finding new house insurance, re-taxing the car and dealing with email traffic is not what I want to be doing. As a result, I now seize every opportunity for outdoor fun.
I’ve just had the ultimate outdoor experience in the Alps and released my inner Heidi in the enchanting Val Gardena area of the Dolomites.
I’ve always wanted to go to the Alps when all the skiers have bogged off home and the snow has melted to reveal wild flowers, hiking trails and pine scented forests. It didn’t disappoint.
For a start, the hikes in these mountains have one huge bonus – you can get the cable car up and start your walk at an altitude of 2,500 metres. All the exhilaration of clear mountain air, marmots and muesli packet scenery in full view within 20 minutes and pretty much all flat and downhill for the rest of the day. What is not to adore?
Here’s me wearing an attention-seeking yellow top which was no fashion statement but, let’s face it, in a disaster the helicopter would spot me first.
The Dolomites are a pinky-coloured mountain range in the Southern Tyrol, and until 1919 were part of Austria but were gifted to the Italians after WWI. As a result the region feels more like Austria than Italy and the locals speak a language called Ladin – similar to a mash-up of French, German and Italian – and consider themselves Tyrolean first and Italian second.
It also turns out this was the area where the Von Trapps escaped from the Nazis in The Sound of Music. Consequently the meadows between the peaks were begging to be twirled on à la Julie Andrews. I mean it would be rude not to.
I wish I had the waist for a dirndl. All the staff wear them in this area, and very flattering they are too, pushing you up and over the bodice. But here’s the best thing about them: you tie the apron according to your dating status. Tie on the left and you are available, on the right you’re married, and in the middle you are a bit of both. How clever is that? Never mind about all those searching questions and sizing someone up only to lead to disappointment. How much easier than online dating that is.
The hikes are beautifully signposted for those of us who are rubbish at maps, and in the sunshine the peaks go an unusual pinky colour, owing to the fact they were originally a coral sea bed and were pushed vertically out of the earth 20,000 years ago.
The other joyous part of hiking in the Alps is the mountain huts. Normally they are full of skiers but in summer they’re bedecked with sun loungers, blankets and views to make your jaw drop.
They all have their own signature strudels, schnapps or homemade gin, but I loved the one run by Oscar and his family. Oscar is looking for a wife. Surely she needs to be called Heidi. Here he is using the Alpine equivalent of Tinder but he’s not having much luck so far.
For the rainy days there are cookery courses, yoga, and herbal hikes ending, in my case, with the Paratoni farmhouse where Gemma Insam makes her own amazing food with foraged herbs – homemade butter with rose petals, nasturtiums, nettle crisps and bread infused with wild spinach.
I badly coveted her gingham pinny. Pinny envy is something I am increasingly prone to, along with an involuntary love of anything made of gingham. I have no control over my love of it, in fact. Perhaps I will start the world’s first 12-step programme for gingham addicts.
Apart from the hiking, you can also take electric bikes up the mountain, and if there was ever a good reason to use one, the Alps would surely be it. The truth is ski resorts without the skiing are a fast growing part of the ski resort business.
In winter too, the non-skier is increasingly well catered for. Many people want to come and experience the snow without throwing themselves down the mountain on a pair of skis. It’s called sanity.
Instead they can take one of the daily guided snowshoe walks, sledge down after supper by moonlight, cross country ski, or just hike out with a stout pair of boots and come back to saunas, yoga and a nice hot bath and an apple strudel. Most hotels offer daily free non-ski activities; make sure your hotel or Garni (B&B) is hooked up to Val Gardena Active Programme.
This article first appeared on Standard Issue in October 2016.