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Making a Case for Ski Towns in Summer: Hiking and Fine Dining in Italy’s South Tyrol

By Sara Lieberman

Jul 23, 2021

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Hikers can work up an appetite exploring South Tyrol’s charming villages and green trails, then reward themselves with decadent meals.

Photo by roxy & roy/1477Reichhalter

Hikers can work up an appetite exploring South Tyrol’s charming villages and green trails, then reward themselves with decadent meals.

Forget the skis. In the South Tyrol region near the Dolomites, delicious food and gorgeous hikes are best enjoyed in summer.

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My dust-covered, red-laced Columbia boots created an awkward crunching noise on the manicured pathway that led to the restaurant’s reception. All I could think about was how inappropriately dressed I might be. But when I announced my name and reservation, the host didn’t so much as bat an eye at my leggings and Patagonia fleece. In South Tyrol, Italy, it seems, hiking and fine dining go together like spaghetti and meatballs. In which case, who needs snow in this ski haven that abuts Austria and the Dolomites?

Over the course of four days, I walked in every direction and trekked high above sea level, bypassing apple orchards on foot or floating over vineyards on a chairlift. In between all the activity, I ate at creative culinary spots worth the calories I had just burned. Here’s how to recreate the experience for yourself.

Stand-alone chalets surround an alpine lake at The San Luis.

Day 1: Verano

Difficulty of hike: Easy to moderate

The walk

We began in the middle of the mountains at San Luis, a resort of lakeside chalets and tree houses so romantic and luxurious I couldn’t believe I was traveling with a friend and not on my honeymoon. Whether you want a simple jaunt or an all-day hiking affair, there are various options; wooden signs list the distances and estimated times of each trail to help you choose.

Our destination was the art installation Knottnkino, which means rock cinema. Only, there’s no actual screen—just two dozen theater chairs set up on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley below. The walk to reach it from San Luis was mild, but full of pinch-me moments, like when we heard the sound of cowbells across wide-open green pastures dotted with the occasional lone cabin, or when we felt the pine needles crush beneath our feet as we wandered shady paths under soaring spruce trees.

We joined the trail from our hotel, but if you’re staying elsewhere, and have a car, park in the village of Verano to start what’s otherwise a 6-mile, 3.5-hour hike along trail No. 16 (toward the Oberwirt Restaurant and Grüner Baum Inn) before continuing along the Schütznbründlweg trail (No. 14) to the viewing platform. To make it a loop hike, return along No. 11 toward Leadner Alm Mountain Hut, which meets up with No. 16 again.

Our reward

While we were gone, a breakfast spread had been delivered to our chalet and arranged on a white-clothed table set for two. Each of the stand-alone villas at San Luis features its own small kitchen, and there’s an elaborate checklist to fill out upon arrival, featuring everything you could possibly want for a morning meal—from seven different types of milk, including goat and rice, to eight different jams, including plum and wild berries.

What’s more, the accommodations have fireplaces, private saunas, decks with Adirondack chairs, and dipping tubs that overlook the property, which itself boasts a dreamy pool with sliding glass doors that allow you to swim from inside a lofted wooden building to the outdoor wilderness.

Rain, snow, sleet, or sun: Do not forget your swimsuit, and be prepared to saunter around San Luis in your robe—from your chalet to the pool to the spa to lunch to the chalet and back again—until 6 p.m. when the all-inclusive resort changes from “clothing sporty” to “elegant evening” for dinner in the dining room. That is, if you even want to leave your cabin at all. 

The village of Merano is threaded with 18 kilometers of hiking paths, including the Tappeinerweg Trail.

Day 2: Merano

Difficulty of hike: Easy 

The walk

After a late morning of lounging around on cushioned daybeds, we drove about 20 minutes on twisty, winding roads to Merano to trek one of the village’s 18 kilometers of paths. The small city is enchanting, with a mix of pastel-hued buildings from the Middle Ages and the belle époque, which we marveled at while passing under the arches and alleys of Steinach, the old town. Then we hit the Tappeinerweg Trail, a 2.5-mile, one-hour hike that runs from east to west above town. And the best part? You can skip some of the huffing and puffing by hopping on the one-person Küchelberg panoramic chairlift that glides over the hillside vineyards.

From the top, we made our way along paved pathways flanked by lush vegetation to eventually arrive back down by the Passer River, which splits the city in two. After crossing the two-arched, 17th-century Steinerner Steg Bridge, we wound our way through the city’s residential quarter—home to swanky gated residences, noble houses, and cool shops like Monocle where we were handed a free bottle of Torst beer to sip while browsing the well-curated selection of travel trinkets.

Our reward

We didn’t have to change for dinner at Wirsthaus zur Blauen Traube, a contemporary restaurant in a 17th-century inn with creaky wooden floors in the tiny town of Algund, but we were glad we did. While the atmosphere is very, “Come right in, all are welcome here!” the cuisine that chef and owner Christophe Huber churns out is elevated.

The menu draws on the area’s melting pot of Italian and Austrian flavors, turning out beetroot gnocchi stuffed with ricotta just as easily as wild venison with potato dumplings—both plated so exquisitely you know there were precision tongs and squeeze bottles involved.

When it came time for dessert, I balked at ordering the tarte tatin since I live in France, but Huber (who came out to talk to all the guests) insisted—and thank goodness: Juicy, piping hot, locally grown apples sat atop the most buttery, flaky crust only made more divine when topped with vanilla ice cream. 

The Brandis-Waalweg Trail leads through orchards to a waterfall.

Day 3: Lana 

Difficulty of hike: Moderate

The walk

The next day we took things down a notch—in elevation, not style—by checking into Villa Arnica, a restored 1925 residence that’s been transformed into a nine-room garden property in the nearby village of Lana. Although we were tempted to stay put when we saw the in-ground pool surrounded by gardens of freshly planted herbs, we’d heard about a nearby waterfall so we walked through the pedestrian-only part of town and followed signs for Brandis-Waalweg.

Most of the dirt trail was flat, but the scenery was so spectacular it was hard to care about how little our muscles were working. To our left, orchard farm after orchard farm revealed a wealth of apples (the area produces 70,000 tons each year), while to our right, vines hung heavy with the many red-wine varietals produced in the area: vernatsch, lagrein, pinot noir, and merlot.

Lana is also home to 40 churches, chapels, monasteries, and convents that date back to the Middle Ages, and we spotted tall steeples against the green-covered alpine peaks in the distance. The path became a narrow, wooden boardwalk butting against black boulders just before we arrived at Cascata Waterfall. Other than an orange-spotted black lizard sunning itself on a rock, we were the only ones there to catch its mist. 

Our reward

I continued to work up a sweat (and my appetite) by walking from where we started in Lana along the SS238 road to the restaurant Miil where I’d booked a solo midday meal. I wouldn’t normally wear hiking attire to what appeared online to be a fancy place, but it was daytime and I didn’t have the energy to retrace my steps. Thankfully, I was seated in the more casual garden area where my apparel choice didn’t stick out too much among the diners wearing khaki pants and button-down shirts.

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Overall, the atmosphere is chill modern meets old school—or old mill, as it were. The multiple dining spaces range from the ivy-covered courtyard outside to wood-beamed cozy rooms inside. I ordered  salmon ceviche with beets, passionfruit, and yuzu mayonnaise and paccheri pasta served with small clams and leeks. I skipped a main, but options included calf's liver with local apple puree and octopus with mozzarella and shaved zucchini.

Not one to turn down something sweet, I topped it all off with a scoop of house-made cacao sorbet served with rosemary cream. Oh, and I was surprised, but not mad, to be charged two euros for the loaf of fresh bread that arrived at the start along with a few slices of prosciutto and the creamiest truffle butter ever. (This, I later learned, is common in these parts.)

The meal wasn’t cheap, but it was memorable. At dinner, it only offers a seven-course tasting menu for 75 euros where, as the website explains, you “decide nothing” and they cook “what nature gives them.”

Martina and Andreas Heinrich, the owners of boutique hotel and restaurant 1477 Reichhalter, invite guests to “try something unusual.”

Day 4: Somewhere in the forest

Difficulty of hike: Easy

The walk

My last day’s outing wasn’t a hike, nor was it really a walk, nor was it an aimless wander—though, I didn’t have a direction or destination per se. Rather, according to my guide Martin Kiem of Frontier Wellbeing, a certified organizational psychologist and nutrition, mindfulness, and meditation coach, our purpose was to slowly and purposefully walk deep into the forest for a “bath,” during which we’d just see and feel and be. In fact, in practicing the ancient Japanese art of shinrin-yoku, we didn’t even cover more than 500 meters, yet we were out there for nearly four hours!

The time surprisingly flew by while Kiem led me in a handful of exercises, such as sitting cross-legged at the base of a giant tree, closing my eyes, and placing my forehead on the trunk. This was meant to practice symbiosis; to see the tree as more than just an inanimate subject.

My favorite activity, though, was when Kiem gave me a white paper frame to throw into the air to see where it landed and what it “framed.” The randomness of tossing the paper, as opposed to placing it intentionally, was a great lesson in letting go and appreciating the beauty in all things, as opposed to the beauty you make or choose. 

Our reward

The forest bath felt like a reward in itself, but, hey, a girl still deserves a good meal—so for dinner that evening my friend joined me at 1477 Reichhalter, a boutique hotel and restaurant owned by the same second-generation Italian hotelier who runs Villa Arnica. Here, Martina and Andreas Heinrich invite diners to settle in to what feels like their home and “try something unusual,” as it states on the menu, such as spaghettini with squid ink and smoked curd cheese or veal dumplings with cep mushrooms and creamy potatoes.

We started simple, though, with a mixed green salad of grapes, fresh goat cheese, and beets, and slowly added more drama by trying the risotto with fermented black garlic and braised beef shoulder—and then the rib eye with crunchy, tangy olives, eggplant cream, and colorful braised carrots. For dessert, we couldn’t decide between the passion fruit crème brûlée with chocolate ice cream or the panna cotta with marinated plums in puff pastry, so we ordered both. 

The food coma had taken over by then so I can’t remember much more than the fact that all of it—the panna cotta and the crème brûlée, the forest bath, the waterfall trek, the cliff cinema hike, and even the momentary anxiety of wearing my muddy boots to a fancy restaurant—was very much worth it.

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