THE FINEST HOTEL IN THE ITALIAN DOLOMITES

Hotel Rosa Alpina | San Cassiano, Italy

[SAN CASSIANO IN ALTA BADIA, ITALY] — When I checked into the luxury boutique hotel Rosa Alpina,  a man was standing there off to the side, bouncing a baby in his right arm, baby projecting out like a cat.

“Oh Hi, we’ve been waiting for you. I’d shake your hand… but the baby…” and reached out his left hand.

And so it started like that.

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It had been almost two years to the week since I was last in San Cassiano in Val Badia, the Ladin-speaking lush valleys that make up the heart of the Süd Tirol area of the Italian Dolomites. An area where everything is listed in three languages. Ladin — an ancient language that goes back to Roman times, spoken only in these formally inaccessible valleys — German and Italian.

I’m back here because of one of the most remarkable hotel experiences I’ve ever had, here, at the incomparable Hotel Rosa Alpina, one of the highest rated members of Leading Hotels of the World.

 

This is the five star Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano Italy. This place ranks right up there with one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had. (And for those that follow me, all six of you, you know that I like a nice hotel.)

The rooms are very nice and cozy, certainly. It’s not just the Michelin three star restaurant. It’s not just the perfect village in the Dolomites. It is the people and the style of service — super friendly, always helpful and truly caring — that make this place different. All lead by Signore Hugo Pizzinini, whose family has been running this place with charm since between the Wars

I don’t typically like 5 star hotels, too stuffy, too still, too ridiculously priced. But this was such a casual place you feel like part of the family. Or at least, staying at a friend’s country house.

I’ve never felt such a strong presence of an owner in a hotel, 24/7.  Hugo, with any number of kids in arms, always with a smile and a map ready to tell you where to hike. Out front, kibitzing with neighbors or the local Carabinieri; always chatting with people like they were family. No matter where you are in the hotel, he’s already there. Dawn to dusk. Running expo at the kitchen, sneaking you a special glass from a wine dinner, or dropping you off at a trailhead while running an errand.

Everyone in the hospitality business should send their people here for a week to see how it’s done.

Looking for info about a hike, I asked the front desk if Hugo was around. “He’s here. Always. Just stand in one place and he’ll be by soon.” And not just Hugo, it’s everyone. From the front desk staff to the lovely Antonella – a Germanic Audrey Hepburn if there ever was one – equally present everywhere every shift at every restaurant, remembering your drink pref or whipping out a table setting like a magician.

I don’t know if they have 20 rooms, 30 or 50. To me it felt like they just had 1.  Mine.  There was a very famous diva singer at the hotel, Bette Midler, often sitting at the very next table with her handler, but you’d never know it because everyone else got the rockstar treatment. She was just like us.

Let me give you a tour. But first, let me show you were this amazing hotel is:

San Cassiano in Alta Badia

Wednesday nights are Festa Nights in San Cassiano in the summer. People come from kilometers away, tasting great foods from local restaurants, local craft beers (doesn’t everywhere have local craft beers nowadays?) and watching Ladin craftsman hone wood objects like they’ve done for centuries. (Cutting boards are big sellers.) And, perhaps appropriately, a country music band. Nothing like a little Hank Williams to make your strudel even more fun. Plus, you can waltz to it.
You should have seen it. A girl in a cowboy hat introducing each song in Italian, old couples and waiters all beebopping all happy up and down the street.

It was a little surreal, sitting outside on the terrace of the restaurant at Rosa Alpina, enjoying the most stupendous and delightfully spicy loops of perfectly al dente paccheri pasta, with chunky hunks of lobster, olives and ripe tomatoes with 🎶 “Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and filé gumbo…” 🎶 playing in the square. People in leather lederhosen shorts and checked shirts square-stepping it out in the piazza. A local teenager (going thru his awkward period) walked by with his Bernese Mountain Dog puppy, mouthing the words to himself… 🎵 “Goodbye Joe me gotta go me oh my oh…” 🎵 And then, along came a rainbow, with golden sunset mountains looming over the whole situation.

I can die now. My life is complete.

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San Cassiano in Badia

About as good as it gets. San Cassiano sits high on the shoulders of Alta Badia valley, surrounded by lush green cow fields and iridescent granite mountains.

San Cassiano/St. Kassian/San Ćiascian in ‪#‎SudTyrol‬ or ‪#‎AltoAdige‬ or ‎Dolomiti‬. Like everything in this region of ‪‎Italy‬ it has three names. But a gorgeous little ‪‎village‬ ringed by steep cliffs and a great base to ‎explore‬ the endless ‪‎valleys‬ of the ‪Dolomites‬.

San Cassiano sits on a high ridge in Alta Badia, an area chock-full of ski resorts, all interconnected, that make this area one of the top ski destinations in the world. And San Cassiano is considered one of the ritziest towns in the Dolomites. Still, the place is small, only about half mile in length, with one made road and a few feeder streets that disappear as they finger up into the green mountain slopes. Summer is considered off season and quiet. And the prices are the lowest, so it’s perfect time to come.

Inside the Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano

 

The Rooms at Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano

The rooms are dramatic simplicity, the perfect understated luxury you want for a hiking vacation in the mountains. Alpine in design, but with fine luxurious finishes that make you realize why they have a five star rating. Waxed smooth pine. Wool carpets. Merino blankets and loden pillows.  I sprung both times for a Junior Suite which was perfect size, with a large balcony looking out over a wall of pine trees.

 

 

It’s a member of both Tablet Hotels and Relais & Chateaux, which to me a one-two punch of validation when I booked this. And the staff at Tablet personally recommended it, above all other hotels in the region. Even the dichotomy reviews of Trip Advisor agrees that the service in this place is over the top. Here’s a great article in Forbes, outlining just about everything I’ve said. Even down to the magical hike in the Fanes plateau I posted here.

This hotel is very famous. I can see why. Everyone in the hospitality business should send their people here for a week to see how it’s done.

They’ll leave smiling.

The Restaurants at Rosa Alpina

When I was there the first time, I think St. Hubertus had one Michelin star. Two years later, they had their second. And I just read they one their third Michelin star in the winter of 2018.

 

I was sitting in the lobby bar of the hotel when I heard a “Psssssst!  Pssssst!”

I looked up from my perfect negroni and it was Hugo waving me over to a hidden door I didn’t know was there. “Come here, I want to show you something.  Hungry?”

With that he pulled open a door that looks like a closet and in we went. We instantly popped up into the bustling kitchen of St. Hubertus, the highest-ranked restaurant in the Dolomites. “Here you can see what it takes to run a Michelin 3 Star restaurant.  Look. So many chefs. 13!  You’re in the restaurant business, you know, it’s impossible to make money at a 3 star restaurant in Europe…. these aren’t underpaid hourly employees, they’re all on annual contract… so many chefs…”

Then we walked over to a standup table in the corner, two champagne glasses and chilled bottle of Prosecco were waiting for us.  “But here, taste this…. amazing. This is why it is rated three stars.”  (They had just received their third star last winter.)  We had a few more incredible bites, with dramatic presentation, one after the other. Hugo introducing me to all the chefs like I was a cousin.

And them, in a wisp like we came, we popped back through the Magic Door and into the buzzy warm light of the hotel lobby, like a Time Machine. “Okay, see you. I must go work expo in the other restaurant.”  And off he went through another set of doors.

And then, in a wisp like we came, we popped back through the Magic Door and into the buzzy warm light of the hotel lobby, like a Time Machine.

That my friends, is how hospitality is done.

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On tonight’s menu: hand-chopped steak tartare with black summer truffles. A bright orange sun of a mountain egg yolk perched on top. Followed by a delightful Pollo Arosto, a small pastured bird, stuffed with rosemary branches and other aromatics, then roasted on a metal spike in a super hot oven, its savory juices dripping down over a pan of fresh vegetables below.

Meanwhile: “Mi scusi, Signore, the pollo takes an extra twenty minutes to cook, is that okay-a?”

“Certo. Take all the time you want….”

San Cassiano — The Perfect Base to Explore Alta Badia

View from Passo Gardena

This is view down from Passo Gardeno, overlooking the Val Badia, Colfosco, Corvara and the other towns and mountain ranges. Just stunning at sunset.

The first time stayed at Rosa Alpina, I went down to the local market and stocked up on water bottles, cheese and sausages, energy bars and nuts. I walked back into the hotel lobby and Hugo was waiting there with a grin.

“What’s with the big pack?”  “For my hike.”  “You don’t need all that,” he chuckled, yanking out all my excess baggage. “You don’t even need to bring water on your hike, you’re in Italy. There are restaurants and water stops all along the way. Even WCs, Just go and enjoy your hike. Here’s where you should stop…”  pulling out the hiking map and circling his favorites.

“You don’t even need to bring water on your hike, you’re in Italy. There are restaurants and water stops all along the way.”

“Stop for a drink of cold water from a stream right HERE. About an hour later, you can stop for a beer or espresso HERE, very nice view.  Then theeese place, you definitely should have lunch HERE, the best in the valley.”

Heaven.

 

You can see that San Cassiano is perfectly situated to explore the endless trails of Alta Badia, but easy to get over to Val Gardena and Cortina.

 

Additional Information about San Cassiano and Hotel Rosa Alpina

Here’s a great recent 36 Hours in Dolomites article from the NY Times mentioning Rosa Alpina.  Here’s the TabletHotels listing for Rosa Alpina where it has a 20/20 rating.  And a short review in Conde Nast Traveler.

Rosa Alpina’s listing in the Michelin Guide.  A fantastic review from the great website The Fit Traveller.  A ski-oriented post from The Evening Standard.  And another 9/10 review in The Telegraph.  And in TripAdvisor.

The listing on Scott Dunn.

 

Last visited July 2015 and July 2017

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