This month’s spa is all about skiing. Or there again, it could equally be all about families. But let me get the one and only negative out of the way first. If you’re looking for a hushed, tranquil retreat, Cavallino Bianco is probably not the place for you. If you’re looking for a big, beautiful spa with great facilities, extensive programmes for children and superb skiing – well, then it may well be just the ticket.
So, let me explain first about the family angle. If this were in Austria or Germany, it would be called a kinder (children) hotel. And the kinder are absolutely everywhere along with people in mouse costumes singing and dancing at breakfast (not so tranquil, as I said). They look after children here from as young as one month up to teens. There are several floors of the hotel devoted to kids with everything on offer from ski school to baking and there are even products designed specifically for kids in the spa. If you have a little princess, she can have a massage and facial, then her make-up and hair done. It may seem a bit strange to us Brits, but this is Italy after all.
Or is it? Cavallino Bianco is in the South Tyrol, a place where everyone speaks both Italian and German. Until the first world war, it was part of Austria, afterwards it was given to the Italians, so it has that very pretty Austrian mountain architecture (the Cavallino Bianco village of Ortisei/St Ulrich is gorgeous) with painted houses, steep roofs and deep wooden balconies no doubt covered with scarlet geraniums in the summer. There is plenty of Italian influence, too, not least in the food, the chic skiwear and all that ebullience at breakfast.
The Major and I arrived on a Sunday evening with time for him to get his ski kit but too dark to get out on the slopes. Over a sumptuous dinner he quizzed the waiter about the opening times of the lifts – 8.30? So late? Never mind, he’d be there as they opened. The Major sighed and returned to his super-creamy risotto. It turned out to be worth the wait.
The Dolomites have some of the most dramatic mountain scenery imaginable. In parts they are as jagged and bare as a Doberman’s teeth, elsewhere they look like massive outcrops from Monument Valley. And because the area is shaped like an enormous bowl, wherever you are, you’re looking at something stupendous. The area is split into 12 sections, all of which interconnect and together make up more than 1200km of piste (with one super-ski pass). Having spent two days warming up (just the six hours skiing each day!) in the nearby sections, the Major decided to go for it on day three and accompanied the two hotel guides, Markus and Romeo, to Sellaronda, a circumnavigation of the Sella Massif, an area of 500km of slopes and 200 (yes, 200) lifts, so virtually no queuing.
The Major’s first two days were spent on beginner/intermediate runs but the Sellaronda gives you 42km of skiing amid dramatic mountain terrain with many long open runs, lots of them black. If you’re up to it, you can take in the Val Gardena International Downhill championship course. The Major, having too much fun to stop, didn’t want to go home even after that so instead of the bus, opted for a lift to the summit of Mt Seceda and a 10km red run back home. At the bottom station of Ortisei, a series of escalators and travelators get you to the centre of the village almost as if you were on the Central Line in London. The Major, not a man easily impressed and a veteran of slopes in the States, across Europe and New Zealand, came back rosy cheeked and excited as a boy. The infrastructure was incredible and it was, he said, the best skiing he’d ever had.
I, meanwhile, got down to my prime purpose – investigating the spa which, being Italian, came with a strong classical feel and paintings of cherubs, Doric columns and just a hint of Roman orgy. There are six pools outdoor and indoor, special ones for children and families and a wonderful indoor-to-outdoor one that starts in a darkly tiled dome and flows through to the open sky, mountains and snow. There are lots of Jacuzzis and massage beds and in the adults-only hydrotherapy spa there are a series of saunas with different levels of heat, an ice fountain (takes your breath away after the heat but helps boost the immune system) and, my favourite, a steam room where you sit in what I think (it’s quite dark) are massive tiled and gilded thrones. Every now and then a dim light comes on as a signal you’re about to have a warm rain shower infused with eucalyptus.
There are two relaxation areas in this part of the spa, one with tiled beds overlooking a bright snowy courtyard, the other upstairs with waterbeds (singles and doubles) and headphones if you want them. I didn’t, preferring to listen to the splashing of the classical fountain in the centre of this perfectly circular room. I wasn’t just taking this spa lying down, though. There was aqua gym first thing and, later in the afternoon Pilates and Meridian Stretching. The next day there was fitness ball and fit dance and energetic walks with deep breathing to get the benefit of all that mountain air.
And then, of course, there were the treatments. The spa has a very wide range of therapies – massages and facials, post-skiing treatments for sore muscles, peels and baths. But I was looking for local flavour so I went for a Theresia’s Secrets massage. All the products used are based on extracts of alpine orchid: a peel, a body mask (absorbed while floating on a lovely warm waterbed) and a massage. A treat and certainly very local but I was in search of something unique. So the next day I went for the Geoway.
Imagine riding a bicycle in a sauna while wrapped in plastic dungarees for 30 minutes. After the first five, the sweat starts to pour and I’ve already drunk my first bottle of water (I finished three in total). The idea is that exercising under infrared makes the fat drop off you at five times the rate of normal exercising. Afterwards, you lie down for 20 minutes wrapped in towels and it continues to work. By this time, my body is giving off so much heat, I think the bed is heated (it wasn’t). Even 15 minutes later when my skin was no longer hot to the touch, inside I remained a furnace.
After the respite of a cooling shower, it was more heat. Another new one on me, it was a hay bath. I could smell it before I got to the room – decorated with ancient wooden agricultural instruments and more hay to get you in the mood. On an insulated blanket lying on a bed at the back of the room was a mass of fragrant cuttings from the local alpine meadow. In with the grass, there were local flowers and herbs and more of these were tossed on top of me before being wrapped up in the blanket. Then, at touch of a button, the bed dissolves and I’m floating on water – hot, since you ask. It’s a bit prickly but not uncomfortable and it smells delicious. It promises both to stimulate the circulation and promote relaxation and the floating (and sauna cycling) certainly add to that.
In fact, I’m quite light headed when I stand up and go to recover in yet another relaxation room – this one furnished with brass beds (with water mattresses), golden swagged drapes and a fountain. Still with a raging thirst after all that cycling in saunas, I polish off a cup of herbal tea that smells just like the hay and eventually make my way back to my room wearing a bright green dressing gown and shocking pink crocs, dropping bits of grass and twig on the way. Perhaps not my most elegant of exits…