I’ve been guiding in the Alps for 15 years. I’ve been to a lot of places, some that I’ve loved and some that don’t leave as much of an impression. But one of the greatest joys of returning to the Alps is that there are always new places to explore. There are over 60,000 km of marked hiking trails in Switzerland alone, thousands of mountains and valleys, and hundreds of mountain huts and quaint village bases. You’ll never see them all. Beyond Switzerland, there are the Alps of Austria and France, the Dolomites in Italy, and much, much more to explore.
So what do I do in the summer when I’m not with groups? I go hiking of course! Usually someplace new, always hoping to find that even more perfect spot.
This year and last, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with one of our guides, Brant Kilber, looking for just the right base for an Austrian tour. It hasn’t been easy. The Austrian Alps pose challenges, mainly that the trails to and between huts tend to be very difficult, rocky and downright dangerous at times. And the landscapes, while pretty, for the most part have not captured me to the point that I’ve felt that I have to bring people there.
And then we found it… the perfect spot. But it was in the Dolomites! After nearly a week of only semi-productive, somewhat frustrating exploration in Austria, Brant and I headed to the Dolomites to check out some new trails there. I’d often wanted to visit the Funes valley just north of the Gardena valley, but had somehow never found the time. Boy, have we been missing something!
The Funes valley is one of the prettiest valleys I’ve ever seen. They have next to no skiing, nor the accompanying infrastructure. Just a couple of tiny villages and a few hotels. But it’s hidden in plain view just under the Puez-0dle National Park in the Dolomites, with striking rock towers surrounded and crossed by a number of great trails. Once we got there, I new I had to stay for a bit.
We arrived unannounced, without reservations, and walked into a modest pension, the kind I would have loved 15 years ago, but stay at now only to save a bit (and to help maintain the idea that I’m working and not on vacation). A couple of locals were sitting out front, smoking, suspiciously eyeing us as we walked in. A couple of young men at the bar glanced at us, muttered something under their breath, and started laughing (maybe I’m imagining this). The woman behind the bar looked at us, turned away and left the room. Not a good start.
After a few minutes, she came back and after explaining we wanted a room for 2 nights, we were led to the ancient owner in the back. By this point I felt the dark wooden walls and mounted Gemse heads were bearing down on me, and when we learned she had a room only for 1 night, we happily skipped out in search of another option.
“I think I’ve outgrown places like this”, I explained, as we hurried away. Around the corner was the 3-star superior Hotel Tyrol, with a bright, airy entrance, beautiful outdoor garden, spa with steam room and hot tub.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, we keep an extra room available for just this sort of emergency,” came the reply from the relaxed and cheerful owner. “We’ll take it!”
We were ver lucky… somebody else came in looking for a room as we were signing in. And I was very happy, because the Hotel Tyrol is one of the nicest, least pretentious hotels I’ve had the privilege of visiting. The food is not overly fancy, but is just plain good. The rooms are bright and fresh, the spa is small but very nice, and the owners (and their gaggle of kids) are always available, pleasant and helpful. I love it there.
The Funes valley is unforgettable. The hikes we did were quiet, incredibly scenic, and memorable. There are small alp farms, an historic alpine club hut, and plenty of trails to choose from. You have to go here.
Unfortunately, this is a tough place to incorporate extensively into our tours. The valley is quiet, but mainly because there is next to no place to stay. The Hotel Tyrol is fantastic, but is normally filled to capacity throughout the summer. We’re not going to be able to book just a night or two or three unless we get lucky again (they have regular customers who come every year and stay for weeks). The rifugio Genova is another good place to stay for those in the mood for a more rustic experience. You can also hike to this valley from the Gardena valley or vice versa, which would work particularly well with our Classic Dolomites Traverse. This could also be a great stop in a custom self-guided tour for somebody who wants to get away from the hectic pace of everyday life.
It’s what I’m always hoping for. To find a gem. A spot that blows you away. You’re going to like this one. Now who wants to go?