South Tyrol, a little-known area of northern Italy, is just the place to clear your mind and feed your soul. It’s also a region where nature is getting a design makeover
If you’re yearning for a soul-searching moment, head to South Tyrol, a little-known – but beautifully peaceful – enclave of northern Italy. With its heavenly setting – lush vineyards, verdant valleys dotted with romantic castles, and surrounding snow-capped peaks – it’s a world apart from the hubbub of urban life and an idyllically bucolic spot for those wanting some me-time. Except for one problem: before you can turn your mind to “who am I?” you may first want to find the answer to “where am I?”
Perched just short of the Austrian border, between Verona and Innsbruck, South Tyrol is a mixed-up kind of place and, like many border towns across the world, boasts an intriguing fusion of culture, language and identity. While it lies geographically in Italy, it has a distinct Teutonic air about it but yet it has actually been a proudly autonomous region since 1948. Most locals speak both German and Italian – signposts are in both languages – with a stalwart minority still insisting on the mountain dialect Ladin. Food is a true indicator of the melting-pot: fancy a spaghetti? Not a problem, but you’ll also find apple strudel on the same menu. You’ll spot pretty, wooden chalets with crimson blooms in window-boxes, straight out of Heidi, and you’ll also stumble across ultra-modern design hotels – all glass and metal – by way of Milan.
One of these is San Luis, the latest arrival on the scene, tucked away in an untouched forest on the Avelengo plateau. It’s the second property owned by the Meister family (the first is Hotel Irma, found in the nearby quaint town of Merano). Described as a private retreat hotel offering ‘primordial encounters with nature’, it’s just the place for finding yourself again.
Designed by local architect Hugo Demetz, there are 22 chalets and 16 tree-houses on stilts scattered around a pristine man-made lake. The hotel’s central clubhouse, housing the spa, an inside-out swimming pool, restaurant and small cinema, is at the heart of the resort. Inside this hub, the design ethos is ‘pared-black glamour meets Alpine-chic’ with a moody smoky-grey palette contrasted with rough-hewn timber surfaces (ceilings, exposed beams and tables), black industrial pendants and white linen covered sofas.
Outside, majestic pines, firs and larches rise up to meet the Dolomite peaks beyond – this is an area of outstanding natural beauty, giving way to hiking in the summer and gentle skiing come winter. After a day in the mountain air, you’ll return to your private cabin. Built from specially sourced, untreated Mondholz wood with floor-to ceiling panoramic windows, these are charmingly rustic. The open-plan layout gives a loft-style feel to the space – the living room flows into the bedroom and your bathtub is next to your bed – ideal for hopping from suds to sleep. There’s also a walk-in wardrobe, a cosy kitchen-diner and slate-clad shower room. Meanwhile, oodles of cream linen textiles, marshmallow-like down bedding and a magical open fire combine to soften the interior. Simple yet stylish touches include pink-clay walls, scrubbed floorboards and storm lanterns. The highlight, however, is your own sauna cabin, accessed via the bathroom area, which looks out across the lake. On your private deck, there’s also a hot tub – perfect for soaking limbs and star-watching after hours.
Dining is courtesy of Michelin-starred chef Artuto Spiocchi’s locally-inspired menu, with many ingredients sourced from the surrounding 40-hectare protected reserve of alpine park and fields, bursting with fruits, berries and rare spices. His fusion of traditional Alpine dishes with classic Mediterranean flavours mean you can expect some culinary highs: wild garlic ravioli with buffalo curd cheese and cuttlefish, and asparagus risotto with onion confit, goat cheese and chives, are innovative and bursting with flavour. While you can opt for the perfectly friendly, yet low-key, dining at the clubhouse, the speciality here is what they call ‘quiet luxury’. Breakfasts (think home-made breads, cakes, meats, cheese and eggs) are therefore served directly in your chalet at your chosen time. A sliding door between the living room and diner can be secured before you go to bed, so you rise to discover your breakfast waiting for you – with none of the typical hotel fussing – a genius attention to detail. Other meals can also be ordered and delivered to your cabin, to be eaten in privacy if desired.
The barn-style country spa, meanwhile, is another treat. Crackling fires, relaxation rooms with steam baths and hydromassage in the middle of a lake encourage complete zoning out. Black cement walls, chandeliers and trestle tables laden with crystal decanters add a touch of opulence. On offer are massages with essential oils, compresses with local herbs and personalised fitness sessions, which all continue the personalized yet natural focus which is the USP here. Forest walks, lake swimming and outdoor day-beds (warmed in cooler months by poolside stoves) are perfect for those looking to reconnect with nature.
As cocooning as San Luis is, South Tyrol is ripe for exploring. This is the land that gave the world its most accomplished mountaineer – Reinhold Messner. Having conquered his first summit in the Dolomites at the tender age of five, in the late 1940s, the Tyrolean boy went on to climb another 3,500 peaks during his career. In recent years, the now 72-year-old has turned his hand to creating a series of six high-altitude museums across the region – many architectural masterpieces in their own right. The newest, which opened in 2015, is the Zaha Hadid-designed MMM Corones, found on the summit plateau of Kronplatz mountain and dedicated to the discipline of mountaineering. The largest museum, MMM Firmian, meanwhile, close to the town of Bolzano, has been carved out of a 10th century castle (images above and below). Packed with mountaineering equipment, photography, art and an eclectic collection of Eastern artifacts picked up during his years conquering the Himalayas, it’s an eccentric experience. It is also not for the faint-hearted, with it featuring a number of hair-raising elevated paths, steep stairs and vertigo-inducing towers seemingly to test visitors’ stamina and acrophobia.
For lesser, but no less satisfying, thrills, South Tyrol is also renowned for its culinary prowess. Boasting the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy (23 across 19 restaurants), you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to fine dining. Sissi, an Art Nouveau-styled restaurant in Merano, headed up by chef Andrea Fenoglio, is a good start and is a 20 minute drive from the hotel (sissi.andreafenoglio.com). Don’t be fooled by the homely feel of the décor, Fenoglio’s modern interpretation of traditional recipes – think homemade maltagliati pasta with chicken ragout and hazelnuts or guinea fowl with pear mustard – is inventive and avant-garde (see images below).
From winery tours to mountain-hut trails, fairytale-like castles to picturesque bike paths, South Tyrol is packed with things to do and see and feels like a hidden jewel in Italy’s crown. Just take the time out to find yourself first.
For more information on South Tyrol, visit: suedtirol.info
For more information on the Messner Mountain Museums, visit: messner-mountain-museum.it
Chalets at San Luis start from €250 per night for full board (excluding drinks) per person. San Luis, +39 0473 279570; sanluis-hotel.com
This article is also in the August 2016 issue of Canary Wharf Magazine