Whoops of joy escape my lips as towering peaks and bursts of yellow wildflowers whiz by. I’m in the northern Italian region of Alta Badia, riding a juiced-up electric mountain bike on a downhill flow trail, each bermed corner steeper and tighter than the last. Where I’m from in Minnesota, e-bikes aren’t allowed on trails, which makes this ride feel extra rambunctious. I want to put the bike into “turbo” mode, but crashing would put a damper on our trip. I’ve spent the majority of my 26-year career reporting stories from out-of-the-way places, and my travel philosophy has always been the more rugged and remote the better, which has led me to catch a ride on a fishing trawler to an albatross colony off the Falkland Islands and to being stranded on Class V rapids in Tasmania. As glorious as it seemed, Italy was never high on my priority travel list. It felt too manicured, too stylized, too perfect—the exact opposite of me. Where in Italy, I wondered, could I find the adrenalized beauty I craved?
I found it on a road trip from Venice north to the prosecco-producing hills of Valdobbiadene; on to the towering Dolomites, a mountain range of arresting steeples, pinnacles, and rock walls; then west to Lake Garda, an inland freshwater sea partly ringed by peaks. The itinerary had my boyfriend, Brian, and me riding bikes, hiking to mountain rifugi (shelters), climbing via ferratas, and sailing on Lake Garda, all while sampling the region’s sublime proseccos and meeting some of Italy’s most dedicated craftspeople. We packed this journey into 10 days, but you’d be wise to linger as long as you can.
VENICE: ROCK THE BOAT “The gondola is the only perfect boat for rowing a single oar,” says Saverio Pastor. He’s one of five remèri, or oar craftsmen, left in Venice. The walls of his shop, Le Fórcole, are lined with wooden oars he’s made, and the floor space is filled with oarlocks, or fórcole, that look like sculptures. That’s why collectors around the globe buy his work as pieces of art rather than as utilitarian boat parts. The stop at Pastor’s shop is just one of many on a walking tour I’ve arranged with Luca Zaggia, a marine scientist, in an effort to further understand Venetians’ intricate relationship with water. Zaggia, in turn, invites Giovanni Caniato, a scholar and expert on Venice’s boating history. Our timing in Venice is ideal. Tomorrow is the 45th annual Vogalonga regatta, a 20-mile boat tour in which 8,000 rowers, kayakers, and canoeists will paddle a labyrinthine course around the city. “Coastal morphology is the main issue in Venice, especially the impact of large boats,” Zaggia tells us as we walk cobblestoned streets infamously sagging under the effects of over-tourism. Estimated 20-million-plus tourists visit annually, while the resident population of 55,000 shrinks by the year. I wrongly assume that the monster cruise ship I saw being tugged through the canal yesterday is the worst offender, but Zaggia corrects me. “Cruise ships often create less damage than cargo ships,” he says. He adds that while cruise ships are far from ideal vessels for Venice, one of the best ways for tourists to mitigate further damage is to avoid taking private, high-speed water taxis. Their waves cause more erosion than slower-moving ferries. At Squero San Travaso, an out-of-the-way 17th-century boatyard, owner Lorenzo Della Toffola is building a wooden gondola spine under the bright sun. It will take him 500 hours to complete one boat. Brian notices the stern Ferro, the high point at the back of the boat, is hinged.
“Gondolas have big problems,” Caniato tells us, explaining that because of rising water levels, the boats no longer fit under the bridges during high-water peaks and have to be modified. Our final stop is a 15th-century boatyard that houses the private association Arzaná. Caniato, a curator of the association dedicated to preserving Venetian boat culture, turns the key in the lock. Inside are ancient rudders and oars, the most extensive collection of fórcole in the world, and one of the association’s 50-period boats. Caniato pours us a glass of red wine, and we make a toast to his beautiful city, which has survived 14 centuries. Despite its woes, he says, “I would never leave Venice.”
STRADA DEL PROSECCO: EFFERVESCENCE EVERYWHERE “The power is in the ladies; there are no men,” Giovanni Zanon jokes as we power-sip an extra dry brut from Sorelle Bronca estate. We’re halfway into a 32-mile mid-morning cycling loop on a hot Sunday, and this highly regarded prosecco, with hints of honeydew and pear, tastes refreshingly crisp. It’s made by Antonella and Ersiliana Bronca, two sisters who took over their father’s winery in 1988. The women and their families grow their grapes on a patchwork of 67 acres scattered throughout the region of Valdobbiadene. This, along with the neighboring province of Conegliano, became Italy’s 55th UNESCO World Heritage site on July 7, thanks in part to its aesthetically pleasing checkerboard landscape, where rows of vines grow parallel and vertical to the sloping hills. The resulting prosecco is currently the most famous Italian wine worldwide. Zanon owns Villa Abbazia; an 18th-century palace converted to a five-star hotel in the village of Follina. It sits across the street from a 12th-century monastery founded by Cistercian monks. Villa Abbazia also houses the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the region. Last night its Puglian chef, Donato Episcopo, prepared us an elaborate, whimsical five-course meal that included trout marinated with citrus fruits for the entrée and ended with tiramisu—the same recipe Zanon’s family has used since 1955—and too much grappa. We dined on an outdoor patio overlooking the grand palace and a garden brimming with lemon trees, rhododendron, and hydrangea, feeling like royalty. Zanon, the quintessential host, stayed up with guests until 2 a.m., but this morning, his cycling-fanatic side has taken over, and he’s riding with us on a route of his design that climbs 1,600 feet through jasmine-scented hills. The terrain is exhilarating, with punchy climbs; long, leisurely downhills; and minimal traffic. We stop every few miles to eat and drink with Zanon’s friends. At Pasticceria Villa Dei Cedri, a café with pastries that are almost too beautiful to eat, I try the traditional southern Italian cream puff, tette delle monache. The name, I later learn, translates to “nuns’ breasts.” Despite this reminder that Italy is slightly behind the curve in #MeToo political correctness, it’s a luscious treat that pairs well with espresso. It fuels me for our final climb to the new tasting room at Garbara winery, in Cartizze. Cartizze Zero is a light, smooth prosecco known for being so pure that there’s no sugar. We sip it while overlooking the verdant vine-covered hills. Only three days in, I’m already wondering how Italy can get any better than this.
CORTINA D’AMPEZZO: SPORTY & CHIC “Cortina is considered the fancy town of the Dolomites,” says Carlo Cosi. “But this is my garden.” A professional mountaineering guide formerly from Padua, Cosi has climbed all over the world, earning a nomination for the Piolet d’Or, mountaineering’s highest honor, for a route he opened in Peru. But it’s the Dolomites that Cosi loves best. We’re at the base of Tofane mountain, surrounded by red-rock vertical faces with dozens of climbing routes. Ten miles east, down Falzarego Pass, is the village of Cortina d’Ampezzo. In 1956 the chic alpine resort hosted the Winter Olympics, which brought the Dolomites to the attention of the world’s glitterati, from Frank Sinatra to Brigitte Bardot. In July, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2026 Winter Games to Milan-Cortina. Yesterday morning Brian and I hiked five miles on a path hemmed in by red dolomite walls to 6,532- foot Prato Piazza Hut, a beautifully maintained rifugio sitting in a wildflower-filled pasture under the shadow of Croda Rossa peak. After lunch, we hiked a few miles higher on a World War I path, past a crumbling Austrian fortification to the summit of 7,569-foot Mount Specie. Tonight we’ll stay at Rifugio Lagazuoi near the 9,114-foot summit of Lagazuoi peak. A few hundred feet below the rifugio, a door opens into a half-mile-long tunnel the Italians bored through the rock in 1915 to haul up explosives in order to dislodge the Austrian troops who were stationed above them.
Now, however, our focus is on climbing a thousand feet straight up on Ra Bujela, a via Ferrata that starts near the top of Cortina’s women’s World Cup downhill run. Via ferratas, or “iron ways,” are climbing routes that World War I soldiers built by pounding iron-runged stairs into the rock in order to climb otherwise impassable peaks. The historical routes are so popular with recreational climbers that ski resorts and mountaineering associations across the Dolomites continue to build new ones, such as the route we’re about to climb. Gazing upward, Brian is frowning. He’s an ultramarathon cyclist, and for the first time in the three years I’ve known him, he looks unnerved. “You go first,” he tells me. “The heights make me a little queasy.” I haven’t climbed much lately, but I’m more comfortable with the vertical exposure than he is. Sensing Brian’s unease, Cosi ropes the three of us together for an extra safety measure, in addition to connecting individually via two carabiners that fasten our harnesses to the cable route. We climb the first pitch straight up a vertical wall to a narrow footbridge suspended between two pinnacles. The reliable footholds and ever-present cable give rusty climbers like me an opportunity to once again feel the exhilaration of summiting otherwise unreachable heights. “The nice thing about the Dolomites,” Cosi says on our hike back down the mountain, “is that they are for everybody.”
ALTA BADIA: BIKES & BAROLOS “For us it is essential to keep Ladin—the food, the clothes, the language, the music,” says Matthias Thaler, our mountain biking guide, who also happens to be a former ski racer for the Italian national team. “I play the trumpet.” We’re only 16 miles northwest of Cortina, with the same drop-dead views of mountains, but we had entered the world of South Tyrol, an enclave of Austria before it was annexed to Italy after World War I. Here 70 percent of the residents speak German, 26 percent speak Italian, and less than five percent speak Ladin, a language from a culture that has existed in these valleys in South Tyrol for 2,000 years. Thaler is one of 30,000 Ladin people who remain in these valleys. He’s lived here his whole life. To cover more territory than we could on a mountain bike, we rented e-mountain bikes this morning from a shop in the village of San Cassiano. We pedaled them up to the Pralongià Plateau, a wide-open space that sits at almost 7,000 feet and serves as a natural viewing platform to 10,978-foot Marmolada Glacier, the highest peak in the Dolomites; Sella Ronda, a legendary ski touring circuit; and Sasso di Santa Croce, a massif on which Reinhold Messner opened a famous climbing route in 1969. Just below the plateau sits Piz Arlara, a rifugio with a deck facing the Sella Ronda. We take a long lunch here, drinking lemony radlers (similar to shandies) and soaking in the view before riding the squirrelly flow trail down to the base of the mountain. Before we leave, I ask Thaler a question I’ve been wondering about since I arrived in the Dolomites. “Are the crosses at nearly every summit World War I memorials?”
“No,” he responds, “they’re a sign that we’re closer to God.” South Tyrol may be closer to heaven, but the residents still love their Italian wines. The Costa family, which owns the Hotel La Perla in the village of Corvara, has one of Europe’s largest collections of Sassicaia, a highly valued Italian wine. To access this wine and the 30,000 or so other bottles in their cellar, the three sommeliers slide down a firefighter’s pole, then walk back up a spiral staircase with chilled wine in hand. The Hotel Ciasa Salares, in the village of San Cassiano, features a 24,000-bottle wine cellar that specializes in biodynamic small-batch varietals. Sixty percent are from Italy. During our wine tasting in the hotel’s cellar restaurant, Jan Clemens, whose family owns the hotel, brings us a cutting board piled with bread, cheeses, and meats, most of which have been cured by his grandfather. After tasting six varietals, I’m not surprised that my favorite is what Clemens calls “the king of Italian wines”—a 2005 Barolo produced in Piedmont. It’s got smoky notes, reminiscent of coffee and leather. “This,” says Clemens, “is the elegant part of Italy.”