The Italian poet and journalist Dino Buzzati once asked "Are they rocks or clouds? Are they real, or is this a dream?" He was speaking about the Dolomites, a magnificent section of the Alps - yet very different from the mountains of Switzerland, France, Austria - and even the rest of Italy.
Tourists who visit these astonishing mountains from places the world over might well ask the same question as Dino Buzzati. The message is simple, and finally more and more people are listening - and waking up - not just to smell the coffee, but to taste the delectable food, gaze in awe at the splendour of the extraordinary peaks, admire the incredible variety of cosy mountain villages, visit the rifugios atop towering crags, meet the genuinely friendly locals, and, above all, sample the wonderful skiing.
The Dolomites are named after a wandering French mineralogist with the improbable name of Dieudonné Sylvain Guy Tancrède de Gratet de Dolomieu. Little did he know that his name would still immortalise such a splendid mountain range more than two centuries after his death.
Just look at the list of discerning celebrities who have also looked up in wonder at these awe-inspiring peaks: from the King of Norway (a Cortina visitor) and the Queen of Sweden (Alta Badia) to film stars like Sylvester Stallone (who starred in Cliffhanger, with its stunning Dolomite scenery) and Roger Moore. George Clooney has also skied In Alta Badia.
Val Gardena (Gröden) or Gherdëina (its Ladin name) is one of the five Ladin-speaking valleys in South Tyrol. This language is called "gardenese" in Italian, "grödnerisch" in German and "gherdëina" in Ladin.
The Dolomites are not like other mountains. They are, quite simply, spellbinding: great monoliths of calcium magnesium carbonate, with a covering of malleable calcite clustered with porphyry, a reddish-purple rock of feldspar crystals which catch the rays of the sun at dawn and dusk in a pink alpenglow which is what gives them, at dawn and sunset, their sumptuous glow, splashing pink on the jagged brown crags. Even the best photographers find it difficult to capture their full flavour.
And talking of flavour, can there be anywhere else in the Alps where the food tastes so good? Prepared and cooked with flair and care, basic and simple natural products from the region provide the most delicious and filling mountain meals imaginable. When you also recall that in this part of the world - predominantly German-speaking Sud-Tirol (South Tyrol) and Italian-speaking (Trentino) - enjoys a wonderful cultural melange, there is no doubt that the mix of Italian and Austrian cuisine is spectacular. Throw in the Ladin influence - a Romansche or Raeto-Roman language dating back to the days of the Roman Empire when Roman troops mingled with the local tribes - and you have an even richer heritage and melange of dress, old customs, songs and cuisine.
So you can order anything from polenta con cervo (venison) or con camoscio (chamois) to Wiener schnitzel or speck at local restaurants. Add delightful and exciting skiing, and plenty of it (the 'Dolomiti Superski' circuit has more than 750 miles of runs) plus relatively warm winters, which mean you can ski in comfort without risking frostbite, and you have what is arguably the perfect ski holiday.
Unless you really want to, you don't ski the steep stuff - you generally ski round the Dolomites - not down them! And because the fear factor is removed, it's a place for skiers with nothing to prove. No scary runs to boast about, no terrifying couloirs (unless you seek them out) - just some great, relaxing yet exhilarating cruising runs, extraordinary scenery...and some of the best cuisine in Europe.
The Dolomites are ideal for groups with mixed abilities. And in the unlikely event of a poor snow year - and it happens sooner or later to every resort in the Alps - the snowmaking teams in the Dolomites are, quite frankly, miracle workers. How they do it I know not, but I have tested the product in one such difficult year and was quite simply amazed. I once spent a week in the Dolomites, skiing on virtually nothing but man-made snow, and hardly noticed the difference, it was that good.
So, all in all, if you have never visited the Dolomites - be it South Tyrol, Trentino or Belluno - you have nothing lose and everything to gain (including a few extra inches round your waist - you won't be able to resist the food!) So go ahead. Treat yourself - even if it's just for a long weekend!