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A plant-based hotel in the Italian Dolomites

Updated: Jan 10

Can you imagine a vegan-friendly hotel filled with Christmas cheer, snow falling gently outside, a restaurant serving multi-course regional dishes each night, a strudel cooking class, all set in a picturesque town in the Italian Dolomites? You too can have your very own northern Italian experience. Winter, summer or any time of the year. I share my 3 day experience at Cavalese's Eco Park Hotel Azalea.


I arrive on a crisp blue-skied day, the sun enriching the alpine colours. High in the Dolomites of the Trentino-Alto Adige region is the quaint ski-town of Cavalese. This is the Italian-speaking part of the region. However, unlike most visitors, I am not here to ski, but to spend three inspired days at the plant-based Eco Park Hotel Azalea.



Finding a vegan-friendly hotel in the north of Italy is no easy feat in winter, particularly nearer to Christmas. Most 'veggie hotels' are closed come December. So when I find that Azalea is not only open, but also includes four course vegan dinners AND a Christmas pastry cooking class - it is exactly the experience I am looking for. After a few emails exchanged with Manuela and the staff, the hotel personally curate a program for my stay.



THE HOTEL


After catching three trains and a bus to get to Cavalese, all the way from the north west in Turin, I already have had quite the journey, albeit, a surprisingly smooth one. I push open the hotel entrance door and my energy shifts. I peel off my mittens and release a sigh. Warm interior colours, calming music and incense burning - it’s all so comforting. I arrive just after 2pm, before the check in rush. Later it’s a flurry of activity: families, toddlers, couples and cute dogs arriving by car from the outside world, ready for their three night stay. I seem to be the only English speaker and solo traveller. Most are Italian. Most have ski gear. I let my expectations melt away. I am here to relax, rest and taste. Anything else is a bonus.


When travelling alone, you can feel a little isolated at times. There’s a desire to share a thing or two with another human. The friendliness and warmth of the hotel staff allows me this connection. Yet the word ‘staff’ misses the mark…they seem more like a family.


Perhaps this quote from Azalea's website articulates it better:


“There are no employees and no customers: in fact, we call them collaborators and guests respectively. At Azalea, in our family, we go in search of kindness by serving smiles and cuddles for the future of our planet.”



THE RESTAURANT


A sure-fire way to make your guests feel welcome is to have a special table, set beautifully just for them throughout their stay. It’s the thoughtful little details, don’t you think? I am greeted with such affection by the waiting staff, and each night I seek out their conversation, their knowledge, their kindness. A special ‘grazie’ to Daniele, Angelo and Andrea, as well as Barbara and Manuela at Reception for looking after me.



One by one, guests arrive and by 8pm the restaurant is filled with a soundtrack of happy chatter. Four courses, which include an antipasto, entree, choice of two mains and a dessert. The menu heroes the vegetables with nourishing, local ingredients. We go on a journey. The first night begins light and fresh, as if cleansing our palates and our bodies. The chef honours the iconic fruits, vegetables and grains of Trentino. In two consecutive courses we are taken through apple orchards and cabbage patches, including a northern style waldorf salad and a serving of sauerkraut. I’m excited - we’re not in southern Italy any more Toto. It’s an Italian cuisine I’ve never been acquainted with. Only read about in books. I’m experiencing something new. I write down the names of local produce. The traditional use of segale (rye) in bread, a pate of cardoncelli from Alto-Adige (king oysters mushrooms) that are reminiscent of porcini. Do I taste caraway seeds in some of the dishes?



The organic wine goes down like cordial; too easily. The earthy onion soup with chickpea flour chips and mountain thyme wakes up my taste buds. I’m ready to leave it there, but I give into temptation with a small serving of strauben (‘fortaie’ in Cavalese dialect) a squiggly fried donut with a dollop of berry jam. The curly shape is created from the batter poured from a funnel straight into hot oil. Are you picking up the Austrian influence yet?


By the second night in the restaurant I already feel a familiarity creeping in, a belonging. I get comfortable at ‘my’ table. The familiar faces across from me. I am the only one dining alone. But with the warmth of the space, my journal, the friendly banter with the waiting staff and my attention on each dish, I feel full, complete. Though I do think how nice it would be to have my husband sitting across from me. Next time. Tonight’s antipasto buffet platter seems richer. And this is a good thing. Remember, we are in the mountains, where hearty food is the signature cuisine, traditionally to survive long, extreme winters. Butter beans, bruschetta, fermented carrots and a creamy bake of soft root vegetables. To balance, a light winter root salad follows with a zingy dressi