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Adler Spa Resorts - A Delicate Balance in the Foothills of the Italian Alps

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

 " 'Adler' is German for 'eagle.' There are eagles here in the Dolomites. We see them flying over the snowy peaks.  Actually, they don’t fly so much as soar. A small extension on the top of their wings makes them tilt gently from side to side. I love to watch them.”

It is with such an image that we are introduced to the Adler Spa Resorts in Val Gardena, a valley in the foothills of the Italian Alps, by Andreas Sanoner who -- together with his brother Klaus -- owns and operates the property. We are seated in the lounge of  Balance, the wellness component recently added to this Tyrolean resort complex before a wall of windows framing views of perpetually snow-covered Alpe di Siusi and a 1,490-foot mountain that seems to rise perpendicular from the ground.

It is a beautiful late October afternoon, and the needles on many of the fir trees are a glorious shade of gold. “Do firs participate in fall foliage in the South Tyrol?” we wonder. There is something of the make-believe in the scene, an impression that only deepens later on when we walk up and down the hilly streets of the town of Ortisei in the shadow of the Alps and take in the jumble of Rapunzel-like towers,  steeples, and roofs that curve crescent-like up to a single point. It is as if we have plunged into a storybook, or a painting by Matisse or Chagall. There is a ski lift rising up the mountainside too, idle now but bound to be operating round the clock in a month or so. This is, after all, part of the biggest interconnected ski area in the world.

For the moment though, it is enough to look out at this particular autumnal view as we sip bracing herbal tea and listen to the story behind the Adler Spa as told by Andreas who is tall and fair, more Austrian than Mediterranean-looking, and a two-time finisher in the New York City Marathon.

 “I prepare by running on the mountain trails,” he tells us with an insider’s smile, then returns to the subject of eagles/adlers. “They are  monogamous; each couple stakes out its own very large territory,” he says. “Once the eaglets are big enough, they have to fly away from the nest and find their own place. In all of the South Tyrol, there are only four or five couples. In this area, there is only a single pair.”

There is also only a single pair of Adler resorts, the second having opened in Tuscany in 2004. “This property goes back to 1810,” Andreas tells us, “but its first mention is in a land register from 1288 where it’s listed as a farmstead belonging to the Ortiseiters, for whom the village would be named. The next available reference is from some time in the second half of the 16th century when it’s described as a guesthouse.”

He continues, “Now, you may have noticed the wood carvings on buildings in the village, the little museum of wooden sculptures across the way from the hotel. This area has long been famous for such carvings. The wood is plentiful, and during the long winters,  farmers did not have much to do. So carving animals, religious figures, decorative items out of wood became a popular avocation.

“By the 18th century, it had become a settled industry. Some people began collecting the sculptures and traveling to distant places to sell them. As time went on, those who had a talent for selling began to open shops in cities, at first Munich and Milan, then Paris, London, Sydney, throughout America. Today Val Gardena sculptures are sold all over the world.

“Shortly before the French Revolution, five brothers from the region went to France to set up companies in Paris and Lyon. They succeeded, even in those turbulent times. Now it is 1810. The Revolution is over. One of them returns home and uses the money he has made to buy the guesthouse.”

Andreas Sanoner, to - gether with his brother Klaus,owns the Adler Spa Resorts
Andreas Sanoner, together with his brother
Klaus,owns the Adler Spa Resorts

Andreas pauses, then warms to the climax of his tale. “That was Joseph Sanoner, the founder of the inn he called the Red Adler. Then it became the Gold Adler, and then the Black Adler. About 50 years ago they dropped the color altogether. My brother and I are the seventh generation of proprietors, our children will be the eighth.”

And so was the Adler born, growing over the next two centuries from a small village inn to a five-star, 100-room year-round, in-town, yellow and cream-colored wood-trimmed hotel with three towers, backed by a 9,000 square-meter park where sylvan walkways edge flamboyant floral beds, verandas evoke those described in Thomas Mann’s ‘Magic Mountain,’ a free-form swimming pool emerges from indoors, and narrow pathways lead to grottos, sauna huts, and relaxation areas. These last additions are part of the comprehensive spa that has, in recent years, come to define the property, part of a process that did not begin until 1999, seven years after Andreas and Klaus had completed their studies at the University of Vienna and taken over the operation of the hotel.

 “We had the skiing season from Christmas to Easter and the summer season from mid June to early September,” Andreas told us. “And then all the hotels closed down. We were looking for something to extend our seasons.

“At that time, there were spas in thermal areas like Baden-Baden but not in resorts like ours. We were one of the very first, starting with four cabins, one masseuse and one cosmetician. Every two or three years we expanded.”

In less than a decade, the expansion had added up to the Wellness Oasis, a three-level extension to the yellow and white hotel where in private rooms and public spaces, a multitude of treatments and activities effect relaxation, wellness, beauty and fitness. Bath-robed guests gather in the reception area of ‘Dolasilla,’ named for a legendary princess of the Dolomites, to schedule one of the many types of body massages, peels, hot packs, facials, hair treatments, restorative baths and packs, manicures and pedicures.

People are swimming in or lounging around the stunning indoor-outdoor swimming pool in “Aguana,” or soaking in the hot tub or brine pool, or breathing in a sauna’s pure dry air or the aromatic vapors from a steam bath, or day-dreaming in a relaxing room with panoramic mountain views, or experiencing the odd but pleasing sensation of floating in an underground salt lake with enriched salts from the Dead  Sea.

Others are working out on fitness and cardiac machines arranged before a windowed wall so that the tedium of exercise is replaced by the ever-changing hues of sunlight on the Dolomites. And other still are taking classes in yoga, Pilates, stretching, and tai chi or partaking of the multi-faceted Aruyveda program, the ancient  holistic philosophy which encompasses the mind, body and environment using elements of yoga and meditation. Annemarie Sanoner, sister of Andreas and Klaus, discovered the discipline while living in India, became an Aruyveda therapist, and initiated the program at the Adler Spa when she returned home fifteen years ago.

The Hotel Adler had long been known for its guide-escorted excursions into the great outdoors: hiking, trekking, mountain biking, mountain climbing, snowshoeing, winter walking, not to mention the range of services connected to skiing the Italian Alps, which being south of the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps, are more protected from the elements and therefore less cold and windy.

But the spa has lent the resort an entirely new dimension. Its timing was on target. The audience was there. And, as Andreas and Klaus had hoped, it diminished the down time dramatically. “While the other resorts in the area are open only in winter, we are open nearly all year round,” Andreas said.

It also led to another expansion of the Adler experience in a related realm that was beginning to capture the public’s attention. “As the spa took off we began to see a demand on the part of some of our guests for facilities that promote wellness,” General Manager Klaus Kier told us. “They were looking for programs that could help them lose weight, learn to eat the right way, prevent illness, maintain health after their stay with us. We listened to them, and we recognized there was a need we could fill.”

General Manager Klaus Kier

Leader of Balance staff: Michaela Demetz

Adler Balance is the next step of the spa. Combining traditional medicine with alternative holistic healing methods, Dr. Giorgio Mazzola, a specialist in nutrition, detoxification and regeneration, works with a team of doctors and practitioners in preparing a personal diet and directing an individually designed program of massages, exercises, meditation, baths, facial  treatments, and Ayuveda sessions designed to cleanse and regenerate the body, mind and soul. (When Andreas told us he was inspired to create Balance after visiting spas in Sedona, Arizona, we knew where he was coming from.)

“Soon after we began Balance in 2007, it became apparent that the program required its own quarters,” he told us. “One of its key elements is that the doctor, the chef, the spa operators must be one-on-one with the guests. It has to be very personal. The 100-room main hotel was too big.

“So we took a look at the building we are sitting in right now,” he added. “It was an old hotel that we had bought more than ten years ago and ran as a separate property. Now we decided to convert it into a 30-room hotel solely for Balance guests. It was a very complicated project, an ambitious engineering feat. We had to build a garage and a tunnel that went underground and down the hill to connect to the main hotel.

“Construction started in April 2008, and we opened the day after Christmas of that year. The whole operation went very well. We have excellent workers in the region, great craftsmen.”

Looking down from its hillside setting over the Adler gardens, the six-story structure of the same cream-colored stone and wood trim found all over Otisei is wide and shallow, designed so that every room has an unobstructed view of the Dolomites. Rows of terraces are marked off by wooden posts and fences, lending the edifice a Tyrolean flair and providing yet another example of the tradition of quality woodworking  that defines Val Gardena.

That tradition is evident in the floor-wide public space of Balance that incorporates the lounge where we are sitting, the reception desk behind us, and the adjacent dining room. Light colored wooden walls, beams, and floors throughout connect the components and project a sense of serenity and well being.

Peter Pitschiadir is  Balance’s chef. He cooks everything at the moment in his open kitchen, he tells us. Nothing is made ahead of time, and everything is geared towards the individual needs of guests after consultation with Doctor Mazzola. Preparations contain little salt (salt cellars are on buffet tables), not many calories, but as many regional products as possible. “It is a balancing act,” he aptly remarks.

The Balance dining room accommodates 60 people, less than a quarter of the capacity of the hotel proper where five dining rooms can serve 250 at a single seating. We ended up in the largest of these at a window-front table we happily were able to secure for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the duration of our stay.

Left to right, Maitre d' Salvatore Pischedda, Head Chef Willi Larese, Second Maitre' Andrea Faccioli
Left to right, Maitre d' Salvatore Pischedda, Head
Chef Willi Larese, Second Maitre' Andrea Faccioli

We arrived in time for lunch. The waiter handed us a menu and, for the moment, we were flummoxed. It seemed an endless tasting menu. And then we remembered: a few years earlier when we had our first meal at the Adler in Tuscany, we were reminded of the “Borscht Circuit” in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. “Order Everything” was a chapter title in our book “It Happened in the Catskills.” But then, as now, one word sums up a key distinguishing factor: Italy.

The dining rooms are off a sizeable hall that serves as reception, salad bar, buffet station, and bakery station. Lunch begins at the elaborate salad bar with home made herbal dressings, a variety of melons, cheeses, cold meats. A baker’s tray holds fresh-from-the-oven breads and rolls. Table service provides a cold appetizer -- shrimp cocktail for example, hot soup, a choice of home made pastas (the small spinach-filled ravioli we had were delicious), followed by a mixed grill of meat or fish (ours included wonderfully tender and rare tuna) with potatoes and fresh vegetables. Then it is back to the hall for dessert.

Ivan Adduci

Mico Misetic

Dinner at the Adler is a gala, candlelit event accompanied by live piano music, enhanced by wines selected from a cellar boasting 160 largely South Tyrolean vintages, and featuring a  six-course menu of sophisticated preparations using high quality, fresh and often local ingredients. One dinner included white asparagus with smoked salmon, or breast of quail as first course; garlic risotto with calamari, or ravioli of guinea-fowl and truffle butter as second; palate-cleaning sorbet; fillet of veal, or wild salmon, or cheese dumplings as third; a selection of fine Italian and French cheeses, crème brulée, and a buffet of gorgeous and irresistible high caloric desserts as fourth, fifth and sixth.

Here, as in Tuscany, we marveled at the scope of a kitchen that could offer such extensive menus, dishes that required complex preparations by expert chefs, and in sufficient quantity to amply feed 250 in well-managed dining rooms negotiated by a friendly and competent staff. As if this is not enough, menus change every day.

In several months, the Adler would be celebrating its 200th anniversary. From a little guest house, it has grown into a resort that caters to 11,000 people a year. The spa and Balance, clearly ideas whose time have come, have added to its allure and extended its season. And a new project is underfoot.

“Our next plan is to open another place on the plateau atop the mountain," Andreas tells us, pointing to the mountainside outside the window. "It is the highest plateau in Europe; the altitude is between 5,900 and 6,890 feet. We are going to build a small year-round resort up there, only 45 rooms, very typical and also very high quality. There will be one central building with a spa and a restaurant, small huts, very nice rooms. We hope to open the summer of 2011.”

We comment that the Adler operation has been going on for nearly two centuries and just now it seems everything is exploding. “You are going in so many directions,” we say.

“That’s true,” Andreas responds. “But the whole world is. If you write a book covering the last 200 years, you can see how for the first 170 years of that period, life went on with ups and down. There was a lot of progress; there were wars as well. But in the last 30 years, there has been an explosion of scientific and technological advances in directions and at a rate never conceived of before.”

Clearly the Adler is participating in the future, anticipating and setting trends. Yet much of the resort’s appeal continues to lie in its sense of tradition, in the ways in which  its rich and colorful past are projected.

Elly Sanoner -- she places her hand over yours when she speaks to you."
Elly Sanoner -- "she places her hand over
yours when she speaks to you"

Elly Sanoner, mother of Andreas, Klaus and Annemarie, is representative of such a spirit. She is a fond and familiar figure to the many guests who have returned to the hotel year after year. Gentle and warm, she places her hand over yours when she speaks to you.

We were having coffee with Elly in the dining room. She looked out the window and pointed to a building across the way. “That is where I live,” she said. “You can see how easy it is for me to get to my office.” At the age of  86, she is still working in the business she married into 54 years ago. For rest and relaxation, she says, she goes to the spa in Tuscany.

Elly is a link between the Adler’s past and its future. “There have been many famous guests here,” she told us. “My mother-in-law used to talk about the time the last Kaiser of Austria came to the hotel. The children made a wooden statue for him.

“But come, I want to show you something.” She led us to a couple of small rooms off the main dining room. “These rooms are ‘stubens,’ the part of the house where the family would gather hundreds of years ago,” she said. We looked around at the bright and inviting spaces and the extensive use made of wood: the knotty wooden walls and floors, the small tables lined up against the walls and windows separated by sconces and lanterns once lit by candles, the Tyrolean-style chairs “These are part of the original guest house. They go back over 400 years.”

We passed into an arched, low-ceilinged hallway that ended at a small door which opened to the street. “This was part of the guest house as well,” Elly said. “The stubens and this hallway are  all that remain from that time.” 

We went up into the main reception area of the hotel where corridors are lined with photographs going back to the beginning of the last century. There is a well used  library and piano bar richly paneled with wood. A magnificent wooden staircase from the 1920s is center stage.

And the tradition lives on. In Balance, an irregular arrangement of what could pass for flattened tree trunks in a surrealistic stage set serve as dividers between the lounge and dining room. At the same time, they draw the eye from one space to the other, the woodwork serving to unify as much as separate. Created by a local artist, these modern visions give a centuries’-old medium new means of expression, representing in a 200-year-old hotel the continuum and vitality of  Val Gardena’s distinctive art.

I-39046 Ortisei/
St. Ulrich/Groden
Val Gardena, Dolomites

Phone: +39 0471 775 000

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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