Outfitter: Collett's Mountain Holidays
Price: from $372
Take Yosemite National Park, quintuple it in size, sprinkle in Swiss-style villages and chalets, add German and Italian accents, and stir in Austrian cuisine with some of the flavors of Northern Italy, and you've got the Dolomites, a slice of Europe long neglected by Americans. Luckily for us Yanks, this splendid region, with its cathedral-shaped peaks and meadows of wildflowers, has not been lost on Europeans. The Dolomites' extensive network of mountain lodges and Via Ferrata—trails that use a system of metal ladders, cables, and bridges to negotiate otherwise unhikable routes—makes it easy to access.
While it's getting increasingly harder for Americans to plan affordable European trips, U.K.-based Collett's Mountain Holidays offers true bargain Dolomites vacations that give mountain enthusiasts an exceptional level of flexibility and service. Collett's packages are simple. First, you choose your accommodation in one of three villages. Options range from self-catering apartments to hosted chalets and luxury alpine hotels. Weekly per person rates range from about £185 for a self-catering apartment to £560 for luxury accommodations with daily breakfasts and three-course dinners included (about $372 to $1,125; see XE.com for current conversion rates).
When you arrive, you can decide each day what activities to do. Free guided walks (one easy to moderate and one challenging) depart from each village five days a week. Also five days a week, guides lead two different technical Via Ferrata hikes, and four days a week resident artists lead informal painting sessions, also at no extra cost. To arrange activities, simply register the night before with the Collett's office in each village. For an extra charge, you can also go on a guided glacier hike, trek to the 10,967-foot summit of Marmolada, or try other activities such as paragliding, rafting, or mountain biking.
"I couldn't recommend Collett's highly enough," says Tom Wilson of Worcester, England, who visited the Dolomites with his wife in June. "What really appealed to us was the fact that we could join in [the activities] if we wanted to and didn't have to stick to a rigid timetable. A few of the days I was able to join in with a Via Ferrata or high level walk [while] my wife could join a [lower level] walk. The staff was faultless and always at hand to help, in the chalet, on the walks, at office hours, and even if you bumped into them on the street. Collett's also seemed a lot cheaper than any of the other companies we looked at."
During the summer months, Collett's operates trips from late May through late September. You can arrive and depart any day you like. The nearest international airport is located in Venice. Collett's can arrange airport transfers or a rental car as an added expense.