The village of Madonna di Campiglio, the ski area main base, is at 1520m; the slopes rise to 2,504m and the lowest point on the system is near Pinzola at 800m, though maximum uninterrupted vertical drop is 1300m, from Doss di Sabion (2,100m) to the valley near Pinzolo, although you will need good snow cover to make it all the way down.
Several sectors make up the skiing: to the west of Madonna, Cinque Laghi and Pradalago which is the gateway to Monte Vigo above Marilleva and Monte Spolverino above Folgarida; to the east, Passo Groste and Monte Spinale.; and to the south Doss del Sabion with runs down to Pinzolo.There are aslo nursery runs at Campo Carlo Magno, a small staellite resort of Madonna's which also has a lift up to Spinale.
The western sectors are lower and more sheltered, with most of the slopes cut through trees - perfect in a storm or limited visibility - but also very charming on a blue-sky day, with impeccably groomed pistes, great views and a relaxed ambience. The link to Folgarida and Marilleva is on this side, from Monte Vigo accessed from Pradalago.
Rising nearly 500m higher to the wilder and more open Passo Groste, broad gentle slopes (the reds here are barely that) put you between rugged Dolomite cliffs and peaks, with much of the skiing above tree-line. Monte Spinale is an engaging sideshow with a steep descent direct back to town; for anyone staying on this side of town it is also the logical starting point each day to avoid the need to bus to one of the more distant base stations.
The most obvious problem during busy periods is the Cinque Laghi cable car which is simply too small (it's the last of the resort's original lifts) and can generate big queues; and once you're at the base station, there's no convenient alternative to divert to.
The other issue is the layout - the two sides of the valley are only linked at the Groste base station where a footbridge with magic carpet links skiers to the Fortini chair into the Pradalago area; this point is well out of town but gets busy.
Back in town, the main Cinque Laghi and Pradalago cable cars are within reasonable walking distance of each other but crossing to Monte Spinale to access the other side of the valley and link into Passo Groste is a bit of a schlep. At least none of this is an issue for beginners who need only get to Campo Carlo Magno where three nursery lifts cover a gentle entirely separate area.
With the general proviso that in Italy 'ski school is for kids', there's a well established minority English-speaking clientele (historically very much in the beginner bracket), so the ski schools should be ready for you though language can sometimes be an issue.
As importantly, the terrain is ideal - a separate nursery area, free of speeding experts, followed by a vast network of gentle runs across all the areas. Only Monte Spinale will be irrelevant, though even that has a blue option leading gently back towards the lower Groste slopes.
An easy route right from the highest point on Groste is a bonus, ensuring that beginners in need of inspiration get their fair share of alpine views and of the scale of the mountains. Likewise, though the words 'trees' and 'skiing' seldom inspire as much enthusiasm in beginners as they do in expert skiers, the gladed runs of Pradalago and Cinque Laghi will surely show first timers what a visit to the mountains in winter is all about.
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Over a third of the area is made up of red runs, though they're generally not severe by normal standards. There isn't the super-high intermediate mileage available in the big French domains but there is good variety, with lots of charming forested slopes opening onto great views - running Cortina d'Ampezzo and Val Gardena a close second in this department. Without being very high, there's also good snow-reliability.
Classic red runs are the Genziana Bassa in Pradalago; the Vagliana for endless south-facing laps; and Cinque Laghi's FIS course, the 3Tre. A good day out is to start with the ride up to Cinque Laghi, and work round the resort in a clockwise direction, to end on Monte Spinale. Diversions to Marilleva and Folgarida are easily possible within the day for reasonable skiers, and there's little prospect of being marooned far from home when lifts close, even if there are slow members of your group, or if you get waylaid by lunch.
The amount of blue runs shown on the piste map shouldn't put anybody off - many of them follow beautiful routes, particularly on the forested slopes, and with their excellent snowmaking and grooming, they are a good chance to let rip. There's also an enjoyable sense of scale about the longest routes - it's 7km back to the valley from Passo Groste.
There are a handful of direct descents below the tree-line that qualify for black status, making up 11% of Madonna di Campiglio's ski area. The rest of the challenges lie off-piste and though it's not a renowned freeride area, there's enough for a few days at least, with the added advantage of minimal competition for the goods.
The Spinale Direttissima is the steepest run in resort - a direct route down to the village from Monte Spinale; the Canalone Miramonti on the other side of the valley is short and sharp and often used for racing; Amazzonia is the only black piste on Pradalago.
Above Marilleva the black run on Dos de la Pesa deserves its grading.
The rund above Pinzolo tend to be steeper than those at Madonna, so pose more challenges for experts. The blacks at the top are good fun. The red that goes all the way into the valley needs good snow conditions.
Other than this excellent park, the terrain is not totally boarder-friendly, with too many flats and gentle slopes for competent riders. But it's an unthreatening place to work on your skills, and the lift system has only three drag lifts to contend with.
From the same starting point, but heading back to Madonna is a ski tour, marked on the piste map, that's perfect for a novice off piste adventure in springtime; it winds gently across the upper slopes and behind Monte Spinale to drop right into town. Variants of this stay higher under the cliffs of the Brenta, leading into the Vallesinella ending at a refuge before skating out into the main valley below Madonna.
Lower down from Passo Groste, the Val Vagliana, off the back of Dosson di Vagliana, starts down the face of a fairly open north facing ridge and into a deserted wooded valley to emerge at the cross country circuit above town.
Over on Cinque Laghi, a half hour skin takes you to a ridge and into the empty valley that separates this area from Pradalago. There are several couloirs to choose from, staying high enough up the ridge to avoid the thick woods that cover the slopes towards town. Exit along the valley bottom to join the Amazzonia run back down to Madonna. Finally, towards Marilleva, you can tour up to the pass of the Val Gelada, skiing back down into Marilleva.
It's doubly important to have a great place to stop for lunch when you're surrounded by mountains like the Dolomites and the clarity with which all the huts and mountain restaurants are marked on the ski map gives a clear idea of the priorities around here.Best restaurant views are from the Ristorante Stoppani (Passo Groste) and Ristorante Laghi (Cinque Laghi); there's a mixture of table- and self-service, and no monster factory-eateries.
It's afternoon tea in a different language and culture. Try the Nardin café or Bar Maturi and Pasticceria Pasquini, which share the same space - bar and chocolate shop combined; similarly Bar Suisse - the place to go for anything from cocktails to light snacks with coffee and tea; carrot cake is a local speciality since Habsburg times. Day-long après-ski happens at Des Alpes Bar Café - brunch 11.30-3pm; happy hour 6-8pm.
Probably the main reason to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel (where half board is generally a good bet), is to try Madonna's eating options. Local specialities include spressa cheese, cotechino - spiced lard - and pancetta nostrana agliata - garlic flavoured bacon - all wonderful for a starter and useful as a picnic lunch with bread.
There are over 20 restaurants, most of good quality, with a mix of local mountain specialities and a range of Italian cooking. There are also snowcat trips to mountain restaurants in the evening, in case you failed to get enough of them at lunchtime.
Restaurant al Sarca serves local specialities such as venison casserole served with polenta and other polenta dishes with cheese or mushrooms La Stube di Franz Josef, basement pub which serves snacks eg panini and pizza.
Nightlife, again, on the Italian model, revolves round extended dinners, and a bit of bar action. The Zangola is Madonna's place to disco.