The Dolomites run in a northeasterly direction across the pocket of northern Italy that's east of Switzerland and directly south of Innsbruck, Austria. From the U.S., fly to Milan ($860 from New York, $1,010 from San Francisco, peak season) or Munich ($758 and $970, respectively) and proceed by train, bus, or rental car, or a combination of the three, to Canazei (200 miles from Milan and Munich) and Cortina (also 200 miles away). You can get around the Dolomites by bus or taxi, but a car ($274 per week from European Car Reservations at Milan's Malpensa Airport) allows for maximum flexibility.
Most towns have hotels and small, family-run pensioni, as well as tourist offices that provide detailed information about local room rates and availability. One of the glories of the Dolomites is the well-ordered system of 100-plus rifugi, or mountain huts, where climbers and hikers can wait out inclement weather and overnight in dormitory-style bunk rooms for a nominal fee, usually about $10 (stop in any local tourist office for information). In Canazei, the tourist office can be reached by phone (011-39-462-602-466). For Cortina accommodations, call 436-3231.
Rates are lower during prime summer climbing seasonmid-July through late Augustthan during the winter ski months, but early July and September offer even less-expensive prices and fewer tourists. In Canazei, the four-star Astoria hotel (601-302) lets rooms for $110 per person per night, including breakfast, before July 15 and $75 through late August. In Cortina, the Hotel Menardi is an elegant three-star establishment whose owners are knowledgeable about vie ferrate ($60 per night before July 15, $95 through August, plus breakfast; 436-2400).
For vie ferrate, you'll need a helmet and a harness, as well as a self-belay device consisting of two locking carabiners, ten feet of climbing rope, and a "kinetic impact shock absorber" (also called a KISA, or dissipatore to locals). The KISA functions like a climber's standard belay-plate, dissipating the impact of a fall by offering resistance to the climber's tie-in rope, which has been threaded through it. All of the aboveincluding $40 self-belay kitscan be purchased in equipment shops in Canazei and Cortina.
In the Dolomites, sunny romps can turn into stormy epics. Purchase and study a good guidebook (the best, and to date the only one in English, is Via Ferrata: Scrambles in the Dolomites, $22 through Adventurous Traveler Bookstore, 800-282-3963). Also be sure to invest in a "Kompass" series map on a scale of 1:25,000available in bookstores in the region.
To learn about weather, routes, and techniques, many first-timers hire area guides. For the west-central region of the Dolomites, the booking office is in the town of Campitello di Fassa at 462-750-459. In the east-central village of Cortina call 436-868-505.