When it comes to balancing work, rest and play, South Tyroleans have the right idea. Words: ALISON GRINTER

What would be high on your list of ‘must do’ Italian destinations? Rome? Of course. Cinque Terra? Most certainly, Florence? Naturally. Venice? Definitely. South Tyrol? Huh?

If you’ve never considered the South Tyrol (also known by its Italian name Alto Adige or the widely used Süd Tirol) as a holiday destination then here’s what you’re missing out on: jagged mountains of devastating beauty with peaks that seem to reach for the sky like gothic cathedral spires, acres of grassy alpine meadows dotted with colourful wildflowers, mountain farms grazing cows and air so clean it can cure your bronchial chest after only two days (I should know – this is what happened to me!)

No wonder South Tyrol is a magnet for those seeking ‘wellness breaks’. Most hotels in the region offer spa treatments particular to the local Ladin culture such as hay baths and herb saunas.

If the name Süd Tirol sounds Germanic, that’s because it is. The region, which is as far north as you can go in Italy before bumping into the border, was part of Austria until 1919.

This has led to an interesting linguistic development where South Tyroleans are largely tri-lingual, with many able to switch effortlessly between German and Italian mid-sentence, with English as a bonus.

Popular with skiers in the winter months, South Tyrol has just as much draw in the summer with plenty of outdoor activities to ensure you earn your spa treatment in the afternoon.

Work – hiking
It’s one thing to gaze upon the Dolomites in all their serrated splendour, but the best way to appreciate them is to make like a mountain goat and climb the suckers. Lucky for us, we have trail guide Gunther on hand to show us how to use the sticks. That’s right- sticks! All serious-minded hikers use them. According to Gunther you’re meant to point them behind you, using them to push yourself forward with each step. This way you exercise your upper arms as well. Our three-hour walk takes us around the famous Drei Zinnen/Three Peaks which tower above us – its highest peak Cima Grande (Big Peak) is 2999 metres. The first climbing paths were created during World War I by soldiers, and it was here that Italy and Austria clashed until South Tyrol was handed over to the Italians at the end of the war.

To my eyes, the Dolomites are more mystical than other mountain ranges, as if straight out of prehistory. They got their name from the famous French mineralogist Deodat Gratet de Dolomieu who identified the carbonate rock responsible for the mountain’s characteristic colour and shapes. The Dolomites certainly has a better ring to it than The White Mountains, the name given to the range by the locals.

Rest – Hay bath
After a strenuous day’s walking, it’s time for some serious pampering. Situated in Sesto/Sexton in Val Pusteria, the family-run Alpenwellnesshotel St Veit offers a range of indigenous spa treatments including rose and salt baths in a giant copper kettle. But the one we’re all dying to try is the hay bath. South Tyrolean farmers discovered the health benefits of hay centuries ago -quick naps on freshly cut hay soothed their aches and pains.

We’re a long way from such bucolic simplicity in the hotel’s luxurious spa. As I lie in a trough-like bed, my smiley masseuse Verina takes out the warmed hay and places it over the length of my body before wrapping me in a sheet and covering me with a blanket. So how does it feel? Well, I’m not going to lie: it feels horribly itchy and scratchy. But as steam rises up under the ‘bed’ suffusing me in warmth the itchyness disappears and I suddenly feel blissfully relaxed – so much so that I could quite happily lie undisturbed like this forever.

Unfortunately, the hay bath only lasts 15 minutes so I have to shake myself out of my stupor just long enough so I can walk the few metres to the sunbed beside the pool.

Play – Alpine food and drink
After pampering, it’s time to tuck into some hearty South Tyrolean fare. The co-mingling of Austrian and Italian culture has led to some interesting epicurean anomalies such as Schlutzkrapfen, a regional variation of ravioli made from spinach and a local farm fresh cheese called topfen. There’s also South Tyrol’s answer to prosciutto: speck, a cured meat that is deliciously robust in flavour.

We also dined on pan-fried fawn (yes, baby deer: it was delicious) and sampled many of the local wines. South Tyrol has an average of 1800 hours of sunshine a year which makes it perfect for wine-making. The region accounts for only one per cent of Italy’s wine production and yet wins plenty of prizes for it’s world famous, aromatic, Gewürztraminer.

• Alison Grinter travelled to South Tyrol with Vitalpina Hotels (see www.vitalpina.info) and stayed at the Alpenwellness Hotel St Veit (www.hotel-st-veit.com or call 0039 0474-710 390). Double rooms start from €60/£40 per person per night on a half-board basis (seven nights start from €420/£280).