Five Star Opulence

by Heather Burgett

One could say that the entire Lake Como region itself is a five-star resort. In the busy season – April through October – the lake bustles with activity. Nestled at the base of the Swiss Alps in Northern Italy, Lake Como is one of the most affluent regions in all of Europe, if not the world.

Lake Como is a magical land of pristine waters and awe-inspiring mountain peaks.  It’s only an hour by car from Milan and Switzerland, two hours from St. Moritz, three hours from Venice, and five hours from Monte Carlo or Florence. The region has received more publicity in recent years due to George Clooney’s purchase of a villa on the lake. Other renowned villa owners include Donatella Versace and Richard Branson. The region boasts a rich history of European aristocracy; to this day, it is populated with counts and countesses tucked into mountainside villas.

With such an opulent history, one might be surprised to find only three five-star hotels peppering the perimeter of the lake.  Villa d’Este is the most famous resort in the region, partially due to its constant presence in the media for its celebrity clientele and signature style of polished extravagance. The resort is in Cernobbio, only a short drive from the city of Como.  Famous couples that have chosen to honeymoon here include Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as well as Ari Onassis and Maria Callas, whose romance started here.

Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio delivers a memorable five-star experience.  The third generation owner stresses personalized and intimate customer service that guarantees anonymity. In fact, the general manager has a contract stating that he cannot discuss hotel guests until they have died. So, he can only tell tales of long-gone dukes, duchesses, kings, queens and U.S. Presidents that once nestled their heads on Serbelloni down pillows. The Hotel’s Michelin star-rated Mistral Restaurant also features Executive Chef Ettore Bocchia’s famed molecular cuisine.

Just a short ferry ride across the lake from Bellagio, the elegant Italian Liberty designed Grand Hotel Tremezzo Palace is celebrating its Centenario (100 Year Anniversary) on July 10, 2010. This resort is surrounded by seven of the finest golf courses in Italy, all within a 90-minute drive. Tremezzo and Villa d’Este also feature the lake’s only two floating swimming pools.

The countless villas around the lake are world-class. Villa Balbianello is one of the mystical locations that George Lucas featured in Star Wars: Episode III. This also has to be the most picture perfect spot for a wedding. From simple civil ceremonies to extravagant weekend-long celebrations, Bellagio allows for any dream wedding imaginable. The staff at the Serbelloni assure that no request is too great for them to accommodate.

With its endless natural beauty, exhilarating fresh air and temperate climate, Lake Como has an intoxicating allure. Most couples that have had a wedding or anniversary here return annually. Activities include regional gastronomy, excursions on foot, golf, spas, casinos (40-minutes away), hang-gliding, biking, horseback riding and boating. There is also shopping for traditional crafts of fine silk and handblown glass. Lake Como has an unlimited supply of entertainment for everyone. Apparently one guest at the Serbelloni has even booked a room for the same week each year “until he dies.”

Staying in the picturesque resort town of Bellagio might be as close to living in a real life fairy tale as one can get. The quaint ancient village is known as the “pearl of the lake,” and with good reason. Mr. Spinelli, the general manager of Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, elaborated on the region’s tumultuous history as well as the high standards of his hotel. We talked over lunch as we ate “fish of the lake,” Lavorello, and an exquisite regional appetizer, Persico–black rice tossed with just the right amount of melted artisan cheese, drizzled with sage butter and topped with delicate tiny fried perch-like fish.

The next day, we departed at 11:00 a.m. for a private boat ride around the lake. A pleasant driver rattled off all the details in Italian regarding the villas and towns we passed. At that hour, the signature Lake Como lighting that reminded me of dusk’s “Magic Hour” was casting a soft translucent amber glow on everything. With the Alps looming high above us, our boat floating over the glass-like water, and having experienced first-rate hospitality, I might have found my own personal Shangri La that requires a yearly expedition.