Lake Como is a view you couldn’t tire of – whatever the weather or season, the panorama of water, forest and sky is never less than enchanting. We visited in late April and experienced it in all its guises. On our first day, bleak skies and bucketing rain threatened to stop play. Still it was a pleasure simply to sit back with a strong Italian coffee and watch the vista change gradually – clouds shrouding the tops of the mountains as boats passed in a stately fashion, interrupting the stillness of the shimmering lake.
By the following morning, all had cleared. The sun was throwing everything into glorious Technicolor – muted grays replaced with dazzling blues and greens, the low mist lifted to reveal snow capping the mountains, their bases dotted with pretty peach and yellow villas. And below, as ever, the boats passing, busier today with tourists taking in the view from the water.
Long known as a glamorous destination for the celebrity set, if you are looking for a luxurious break then Lake Como is hard to beat. About 30 miles north of Milan if you want to extend a business trip, it’s as little as a 45-minute drive from Malpensa airport depending on where you choose to stay.
Located east of lakes Maggiore and Lugano, in the foothills of the Alps, Lake Como is shaped like a slender two-pronged fork, with the city of Como itself situated at the foot of the western leg, and the popular town of Bellagio located in the center, where the branches meet. We chose as our base the superb Casta Diva Resort and Spa, set right on the lake about four miles up the winding eastern shoreline from Como, in the comune of Blevio.
Part of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the five-star luxury Casta Diva has a storied history. Villa Roccabruna, the grand house at the heart of the 280,000-square-foot property, was originally built in 1797 and 30 years later was bought by soprano Giuditta Pasta. A muse of Bellini, she was the inspiration for his opera, Norma, and the first to sing its famous aria, “Casta Diva.”
Rebuilt in the early 20th century, it became a hotel in 2010 following considerable expansion. It now includes 73 spacious rooms and suites split across nine villas set in manicured grounds. Designed in traditional or modern styles, most rooms have fabulous lake views that can be enjoyed from private balconies or terraces. My own suite was huge and had not one but two balconies, with understated, contemporary interiors that rightly deferred to the vista outside.
You could easily go to Casta Diva for the weekend and not leave the grounds. As well as containing ten suites, the main villa houses sumptuous, high-ceilinged salons for taking tea, and a cocktail bar for something stronger.
A covered walkway takes you to the expansive 14,000-square-foot spa – home to everything from a Turkish bath to a Himalayan rose salt room – and fine-dining restaurant L’Orangerie, which has a lake-view terrace and serves beautifully conceived and presented Mediterranean cuisine. Out front, meanwhile, and perfect for lazing the day away in peak season, is a floating pool and deck suspended right on the lake.
When you are ready to venture out, it’s worth setting aside at least half a day to explore Como itself – the resort lays on a free regular shuttle service (useful if you don’t have your own wheels, as taxis can be eye-wateringly expensive). We spent a happy afternoon wandering the narrow streets of the once-walled old quarter – the Duomo (cathedral), built between the 14th and 18th centuries, is spectacular – and watching the locals go about their business from café terraces. A leisurely stroll along the lakefront promenade was also lovely, and it was good to stumble across La Vita e Bella restaurant (Piazza Domenico Croggi 4), where we struggled to choose from the long list of bountiful, very reasonably priced salads.
Still, you can’t spend all your time on dry land here – it’s a must to get out on the water and explore the lake. Casta Diva runs a tour to Bellagio and back on its 20-seat boat (€85/$100 per person, April to September/October depending on weather). It wasn’t running on the day we had set aside, so instead we boarded a ferry from Como port. Services depart regularly throughout the day and you can hop on and off at the many villages that line the shore.
Our time was limited so we contented ourselves with heading straight for Bellagio, catching glimpses of local life in the towns – an outdoor karate class here, a game of basketball there – as the boat docked to offload and take on passengers. As we continued north – wondering which villa belonged to George Clooney – the lake widened to reveal ever more expansive views, until the densely packed pastel buildings of Bellagio unveiled themselves.
Undeniably beautiful and romantic, Bellagio is also very touristy, its waterfront terraces and steep alleyways packed with visitors even in spring. It has a wonderful atmosphere, though – La Punta (ristorantelapunta.it), on the edge of the town, looked like a particularly refined place to stop for lunch, with stunning views, while Bar Rossi, down by the ferry terminal, is an old-school spot for a negroni.
Still, after a couple of hours we were happy to retreat back to the tranquility of Casta Diva. Donning my thick white robe and snoozing on a sunbed by the floating pool, the early evening sun warming my face, I felt like a bit of a celebrity myself.