Our Italian Adventure: From Florence to Lake Como

We hardly need to remind anyone of Italy’s wonders—but we would be remiss to not offer some insight on two truly luxurious properties we recently had the pleasure of visiting. 

We began our Italian holiday in Florence, capital city of the Tuscany region and the birthplace of the Renaissance, making it a great destination for anyone who enjoys art and history or for those who consider themselves an oenophile or “foodie.” During our visit, we made a base out of Villa La Massa.

Technically located in the adjacent town of Candeli, Villa La Massa is both close enough to the Florence’s historic center that it’s not a hassle to get to and from the property, but far enough away that it offers a quiet respite when you’re looking for some down time. Succinctly put by Arianna Cirigliano ([email protected]), senior sales manager, the hotel is “a countryside resort at the gates of Florence.”

Mulino, or the Mill, Villa La Massa
Mulino, or the Mill, is one of the five guest buildings located within the Villa La Massa’s 25 acres. (Matt Turner)

Built in the 13th century by European aristocrats, Villa La Massa remained a private home until it was converted into a luxury hotel in 1953. The property, which is a current member of The Leading Hotels of the World, was purchased by Villa d’Este Hotels in 1998, which then began a complete restoration of the hotel. There are five guest buildings located within the property’s 25 acres: Villa Nobile, Mulino (the Mill), Villino (the Cottage), La Limonaia (the Lemon House) and Casa Colonica, all but the last offering views of the Arno River. In total, there are 51 rooms and suites, as well as three long-stay apartments. 

While all buildings and rooms are of typical Tuscan design and décor, Casa Colonica and La Limonaia both have a more contemporary feel to them, whereas the other three buildings evoke a Renaissance atmosphere with canopy beds, frescoed ceilings and tapestries. We stayed in Room No 76. in La Limonaia, a ground-level Double Exclusive room. These accommodations average 430 square feet and offer views of either the park or Arno River (tip: request a room on the second floor for better views of the river). While ground-level rooms don’t quite have the same view, they do have their own private garden space with lounge chairs. It’s the perfect space to relax with a good book or enjoy a breakfast al fresco.

We also loved the marble bathroom with a large rainfall shower. Separate temperature controls for the bathroom and radiant heating in the flooring were pluses, as well. 

The Double Exclusive is a great size for couples but if you’re traveling with a larger group, the rooms can be connected to a Suite Exclusive; speaking of, these are the most requested room categories on property. These (roughly) 592-square-foot rooms are located in the Noble Villa, Mulino, Villino and La Limonaia. Views will vary from the resort’s olive groves, lemon trees and cypresses to the Chianti hills and Arno River.

THE L’Oliveto Bistrot at Villa La Massa
The L’Oliveto Bistrot at Villa La Massa serves Tuscan dishes and Italian staples inside a former barn and on a poolside terrace.  (Villa La Massa)

For the best views, book the Arno Suite, located in the Villino, Villa La Massa’s most recently constructed building (early 20th century). The Arno Suite is a favorite amongst guests due to its private garden and a terrace directly overlooking the river. For a romantic evening, arrange for a private dinner on the terrace overlooking the Tuscan countryside. And for more space, the suite connects to a Junior Suite Top (combined, they are billed as the resort’s Presidential Suite). 

For even larger parties, consider the Casa Colonica, home to just four rooms and a kitchen for private classes, show dinners, wine tasting and more. Note: The most difficult time of year to book at the resort is typically May and June; make reservations at least six months out to ensure availability.

Dining at Il Verrocchio (named for Andrea del Verrocchio, instructor to Leonardo da Vinci, among others) is a must. Offering indoor and terrace seating (right along the river, so be sure to opt for this if the weather permits), it is the hotel’s gourmet dining experience, serving regional Tuscan cuisine as well as other Italian dishes. Here we had one of our favorite dishes to date of all our travels: A Homemade Boar Tortellone with Saffron, Cacio Marzolino Cheese and Dark Chocolate. If we weren’t just as excited for our entrée (Black Truffle Guinea Fowl in Gravy with Celeriac), we would have asked to have the tortellone again for the main course—and maybe even dessert (it did have dark chocolate, after all). 

Pretty cool: The hotel makes olive oil from the olives it grows on property. During dinner, you can sample it along with plenty of fresh bread. 

Before or after dinner, be sure to stop by the bar, located in Villa Nobile (also home to the check-in, spa and 21 of the guestrooms). The signature cocktail is the Iris Cocktail, which is similar to a Cosmopolitan except it substitutes Cointreau with a local iris liqueur. If you make your way to the bar after dinner, ask for the Tira Misu Cocktail, essentially an espresso martini with Mascarpone cheese. For “research” we tried each and both were excellent. 

Il Verrocchio also serves breakfast, where you can opt for a buffet or an à la carte menu. 

The other dining option is L’Oliveto Bistrot, serving Tuscan dishes and Italian staples inside a former barn and on a poolside terrace. Tip: There is a private dining room here with views of the park and hills. There is also seasonal programming like the weekly “pizza nights” being offered in partnership with famous pizzaiolos (available June 8 to September 3, 2022). 

It’s also worth spending some time at the essentially brand-new pool (it was set to debut in 2020 but the pandemic delayed its unveiling). For further relaxation, the spa has two treatment rooms (one single, one double) and has exclusive use of Officina Santa Maria Novella products, a local pharmacy that’s been in operation since 1612. Additional facilities include a fitness center with Technogym equipment, a Roman bath, an “Emotional Shower,” Turkish bath and sauna; you do not need a spa treatment to make use of these. 

The majority of Villa La Massa’s guests (about 60 percent) come from the U.S., with much of the remainder coming from across Europe. The guests represent a mix of families (including multigenerational groups) and couples, especially those celebrating milestones. 

Although guests are fairly split regarding whether they rent a car or hire a private driver, Villa La Massa offers shuttle service from the property to Florence’s historic center in a Mercedes van. The trip is about 15 minutes (give or take a few minutes, based on traffic); the service runs on a schedule, or you can call the resort to get picked up from the city. 

There’s hardly a shortage of historic sites and museums to visit in Florence but a few notables are the Uffizi Gallery, housing works from the Renaissance; the Academia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s “David;” the Palazzo Vecchio Museum, comprising fortress-like castellations and a 300-foot-tall bell tower; and the Casa di Dante Museum. To see the inside of the famous Duomo, no ticket is needed but you will need to wait on the line to get in. While the painted dome interior is worth a view, instead, opt to climb the Duomo and view the city 463 steps up. 

Reach out to Cirigliano or Tamara Trambusti ([email protected]), front office manager, who can assist in arranging for private tours of any of the museums or landmarks in Florence. The pair can also assist with excursions outside of the city, such as visits to nearby wineries or even a wine “safari tour.” On this latter experience, you can enjoy a tour of a vineyard in an open Jeep before visiting the winery fermentation room, the aging cellars and the cellar for sparkling wines. Then, experience a wine barrel tasting of an aging vintage followed by a private wine tasting of seven estate wines while sampling cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil with local Tuscan charcuterie. 

If you’re out an about in Florence, a touristy but fun option is to grab a panino from any of the many sandwich shops (we enjoyed the eponymous panino at Il Cernacchio) or a gelato and walk along the Arno. For a better view of the city, head to the rooftop bar at The Westin Excelsior. Located right on the river, you will have great views from the Duomo and the belltower to the hills across the Arno. 

Two traditional trattorias that the team at Villa La Massa suggested were Ristorante Natalino and Ristorante La Giostra, both located in the historic city center. We opted for Ristorante Natalino and were not disappointed. Tip: Don’t miss the homemade lasagna; it was excellent. While we were dining, we spoke to a well-traveled couple from the U.K. who had stumbled upon the restaurant a couple nights earlier; despite being in the city for just three nights, they made sure to come back. That should speak for itself.  

For an aperitif or for dinner, Harry’s Bar is a popular spot. We made sure to swing by and try the Bellini, since this is where the drink was invented.

Florence from Westin rooftop
A view of Florence from the rooftop bar at The Westin Excelsior. (Matt Turner)

We weren’t ready to leave as Villa La Massa and Florence both had much more to offer than we had the chance to experience but, alas, that’s how it goes. It was then time for a quick trip up (by high-speed train and car) to Lake Como, where we stayed at Villa La Massa’s sister property, Villa d’Este, celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2022. Like its Florentine counterpart, Villa d’Este first opened as a private residence for the aristocracy (in 1568) but was converted into a hotel in 1873 and such it has remained. 

While we were admittedly not entirely familiar with Villa La Massa before our visit, Villa d’Este was something different, having a reputation for being one of the top hotels in the world. And when a property carries that sort of prestige, it can be easy to feel disappointed when things aren’t exactly perfect. But when a hotel that comes with that sort of distinction still exceeds your expectations, well, that’s when you know they’re doing something (or everything) right. 

Cardinal Suite
The Cardinal Suite at Villa d’Este is named after Tolomeo Gallio, who had built the Villa in 1568 as his private residence. (Villa d’Este)

Upon arrival by car to Cernobbio, the town where Villa d’Este resides, you get a quick glimpse of the lake and its splendor, but you’re quickly surrounded by a small town and smaller roads, with hardly any idea of what’s around the corner. Then, you come to the resort’s front gate and while you can now get another closer look at the lake, you still don’t have its best view — that comes after you check in and are escorted to your room, which (if you were smart) has a lake view. Take a second to appreciate the room itself, then head right to your terrace, open the doors and soak in Lake Como. 

We were there only minutes and our first question to Isabella Brusco, marketing manager for Villa d’Este and Villa La Massa, was, “How do you get people to leave?” Her response: “The guests just keep coming back.” In fact, she told us that many guests return to the property annually, to the point where many who were kids when they first visited with their parents are now parents taking their own kids to the hotel. 

Our home at Villa d’Este was room No. 223, a Junior Suite Lake View Deluxe (among the most requested accommodation types). These rooms, which range from 484 to 645 square feet, have a separate living and bedroom area, a walk-in wardrobe and a small balcony—perfect for enjoying breakfast or an aperitivo (or simply just the view). Like Villa La Massa, the bathrooms had different climate controls and had radiant heating in the floors. 

Villa d’Este
Villa d’Este is surrounded by 25 acres of park with centennial trees, statues and colorful flowers. (Matt Turner)

In all, Villa d’Este has 152 rooms split the main Cardinal Building (125 rooms), also home to the lobby, Beauty Center, Veranda Restaurant and Canova Bar, and the Queen’s Pavilion (27 rooms). Most room categories are available in both buildings, so it’s mostly a matter of preference: Some guests like to be closer to the “action” and stay in the Cardinal Building, while others prefer the additional seclusion that the Queen’s Pavilion offers.

That said, the largest suites on property—the Presidential Suites (861 to 1,022 square feet) and the Cardinal Suite (1,162 square feet)—are all located in the Cardinal Building. Good to know: One of the Presidential Suites can be connected to a Double Room with a lake view, while the other can be connected to a Double Executive Room and a Junior Suite Exclusive.

There are also four private villas (one, four, four and six bedrooms) on the resort property; our favorite of the bunch was the four-bedroom Villa Cima, which is located directly on the lake. A recent A-list celebrity stayed in one of these villas and we were told they wanted a hot tub, so Villa d’Este had one installed in the villa’s private backyard space for the duration of their stay. A fifth villa was recently acquired by the resort but it will likely serve as an events space right on the waterfront. 

Villa d’Este
The Veranda Restaurant is the main restaurant at Villa d’Este. It serves all three meals a day, and has a jackets-required policy for dinner.  (Matt Turner)

Rooms throughout the property have similar décor, only with the color palette changing from one to another. The villas, however, have more of a contemporary feel than the guestrooms in the two main buildings. 

Tip: Most rooms with balconies are located on Floors 1 and 2 across both buildings (meaning the second and third stories, since floors are numbered beginning with “0”). The top floor of the Cardinal Building, a more recent addition to the structure, has the shortest ceilings and smallest windows. 

Other facilities: The Beauty Center (spa) offers a range of treatments for face and body, from Total Body Peeling to antioxidant / regenerating treatments. Connected by underground passage, the Beauty Center leads to the Sporting Club, home to the fitness center, sauna and Turkish bath, as well as the squash courts, pool and more. There are also tennis courts behind the property on the hillside and the resort’s famous floating pool (the first of its kind) right on the lake. 

COMO Cathedral
The Como Cathedral has a number of paintings from the16th century. (Matt Turner)

The best way to take in the lake is from the lake itself. Be sure to book a traditional wooden boat tour. Your guide can take you around the lake, showing off the picturesque villages and villas dotting the mountainsides. Boat is also a typical way to get from one town to another; there are ferries that take you to nearby villages, as well as a hydrofoil which visits towns further away on the lake. The hotel can also arrange for private boat transfers. Another option entirely is to see the lake from seaplane but be sure to book well in advance. 

If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, take a walk through Villa d’Este’s gardens until you find the “Fortress path.” The (paved) path winds up the cliffside to a former fortress (visible from the resort’s main terrace). It’s a moderate-intensity hike but there are a few stone benches to take a breather if you need; plus, the view from the top, looking over the hotel and the lake is definitely worth it.

On the dining side, Villa d’Este has several options, including Il Platano, with an indoor dining room and terrace seating; the Sundeck, adjacent to the floating pool; the Grill, an informal dining venue near the Queen’s Pavilion; and the Veranda Restaurant, the main restaurant. Tip: Veranda, which serves all three meals a day, has a jackets-required policy for dinner. Be sure to make reservations for both lunch and dinner. Our meal at Veranda was excellent, and we enjoyed several unique dishes such as the Cod Fillet in Cooking Oil, Candied Fennel and Pink Grapefruit. It was a perfectly refreshing course. The signature dishes include a risotto, salt-crusted sea bass, and a Milanese veal cutlet. We were also fans of the Crêpes Suzette, prepared tableside.

Presidential Suite at Villa d’Este
The two Presidential Suites at Villa d’Este are located on the first floor of the Cardinal Building and range from 861 to 1,022 square feet. (Matt Turner)

Off-property, two typical trattoria that were recommended were Osteria del Beuc or Osteria Cantina Frasca, both located in Cernobbio. We opted for Osteria del Beuc (as the other was closed on Sundays, our free night). The Gnocco Firtto con Crudo di Parma (essentially a fluffy, savory fried dough with prosciutto) was one of our favorite dishes. Popular picks included an asparagus ravioli and a sliced steak. Another eatery we enjoyed was called MamaGina Cafè & Bistrò, a small touristy spot located in the mountaintop village of Brunate. While you can get here by car, the more exciting way is to use the funicular from Como town. There will be a line but it’s worth it for the experience — just be sure to grab a spot on the lowest section of the car, which offers the best views of the lake as you climb the hillside. 

At the top of the funicular are a few places to dine but we would suggest walking to the lighthouse (due to the incline and cobblestone path, it takes about 30 minutes with a few rests along the way). That said, the view from the lighthouse was tremendous — and you can see Villa d’Este! Nearby the lighthouse is MamaGina, which has a terrace with equally impressive views. We tried the Strozzapreti Pasta with Rabbit Sauce, which was very light for a pasta dish, perfect for the warmer weather, and filling enough after all the walking. Be sure to schedule at least a half-day for the trip to Brunate; if you’re up for more walking, you can combine it with a lakeside stroll through Como, which has an array of luxury shopping available.

Junior Suite Lake View Villa d'Este
A Junior Suite Lake View Deluxe at Villa d’Este has a separate living and bedroom area, a walk-in wardrobe and a small balcony. (Matt Turner)

For something a bit further afield, it’s not uncommon for Villa d’Este guests to visit Lugano, Switzerland, which is only a short drive away. Others will even make use of the resort’s helipad and will take day trips to nearby Monte Carlo.

Similar to Villa La Massa, most guests hail from the U.S. and range from adult couples/groups to families. The resort it typically open from March to November but in honor of the anniversary, Villa d’Este will stay open through the holidays this year. The busy season lasts from June to September and it’s recommended to book up to a year in advance. For inquiries, reach out to Patrizia Penna ([email protected]), reservations manager or Gregory Bradelle ([email protected]), director of sales and marketing.

A New Way to Get to Italy

French boutique airline La Compagnie this April began offering service from Newark Liberty International Airport to Milan Malpensa. The all-business class airline operates five weekly flights between the cities (Thursday through Monday) departing at 9:40 p.m. from Newark and arriving at noon the following day. Return flights depart Malpensa at 1:50 p.m. and arrive at Newark at 5 p.m.

For these flights, La Compagnie introduced a new Italian-infused food and beverage program, curated by Michelin-starred chefs such as Isabella Potì and Floriano Pellegrino. Wine pairings with selected labels from Italian organic wineries are also available.

La Compagnie
La Compagnie offers guests 76 full flat beds,15.6-inch seatback TV, and free Wi-Fi service. (La Compagnie)

Beyond the dining, guests onboard the new A321neo aircraft can expect 76 full flat-beds, a 15.6-inch seatback TV, and free Wi-Fi service. They are also given an amenity kit with Caudalie products. Everything onboard is included with the cost of the ticket, which is changeable and refundable at no cost up to 24 hours before departure.

At Newark, guests have access to The Plaza Lounge and in Milan, they are fast-tracked through security and can make use of the Lounge Montale.  

The entire experience was seamless and we wish we could travel this way all the time.

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