by Jade Conroy, The Telegraph, May 25, 2018
It was inside a beautiful wooden-hulled Riva, gently bobbing on the wishbone-shaped Lake Como, that I found myself wishing that I had brought a waterproof jacket. It wasn’t how it was supposed to be: when you think of the lake, your mind conjures up images of calm, teal green, sun-mottled water, tanned skin and the endless opportunities to jump in.
Cut to the reality of spring, however, and my friend and I were drenched. And not because of rain (though it was impending), but because of a bumpy ride up the wishbone’s left fork. For no-one told us – not even the man who showed us how to drive the boat – that if you keep slowing down, especially against the current, you will get splashed. A tip: push the accelerator down and go for it, just as we did when we spotted the pointed fingers of lightning menacingly strike above a mountain in the distance. It was time to go back to our lakefront home.
As we zoomed past pastel-coloured palazzos and the intricate facades and formal gardens of cypress tree-framed villas, our end point came into view: Il Sereno. Two years old, the hotel cuts a distinctively modern silhouette against the more classical lines of this region: expect an angular creation made up of stone, glass and wood. It’s a rare creation too, not only as the first new hotel to be erected on the lake in decades, but also as the first architectural project by interior designer Patricia Urquiola, a native of Spain but resident of nearby Milan.
Inside Il Sereno, you'll encounter the cream of the world’s design crop: rounded Agape tubs in bathrooms; Glas Italia perspex side tables that shine the colours of a mermaid’s tail; and Emu wire chairs, a modern interpretation of tropical peacock thrones.
In fact, the whole place could serve as a design museum for chairs - my personal favourites were the two green easy chairs in the lobby. Many of the pieces – such as the hanging globe lamps on bedroom walls and the Fifties-style minibars – were custom-designed by Urquiola specifically for this project; others were handpicked by her alone (names include Le Corbusier and Cassina, the latter of which she presides over as art director).
The aesthetic is very much the vision of one woman, and it comes off seamlessly, not only in design terms but also in locality: the palette, from grey blue to turquoise to peach, echoes the colours of the surrounding landscape. The abundance of wood, used in panelling in bedrooms and in the seemingly floating walnut staircase that leads from lobby to restaurant, reference the three custom-designed Cantiere Ernesto Riva boats tied to the jetty.
The 30 suites, which feel like mini Japanese ryokans, should be used by others as a blueprint of how to design a hotel room: nothing slams, clunks or jars, with everything – including lighting – thoughtfully placed. Angles are softened by touches like the squidgy pebble-shaped daybed on the terrace of every suite; the Porthault linens; the deep, cushion-adorned sofas; and the bathrooms lined in warm Travertine marble. All rooms have lake views; the Darsena Lago suite even has direct lake access.
The only other name brought on for the project was French botanist Patrick Blanc, king of the vertical garden. At Il Sereno he designed three pieces, one of which crawls up the side of the property and features 3,000 plants (it twinkles at night).
The abundant, bloom-filled gardens at the entrance to the hotel are also his. They look over the 18m (60ft) heated freshwater swimming pool below, which skirts the lake. From the lime-green sunbeds you can survey the passing boat traffic or gaze across to the other shore – the channel at this point of the lake is so slim that, on the hour, you can hear the church bells ring from both the local church and the one from the other side of the water.
It’s also worth visiting the nearby Villa Plianina, just five minutes on the hotel’s vaporino boat or an easy 25-minute hike through luscious forest. The 16th-century villa, which is also run by Il Sereno, has a remarkable history: Lord Byron, Stendhal and Napolean all came here on holiday, while composer Frankz Liszt played on the piano that still stands in the main lounge. A waterfall behind the villa still flows through its main courtyard.
Urquiola’s modern hand was tasked with updating the villa, though its traditional aspects remain: original terrazzo tiles and mosaics line the floors, and they are contrasted successfully with raffia chairs, modern coffee tables and potted plants. Available on an exclusive-use basis, its 19 modern bedrooms can be booked out for events such as weddings, plus there’s a spa with indoor lake-facing pool and sauna.
A year after opening, Il Sereno garnered further attention when its lakeside restaurant, Berton al Lago, earned a Michelin star. Chef Andrea Berton has created a menu which is like the architecture: Italian at its core but with a rule-breaking spin.
We sampled an intensely rich aubergine parmigiana ‘millefeuille’, which added pastry to every layer and was served with a basil-infused tomato sauce which had the surprising texture of ketchup; and gooey ribbons of buckwheat tagliatelle which hid pieces of rabbit in a ragout sauce. Not to be missed are the local dishes, such as lavarello fish from the lake and saffron risotto from Pianura Padana. And flip straight to the Italian spumante section on the wine list.
The hotel also welcomed a new spa at the end of last year, located in a centuries-old boathouse next to the pool. Its dinky size is commensurate with the number of rooms: it has a hot tub on a balcony overlooking the lake (equally great at sunset or during a storm) and a sauna and steam room. Two of the three treatment rooms face the water, which are its one design flaw – those relaxing in the hot tub can make out the silhouettes of people behind the gauze curtains during a treatment.
At the helm of the spa menu is Swiss skincare brand Valmont, known for its cellular cosmetics and anti-ageing treatments which are sourced from natural ingredients, including pure water from the Valais Glacier, just over the border.
The signature Elixir des Glaciers ritual (including a full facial and invigorating massage), or the intense hydrating facial, will address skin – like mine – that had been subject to a long winter. The ultra-firm contracting massage I experienced was conducted with an almost ballet-like synchronicity and precision which banished my upper back’s knots after just an hour.
Aside from the spa treatment-room kink, the nadir of the stay was the service on the main reception desk, which was not as whip sharp as it should be at a hotel of this stature, and at times – especially around check-out – seemed stretched. But any annoyances will soon fade away when you’re on your balcony, or by the pool, or driving a Riva, contemplating the high mountains and the vast depths of the lake.
On the last day of our trip, we decided to trade in the Riva and instead took the local ferry from Torno to Bellagio, perhaps the most beautiful town to be found on the shores of Lake Como. Just a five-minute walk up the hill from the hotel, the village of Torno is a must-visit, a complete change of pace from Il Sereno. It features just one restaurant, one bar, a church and a ferry port with a rickety little ticket office.
As we pulled away from the dock, we rounded a corner and there Il Sereno was, her angles once again standing out among the classical fray. Other people on the deck pointed, took pictures and commented on how cool it was. Very cool indeed.
Carrier (0161 492 1357) offers three nights from £2,225 per person, based on 2 adults sharing an Alcova Suite and including breakfast, return flights from London Gatwick and return private transfers. Offer valid until November 6, 2018.