A lovingly restored 18th-century villa and a glamorous shorefront resort at Lake Como are the stuff of dreams. Now, Passalacqua has landed the top spot in the World’s Best 50 Hotels.
Sep 20, 2023 12:41am
When you are after a literal example of “living the dream”, being handed a glass of perfectly chilled prosecco while on board a 1961 Riva timber speedboat that’s skimming across Lake Como
on a cloudless day is hard to beat. So breathtaking is the combination of the boat’s streamlined retro beauty, the water’s otherworldly glimmering, the magnificent Swiss Alp backdrop and the passing parade of glorious villas and picturesque, hill-hugging towns that it’s hard not to believe you’ve fallen down some kind of Alice-like rabbit hole and landed in an actual dream.
Lake Como is one of those exceedingly rare places that not only lives up to its considerable hype but is also capable of surpassing it. The beautiful northern Italian lake has a long-time reputation as a playground for the glamorous, the artistic and the powerful – a rollcall of Italian aristocracy, Napoleon Bonaparte, the great opera composer Vincenzo Bellini and, in more recent developments, celebrities like international lawyer Amal Clooney and her movie star husband George. All that inherent hype may have you girding yourself for a bit of lily gilding and faded glory.
Instead, and particularly after last year’s opening of Lake Como’s newest hotel, Passalacqua, a lovingly, meticulously restored 18th-century villa sitting above seven acres of terraced gardens that run down towards the lake’s shore, you quickly understand the glory is anything but faded.
Bought and re-invented by the De Santis family, owners of Grand Hotel Tremezzo, the operatic shorefront resort hotel 20 minutes further north that’s an obvious design inspiration for film director Wes Anderson, Passalacqua is a hotel that succeeds so spectacularly by not feeling like a hotel at all.
The bones help. This 24-suite hotel has been a private residence since it was built in 1767. Under the meticulous eye of De Santis granddaughter Valentina, the private home vibe has been studiously maintained across Passalacqua’s three separate buildings. Original details, including a dizzying array of terrazzo floor design that includes swirls and medallions, flowers and fruit, have been sympathetically teamed with exuberant artisan light fittings and furniture upholstered in lavish fabrics.
The main villa features 12 suites, all with lake views, every one individually designed in baroque style that highlights classic Italian craftsmanship – from hand-blown Murano glass chandeliers (even in the oversized, marble-lined bathrooms), restored frescos, bespoke silk lampshades by Fortuny and mirrorwork by small family company Barbini, which includes the music box-like mirrored minibar cabinets, their reflective ä surfaces matching the glimmer of the lake. The attention to detail is astounding, down to the television screens hidden in bespoke steamer trunks at the foot of the bed and accessed at the touch of a button. The largest of the villa suites is named for Bellini and includes the double height music room where the composer created one of his most famous works, Norma.
Behind the villa is the Palazz, a former stable block that now houses eight suites, all dark reds and greens, exposed beams and damask walls. Passalacqua’s spa and steam rooms are there too, mysterious, glamorous spaces. Then there’s Casa al Lago, a stylish, intimate residence of four suites designed in the 1970s, all split-levels, private terraces and fireplaces, that is at the bottom of the terraced gardens with spectacular views of Lake Como.
Passalacqua is located in the village of Moltrasio, a place of winding streets, pink-tiled and stone-walled buildings, steep climbs and unexpected waterfalls renowned for its spectacular views of the lake and a particularly good gelato store. It’s worth exploring (a secret gate in one of Passalacqua’s high stone walls gives you access) but, honestly, it’s hard to resist the pull of the villa and its fantasy of spending time at the home of the kind of friend we all wish we had.
The terraced gardens, with their 16 different fountains and 300-year-old cypress trees, are bewitchingly beautiful. Each terrace, accessed by a criss-crossing, pebbled path that winds down towards the lake, offers a unique experience.
On one level there is the 20-metre pool that features bespoke umbrellas and pool furniture and a spectacular glass and metal wintergarden where guests can have lunch. On another there is the fruit orchard where chickens that supply eggs for the kitchen roam free. There’s a rose garden and an olive grove that also houses Passalacqua’s gym. Elsewhere there’s a tennis court, an outdoor cinema and a bocce court that sits alongside the thriving vegetable garden filled with produce for Passalacqua’s kitchen.
Food is one of Passalacqua’s most endearing features. The philosophy behind it mirrors the overall design approach – eschewing repetitive international hotel tropes for a distinctly, individual Italian approach.
“It’s all about good food, Italian recipes, but nothing too fancy,” says Valentina De Santis. “Here the hospitality is about welcoming the guests to a private home and our chef Mauro Verza worked as a chef for 25 years for a family in Milan. He took care of every event for them from two people to 300 and what we liked when we met was that he used the traditional family recipes that were handed down from generation to generation. His approach was very homey but very refined, very traditional and very down to earth.”
“Homey” is a relative word, but the food that Verza cooks is both simple and superb, from filled pasta to house-made bread and pastries. Guests are encouraged to wander into the kitchen, to discuss with the chef what they might like to eat that night, to help themselves to snacks or have the chefs cook something for them, to be served on the outside terrace at the bar or the dining room. Breakfast, a spectacular array of fresh fruit and smoked fish, Italian cheese and nuts, bomboloni filled with espresso cream and little breakfast pizze, is also laid out in the kitchen, making it central to the Passalacqua experience.
Food is also central to the experience of staying at the De Santis’ other property, the 1910 Belle Époque palace Grand Hotel Tremezzo. This spectacular 90-room, five-restaurant, three-pool hotel with views over Lake Como to the storied village of Bellagio and the Grigne mountains beyond has graced a thousand Instagram feeds and not only because The White Lotus has turned this kind of luxurious, design-forward, all-encompassing hotel experience into an obsession.
If Passalacqua is a dream, Tremezzo is a kind of fever dream, a bustling, exciting, vigorously sensory and meticulously maintained experience that has you feeling out of time in all the right ways.
It’s the enormous clusters of dark red roses in the lobby that fill the air with their scent and the ballroom-size breakfast spread that will give you most of your steps for the day just by navigating it before consuming it on an outside balcony terrace, watching the sun rise over the mountains.
It’s the spectacular seafood at Giacomo al Lago, perhaps a cacio e pepe tortelli served with raw red prawns, served lakeside under orange-and-white-striped umbrellas in the 1960s-style beach club adjacent to Tremezzo’s spectacular, signature pool that floats on Lake Como. Or perhaps the Napoli-style wood-fired pizza served at T Pizza in the lush gardens adjacent to the Flower Pool behind the hotel, also the venue for pizza-making classes.
It’s the square of gold leaf that sits on top of a spectacular version of risotto Milanese at La Terazza Gualtiero Marchesi, Tremezzo’s signature restaurant that’s an outpost of the famed Milanese ristorante, and the multi-instrumental musician entertaining you in T Bar (vocals, keyboards, saxophone, included) as you take aperitivo or opt for classic cocktails that give the USA’s great hotel bars a run for their money.
It’s the fact that this hotel has not one but a small fleet of those Riva speedboats, all meticulously restored from different eras and ready to whisk you off for a shopping spree in Bellagio, or a private guided tour of the Villa Balbianello or perhaps even a spot of opera in a private box in the grand opera house in the town of Como
In a location that has attracted a not unsubstantial amount of foreign investment, the De Santis family have made a conscious, deliberate and informed move to highlight the best of Italian design, cuisine, hospitality and aesthetic with Grand Hotel Tremezzo and Passalacqua.
“Our family is doing hospitality in a beautiful country, in a beautiful region and a beautiful destination in Lake Como so I think it is our responsibility as Italian hoteliers to show the best we have here,” says Valentina De Santis. “We want everyone to appreciate the beauty and the excellence of craftmanship and the deliciousness of our cuisine and so 99.5 per cent of what we do here is from Italy. We believe it’s our responsibility to share with all our guests the best Italy can offer. This is our adventure with hospitality on the Lake.”
The World’s Best Top 50 Hotels
See the Top 10 Best Hotels below:
- Passalacqua, Moltrasio
- Rosewood, Hong Kong
- Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Phraya River, Bangkok
- The Upper House, Hong Kong
- Aman, Tokyo
- La Mamounia, Marrakech
- Soneva Fushi, Maldives
- One&Only Mandarina, Puerto Vallarta
- Four Seasons Firenze, Florence
- Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok