Just before I set off abroad for the first time – a good 20 years ago – I wrote up a list of must-see destinations, and the Italian Lakes were at number three. I’ve seen a lot of the world since then, but the lakes somehow lost out, mainly because of my quest to avoid crowds of like-minded tourists. But there is a way of seeing one of the most beautiful places in the world without joining the hordes.
Lake Maggiore has a shoreline straddling international borders in the Alps, with the calm and pretty hideaway of Ascona, in Switzerland’s southernmost canton Ticino, set within sight of Italy.
Ascona is Switzerland’s lowest-lying town. It sits at 196 meters above sea level on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore. Ascona is famous for its mild climate, its old town and a lake promenade which is dotted with street cafes and, frequently, art installations.
After flying into Zurich, a two-hour train trip delivers you to your destination where the glamorous Hotel Eden Roc opens out into a lakeside playground surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
Built in 1971, the hotel is spread out over three buildings. The main wing features quirky and vibrantly furnished rooms created by Swiss architect and designer Carlo Rampazzi. The right wing is more reserved, with blue, green and yellow colour schemes, while the adjoining Eden Roc Marina is more youthful, with a fresh nautical 1960s style.
Its extraordinary location can mean starting the day with a hike through valleys before lunch in a local grotto (a rustic-style restaurant to us), capped off with a spot of paddle boarding from the hotel’s beach, even in May when temperatures are often well into the 20s.
On this occasion, the locals are throwing their hands up in despair at the overcast conditions, which for this first-timer means stunning views over the lake as the misty clouds appear to settle on the water. It also means a boat trip over a millpond-like lake to the Brissago Islands, a tiny subtropical paradise rich with exotic plants where we wander through gardens filled with lotus blossom, giant sequoias, cypresses, banana plants and even eucalyptus trees. Our guide explains that this little pocket is created by warmth stored in the surrounding water, so there are hardly any frosts in the winter, while the Alps also form a protective barrier against cold air from the north.
The trip back to Eden Roc shows the location in all its glory, as one of the few hotels in Ascona with private access to the lake, complete with a flotilla of vessels and toys to enjoy the water. The hotel has a private beach, landing stage and lakefront gardens. There’s a stunning spa, three swimming pools, saunas and a gym looking out towards the lake.
All manner of activities can be organised at the hotel’s affiliated water-sports school, including banana boating, tubing and water-skiing, while boats can be rented out with or without a skipper.
Staff can advise on hiking and mountain-biking routes, and on renting out e-bikes or Vespas for a scoot along the palm-fringed promenades.
But on slightly chillier days, the hotel has a different set of charms up its sleeve, not least in the form of wine and food. You don’t hear much about Swiss wine outside of Switzerland, but that’s because it is generally excellent, and the relatively small amount they produce is drunk by the Swiss themselves.
Sommelier Walter Martinat guides us down past the hotel’s buzzing kitchen to the cellar for a tasting of the best local wines. Merlot is the most popular grape in the region, used to produce both red and white wines, the latter perfect for the range of seafood on the restaurants’ menus.
La Casetta is an idyllic lake house on the edge of Eden Roc’s lawns, with an open-air view out over the lake and a menu specialising in fish and pasta.
But for our last evening, we dined inside the hotel at La Brezza, whose 27-year-old Italian chef Marco Campanella has recently been awarded a Michelin star for his “fresh, imaginative and colourful Mediterranean cuisine that appeals to the eyes and the palate”.
With a view of the sun going down over the lake, we dine on course after course of delicacies, highlights being snacks of shrimp with orange, and scallop with cucumber and linseed, Swiss veal tartar and scorched black cod, herb sorbet with chocolate and berries, and rhubarb with yoghurt and lime.
My long-awaited Italian Lakes experience may have arrived in the unexpected form of Swiss peace and calm, but it’s far from being a poor substitute. In fact, I wonder why it hadn’t been on my bucket list all along.
Hotel Eden Roc (edenroc.ch; +41 91 785 7171) offers doubles from £251 (two sharing) with breakfast.
SWISS (swiss.com; 0345 601 0956) flies direct from Heathrow to Zurich from £74 one-way.
The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Train prices are £112 in second class and £182 in first class. Book at the Switzerland Travel Centre (swisstravelsystem.co.uk; 00800 100 200 30).