Why the Italian Lake District should be on your post-lockdown radar

Abi Tottenham-Smith, SLH’s Head of Social Media, visited Northern Italy on a last minute escape in search of sunshine, pasta and Barolo wine.

Staycation to Lake-ation

At the end of September, I booked a super last minute trip to Italy, on a whim to explore some of the incredible hotels in the SLH portfolio. This trip came about due to a planned UK staycation falling through after our friends’ campervan we were borrowing to travel around Cornwall broke down on the first day. With our trip put on ice, I realised I still needed a break and looked into where the best and safest place to visit currently was, considering all the quarantine restrictions for the UK right now. Italy turned out to be the best bet for us and considering we have 70 SLH hotels in Italy, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to visit some of our beautiful properties.

I had wanted to visit the Italian lakes for years and quickly got together an itinerary where I could tick off these destinations and also see some of the Italian hotels that I drool over day in, day out and was desperate to visit.

Start in Style: Lake Garda

The trip began in Lake Garda and after one night in the gorgeous town of Sirmione, we headed up the lake to Lefay Resort & SPA Lago di Garda, a tranquil spa hotel which has recently been crowned SLH Hotel of the Year for its impressive eco credentials, high up in the mountains overlooking the lake. The journey to Lefay is a pretty special one – the road follows along the waterfront with lots of picturesque little towns, until you reach the village of Gargnano, where you start heading upwards. A word of warning – just like any typical European mountain destination – the road up to the hotel is full of hair pin bends and twists and turns, so make sure you arrive in daylight if possible, mostly to experience the increasingly beautiful view the higher you climb.

Upon arrival, after handing your car keys to the valet and getting a quick temperature check, the first place you are taken is the balcony just off the reception to enjoy a welcome drink and take in the view while staff take your bag to your room. And what a stunning place to begin. The hotel is set in 11 hectares of natural parklands, surrounded by gentle hills and olive groves, all with a spectacular view of the lake.

We were shown to our room – a Prestige Junior Suite with a view over the lake and a private terrace and garden access. The room had a feature I had never seen before at a hotel – you walk straight onto the garden where you have two allotted loungers in front of your terrace, giving a private feel, yet with easy access to the rest of the grounds.

To Infinity and Beyond…

During my two nights at Lefay Lago di Garda, the majority of my time was spent relaxing by the incredible infinity pool. With a view like that, it’s hard to tear yourself away. However, an absolute highlight was borrowing the hotel’s electric bikes and spending a morning cycling through the mountains. The concierge provided us with a route, as well as a backpack with water bottles and we were on our way. As you can imagine, the views throughout were stunning and even after a three hour cycle, I hardly broke a sweat due to the help of the e-bike (I am a keen cyclist but this was my first experience with an e-bike… it’s going to be hard to go back now!)

We managed to experience both the hotel’s restaurants during our stay. The Trattoria La Vigna is the more casual dining option, reflecting the typical and homely feel of a traditional Italian trattoria, while La Grande Limonaia is the fine dining restaurant on the hotel’s top floor and is the perfect setting for delicious Mediterranean food with a spectacular night time view over the lake – if you are lucky enough to snag one of the balcony seats!

Sadly I didn’t get the chance to experience the spa during my stay, but they have every single treatment under the sun that you could possibly imagine and I have it on good authority that the stress-relieving massage is a life-changer. I had to save something for my next visit I suppose…

Slow Living and Scandi–Italian Style

After two heavenly nights, it was time to move on to our next destination. We bid farewell to Lake Garda and took the two-and-a-half hour drive to the Piemonte region and the breath-taking Villa La Madonna. There is something about this hotel that is hard to describe. It is a feeling you get here. The hotel talks about ‘slow living’ and you really experience this concept when you are there.

Let’s start from the beginning. We arrived at the hotel and instantly felt at home. With only 18 rooms, the hotel feels more like stepping into a luxurious family home. The interiors were impeccable – everywhere you turn is a photogenic spot, so stylish and effortlessly elegant. It makes sense that the owners are two Swedish sisters, as you can feel the Scandinavian influence mixed with glamorous Italian style.  The owners, Marie and Annica Eklund, have entrusted the day to day running of the hotel to their good friends, Helen and Mikael, who moved from Sweden to Piemonte to take care of the hotel. Helen and Mikael are friendly faces throughout your stay, and clearly know how to run a successful hotel (along with their gorgeous dog, Stella).

Here, life really does stand still, days are spent just enjoying the atmosphere – again, we spent a lot of time by the pool, which is surrounded by vineyards, as well as taking the hotel’s bikes for a spin (can you see a theme here?). The staff once again mapped out a lovely route taking us into the local village where we left the bikes and then explored more of the countryside on foot. We returned to the hotel in the afternoon to laze by the pool with a glass of the hotel’s own wine, poured by the delightful Bar Manager, Gregorio, who shares a little story or joke with each drink he brings.

Make sure to also enjoy the boule pit and ping pong table, just a short walk away through the vineyards, as well as some morning stretches in the spacious yoga hall with floor to ceiling windows.

A Taste of La Dolce Vita

Dinner here was spectacular – the hotel’s Restaurant Manager, Josh, is so passionate about the local food and wine and brings a wealth of knowledge with each course. On the first night, I was torn on what to choose from the menu and he recommended the veal ravioli for me, and my goodness…wow. Has a pasta ever made you cry?! I don’t know if it was the couple of glasses of wine, or a bit too much sun, but it actually made me emotional. So much so that the second night I had to order it again – for my main course instead of a starter!

Last but not least: Lake Como

We finished our week in Italy in Lake Como – which makes for the perfect end to the itinerary. Unfortunately our hotels in Lake Como are not currently open but if you want to re-create this itinerary in 2021, we have two hotels in Lake Como which will be open next year – Vista Palazzo and Grand Hotel Victoria.

The one hour drive back to Milan Malpensa airport meant that our Italian adventure was over. It definitely wasn’t the 10 days in a campervan in Cornwall I had planned, but I live by the motto that everything happens for a reason, and I think our van breaking down and forcing us to visit elsewhere was an absolute blessing in disguise!