Verdant villa elegance at Lake Como hotel

The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni was built in 1853 as a summer villa for an affluent Milanese family.

Perhaps no other locale better evokes the phrase la dolce vita than Bellagio, the fabled Italian resort town known as the pearl of Lake Como. Ever since the early years of the Roman Empire when the poet Virgil wrote about the lake and Pliny the Younger built a hilltop summer villa, visitors have celebrated the sweetness of life in this idyllic lakefront town in Lombardy.

As the 19th-century French novelist Stendhal wrote from his room at Villa Melzi, "I lift my gaze to the most beautiful view in the world," which is a sentiment immediately understood from the perspective of the Winston Churchill Suite at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. 

With a sly smile, the bellman slides open the window shutters of the palatial suite to reveal a resplendent landscape of Italianate gardens framing Lake Como shimmering in the midday sun. Emerald-green foothills dotted with lakefront villas and towering cypress give way to the snow-covered Alps in the distance — and, right on cue, birdsong fills the suite.

Situated on the cape of the promontory that bisects Lake Como, the majestic belle epoque hotel was built in 1853 as a summer villa for a Milanese family before its conversion 20 years later into Bellagio's grandest hotel. Throughout its history, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni has been home to European and Russian aristocracy as well as numerous luminaries and entertainers.

For the past 100 years, the hotel has been owned by the Bucher family, whose hotelier experience spans five generations. As managing proprietor Gianfranco Bucher states, "Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni has always been a home for its owners and its guests, many of whom return each season."

In cultivating the atmosphere of an opulent holiday villa open from April to November, the Bucher family is blessed with a staff of gracious professionals who exhibit the uncanny ability to intuit their guests' desires, whether it be an Aperol spritz on the terrace or the services of a sleek, mahogany Venetian taxi boat for a cruise around the lake.

The richly decorated lobby at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.
The richly decorated lobby at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.

The stately public rooms feature coffered ceilings and trompe l'oeil frescoes alongside French wall tapestries and antique Persian carpets. Portraits in gilded frames are juxtaposed with contemporary sculpture, and art nouveau furnishings glimmer beneath Murano chandeliers. A grand marble staircase leads to the magnificent Royal Hall, where breakfast is served in a neoclassical setting befitting a royal wedding.

In one of those rare instances where the interior spaces are as extraordinary as the surrounding landscape, it's sometimes difficult to choose whether to remain happily ensconced and coddled within the hotel or to wander the lush grounds redolent with peonies, wisteria, jasmine and camellia.

Notable neighbors

Benefitting from a salutary microclimate, Bellagio supports an abundance of Alpine and Mediterranean vegetation that includes olive, laurel, cypress, chestnut and mulberry trees and silk worms. For generations, the region has supported a prosperous textile industry that produces the finest silks and cotton, evidence of which is apparent in hotel linens that caress the skin.

The hotel's indoor pool adjoins a bathing pavilion that leads to the outdoor pool area complete with sandy beach and lake diving platform. Hillside tennis courts are surrounded by the gardens of the neighboring Villa Serbelloni (now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation), which is reputedly the site of Pliny the Younger's villa.

The outdoor pool at the hotel has a sandy beach and lake diving platform. The hotel also features an indoor pool.
The outdoor pool at the hotel has a sandy beach and lake diving platform. The hotel also features an indoor pool.

Nearby notable villas include Villa Melzi, located just beyond the Lido and the cobblestoned stairways of Bellagio's city center. A lakefront avenue of plane trees leads to the commanding residence built in 1808 set amid a series of English and Oriental gardens. Accessible by motorboat, the 18th-century Villa del Balbianello became the private museum of the North Pole explorer Guido Monzino, though it remains equally well known for its cameos in the James Bond and "Star Wars" film franchises.

Private motorboat cruises afford glimpses of the villas owned by magnates and celebrities, though few locales are as popular as Isola Comacina, where the convivial inn owner performs a daily fire ritual at lunch to free the isle from an 800-year-old curse.

Perched on the waterfront, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni's Michelin-starred restaurant, Mistral, is helmed by chef Ettore Bocchia, whose molecular gastronomy fuses perfectly with the polished tableside service that executes an exemplary canard a la presse, which is followed by crepes Suzette served with liquid nitrogen vanilla ice cream.

As the sun sets, music from the Grand Salon's resident trio floats on the gentle breeze. Whether it's an evening walk in the garden or another glass of Champagne or simply slipping between silky-soft bed linens, what's inarguable is the sweetness of life at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.

For nonstop flights to Milan, Emirates flies its signature A380, which features first-class suites and an onboard lounge as well as personal shower spas with attendant and relaxation area. From Milan's Malpensa Airport, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni offers private transfers to Bellagio via Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans. Seasonal rates for suites range from $700 to $1,700 per night with a 10% agent commission.

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