Even the pool has the quality of a mirage, as it floats out magically onto Lake Como, flanked by precisely arranged rows of chaise longues. These are as often as not occupied by aging playboys sporting banana hammock swimwear or offering up their hirsute backs to be oiled by young blonde wives paying time-honored dues for their facials in the spa. But at $900 a night for a room, this was hardly a news flash.
Villa d’Este, the Renaissance jewel that has held sway here since it was built by the noble family of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio in 1568, seems to have a uniformly narcotic effect on every age and income group. By that I don’t mean that it sends you to sleep, although there are lots of shady spots for dozing over your Herald Tribune. It is literally an enchanted, beguiling place, sedative to the spirit. True, the clientele is not exactly hopping—plenty of haute bourgeois Euros and affluent suits from corporate America—and I had wondered if it might be too stately for a family vacation with a 17-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son in tow. But within days of arrival my daughter had forgotten to check her Facebook page, and my son had uncharacteristically disappeared, without his iPod, on a water-bus to hike in the valley behind Menaggio. Harry and I were in heaven.
Recent press clips had not been encouraging. Vodka-tossing blini barons and other thrusting emissaries of emerging markets were reputed to have eroded the celebrated charm of Lake Como and Villa d’Este, whose terraced water gardens and views of Alpine foothills famously inspired Shelley and Longfellow and Franz Liszt and enchanted Mark Twain and Edith Wharton. The place endured the paparazzi invasions that came with Gianni Versace’s purchase of the 19th-century Villa Fontanelle in Moltrasio in 1977. It withstood, as well, the press onslaught of 2002 when George Clooney discovered his pale-cream 18th-century gem, Villa Oleandra, in nearby Laglio.
But the latest wave of American hedge fund billionaires and Russian oligarchs has apparently been harder to fend off. You can’t turn around in Italy without seeing another splashy interview with Arkady Novikov, the 47-year-old restaurant king of the new Moscow who snapped up the Versace villa last year for $52 million (reportedly $6 million more than asking), or hearing talk of the arrival of Nurlan Kapparov, the Kazakh oil magnate who is making social waves at his ravishing estate in Tremezzo. These days Clooney—like those sepia celebrity guests of the Versace era, Elton John and Madonna—is beginning to look like old money.
All of that fades, however, in the slow-motion quality that descends upon your arrival at Villa d’Este, following a one-hour drive from Milan in the lazy Lombardy afternoon: It’s due to the gradually revealed vision of the villa’s red-and-cream Neoclassical façade rising up in the acres of parkland, the grand archways of the lobby with its two majestic staircases, the drift up to the dreamy sage-green Cardinal Suite with its private terrace. There’s an intoxicating scent from the jasmine that twines around the balustrades, and you can hear the distant chug of the water-buses connecting Lake Como’s old neighboring villages.
Indeed, my waking dream was only dislodged by nearly colliding in the corridor with the purposeful figure of Vogue editrix Anna Wintour, in sweatpants on her way to the gym. While out by the pool, Robert De Niro—unnoticed by the clientele—was hiding under a hat reading scripts in the shade of a cypress tree as his extended family splashed about.
Morning, I decided, is the best time at Villa d’Este. As the mist rises from the lake, you awake to the sound of lapping water. Throwing open the heavy silk curtains, you’re greeted by a sheen of dancing diamonds. Breakfast is served on the terrace under an apricot canvas awning that glows with the early-morning gold of the south-facing light. A phalanx of brisk, well-marshaled waiters glides around, choreographing coffee refills and persnickety side orders. On the buffet inside is a seductive mountain of breakfast pastries, cascades of cereal, succulent cheeses, throbbing Caravaggesque fruit, and an artful showman of a cook at the back, flipping egg orders and pancakes at such speed that he can serve two customers at once. Then you can continue to sip your coffee under the shade of one of the ancient horse chestnut trees that overhang the mosaic dance floor. Paradise.
At night, on the same dance floor, suave Swiss industrialists and graying masters of the universe give their arm candy a whirl to the tinklings of a convivial pianist in a white dinner jacket. The entertainment is unnecessary, however: The real music of Villa d’Este is the lake itself. In the darkness its gently moving surface is mysterious, shimmering, the pleasure villas that punctuate its shores alive with stories and secrets. During the first century a.d. Pliny the Younger owned twin houses, Comedy and Tragedy, on the outskirts of Bellagio. In 1815 a princess of Wales whose life was almost as tragic as Diana’s, Caroline of Brunswick, briefly bought Villa d’Este as a refuge when she was banished by her husband, later King George IV. She eventually sold the villa because, like Diana on the Côte d’Azur, she was hounded by scandal hunters and royal spies, rowing past and training their spyglasses on the place.
Many of the lakeside villas have been in the same families since the Renaissance. When owners do decide to sell these storied homes, they usually change hands in secret. Villa d’Este, which became a hotel in 1873, is now part of a group that includes Villa La Massa in Florence and is run by longtime president Jean Marc Droulers, whose family has managed the villa since the sixties. The current majority owner, the holding company Finanziaria Lago, acquired its undisclosed stake in 2007.
Villa d’Este tends to be as discreet about its finances as it is about its clientele. The hotel’s sealed lips have protected the off-camera lives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Liz Taylor, Evita Perón, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, and Alfred Hitchcock and today do not reveal to the press the returning presence of guests such as Woody Allen and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
One of the pleasures of being pampered so grandly at Villa d’Este is that you can leave it behind at will. From the hotel’s pier you can go anywhere by water taxi (if you forget that you need almost a dollar and a half for a single euro), or catch the public ferry from neighboring Cernobbio. The water-buses are a whole lot more comfortable than the ones, for instance, in Venice. One vessel I rode, the Orione, offers lunch, a full-blown white-tablecloth affair, with waiters emerging from the galley kitchen bearing plates of Moby Dick–size sea bass and bottles of vino.
We spent most of our time coasting over to see the mini palazzi and villages to the north—Moltrasio, Laglio, Ossuccio, Mezzegra—or to take in the shopping in vibrant Bellagio. Next time, we vow, Varenna, and so many more we did not have time for.
A spin around the shore near Cernobbio provides a glimpse of a villa where the Gestapo set up shop to police wayward northern Italians retreating from the Allies in World War II. (Lake Como, of course, is rich with wartime history: Mussolini and his mistress were shot in Mezzegra as they tried to flee over mountains into Switzerland, while Villa d’Este itself became a Nazi hospital where plastic surgery was performed on escaping war criminals.) On land Cernobbio is just a short walk from Villa d’Este. I loved the low-key vitality of the village, with the breakfast bar and tea garden at Pasticceria Poletti and lovely restaurants like Trattoria del Vapore and Harry’s Bar in the main square, where the tables are overhung with azaleas and the honeysuckle is pervasive. The only snag walking there from Villa d’Este is a traffic-infested narrow street, where belching motorbikes and zooming cars pin you to the wall. But we found a delightful side-street diversion that winds past the 11th-century church of Santa Maria Assunta.
Villa d’Este became a jumping-off point for destinations crammed with seductive little shops, geranium-decked restaurants, and unhyped cultural riches. There was a great morning of browsing the cobbled streets of Bellagio, dotted with little trattorias whose tables were so close to the balustrade that you felt you could reach up and help yourself to a glass of wine. Afterward a hydrofoil took us to Como in 40 minutes to see its astonishing cathedral. A lunchtime voyage to the sparsely inhabited Isola Comacina ended in a good approximation of culinary bliss.
We ate at the island’s famous lone restaurant, Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, where the gnarled owner, Benvenuto Puricelli (who for some obscure rustic reason always sports a multicolored bobble hat), has served the same meal for lunch and dinner for 60 years. He can serve it for another 60 as far as I am concerned. I usually hate overwrought multicourse menus, but here there is nothing pretentious about the ambiance or the food, served on red or yellow tablecloths on a stone balcony overlooking the little town of Sala Comacina. Each of the five delicious courses arrives with the punctuality of a German train, presented with a virile gusto: tomatoes topped with a slice of lemon; fresh vegetables with prosciutto and air-cured beef; salmon trout slow-grilled in lemon and olive oil; crispy fried chicken; and a melon-size monster of Parmigiano-Reggiano borne on the shoulders of a waiter who proffers you a knife to cut out your slice. Capping it all off is the exorcising flaming brandy ice cream dessert, an old ritual supposed to ward off evil spirits that once cursed the island.
On another particularly memorable morning, we took a long, shore-hugging motorboat ride around the lake to the 18th-century Villa del Balbianello, which is reached only by water (or a decent hike from a car park) and is open to the public spring through fall. Mooring the boat, we climbed the steep ancient steps through the candelabra-shaped plane trees to a promontory, from which you have the most glorious view of the lake and the town of Bellagio.
Do As You Please was the motto carved into the wall by the first owner and builder of the house, Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini. It was supposedly the cardinal’s hospitable advice to his guests, an invitation to relax among his treasures and parterres and enjoy the view. One might also see it as racily suggestive of inhibitions cast aside. Such enchanting isolation does lend itself to a deliciously carefree state of mind—something that these days is becoming harder and harder to find.
Open from March 1 to November 15, Villa d’Este is a 60- to 90-minute drive from Milan’s Malpensa and Linate airports and a half hour from Lugano Agno Airport in Switzerland. The villa owns a helipad for private helicopter transfers and has a partnership with the Rossini car service (39-031/511-586; rossinilimousines.com ). There are hourly trains from Milan as well. Villa d’Este’s 152 rooms range from $550 to $4,000 per night during the June to August peak season and from $400 to $2,500 at other times. (Our favorite is room 233, a Top Junior Suite on the second floor with incredible views over the lake and pool.) Reservations can be made through the Leading Hotels of the World (800-223-6800; lhw.com ) or directly with the villa (40 Via Regina, Cernobbio; 39-031/3481; villadeste.it).