Forget spritzes, shopping and fancy hotels. The best part of Lake Como is being on it.
By SARA LIEBERMAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 26, 2018
“Mom! Do you have the permit?? WHERE IS THE PERMIT???” I yelled above the engine of our custom Cantiere Ernesto Riva motorboat while zooming along Italy’s Lake Como.
My heart was beating fast and my hands were shaking on the steering wheel. I had just gotten comfortable in my captain’s perch, and was trying to adjust to the throttle and watch where I was going despite the wind whipping my hair in front of my face. Then, a gust seemed to sweep away the paperwork required for taking out this stunner of a boat, at a whopping $190 an hour.
I slowed us down, shifted to neutral and started frantically looking by my feet, in my beach bag, under the seat — careful not to drift too close to any of the million-dollar homes. My mother, meanwhile, looked around the bow, where she’d been otherwise preoccupied trying to distinguish George Clooney’s villa from the others dotting the shore.
“Got it!” she yelled, waving the laminated papers over her head like she’d found a remote control hidden in the couch for weeks. She tucked them under the life jackets and resumed her harmless stalking while I typed Clooney’s name into Google Images in search of a photo of his Villa Oleandra to compare to the homes we were seeing in real life.
“There!” I said, pointing straight ahead. “I think it’s that one. Look at how the window is shaped and where the hedges meet the little bridge.”
“YES! That’s definitely it,” she responded gleefully. “Do you think he’s home?”
It looked pretty quiet, so we got a little closer while wondering aloud what it’d be like to have spritzes with the Clooneys.
Just two days earlier, I’d introduced my mother to the famed Italian drink, and now she was hooked. “What’s in this again?” she’d asked while sipping her first, made with Aperol, Prosecco and a splash of soda, as we sat on the majestic terrace of the Il Sereno Lago di Como hotel. Our two-night stay at this luxury property, which opened last year, was a reunion of sorts as she lives in New York and I in Paris. We met up at the Milano Centrale train station, and about an hour later, we were lakeside, watching the sunset with the renowned cocktails in hand.
Jet lag — and a second round of drinks — took hold pretty quickly, so after dinner at the hotel’s exquisite (if a tad over-the-top) Michelin-starred restaurant, Berton Al Lago, we called it an early night. Plus, we had big plans for the following day. When Mom and I travel together, we often struggle to balance the art of just being with the art of doing, doing, doing. We love the idea of devouring a book in the sun while occasionally getting up to eat, swim or change one’s bathing suit purely because we packed more than one. But we also want to set an alarm to take the small local boat to the big boat to the ferry to, say, explore some gardens or learn about an 11th-century basilica.
Allora! We started the day without an alarm, but with a local boat, which we caught from the small town of Torno near the hotel. Though the port looked desolate — in that charming way an old, weathered Italian village is wont to look — the boat arrived on time, and the trip to Como itself took about 25 minutes. From there, we had to hustle from one dock to another to catch the 37-minute fast ferry to Tremezzo, lest we wind up on the 95-minute slow ship and miss the massages we’d booked for 2 p.m.
Because here’s the thing about Lake Como: It’s gigantic. It’s also awkwardly shaped, like a wishbone, which makes getting around arduous in both time and effort. Transportation — specifically taxis — can be expensive, so renting a car is most convenient if you’re cool navigating twisty roads and dealing with parking in pedestrian-first towns. Local buses or boats, on the other hand, might leave you buried in timetables, so pick your poison and plan accordingly.
It was dicey there for a minute, but we managed to buy our ticket and board the boat with enough time to score a seat outside, where we marveled at the sparkling water and the mountains soaring high above it. Soon enough, we docked at Tremezzo, which is on the lake’s western banks. From there, many passengers headed for the Villa Carlotta gardens or the neighboring hamlet of Lenno, which is home to Villa del Balbianello, a stunning estate that once belonged to the first Italian to climb Mount Everest (and appeared in scenes from the James Bond movie “Casino Royale” and “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.” Mom and I, however, were off to the very Wes Anderson Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
Dating to the 1900s, the former palace, which has orange awnings and manicured bushes, looms over the lake. We had time to kill before our spa treatments, so we channeled our inner Greta Garbo (a former guest) and sat in the sun at the hotel’s T Beach cafe for a midday spritz. While en route to our appointments, we peeked into opulent lounges with jewel-colored couches, marble columns and art nouveau ceilings fit for royalty.
The spa itself had a more modern feel, and following 90 blissful minutes of relaxation, our bodies glistening with oil, we cozied up on circular daybeds in the relaxation room. The desire to linger was great, but we also felt the call to do, do, do, so we showered, dressed and headed for the ferry to the town of Bellagio, known as the “Pearl of Lake Como” for its leafy pergolas, narrow cobblestone alleys and boutique shopping.Feeling peckish, upon arriving we stopped for — you guessed it! — another spritz and some prosciutto-wrapped melon at a lakeside cafe. Then, we were off to purposefully get lost among the shops, where It didn’t take long for Mom to find a buttery-soft leather handbag for herself and snakeskin-covered bangles for me and my sister. Further along, she picked up some braided belts for my father and brother at a boutique called Quelli della Pelle, which has been making leather accessories by hand in Bellagio since 1978.
Soon enough, stores began to close for the evening and hunger beckoned again. From the map, it appeared that the restaurant we’d booked for dinner was close enough to walk to, but it was definitely not in the center of town — hence the funny looks and honks we got from drivers whizzing by us as we traipsed along the side of the winding road. Finally, just as our feet were about to give out, we found it. Silvio, a five-generation family establishment, is known not only for its stunning setting but for a famous dish made with perch (pesce persico), one of the most popular of the 28 species of lake fish. To drink, we decided to shake things up by ordering a Falanghina wine with our plump tomato and fresh mozzarella salad. For our mains, we shared butter and sage ravioli, and the aforementioned fish served with a truffle and Parmesan cream sauce, which our waiter happily described in detailed English, as we understood little-to-no Italian. Allora!
By the time we finished our tiramisu, it was dark. The ferries had stopped running and the wait time for a bus was ages — not to mention that the ride would take just as long. Our best hope for returning to our hotel — a good 30 to 45 minutes by car — was a taxi. Much to our surprise, this could cost nearly as much as dinner itself (about $75) and would require calling several services to find a willing driver. Apparently, people dine where they sleep in and around Como. It was a white-knuckle trip — and one that required a visit to the ATM because “cash only” — but we made it back while managing to keep dinner where it belonged.
We deemed the next day, before our late-afternoon departure, a chill day. The plan was to sit by Il Sereno’s glorious infinity pool, lounge on its lime-green chair cushions and, of course, have couple more spritzes. But, as if on cue, we got antsy sometime around 1 p.m., which is when we decided to rent the Riva boat. Its shiny teak exterior had been enticing me ever since I saw it bopping in the water on our first day.
“Only if you drive,” my mother said.
“Of course,” I retorted jubilantly, hiding my fear of operating a vehicle that doesn’t have brakes. Despite a love for boating shaped by growing up on a canal on Long Island’s south shore, I’d long ago deemed myself a better passenger. Mom, however, is known for her nifty navigation skills, so the keys landed in my lap.
Save for that brief panic over the paperwork, it was the best part of our trip. It’s one thing to see the lake from its perimeter, or even as a passenger on a larger boat, but to coast along its surface at your own pace; to, essentially, exist within in it, well, it was a perfect blend of doing and being. The only thing missing was that fizzy orange drink.