17 Jun The Swiss St. Tropez; All of the Glamour, None of the Gridlock
THIS STORY APPEARED IN VOGUE on 6/15/17
Summer in the balmy Provencal town of St. Tropez seems like a holiday slam dunk. That is, until you arrive and find every sun dappled cafe full and your strolls along the beach more freeway rush hour than seaside getaway. Don’t get me wrong. St. Tropez is lovely. It’s just that hordes of tourists capturing their rose quaffing via selfie stick can harsh one’s Mediterranean mellow.
An alternative? Ascona. In upper Lago Maggiore, about two hours north of Milan, a tiny, blink-and-you’ll miss-it town delivers la dolce vita in spades: balmy climes, five star lodging, waterfront lounging, island hopping by Riva boat and a lively piazza where you’ll shop and watch the sun set, Aperol Spritz in hand. Here’s the strange part. It’s in Switzerland. More specifically, in Ticino, a region so untapped by Americans that finding a menu in English at one of the lakefront cafes can be a challenge. Though the vibe is decidedly Mediterranean (Ascona is thirty minutes from the Italian border), it is punctuated with alluring Swiss hallmarks: panoramic vistas of glacier-tipped alps commingled with palm trees, lazy lunches with snappy service, Vespa drivers who stop for pedestrians and offer a perky “buongiorno!” And, trains and buses (visiting neighboring towns via public transportation is a snap) that are both spotless and on time. Essentially, Ascona is paradise for sun seekers who crave glamour, minus the (Vilbrequin) gridlock.
At Lago Maggiore, swimming and water sports are the preferred pastime. You can rent a sailboat or motorboat as well as stand up paddle boards from Asconautica for DIY lake exploration. Or, book a skipper who can expertly zip you to the nearby Brissago Islands’ botanical park, pretty port towns like Cannobio, sightseeing-and lunch- in the Borromean Islands, so you can kick back with the region’s legendary White Merlot. This being Switzerland, there are lush alpine trails for hiking and hard core terrain for mountain biking. And easy day trips to mind blowing valleys like Valle Verzasca where you can hike, bike or rock climb and then join bronzed locals for a dip in the bone chilling emerald green river. Then there is the wine. Similar to Provence, southern Switzerland has a microclimate that coaxes magic from its vineyards.
Unlike France, Switzerland limits production and exports only 1.5% of its juice. Unrestricted access to these hard-to-nab wines (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Gamay) is a thrill to gourmands. Another thrill is the regions’s famed grottos. Back in the day, these tucked-away stone houses served as storage cellars for wine and cheese. Now, they are rustic, outdoor taverns. From my perch at Grotto America, I tossed back risotto, polenta, grilled fish and a board of artisanal cheese and charcuterie trying to decide which was more delightful, the al fresco valley setting or the food. Another draw to Ascona? an annual summer JazzAscona festival (June 22-July 1) along the waterfront with 200 free concerts.
At the five star Hotel Eden Roc, old school elegance tap dances with contemporary quirk, courtesy of Carlo Rampazzi, a local designer with a Roald Dahl -veering aesthetic. The property has a private beach and marina with water sports (waterskiing, SUP and boating excursions with the hotel’s private Riva) as well as Vespas and E-bikes at your disposal.
Wellness, an essential element to any Swiss luxury experience, is served up at the hotel’s 21,000 square foot spa, a cross section of hydro-pools, a sanarium, hot and cold Kneipp path, Finish Sauna and indoor/outdoor swimming pool.
Fine dining can be had on site at La Brezza, think traditional gastronomic fare, tufted banquettes and champagne cart, while the more casually glamorous La Casetta features a menu of Mediterranean salads and grilled fish and meats in a historic stone lake house. For a more low key hotel experience, the hipster brother and sister duo behind Art Hotel Riposo have transformed a 250 year old house into an art-filled boutique hotel complete with rooftop terrace (where nightly aperitivos are served), pool and charming restaurant. The hotelier’s double as musicians. You can catch their jazz band, Olivia and The Funcats, performing at the hotel every Saturday night.