Italian Lakes

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Villa d'Este

Address: 40 Via Regina

Neighborhood:

City: Cernobbio

Phone: 011-39-031-3481

Website: www.villadeste.it

Expert Review

For over 400 years, the palatial former residence has successfully kept stride with the eternal lake which, as Shelley wrote, "exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty." In the mid-16th century, Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio acquired the land and commissioned architect Pellegrino Pellegrini to build a villa. Ever since then, nobility from across Europe has traveled to the villa for precious escape. Today that villa is a five-star hotel with the most refined of modern delights; yet the stamp of each owner remains on the estate's hills, gardens, and rooms.

The pianist on Villa d'Este's terrace overlooking Lake Como may start summer evenings with Puccini (a former guest), but after a while relaxes into Elton John, James Taylor, or even Madonna (all three have stayed here, too, so it's only fair). It's this mix of elegance and openness, along with an enviable location, that makes Villa d'Este a must-visit hotel, and, for us, justifies the very splurgy rates.

Comparable hotels dot the area, but none so dripping with fine Cernobbian antiques, such as silk drapery, paintings by Serangeli, and marble statues by Canova. Outside, sprawling gardens blend Italian Renaissance and English influences; Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, spent five years here throwing scandalous balls and decorating the villa and gardens to suit her tastes (and remind her of home).

The warm staff will gladly offer information about every artifact (they're used to running a sort of living museum), arrange a deluxe boat rental, or supply all the local gossip. In the spa, the atmosphere turns from decadent to transcendent: More than 50 treatments are on offer, from toning wraps to the less conspicuous AHA/BHA moisturizing treatment.

Check out the small fortress next to one of the hills (a former resident was a Napoleonic general who liked to play war games). The trek up to the little fort is quite a workout, but it offers one of the best views around. Best season for value: spring/ early summer. 2008 Smart Luxury Award winner

Great Value Alternative: On the shores of Lake Garda, Italy's largest body of water, Hotel du Lac has a kind of country-club vibe, with large gardens, a pool, and several levels of terraced eateries. www.limone.com/dulac

Tags: luxury | expensive | spa | smart splurge | smart luxury winner

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