Basking in the unseasonable warmth of an autumnal afternoon, I gaze through a fringe of palms toward a sapphire blue lake. The sun glints on its surface like stars strewn across a twilight sky, stretching toward mountains rising up on its far shores.
It’s a picturesque view to ponder from my seat at an alfresco café, where I’m struggling to conquer a focaccia sandwich oozing with creamy burrata cheese and prosciutto, washed down with an Erdinger “weissbier.” That may seem like a curious culinary marriage, but this Italian-German mélange is on everyone’s lips, in every sense. That is to say, tuning into the conversations around me, I notice most people speak either German or Italian — and sometimes both, switching effortlessly between the two.
This intriguing cultural mix is embedded in the DNA of the Repubblica e Cantone Ticino. The territory lies not in Italy, nor in Germany, but rather in Switzerland, which actually boasts four national languages — French, German, Italian and Romansh — although their predominance varies by region.
As the southernmost canton in Switzerland, Ticino shares a border with Italy. Its official language is Italian, and, unofficially, so is the warm, sunny Mediterranean climate, thanks to the shelter of the surrounding Alps. Ticino takes this whole Italian thing so seriously — particularly the cuisine — that the canton is even shaped like one of those Parma hams often displayed in butcher shop windows, hoof still attached and high-kicking like a porcine chorus girl.
Little wonder that Ticino is a holiday hot spot for the Swiss. In fact, most of my fellow guests at Hotel Eden Roc, located in Ticino about three hours south of Zurich, are from Switzerland. But an increasing number of Americans are rocking up to this Five-Star Superior member of the Leading Hotels of the World.
Eden Roc’s allure is obvious, beginning with its enviable location just yards from Lake Maggiore in the postcard picture town of Ascona. “Everybody has heard about Lake Como, and Lake Zurich is very busy,” says Stefan Hauser, the hotel’s rooms division manager. “But Lake Maggiore is one of those hidden treasures.”
An occasional sailboat or ferry glides across the water, but there are no flashy Riviera-style yachts in Ascona’s little marina — only small boats. With a population of just 5,500, the town feels refreshingly laid-back and relaxed.
A row of rainbow-hued restaurants, shops and hotels, including Eden Roc’s three-star sister property, Albergo Carcani, flank one side of Piazza Giuseppe Motta boardwalk promenade, while a children’s playground and tree-shaded park benches line the other, directly beside the lake. On the weekend I arrive, the town is hosting a “Yesterday” festival, with live bands, classic cars, balloons bobbing in the breeze and sticky-cheeked children clutching dripping gelatos. It’s as though Mayberry was squeezed through a wormhole of space, time and television tubes and extruded on these lucky, unlikely shores.
Hotel Eden Roc, which encompasses 95 rooms in three attached buildings (Eden Roc 1, Eden Roc 2 and the Marina), takes full advantage of its lakefront setting. Its quartet of restaurants — chief among them the Michelin-starred La Brezza, headed by 27-year-old wunderkind chef Marco Campanella — have terraces overlooking the lake. Two swimming pools, including an indoor-outdoor pool attached to the 21,500-square-foot spa, offer lake views, and a vine-draped pergola provides a leafy canopy above a small sandy beach. Guests can kayak, paddleboard, water-ski or even sign up for a sailing course.
For lazy folks (i.e., me), there are also Riva boats for rent, complete with crew. My friends and I charter a boat for our Lake Maggiore adventure, including visits to the Italian town of Cannobio, with its shop-lined streets and waterfront cafes, and the tiny Brissago Islands.
The smallest of the two Brissago Islands is closed to the public, but the other is home to a neoclassical Playboy mansion prototype where, in the early 19th century, the owner enjoyed hosting beauties in the buff, as evidenced by a few risqué black-and-white photos on display. Today the villa is a boutique hotel, but the main attraction is the isle’s lush botanical garden, featuring exotic plants from far-flung lands like South America, South Africa and Australia. It is equal parts entertaining (i.e., “dinosaur” footprints along a “Jurassic Park”-like jungle trail) and educational (did you know the word “orchid” derives from the Greek for “testicle?” No? Well, now you do).
Beyond boats, there are plenty of places to explore via Switzerland’s famously reliable rail system. Hotel Eden Roc offers guests free transfers to the attractive lakeside town of Locarno, where my companions and I catch a train to Lugano. With a population of 63,000 people, Lugano, on the shores of Lake Lugano, is the biggest city in Ticino.
“Lugano is like the sunny living room of Switzerland,” says guide Patricia Carminati as we explore its gardens, vast squares and high-end shopping streets like Via Nassa. “We’re a canton of contrasts. We have palm trees and snow. We’re Swiss, but we speak Italian, and the Italian influence is also evident in our architecture — and our food.”
Ticino’s citizens are so proud of their gastronomic offerings that food and wine produced within the canton are marked with special blue and white labels. Carminati points out several of these products, including panettoni and amaretti cookies, at Ristorante Grand Café Al Porto — an elegant Art Nouveau café and shop housed in an old convent, once frequented by stars like Clark Gable (the café, that is … not the convent).
My favorite excursion is visiting the vertiginous viewpoints of Cardada and Cimetta, high above Lake Maggiore. Particularly hale and hearty travelers may choose to hike or bicycle to Cimetta’s 5,500-foot peak, traversing switchback paths through evergreen forests that yield to birch trees and fern-covered slopes as you ascend.
Alternatively, the less athletically ambitious, not to say “lazy,” among us (me again!) can also journey to the summit via a trio of clever conveyances. From Locarno, take the rumbling funicular to Orselina, pausing for a gander at the magnificent Madonna del Sasso basilica. From Orselina, you can continue to Cardada (1,115 feet) on a cable car. Cardada offers lovely views of Lake Maggiore, but if you press onward — and upward — via chair lift to Cimetta’s summit, you’ll be rewarded with an incomparable panorama of the lake and surrounding valleys.
Here, where the rumpled folds of the Alps fade into the distance and the lake’s glassy blue surface reflects an infinite sky, there are no borders. No boundaries. Just natural beauty in abundance for all to enjoy. You don’t need to understand Italian to recognize la dolce vita when you taste it.