With its cosmopolitan vibe and astonishing lake vistas, framed by emerald hills and the alps beyond, Ascona has all the glamour you’d expect from the resorts of Lake Como or Garda. But, as I discovered, it’s a curious blend of Mediterranean spirit and Alpine flavour that sets it apart.
Life on the lake
Lake Maggiore is Italy’s second largest lake and also its longest, stretching a 40-mile curvilinear route from the northern Italian town of Arona to southern Switzerland, where Ascona sits in a natural bay on the western side. Punctuated by coral, butter yellow and cornflower blue facades, the town’s marina promenade is its colourful calling card. No wonder: there are few better ways to spend an afternoon than pitching up at one of its many cafés or restaurants and watching the ice in your glass bob and dance in rhythm with the boats in the harbour.
A choice spot is hotel and restaurant Albergo Carcani, where we ordered a round of Aperol spritzes and several flammkuchen to share at a table outside. A specialty from the border of southern Germany and northeast France, this pizza-esque dish is a great example of Switzerland’s diverse food culture. The traditional recipe sees slim rectangles of blistered, cracker-like bread dough topped with crème fraiche, sliced onions and bacon lardons. We tore through a second more Mediterranean version too, peppered with sundried tomatoes and shards of local hard cheese.
Located just thirty minutes from the Italian border, Italian is the most-spoken language in Ascona (German is the second), and hallmarks of la dolce vita are strongly in evidence, including the region’s mild climate. There was pasta on the menu at nearly every restaurant I passed in the old town, where the pastel buildings lining the piazza recalled Italian palazzos. The soft mass of fresh fusilli mingling with sweet tomatoes I enjoyed at Albergo Carcani was as good as any I’ve eaten across the border.
Switzerland’s canton of Ticino, where Ascona sits at the southern end, has plenty of its own distinctive food culture, too. A must-visit is a Ticinese grotto. Found at the shady edges of valleys and plains, these are traditional taverns offering a simple menu of air-dried meats, cheese and polenta, originally enjoyed by workers seeking respite from the midday heat. You’ll find a handful in the maze of roads surrounding Ascona, but some have adopted a more upmarket restaurant style. The central Grotto Baldoria, in the old town, serves typical Ticinese food in its open-air courtyard.
For a more rural grotto experience, traverse the mountains behind Ascona. It’s easier than it sounds: a fifteen-minute drive southwards, over the river Maggia, and you’re in the neighboring town of Orselina. From there, the Caradada-Cimetta cable car whisked us to Cardada, 1,340 metres above sea level, where we hiked along a unspoilt trail to Capanna Lo Stallone. Here coloured bunting needled through the scattering of trees, overlooking a staggering view of the lake far below; to the left, a snow-capped Swiss mountain looked over diners, grouped at long tables outside.
In the outdoor kitchen, a fire-licked cauldron of polenta had been slowly cooking, stirred almost constantly. It was served crowned with heat-burnished, stringy cheese, the nutty polenta beneath stirred through tomato and rocket in one bowl, spinach and eggs in another. Visiting in May, I had the pleasure of trying the creamy staple with outrageously chunky, sweet asparagus too. Our guide Lorenza had hers plain, with milk – it’s what she used to eat as a child growing up in Ascona.
You might find one more thing on a grotto’s restrained menu: risotto. Why? Uniquely, a Swiss variety of risotto rice called loto has been grown on the edge of Ascona since 1997. It’s the northernmost rice field in the world, and part of the Terreni alla Maggia estate, which also grows polenta, durum wheat for pasta and has its own vineyard and hotel. It runs tours and tastings frequently.
Occupying an enviable stretch of Ascona’s waterfront, Hotel Eden Roc is the place to stay if you want to relish exceptional views of Lake Maggiore in luxurious seclusion. The outdoor swimming pools (there’s three in total) seem to blend seamlessly with the expanse of water beyond, only a few cheerful palm trees interrupting the view; at every turn there’s an inviting sun lounger, adorned with a fresh folded towel. Combined with the most impossibly manicured grass I’ve ever walked upon, it feels very much like a garden of paradise.
Inside, Mediterranean-influenced architecture, marble floors, zingy furnishings and modern artwork create a dynamic look, with echoes of mid-century glamour. It’s a resort of the caliber James Bond recuperates at after a grueling mission. Double rooms are spacious and suites palatial; book the former from around £365 per night, rising in high season. If you can afford to splash out on a lake-view room, do.
The hotel takes its food and drink seriously. It’s home to four restaurants, including faux-rustic La Casetta, a romantic spot close to the shore, and the casual-chic Marina, serving good pasta and seafood. There’s also the fine dining Restaurant Eden Roc, where my highlights were a delicate carpaccio of octopus with zesty lime dressing and pâté-stuffed guinea fowl, served with greens that had been for a liberal swim in butter.
Come breakfast, there are more treats in store: homemade pulpy apricot jam, local honey (from blossom to chestnut) and eggs and cured meats from Ticino, all to be enjoyed al fresco if you wish. Being Switzerland, there are two types of bircher muesli too.
Around 70% of the wine served across the hotel’s restaurants is from Ticino, where there are around 200 wineries. Make sure to seek out this region’s distinctive white merlot, a rosé-style wine, for its clean, mineral taste. It’s exceptionally refreshing and available at most local bars and restaurants, where it’s a popular aperitif.
Hotel Eden Roc has its own private marina, and not yet owning my own yacht, we took a chauffeured ride on the hotel’s glamourous Riva Aquarama speedboat Wildcat III (rent from around £450 an hour). Cutting an arc through the prussian blue water toward the Brissago Islands, less than a mile away from Ascona’s shore, it was hard to not to feel like a film star.
The larger of the two islands, San Pancrazio, is a botanic garden home to over 1,000 species of plants from around the world, which prosper in the area’s warm subclimate. Purchased by a Russian baroness in the late nineteenth century, who established the garden, the island was subsequently sold to a rich merchant who built the 1920s mansion that stands today. Look for the beautiful tiled hallway floor, made of Carrara marble, and folly roman baths in the grounds. If you can’t wangle VIP transport, two ferries service the island, with stops at other small lakeside towns.
Back in Ascona, there’s plenty to feed hungry culture vultures. The annual jazz festival in June welcomes artists from New Orleans and Locarno hosts an international film festival each August and music festival Moon & Stars in July, attracting big names.
Just want to unwind? Hotel Eden Roc’s otherworldly spa is open to non-residents by prior arrangement, for around £40 for a half day. Leave your preconceptions of dimpsy, candlelit spas in the changing room: cerulean tiles sparkle in the sauna and hydropool and individual treatment rooms are filled with natural light for an invigorating, in-tune-with-nature experience. Residents can also book watersport activities and make use of the hotel’s free electric bikes.
Ascona is uniquely placed for visitors to enjoy the luxury trimmings associated with Italian lake holidays alongside the rustic pleasures of Swiss mountain life. Prices are at the higher end of reasonable, but the screensaver-perfect lake views (exploited to stunning effect by Hotel Eden Roc) are priceless. My enduring memory will be of standing at the lake’s edge at night, as strains of music and laughter slid across the inky water. Further along its length, lights from distant windows winked among the mountains, dispersing into the night sky like stars.
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