Grand Hotels in the Italian Lake District

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Twilight at the Regina Palace Hotel, Stresa. Soon after the Orient Express made its first stop in Stresa in 1906, the Regina Palace Hotel opened along Lake Maggiore’s shoreline where today it still evokes the turn-of-the-century grandeur that once made this grande dame resort one of the Grand Tour’s requisite stopovers.

However much the Italian Lakes District is culturally set apart from the more well-traveled museum-saturated Venice-Florence-Rome-Naples route, the region’s breathtaking scenery, invigorating alpine air, virtuoso villas, and splendid gardens are as enthralling as any Botticelli or Tintoretto. While the tradition of the European Grand Tour dated back to the 16th century, because of geographical and logistic constraints and limitations, it was not until more than a century later that Lake Maggiore and Lake Como developed as destinations for the idle, the curious, the privileged, the adventuresome, or those in need of healthier climes.

Venice’s ethereal ambience was one of the Grand Tour’s priceless souvenirs.

During a continental walking tour, William Wordsworth described the harsh impenetrable barrier between Switzerland and Italy in his 1799 poem titled The Simplon Pass as a place of “ … unfettered clouds and region of the heavens.” The Lake District’s first tourism era was several decades in the making as it took a series of impressive engineering feats. In c.1805, Napoleon completed the Simplon Road between Paris and Milan. The area’s first steamboats were introduced in 1816. A decade later, hairpin carriage roads and rocky footpaths were replaced by a ferry service connecting the medieval villages and towns. By the early 1840s English travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook was selling tour packages to the “Italian Land of Lakes,” as the train from Turin to Genoa stopped in Arona which connected to other towns on Lake Maggiore’s shoreline, including Stresa and Baveno, along the Simplon Road. With the completion of the Simplon tunnel in 1906 between Domodossola and Brig, the region became even more accessible, opening an entirely new train route from London and Paris to Istanbul – the Venice–Simplon Orient Express – which led to another era in European travel.

Armed with her box camera, a turn-of-the-century traveler records the marvels of the Italian Lake District. Library of Congress.

Ever since, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore has hosted the rich, the royal, as well as writers, poets and painters, all lured by the region’s fabled enchantment. During my recent visit, I sidestepped museums, instead opting to tour several of the grandest of the grand hotels, having a drink at some and dinner at others, to see what was left from travel’s Golden Age. And while I found some have preserved their white-glove charm (Are the waiters at Villa D’Este actually flying?) I was shocked to find the GH Milano in Brunate and the Grande Bretagne in Bellagio were all but completely abandoned, in dire disrepair if not in pre-demolition stages.

Here is a look at Grand Hotels on Lake Maggiore and Lake Como along with some vintage views.

Grand Hotel Et Des Iles Borromees
Corso Umberto I, 65-67. Stresa

Its eclectic façade softened by a morning mist, the Grand Hotel et des Iles Borromees rises up along the Lake Maggiore shoreline with the Monte Motterone as a backdrop.
The hotel’s Beaux-Arts roofline appears almost Parisian.
Believed to have been originally designed by architect Antonio Poli for the Omirini family, the hotel first opened in 1863 as a three-story central building flanked by two terrace buildings. Five years later, additions were completed that make up most of today’s façade.
The hotel’s dazzling gates face the lake, a reminder of when guests arrived by boat and carriage.
Today, the uber-sleek German tour busses arrive at the port-cochere entrance at the rear of the hotel.
The central entrance hall.
An understated decorative touch above the elevator.
The hotel’s Ernest Hemingway suite is on the first floor, named for one of its many distinguished guests.
In 2005, this colorful mosaic walkway was installed at the lakeside entrance, immortalizing the hotel’s history.
The hotel’s extensive gardens rival the Borromeo family’s private gardens on Isola Madre and Isola Bella.
The grounds are expertly-maintained.
The sound and light show at the hotel’s recently-installed aquacade, The Nymphaeum of Continents, brings a touch of Las Vegas to the Lake District.

On the hotel’s opposite side, the swimming pools and tennis courts with a view of Lake Maggiore beyond.
Looking towards the hotel, a view of the swimming pool and circular diving pool.

Regina Palace Hotel
Corso Umberto I, 33. Stresa

Opened in 1908, the Regina Palace Hotel was designed in the Italian Liberty style, its façade as impressive as the GH Des Iles Borromees but without the provenance.

L to R.: An elevated front terrace provides panoramic views of the lake.; Climbing vines cover the palms framed by a colorful array of azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons.
The hotel’s ornate lakeside entrance.
After leaving Stresa, we took a ferry to Baveno where onboard my travel companion, Diane Vacca, kept her eyes glued to her Swarovski Optik binoculars on the lookout for Lake Maggiore’s crested grebes, finches, sparrows and Alpine Swifts.

Lido Palace Hotel
Statale del Sempione, 30 Baveno

Built as the Villa Durazzo for a Genovese marquis during the mid-19th century, the Lido Palace has retained its classic 22-foot ceilings, etched glass walls and intricate marble carvings though it has lost some of its luster.
L to R.: In April 1879, the Villa Durazzo hosted a three-week visit by Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice.;
The following year, Baveno’s mayor, Gerolamo Rossi, bought the estate and transformed it into a hotel, opening it as the Grand Hotel Baveno in 1882. ;
Later, it was renamed the Lido Palace.
Adding to the hotel’s stature, in 1908 Winston and Clementine Churchill spent their honeymoon in Room 124 at the Lido Palace. Churchill had visited the hotel years earlier.
The hotel has tried to keep its Agatha Christie charm.

The Lido Palace dining room overlooks Lake Maggiore.
Unlike the simply spectacular gardens at the GH Borromees and the Regina Palace, the Lido Palace has more of an English countryside look.
Spring on Lake Maggiore. The view from our Room 326 at the Hotel Rigoli in Baveno. Some friends in Palm Beach had recommended the Rigoli and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
At the end of our stay on Lake Maggiore, from Baveno we took the ferry to Intra.
At Intra, we boarded the car ferry to the port town of Laveno Mombello on the east side of the lake. From there, we took the train to Saronno where we changed to a direct train to Como. In a little more than two hours, we arrived at the Hotel Metropole Suisse at Como.

Photographs by Augustus Mayhew

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