A Resort Getaway at Hotel Eden Roc Ascona on Switzerland's Lake Maggiore

A Resort Getaway at Hotel Eden Roc Ascona on Switzerland's Lake Maggiore
Sailboats and power boats were docked in the small marina. On the sunbathing lawn bordering the hotel’s three buildings and the water’s edge, people relaxed in the sun or walked hand in hand engaged in conversation. Kids played in the pool close to the hotel where parents could keep an eye on them. Waiters carried trays of food and beverages to guests lounging on chaise lounges next to wispy-tall palm trees. That perfectly idyllic setting could have been anywhere on the Mediterranean coast. But the Hotel Eden Roc Ascona is in Switzerland, the land of snow covered, towering Alps.

Switzerland is more than just a winter destination. Of course there are wonderful ski resorts. Of course, there are dramatic landscapes featuring massively large mountain ranges. But Switzerland is also a destination of rolling hills, spring fed lakes, micro-climates and mild weather.

Ascona lake front park

Visit Vevey, Lausanne and Montreux and you will be amazed at the warm weather and rows of palm trees that border the hotels on Lake Geneva’s northern shore. In Switzerland’s Italian speaking canton called Ticino, the same is true only more dramatically. The region has a Mediterranean spirit and a mild climate where palm trees, tropical plants and even cacti flourish.

The Hotel Eden Roc Ascona makes the most of that setting.

Visit the concierge desk

A Swiss Deluxe Hotel and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, Hotel Eden Roc Ascona is part of the Swiss owned Tschuggen Hotel Group.

At its heart, the Eden Roc is a resort hotel with activities focused on Lake Maggiore. Although the fall and Christmas are popular times for visitors, the hotel is primarily a warm weather destination. As a first time visitor, I did not know what to expect during my stay, which is why I visited the concierge desk.

Concierge Roberto Bonfardeci, who, by the way, has been honored as the "Best Concierge in Switzerland", invited me to join him in the lounge. We settled into comfortable chairs with a view of the lake. He ordered espressos and a plate of cookies.

He explained that while many hotels give guests printed activity lists, at the Eden Roc the concierge desk likes to personalize their suggestions and begins with a conversation to learn about the guest’s interests. Knowing the area so well and armed with an encyclopedic Rolodex, he said, “The concierge can then make wishes happen.”

Hotel Eden Roc marina

To start with, of course, there is Lake Maggiore. To enjoy the water, the hotel offers complimentary kayaking, inflatable toys for children, stand-up paddle boards and introductory water skiing instructions. Also available by reservation there are water skiing, wakeboarding, motor boat and sailing boat rentals and party boat charters. Laser Bug sailing dinghies were available for rental. Alternatively, you could bring the best inflatable dock for more fun on the water.

To travel around nearby Ascona, guests have the use of the hotel’s bicycles. If a guest enjoys hiking, the concierge will suggest trails of varying difficulty that would lead to areas of great beauty. For golfers there are nearby golf courses and for scuba divers the mountain fed, crystal clear waters of the Maggia River are a must. For those who enjoy the pleasures of the open road, the concierge can arrange for a motorcycle or car rental to go sight-seeing on Ticino’s excellent highways. An itinerary can be created to visit the small towns around the lake and in the nearby valleys of Bassa, Bavona, Rovana and Lavizzara.

Bonfardeci suggested one of his favorite excursions, an all-day trip to the Brissago Islands in Lake Maggiore, a short boat ride from the hotel. I could explore the islands’ nature preserves, visit the Canton Ticino Botanical Gardens and have lunch on the terrace of Restaurante Isole Brissago. The idea was appealing, but I did not have time this trip. I put the islands on the top of my “Things to Do When I Return” list.

Hotel Eden Roc Ascona

A room with a view

The traditional rooms at the Eden Roc can have a flamboyant, Miami Beach appearance. Walking into Suite 204, I was amazed to see a bright orange sofa and a pink comforter on the bed.

But times-they-are-a’changing and the hotel is undergoing a long-term renovation executed by the Swiss architect, Carlo Rampazzi. Ultimately all 95 rooms will have new furniture and original paintings unique to each room. The new design relies on a turquoise and blue color scheme that firmly connects the hotel to the waters of Lake Maggiore.

My room was one of those redecorated by Rampazzi. A comfortable king sized bed faced a large screen TV and a sleek bureau with an espresso machine. One wall was a sliding glass door that opened to a large balcony with two reclining chairs, a small table and two chairs. The quiet elegance of the room extended to the marble bathroom with a shower and a separate bathtub.

Small details can make a big difference and the best hotels excel at those details. At times during the day, when the sun was too intense, the problem was easily solved by an electronically controlled shutter that covered the sliding glass door. If I were outside, I could easily extend a motorized yellow and white striped awning to shade the balcony.

When I walked into my room, I was delighted to see a welcoming tray with flat and sparkling waters, fresh fruit and freshly baked cookies. Sometimes a hotel’s gift basket fruit is more about the thought than it is about the quality of the fruit. Happily, the apples, orange, grapes and banana were ripe and delicious. I enjoyed a snack sitting on the balcony taking in the beauty of the lake.

Hotel Eden Roc Ascona breakfast buffet

Dining al fresco

The welcoming tray was just one of the ways in which the Eden Roc takes care of its guests. Mornings began with an extraordinary breakfast buffet. Plated with restaurant perfection were baked goods, local cheeses, freshly squeezed fruit juices, dried fruit, fresh fruit, made-to-order egg dishes, pancakes, smoked and cured fish, bacon, ham, sausages, charcuterie, nuts, granola, cakes, house made jams and yogurt. There was something for everyone, with the highest quality imaginable.

Having made myself a plate with local cheeses, charcuterie, scrambled eggs, fresh fruit and a croissant, I found a table on the outdoor terrace overlooking the lake. The quiet of the morning was punctuated by the sounds of children playing on the lawn and a motor boat arriving in the marina.

The view was so compelling, I returned to have dinner on the patio at La Casetta (“The Stone House”) overlooking the marina. Once again, the setting was lovely. Birds called from the trees on the hotel’s grounds. The wind pushed against the surface of the lake. Small waves slapped against the moorings, jostling the motorboats tied at the dock.

La Casetta restaurant seen from the waterLa Casetta restaurant seen from the water

The solidly Italian menu focused on quality ingredients and seasonality. All the restaurants at the hotel have a high regard for quality. Which is why the upscale Ristorante La Brerra has been awarded 17 GaultMillau Points, Restaurant Eden Roc with a view of the outdoor pool was given 15 GaultMillau Points and the casually elegant Restaurant Marina received 14 GaultMillau Points.

One of the benefits of visiting Switzerland is being able to enjoy Swiss wines. Very little of the domestic output leaves the country because the Swiss love Swiss wines. The Eden Roc cellars hold distinctive wines from around the world and carry a good selection of Swiss wines, especially those from Ticino. Merlot is the most popular grape in the region, used primarily to produce red wines. Uniquely, the region also produces a white Merlot, which is a lovely, bright wine for summer. For my dinner I enjoyed a glass of white Merlot Preludio Ti Doc Bianco di Merlot Chiodi, Ascona (2013).

The dinner menu that evening had a selection of Italian classics, antipasti, salads, risotto, pasta and a mix of grill items. Supplementing the dishes from the kitchen, a chef worked a grill station in an open air alcove in a corner of the stone patio. His grilled meats and sautéed shellfish contributed a deliciously heady aroma to the evening air.

Everything on the menu sounded delicious. But there was one dish I could not resist. Spaghetti with bottarga. I know, that would not necessarily be on the top of everyone’s list, especially when there was a grilled lamb chop, monkfish and seabream to choose from. But salted, cured fish roe or bottarga is not easy to find in Southern California, where I live.

Since the spaghetti would be rich, I asked if it was possible to order a plate of steamed vegetables off the menu? No problem, I was told. When the plate of homemade spaghetti with garlic, oil, red pepperoncini and bottarga (Spaghetti fatti in casa all’aglio, olio e peperocino bottarga di muggine) arrived, it was accompanied by a side of broccoli and carrots steamed al dente.

Hotel Eden Roc Ascona dinner at La CasettaHomemade spaghetti with garlic, oil, red pepperoncini and bottarga (Spaghetti fatti in casa all’aglio, olio e peperocino bottarga di muggine) at restaurant La Casetta

To the eye, the dish looked like nothing special, just a mound of pasta on a white plate. That is the genius of Italian cooking. Make the dish simple and let the ingredients shine. In a well-made dish all the elements have to be individually excellent and then those elements have to combine well. The simplicity of this particular dish exposed all of its elements to scrutiny. Clinging to the homemade spaghetti strands were salty crunchy bottarga flakes. Finely chopped, red pepperoncini dotted the olive oil. The success of the dish was in its delicious interplay of textures, saltiness, creaminess and heat.

By the time I had finished, the sun had set. Each table had a candle and lights illuminated the boundary of La Casetta. I was enjoying the night air and the sound of the lake, so I was in no hurry to leave. A young couple at the table next to me paid their bill and left. I assumed they were guests like myself. But instead of walking across the sunbathing lawn back to the hotel, they walked down to the dock, climbed into a motorboat and sped out of the marina. What a great image of La Dolce Vita, Swiss style!

Hotel Eden Roc Ascona spa bouquet of hydrangeasBouquet of hydrangeas in the spa

Relax. Invigorate. Soothe.

When I entered the Spa, I knew I was in for a special experience. The entryway rotunda was lined entirely in tiny blue tiles that surrounded me as if I were suddenly submerged in a clear, cool lagoon. The large spa included an indoor/outdoor pool, a hydro pool with whirlpool recliners, a steam bath and Finish sauna, a lounge and a quiet room. The four massage and three beauty treatment rooms were named for local flowers. Each had that flower painted on the wall inside the room.

The large spa menu offered a great many beauty and wellness treatments. Women and men were offered hairstyling, manicures, pedicures and facials, with options for steaming, peeling, cleansing and age-control. Sensai and Dermalogica programs promoted regeneration and revitalization.

Detoxing treatments were designed to keep skin soft and youthful looking. Other treatments focused on circulation, healthy hands, feet, back and neck. Some treatments took thirty minutes. Others were over an hour and a half.

For a massage, I could choose from reflexology, aroma oil massage, lymphatic drainage, Thai massage, Hawaiian Lomi Lomi Nui massage, shiatsu, stone therapy and Indian relaxation or oil massages.

My objectives were to feel physically and mentally refreshed and to relax so I could enjoy a good night’s sleep. With the help of Virginie, the massage therapist, I decided to have an aroma therapy massage. To select the correct treatment, Virginie had me react to the oils. After testing a dozen, I had responded favorably to lemon (good for mental fatigue), pine (good for physical stimulation), rosemary (good to revive muscles) and lemongrass (good for relaxation).

Virginie’s bright and airy treatment room was named Hortensia. A delicate bouquet of hydrangea was on the massage table and a painting of the flower covered one wall.

Combing the oils I chose with warm almond oil, she began the massage. The combined fragrances were subtle with lemon and pine the most prominent. When Virginie asked me to turn over, I realized I had fallen asleep. After the massage, wrapped in a warm bathrobe, I settled into the quiet room and read a magazine. Before leaving, I enjoyed the sauna, the steam bath and a hot shower. I felt relaxed and energized. And, that evening I had a beautiful night’s sleep.

Ristorante al PontileRistorante al Pontile

Ascona and Locarno

As Bonfardeci, the concierge, had suggested, I explored the area, principally Ascona and Locarno, a scant five minutes apart by car.

Originally a fishing village, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, artists discovered Ascona and made the village fashionable, which, as so often happens, led to its development as a luxury enclave. I rode one of the hotel’s complimentary bicycles to the restaurant area on Piazza Giuseppe Motta. Dozens of outdoor restaurants lined the lake front street.

I happened to be in Ascona at the beginning of the Ascona Jazz Festival, a ten-day annual event when New Orleans bands perform along with talented up-and-coming musicians from the United States and Europe. As I walked on the street looking for a restaurant, the Treme Brass Band from New Orleans suddenly appeared. Led by a man in a black bowler hat, carrying a black umbrella, and a woman waving white feathered fans, the band marched on the street, gathering a crowd as they went and stopping every few feet to perform one of their signature songs. You don’t see that every day.

Even without a jazz band parading on the Piazza, the restaurants here are the perfect location to relax, enjoy well-prepared food and people watch. I decided to have lunch at Ristorante al Pontile. The orange awning shaded the sidewalk cafe from the sun. Families and couples filled the tables. The large menu featured salads, pastas and seafood. I ordered a green salad, a plate of angel hair pasta with shrimp and a bowl of Swiss Mövenpick vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso (affocato) for dessert. Once again, I lingered at the table, happy to enjoy the good weather and the pleasant setting.

Locarno is just across the Maggia River from Ascona. The larger city, Locarno is also home to annual festivals. In July, the Moon and Stars Festival, a pop-rock music festival, fills the main square, the Piazza Grande. During the first week of August, the Locarno International Film Festival shows U.S. and international films. Taking advantage of the good weather, 8,000 seats are set up in the Piazza Grande. And, before Christmas, the Piazza Grande is put to good use as a skating rink.

Marnin Confectionery

When I visited, I stopped in the Marnin Confectionery (Pasticceria Marnin) and Tea Room. Located diagonally across from St. Antonio Church in Piazza S. Antonio in the old city, Marnin is an Italian bakery and a Swiss chocolate shop. The day I visited, I met the engaging baker and co-owner Franca Antognini. She is rightly proud of her panettone, the Italian sweet bread flavored with dried fruit and nuts. Her baked goods combine ingredients from Ticino and Italy. And, she makes amoretti, that classic Italian cookie, in the Swiss tradition by dipping the bottom in dark chocolate.

Chocolates and Panettone on a cooling rack

Because this branch of Marnin (there are two other stores) is a tea room, coffee, tea and hot chocolate are served. Cookies, panettone, fruit tarts, cakes, macaroons and chocolates are displayed in the refrigerated glass counter. Antognini makes seasonal and festival versions of her baked goods and chocolates. To celebrate the Locarno Camelia exhibition, she showed me chocolates flavored with green tea and shaped like delicate camellia flowers. I couldn’t resist buying a box to bring home for my mother-in-law who loves chocolates.

Hotel Eden Roc pool

Memories of La Dolce Vita

Leaving Eden Roc Ascona was not easy. The hotel gave me a sense of relaxation and contentment. The beauty of the lake, the friendly, efficient service, the spa treatment, the comfort of the room and the quality of the food left me in a healthy, happy state of mind. When I arrived, concierge Bonfardeci told me that a great many guests return to the hotel year after year. Some have been coming for generations. After my visit, I could see why. Since I had already begun my “Things to Do When I Return” list, I intended to come back.

If you go:

Hotel Eden Roc, CH-6612 Ascona, Ticino, Switzerland, +41 91 785 71 71, info@edenroc.ch, http://edenroc.ch/en

Typical of the courtesy afforded visitors, guests are encouraged to arrange for a morning arrival before 10:00 AM. Even though your room may not be available until 3:00 PM, you will be offered a complimentary breakfast on the patio overlooking Lake Maggiore. That leaves you the day to enjoy the spa, have a massage, relax on a chaise lounge on the lawn facing the lake, take a boat ride or walk into Ascona and have lunch.

Complimentary car service to the hotel is available for guests arriving by Swiss Rail to Locarno/Ascona or by airplane at Lugano-Agno or Locarno Magadino airports. Because of the completion of the Gotthard Base Tunnel through the Alps, the travel time by rail from Zurich to Ticino has been cut by as much as one hour.

Ristorante Al Pontile, La Buona Cucina Sul Lungolago di Ascona, Piazza Giuseppe Motta 27-31, CH 6612 Ascona, 091 791 46 04, www.alpontile.ch

Marnin Confectionery (Pasticceria Marnin) Tea Room, Piazza S. Antonio, Citta Vecchia (Old City), CH-6600 Locarno, 091 751 71 87, www.marnin.ch

Restaurante Isole Brissago, 6614 Brissago, Isole Brissago, +41 91 791 43 62, http://www.isolebrissago.ch/en/restaurant