We were somewhat on the fence about visiting Ascona, in the Ticino Region of Switzerland. For starters, we weren’t thrilled with the long schlep to get there– a train then a bus ride to yet another train to a taxi, sounded exhausting. Plus, I had never heard a peep before about this area. However, once we arrived in Switzerland, all the locals were giving rave reviews of this so-called “Swiss Rivera.” It appeared that Ascona was rather an inside secret among the European cognoscenti, so rail pass in hand; we headed for Switzerland’s only Italian speaking region.
Live and Learn:
The train ride, named the Palm Express, was a spectacular experience! We passed hundreds of pristine waterfalls, curved our way in and out of tunnels, over numerous bridges, with breathtaking Heidi-esque Alpine green landscape giving way to sub-tropical lakeside vistas.
Why Ticino has not been tops on the American travel radar is a mystery to me. With its balmy climate, (an average of 2300 hours of sunlight annually), lush Mediterranean vegetation (who knew palm and citrus trees grew in Switzerland?), along with an abundance of tropical flowers and close proximity to both Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano, this region is truly a mini-Eden. The people adopt a lifestyle modeled on a Swiss variation of laid-back Italian luxe.
In Ascona, we stayed at the popular Albergo Giardino, a perfect vantage point for exploration the area. We rode our pink girls’ bikes, thoughtfully supplied by the hotel, by perfectly manicured villas, past vineyards, immaculate community beaches and docks, ending up in the pedestrian-only part of town.
As we strolled the tree-lined promenade outlining sparkling Lake Maggiore, we passed what appeared to be extremely contented folks of all ages, sitting on the quaint benches, chatting in a variety of European tongues,(although Italian was by far the most prevelant) sharing a gelato, or picking out their favorites from the selection of fantastic yachts dotting the harbor.
We got off the main drag that was filled with touristy waterfront cafes, pizzerias, and bars to wander the towns’ cobblestone streets, popping in and out of numerous art galleries, jewelry shops, hip clothing boutiques and charming enotecas.
Getting hungry I recalled the emphatic directive I had been given to try a meal at one of the Ticinese Grotto’s, (hidden trattorias that are family run alfresco kitchens tucked into obscure bits of real estate.) We stumbled upon a bustling courtyard grotto by following the loud laughter through a back- alley. The convivial crowd was seated on a hodge podge of picnic tables and chairs. Each table sported a large carafe of wine surrounded by oversized platters of fragrant wine- braised meat, polenta, salad, large rounds of fresh peasant bread and local cheese.
Down for the count, we asked to be seated, only to be informed by the “Front of the House,” (a little girl, maybe 9 years old, who apparently was the only personwho could speak English) that dinner service for the night was finito! My eyes filled with tears, and my stomach growled as I pleaded with her, but this pint-sized employee remained firm in her resolution that dinner was over!
So much for Ascona nightlife- we went to bed on empty!
The next morning we awoke, famished, to chirping birdies outside our window at Albergo Giardino. A stay at this five-star Relais and Chateau is like visiting a favorite (and extremely well-heeled) relative’s country estate. Because of the friendly staff and many gracious touches, it was easy to feel that we, too, were manor born. We scurried into the main dining area, Aphrodite, drooling as we eye-balled the opulent breakfast buffet, taking a seat overlooking the serene lily pond, fountains, and many guests. Small well-behaved children, quietly dined with their parents, while munching big slabs of peasant bread with a schmear of Nutella.
Tempting as it looked, I chose to fill my plate with an assortment of country breads, panneforte, pastries and croissants to enjoy with the delish variety of homemade jams, honey’s and cheeses. Fresh shrimp, liver pate, eggs, fruits, fresh juices and chilled champagne also received my attention.
Sated, we sat back to decide next order of business– would it be sun bathing and a morning swim in the beautifully landscaped outdoor pool, or perhaps a treatment in the downstairs Spa, an oasis of wellness, serenity and beauty. Here, Daniela Frutiger, married to General Manager Phillipe Frutiger, has created a luxurious and exclusive enclave, complete with her own award-winning line of natural products, “dipiu by Daniela.”
This stunning and smart hotelier couple, Daniela and Phillipe have been working hard the last few months to reposition the Giardino utilizing exciting innovations in the spa, restaurant and landscaping, with many more changes to come.
Our room at the hotel was very comfortable, but on the small side with a rather kitschy decorating scheme that felt somewhat at odds with the tastefulness of the rest of the hotel.
That night, we returned to Ristorante Aphrodite where we supped under the stars. Never a fan of half board, where the price you pay includes your room, breakfast and dinner, this meal had me changing my tune. Awarded 16 points by Gault Millau, perhaps that’s why Chef Urs Gschwend offers diners the choice of 16 a la carte dishes which change nightly. Amazingly, one can opt for any or ALL of the 16 dishes- with smaller tasting portions available. The high caliber of the creative French-Mediterranean cuisine, enhanced by the use of local, fresh ingredients, along with the artistic and visually arresting presentations delighted us.
No, I would not share my order of succulent King Prawns, and yes, the full sized serving of chorizo stuffed leg of lapin (rabbit!) suited “Madame” just fine… followed by a small tasting portion of Number 6 on the menu, ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and fresh chanterelle, and then, please come back and we’ll order our main courses!
Telling myself that one only goes round once, I chose with wild abandon from the variety of international cheeses, while managing to delicately select just a few of the decadent chocolates and mini cookies that our server presented on an elegant silver tray. Never one to overindulge (!) the only thing I passed up were the dessert choices, a trio that involved a frappe, a compote and a custard- though my sister said the blackberry frappe was ethereal.
Our second night at Giardino, we peeked into the other restaurant, the avant-garde Ecco. Twenty-six year-old rising star, Chef Rolf Fliegauf, mans the stoves and offers an innovative, challenging menu based on his bold interpretation of molecular gastronomy. “Glazed goatfish, calf’s sweetbreads, yogurt and mocha” and a “chocolate tart topped with strawberry-pepper-smoked ice cream” were just some of the eclectic offerings. My sister was crazy about the restaurant decor. Slick and sleek, yet still intimate, withtotally cool lighting fixtures, the forward looking interior design was as exciting as the menu.
Unfortunately, Ecco was booked solid for the evening so we happily went back to the Aphrodite where we enjoyed a dinner that, yes, was even better than our meal the night before!
The wine cellar is well-stocked with interesting selection of local Ticino merlots and delicious Pino Grigios, which are not available in the states. A gracious Frutiger touch is the complimentary pre-dinner wine hour, where guests may sample of a red, white and dessert wine paired with a delectable appetizer. Another welcome feature is the fabulous entertainment in the hotel’s lounge. One night we listened to a raspy voiced jazz singer/composer imported from New Orleans.
Little makes me happier than discovering an exciting, new travel destination. After a few short days in Ascona, all I can say is….keep the light on for me. I’ll definitely be back.