When I stayed for a couple of nights at Passalacqua last October, not long after it had opened, I arrived at the hotel very late in the evening. By that time, it was pitch black and I could make out little of the property. Most guests had already retired to their rooms, and after a swift check-in, I was accompanied to my suite. I was asleep in minutes, tucked under silky-soft sheets. Little did I know what awaited the following morning.
At an awards ceremony in London last night, the hotel was ranked number one in The World’s 50 Best Hotels. This is the first time that 50 Best, which has produced annual restaurant and bar lists in the same format since the early 2000s, has ventured into the world of travel. Almost 600 industry experts (hoteliers, travel journalists, consultants and seasoned luxury travellers) around the world were asked to name the seven hotels, in order of preference, that had impressed them the most from April 2021-23.
For an independently owned hotel that has been open little more than a year to have scooped the top spot, when no other Lake Como hotels even made the list, is really quite something. But thinking back to my stay I was not surprised.
Lake Como has no shortage of five-star hotels with glorious gardens, yet the grounds at Passalacqua are something else, tumbling to the shore in a series of sublime terraces, each impeccably manicured and with its own distinct character. Opening my room’s shutters revealed a sliver of this verdant haven, with glorious lake vistas further elevating the panorama. But it wasn’t until later on, when I headed off to explore the grounds, that it dawned on me what a delight they really are.
On the uppermost terrace is a stylish swimming pool shaded by green parasols with fabrics by La DoubleJ, a Milan-based brand that repurposes vintage prints in quirky, lively designs. On the level below, you’ll find chickens frolicking and clucking as they roam among fruit trees. A bocce (boules) court occupies the terrace below alongside a kitchen garden. While the atmosphere is effortlessly stylish and the grounds manicured to perfection, there’s a decidedly laid-back feel to the place. Probably because this is an entirely family-run affair.
The De Santis family, who acquired the villa at Sotheby’s in 2018, are no newbies to the hospitality industry. The parent-and-daughter team are behind the lake’s famed Grand Hotel Tremezzo, one of Italy’s most fashionable properties. Yet, unlike the Tremezzo that sits majestically on the lakefront, its floating swimming pool gently bobbing up and down in the deep blue waters, Passalacqua is hidden away in its own grounds in the delightful town of Moltrasio, where apricot-coloured houses cling to the hillside.
Speaking exclusively to the Telegraph after the announcement, owner Valentina De Santis said that winning the award was down to the family and all the staff’s deep love for the property, hospitality and the wider Lake Como area. The team at Passalacqua are a refreshingly young and wonderfully dynamic bunch, going above and beyond to please guests. Silvio Vettorello, who has worked for the De Santis family since 2013, has been overseeing the hotel from day one. Lively and gregarious, Silvio is a real character, bringing a heavy dose of Italian warmth to the entire property.
There’s no denying that Italian warmth shines through in every corner of the hotel. You can stroll into the kitchen for a leisurely chat with the chef or enjoy a meal anywhere you please in the grounds. Children, too, are welcomed with open arms. Every day, there are complimentary activities that will delight little ones, whether gathering freshly laid eggs in the chicken coop or taking part in a gelato-making workshop.
Since acquiring the property, owner Valentina has put her heart and soul into making this a home away from home. The 18th-century villa was the former residence of composer Vincenzo Bellini, whose muse and soprano Giuditta Pasta resided on the opposite shore, her ethereal voice drifting over the waters to reach him on the opposite shore.
Original details have been painstakingly restored. Valentina and her parents spent years at antiques markets and fairs, hunting down objets d’art, hand-blown Murano chandeliers and gilded furnishings that reflect the very best of Italian artisanship. Rooms are vast and ornately decorated, yet modern comforts are no afterthought, with televisions hidden away in steamer trunks and Dyson hair dryers and straighteners in bathrooms, along with Airwrap multi-stylers, because you never know what you may need for your glam stay on the lake.
I admit I was somewhat surprised at the choice of rich and ornate décor. Over the last few years, new openings on the lake have tried to stand out from the classically styled grandes dames in favour of sleek contemporary design. Yet Passalacqua opted to combine the two, with elaborately furnished interiors providing an unusual contrast to the fashionable grounds, where timeless sophistication mixes with statement outdoor fabrics.
What I liked the most about the interiors was the restaurant, with its soft lighting, original terrazzo floors and furnishings in delicate shades of blue – it feels more like sitting in a (wealthy) aunt’s dining room than in a restaurant. Guests are encouraged to stroll into the kitchen and chat with the chef to discuss what they most fancy for supper.
And there’s a spa, of course, reached via a secret underground tunnel that connects the villa to the lakefront – just getting there feels a little James Bond. It’s a small boutique spot, with a steam room, sauna and relaxation area, but what else do you need when you can spend the entire day unwinding in the grounds, perhaps having a swim before jetting off on one of the hotel’s sleek boats?
A stay on Italy’s most glamorous lake may not come cheap (double rooms start at €990 [£856]), but you’ll find a family-run property with a heart and a veritable Italian soul – and some of the most divine grounds anywhere on Lake Como.