Friday, January 1, 2010

Five-star on a two-star budget


By Carol Campbell

Talk about luck! Picture us – two-star travellers by nature and financial necessity – on the colonnaded balcony of our accommodation in a luxury hotel overlooking the magnificent blue-green waters of Lake Como, one of the jewels of northern Italy.
A crystal-clear, glacial lake surrounded by lush Mediterranean vegetation and steep mountain peaks, and where the rich and famous – from Roman emperor Julius Caesar to Hollywood hunk George Clooney – have chosen to holiday.
We could hardly keep the smile from our faces when we were dropped off at the door of the aptly named lakeside Grand Hotel. The plush foyer of the Cadenabbia establishment shouted money at every turn – huge marble columns down to the mirror-finish floors and a sumptuous red-carpeted staircase complete with golden banisters leading to the rooms on the upper floors.
A full English-style breakfast, swimming pool and a massive rooftop balcony with breathtaking views in all directions completed the deal.
Not so special, you might think. But we were there by default. We were part of a 12-person Intrepid tour of the highlights of northern Italy, one of the Australian adventure travel company’s most popular trips.
Our little two-star digs had been overbooked and we were among the six lucky travellers to be moved up the road.
We vowed to keep quiet the quality of our accommodation, but there were a few discontented mutterings among our group when word somehow leaked out. As the others pointed out, where they were staying they had to pay for a very basic breakfast, and there was no pool, no balconies and not even a hint of marble in the foyer.
It was no easy task to leave the comfort of our hotel but we had little time and day-long ferry tickets to explore this little gem of Italy, lying midway between Milan and the Swiss border.
Once out in the middle of the lake, Europe’s deepest at 411m, it is easy to be impressed by the massive limestone mountains that rise up out of the glassy waters on all sides.
Although quite lushly vegetated around the water’s edge, the mountainous upper reaches are mostly craggy grey rock with the occasional glint of a church spire the only evidence of habitation.
First point of call was luxury village Bellagio, known as the “pearl of the lake” and the inspiration for the plush Las Vegas hotel of the same name. It is one of the must-see towns in Lake Como, with its beautiful pastel-shaded, red-roofed buildings dotted around the edges of the lake.
Bellagio was discovered in the 19th century by the aristocracy of the day – people like the musician Franz Liszt and Emperor Ferdinand I spread the word about its delights. Today it has a 3000-strong population and is the haunt of artists, politicians, intellectuals and scientists. The township featured all you would imagine of medieval Italy – narrow cobbled streets, trendy little eateries and fascination little galleries and craft shops.
The island of Mennagio was our next ferry stop. With a spectacular mountain backdrop, this lively village with its lakeside promenade is popular with outdoor enthusiasts, who hike up into the mountains, and swim and windsurf on the lake.
Nearby Varenna is a less-crowded little fishing village located below a castle on a steep hillside with picturesque narrow alleyways leading down to the water’s edge.
After our day out exploring, it was back to the Grand to enjoy a late-afternoon drink on the huge terrace with its spectacular mountain and lake views. And we made the most of it, all the while feeling just a little sorry for our tour mates down the road.
Our luxury stay would be over the next morning, when we boarded the local bus to take us back to Como railway station and then by train to Milan and on to Venice.
Yes, Venice with all its romance and history was all you could imagine but if there had been a cat in our hotel room it would have remained unswung. It was all we really needed, but I must confess we did hanker, just a little, for the luxury surrounds of that bonus hotel in Cadenabbia.

La Dolce Vita
Intrepid Original
15 days Rome to Venice, via Florence, Lucca, Pisa, Levanto, the Cinque Terra, Portofino, Milan and Lake Como.
Price: from AU$3000

Grand Hotel Cadenabbia: 192 rooms
From $AU225 per night (low season) to AU$680 per night (high season) for lake-view room for two including buffet breakfast