I've been writing these reviews for a number of years now, and each year at this time I write about the hotel at which we have hosted our annual business retreat. We have grown over the years. We are now typically 12 or 14 rooms for a week, with one room - my wife's and mine - usually for an additional week as we arrive early and depart a few days later. We stay at five-star properties, generally listed as luxury hotels with five star ratings. We have come to trust them.
On more than one occasion I have written about extraordinary hotels. The Villa Castagnola in Lugano, Switzerland, is such an extraordinary hotel. It is, perhaps, one of the two best properties we have encountered in over 35 years of these travels. Let me tell you why I say this.
There are lovely hotels in the world that make you feel comfortable, and well cared for, even pampered. But you never lose sight of the fact that you are in their hotel, cared for their way. Their style, their brand is the most important thing - they are there to serve you but you are in their place. Nothing wrong with that, I don't think, it is what good hotels do. It makes travel predictable and recognizable - and management sees it as just a business - but - unfortunately - you are often only too aware of the fact that it is a business. That's not what hospitality is really about.
There are wonderful hotels that make you feel pampered, and even at home, in their hotels. You are a guest in their home, and if they do it well, you are an honored guest; perhaps even feeling you are the only guest. These hotels are wonderful. Here they bend for you, cater to you, but you are still a guest in their home, not at home in your own.
And then, there are hotels where you are in your own home, and the staff is there as your staff, and if they are good at it - extraordinarily good at it - then every guest gets to feel that he or she or they is and are the only guest or guests - because they are at home in their own abode. When done extraordinarily well one can even feel that the other guests are your guests too. This takes talent, dedication, constant refinement. This takes a staff which is comfortable and happy with where they are and who they work for (you can tell, believe me, if for them it is 'only a job'. It shows.) This takes management that knows how to create an atmosphere that works for both guests and staff, and then knows just when to be there, and when to be invisible. This takes elegance, practice, and professionalism. Above all, it takes the desire to do it, to create an experience of comfort.
Villa Castagnola in Lugano, Switzerland, does all this and more.
Nestled in a lovely garden, surrounded by art and statuary, with a quiet lawn, a pool, pool chairs and seating areas, your first view of the hotel is one of elegant splendor and relaxation. The waters of the lake glisten just beyond the line of trees that separate you from the road. The soaring height of Mt. San Salvatore is visible off to the right. Silence descends. And then the staff appears -- caring, warm, welcoming, they embrace you as you arrive and welcome you to your home. From that moment until you leave - you truly live there. And that's the true test and they not only pass it, they wrote the book.
Simple things - the lawn chairs. We are so used to the practice in the United States of being fussed over by pool and beach attendants who just can't wait to set up your chair with a towel - as if I cannot do that for myself. But I can - and the attendants at the spa and pool in Villa Castagnola know that -- the towels are there - the chairs covered with cushions and placed carefully around the green lawn - then - then - nothing and no one disturbs me - and yes, I can sit on the chair without any help, thank you.
Contrast that with the usual practice of having a coffee machine in your room or an urn of coffee at off hours in the lobby in many hotels. But this is not the way we do it in my house - and not the way it is done at the Villa Castagnola. It's not the way I would have coffee when I wanted to at home, and at Villa Castagnola - at any hour - the on duty staff will fix you a hot cafe latte freshly made and bring it to you in one of the elegant drawing rooms always available or, weather and time of day permitting, on the lovely veranda outside the main entrance.
Everything, from the care of the rooms on a daily basis to the careful assurance that everything is exactly as you wish it, is perfection.
Yes, this is a small hotel - a Small Luxury Hotel. But there is never a moment you feel a lack for anything, and never a moment when anyone makes you feel as though you are in their place and not your own.
This is the elegance of hoteling at its best. This is what being at home means.
We have been at only one other hotel that ever made us feel this way - that we were in our own home and that everyone there worked for us and only for us. It was the Hotel Sirenuse in Positano, Italy (and that was 25 years ago). It is interesting that Villa Castagnola is also very Italian - albeit that it is in Switzerland - it is in the Italian Swiss Lake country and the culture is very Italian. Here - you are family. In the Sirenuse we remarked to the owner who was there in residence about this feeling of being seamlessly at home and his response was - 'then i have succeeded." The Villa Castagnola has also exceeded beyond our expectations.
The incredibly elegant and professional (and kind and personable and personal) staff watches over you gently - overseen by the general and assistant managers who set the tone, you are welcomed and pampered by all, from the restaurant (incredible, delicious, attentive, marvelous - add a few yourself) to the front desk staff to the concierge to the events and group team to the housekeeping staff to the late night bar staff to the overnight staff and back to breakfast in the morning there is no gap and no break in the comfortable provision of perfect service.
Absolutely not to be missed.
Following our retreat, my wife and I stayed on for a week’s vacation and take a holiday there. We had been planning only 2 more days but added more – so enjoyable was our experience at the hotel.
Our extended stay has been delightful, and wonderful to see that the same elegance and attentiveness to detail persists when we are guests on our own and not a group.
I am sitting on the veranda in the front of the hotel, facing the lake and mountains beyond it today with clouds that are slowly dispersing with the coming of the late summer sun. I am having a coffee - a post breakfast coffee - and writing in quiet and solitude.
What continues to surprise me and strikes me as unusual for most of us (as Americans and used to even elegant American hospitality) continues to be the atmosphere of being in our own home, attended to by people who are happy to provide what we wish. Some observations -
1. In most American hotels, even luxurious small ones, you are charged for everything. If you order a cup of coffee outside of a fixed breakfast plan, you are asked to sign a charge slip. Here you are never charged for such expected necessities - a coffee - even a complex one like a cafe latte - is offered as a gift of hospitality and the location doesn't matter. And if you want a basket of toast or bread - well of course it is provided. Unlike "asking for room service" or unusual service the impression of being at home continues unabated. It is more akin to being a guest in a country manor than a hotel with an obvious accounting and billing structure.
2. As the familiar theme song celebrates - "it’s a place where everybody knows your name" - you are greeted by name, addressed by name, and thanked by name at all opportunities. It is a small touch but an important one that continues the impression of being a personal guest, not a paying customer.
We were privileged to meet Ivan Zorloni, the general manager, who oversees all operations in this relatively small, family owned and run, excellent property and of course we worked closed with his assistant manager, Giacomo Bianchi. Mr. Zorloni is a very present and on-top-of-things manager who is available and involved at all levels. We had the joy of talking with him about this atmosphere of being a private villa instead of a commercial and elegant resort. He was very helpful, and it is quite clear that the incredibly friendly and open atmosphere of the hotel is a product of his excellent management and dedication to the concept of “being a Villa rather than a Hotel”.
They work very hard at it and continuously attend to detail. With this attention to detail Mr. Zorloni and his excellent team keep every aspect of the operations within those elegant parameters - each guest a welcome and respected member of the household and the entire running of the hotel feels as if it were our own home. He has done the most extraordinary job of presenting Villa Castagnola to its guests in this way. And having experienced it, nothing else will ever seem quite to up standard when compared. It is truly remarkable.
There are so many people who have made our stay memorable. I do need to mention a few:
1. Giacomo Bianchi - the day-to-day operations manager of the hotel, who is there to greet every guest and to welcome them into what is for all intents and purposes his home. He oversees every detail with impeccable taste and attention to each guest. I asked him today if he is actually triplets – he is that attentive.
2. Tamara and Barbara - the Events Staff - who worked with us for months to prepare and then every day many times a day to ensure that all - from room assignments to meeting areas to meals to excursions - went without a single hitch.
3. The entire concierge team and reception team – Barbara at reception who welcomed us when we arrived and was attentive to our needs throughout our stay, the concierge group - Mario, Marco and Cesare - who worked with us daily to ensure that every need was taken care of - that appropriate restaurants were chosen for outside meals - that boat trips and walks were arranged. (They suggested a walking tour of Lugano for us with the local guide Christa Branchi which was a great joy and I suggest you take one when you come).
4. Cesare Menotti - who hosted both our welcome dinner and our farewell dinner in the outside grotto and who cared for us throughout at breakfasts and group lunches every day. He knew everything needed about us - special diets (we had four and various combinations of the four - no gluten, no dairy, no egg, and vegetarian).
5. Emilio Del Fante, the wonderful manager of the restaurant. He organized purchase of special items (gluten free bread, rice milk) and every day kept track of who in our group of 14 needed what special foods and made sure that the staff provided each person's meals correctly.
6. Maurizio – the night porter – who was there to welcome me at 5am (my usual time of emerging looking for coffee) and to ask me if I wanted a café latte and dig one up for me in the kitchen – even though the kitchen doesn’t officially open until 7am. It was always ‘his pleasure’ and never a burden – how refreshingly wonderful.
7. The entire wait staff - too numerous to mention them all - who took care of us and knew us - from Marta who assisted with our lunches to Daniele who attended us in the afternoons and evenings at the Bar and who graciously prepared some information for us about local markets here and in Como to visit to Christian who assisted at our dinners and to Franco who took care of us as we gathered for breakfast on the terrace.
8. The housekeeping staff – who were unflustered if we weren’t ready for them to make the room up until dinner time – but equally attentive and observant if we left the room on working days at 8am (and were in and out within 30 minutes). They were amazing.
What is equally wonderful is the tenure of the staff. Many have been there for decades – some for more than 4 decades – and they know the guests, the hotel and the area in a way which is intimate and warm. Others – many others – there for two or more decades – with a richness of experience which makes us feel at home. This says volumes – all wonderful - about the family who own the hotel and the management who run it – to inspire such loyalty and to have such trust in your staff and its dedication is a crucial component of comfort. This is hotel management at its best – warm – inclusive – a partnership between all parties – owners, management, staff, and guests all working together to create an experience. When we left I was sad – for so many reasons – but one illuminates this point. A new large group event was coming in the next day, and I was sad not to be able to be there to welcome them – even though I didn’t have anything to do with them or even know who they were – that’s how much Villa Castagnola becomes home for its guests.
So much of this is in contrast to the American hotel concept of ‘constant change and churning keeps people on their toes’ and nothing could be farther from the truth. The brand is the people who keep it – again – so much we could learn about what elegance truly is.
Let me close (because sooner or later I have to) with this - we have been at 5 star hotels on four continents - large ones and small ones. We have stayed where the stars, where royalty, and where the jet set stays. We have rarely found anything like this - I could say - we have never found anything to equal this. There isn't a hotel we have stayed in on the American continent - from NY to San Francisco to Florida to Central America - which could not learn how to do it better from the Villa Castagnola. We have come close in Italy, a little closer in the South of France, but never with the good grace and elegance that was shown to us at the Villa Castagnola in Lugano.
Take a lesson American Hotels - this is the style you need to understand if you want to compete in an ever more global world. Come to the Grand Hotel and Villa Castagnola and be a bit humbled and chagrined.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.