A classic Italian house set right on the shores of Lake Garda, boutique hotel BellaRiva makes a charming base for a peaceful lakeside getaway. With pristine grounds, sleek decor, attentive service and serene mountain-and-lake views, it’s just the place to indulge in a spot of idle reverie.
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A bottle of BellaRiva olive oil from the neighbouring grove
11am. Earliest check-in 3pm, but both are flexible subject to availability.
Double rooms from £253.91 (€284), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €3.30 per person per night on check-out.
Rates include a buffet breakfast with pastries, cold meats, smoked salmon, mozzarella and fruits, as well as a selection of cooked eggs à la carte.
Italian design whizz Piero Lissoni’s light touch is evident behind the hotel’s classic turn-of-the-century façade (he’s also responsible for the Conservatorium’s quirky-cool interiors in Amsterdam). The reception and bar areas mix soft-toned furnishings, carefully preserved original mouldings and floor-to-ceiling murals inspired by Klimt’s golden phase; upstairs, the original light stone treads and ornate ironwork make way for a sharp sheet-glassed staircase to the top-floor extension.
Every winter from October until mid April (specific dates vary annually).
At the hotel
Swimming pool, grounds with direct access to the lake, in-room treatments, library and DVDs, bikes to borrow, boat rental, mooring (costs extra), free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV, air-conditioning, minibar.
Our favourite rooms
Rooms are simply decorated, with dark wood, beautifully soft white linens, and Klimt-patterned bedheads. The dazzling lake view is the real show-stealer here, so plump for a room with a balcony or terrace to make the most of it. Balcony Room 303 is spacious and light, with two floor-to-ceiling glass doors and striking vistas of the gardens and lake. We love View Suite 302’s bathroom, with a big freestanding tub for long soaks and the same spectacular outlook.
The outdoor infinity pool sits has a large wooden deck, surrounded by sunloungers and parasols – the perfect spot to take in those tranquil lake views.
Amateur anglers may want to bring their fishing rods – the wooden jetty and boardwalk along the hotel’s grounds make a good spot to cast a line or two. Oversized sunnies and sharp sandals are a must for long lunches on the promenades.
The hotel is easily accessed from the only road that sweeps round the lake, meaning you may catch the sound of passing cars in between tweeting birds, gently lapping waves and church bells wafting across the water.
At night, the grounds are alluring, with glowing orbs scattered between the trees. Ask for the table at the furthest corner of the terrace for the best view and a bit of candlelit privacy.
Pedicures are de rigueur to show off a bare foot or summer sandal; Mr Smith will need crisp shorts for eating lakeside (and lounging poolside).
The Grill’s charming tiled open kitchen is a carnivore’s delight, with tartare, smoked lamb loins and corn-and-hay fed local beef on the menu. The meat-averse won’t starve though, with options such as creamy burrata, asparagus with truffle and home-made gnocchi. Meals are taken alfresco on the hotel’s lakefront wooden deck; there’s also a small and sleek parquet-floored dining room if the weather’s not up to it. The buffet breakfast is laid out on the long kitchen table in the library.
Housed in an extension built over the water, the bar has panoramic windows and sweeping lake views. Grab a deep armchair, admire the original mouldings above, and make yourself at home: Enzo, the gregarious barman, talks about wines as if they were old friends, but can also whip up a gentle mimosa or a heady passione (rum, passion fruit, banana syrup and prosecco, if you’re wondering).
You can call for drinks until midnight. Breakfast is served 7.30am– 11am; lunch 12.30pm-2.30pm; dinner 7pm–11pm.
An all-day menu is available from 7am to midnight; during restaurant hours guests can also order from the main menu.
Sheltered by mountains and jutting out over the water’s edge, BellaRiva is in Gardone Riviera, on the south-western shore of Lake Garda, in the province of Brescia.
Verona airport is the nearest, about 70km or a 50-minute drive away, with good links to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Budget flights land at Bergamo airport (an hour’s drive); for better international connections, try Milan airports Linate (90 minutes away) or Malpensa (just under a two-hour drive).
Trenitalia trains (http://wwww.trenitalia.com) from Milan, Verona and Venice arrive at Desenzano station, a 30-minute drive from the hotel.
Lake Garda’s shores are best explored with a hire car, though it’s a short ride on local buses to nearby Salo or picture-perfect Gargnano. The hotel has free onsite parking, and is easily accessible from the main road circling the lake.
Car and passenger ferries run between Desenzano and Riva, and set ashore at Gardone – check the timetable for other stops along the shoreline. (www.navigazionelaghi.it). Boats can be moored at BellaRiva for a fee.
Worth getting out of bed for
An hour’s drive from Gardone, test the warm waters of Thermal Park Garda’s large man-made lake (+39 0457 590988; open all year, from 9am to 11pm and 2am on Fridays and Saturdays). Swimmers can luxuriate in the calcium-and-magnesium rich water and relax in the hydro-massage grotto. Desenzano’s markets make a good day trip on the ferry – raid Thursday’s farmer’s market (8am to 1pm) for cheeses and salamis, or stroll through the antiques market on the first Sunday of the month (9am to 6pm, closed in January and August). For a taste of Italy’s eccentric (and controversial) history, visit Vittoriale degli Italiani’s (+39 0365 296511) sprawling estate a short walk from BellaRiva: there’s an amphiteatre, a seaplane propeller hanging from a ceiling, and a whole boat hauled up the hill to rest among the trees.
It doesn’t get more romantic than the Michelin-starred restaurant at Villa Fiordaliso (+39 0365 20158), set on lakefront cobblestones under a vast draped tent. With a weathered pontoon jutting out over the water, tastebud-tingling tasting menus and a fabulous wine cellar, this is the place for serious eating (or even serious proposing). The restaurant is closed on Mondays and for lunch on Tuesdays; it’s best to book ahead. In the hills overlooking Salo, Villa Arcadio (+39 0365 42281) has a charming lantern-lit terrace with wrought-iron tables. Don’t miss the chef’s classics-with-a-twist: fresh pike from the lake, handmade gnocchi and creamy gelato. Down by the water, stylish La Locanda del Benaco (+39 0365 20308) serves simple tasty Italian food on the promenade, with dishes such as tuna tartare or squid-ink pasta. More traditional Osteria dell’Orologio (+39 0365 290158) dishes up a seasonal menu of Italian classics in its cosy dining room. Locals flock here to sample the osso buco or the day’s catch from the lake, so call ahead.
A 15-minute walk up the steep hill, Trattoria Riolet (+39 0365 20545) has wonderful views from its sheltered terrace, and dishes up rustic Italian staples and grilled meat straight from the spit on the open kitchen fire. Book ahead – locals flock here in the summer.
A sleek snug of padded banquettes and dark wood, Bar Italia (+39 0365 21479) serves scrumptious snacks, cool cocktails and dreamy gelato.
A couple of hours of driving in the blazing heat – the quicksilver in the thermometer was nearing 40°C – had Mr Smith and I fantasising about jumping in a pool or the lake. Luckily BellaRiva quickly indulged us. The receptionist obliged with a speedy check-in, saving the showing-around and form-filling formalities for later. Luggage dumped, we grabbed what we needed most: our swimming kit.
Like two kids on the first day of the summer holidays, we ran down to the pool. Surrounded by a beautifully manicured, luscious green grass, this infinity beauty may not be Olympian in size, but it is ideal for a leisurely swim and a cool-down. Lazing in the sun (and shade) was easy: this corner of northern Italy treated us to plenty of loungers for relaxing with other guests out of our earshot (a pet hate). Quick-off-the-mark pool service soon elicited a just what we needed: a cold Italian beer, an Aperol spritz and Mediterranean vegetable focaccia.
Beaten by the high-summer heat we headed for a refreshing dip in Garda. From our lakeside garden we’d heard the frolicking of locals and foreigners, and the roar of Riva speedboats. And indeed, there they were – many a fine polished wooden specimen, noted Mr Smith. The jade-green lake was a couple of steps and a jump down from a dinky private jetty. Unlike the pool, the lake was a little cold – although it only took a few minutes to acclimatise. Before we knew it, it was time to don glad rags for an aperitivo – beach attire is fine during the day, but you want to smarten up for evenings in this fashionable resort.
Having been in such a rush to get to the pool, we hadn’t noticed until now how lovely our BellaRiva room was. A white-linened bed was the size of my first apartment in Paris. Simple with refined design touches – a 60s’ Snoopy lamp, walk-in rainforest shower with separate marble tub – as well as stunning views of the grounds, the water and in the far distance, the snow-capped mountains, from both balconies (yes – we had two!).
My dresses crinkled from travelling, housekeeping happily swooped in and then returned them ironed within half an hour. Pressed and dressed we descended for dinner around 8.30pm. (Unless you want to dine with young families, don’t eat earlier – instead go for an aperitivo from 7pm.) After a peek in the restaurant, a homey affair with an open kitchen resplendent in white and blue tiles, we sat outside at a table that let us watch evening descend on this slow-paced corner of Lombardy. (Top tip: in nice weather, book the table nearest the water’s edge.) An Italian white fox who could have been Giorgio Armani’s brother in his white linen suit, proposed a fresh peach and strawberry Bellini. The head barman’s recommendation sounded (and proved to be) too delicious to skip.
There was a buzz of international chatter, but the tables were sufficiently spread out to not have to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. Choosing from a menu of light starters, simple seasonal pasta dishes and grilled meat and fish (there’s a barbecue in the kitchen) wasn’t easy – all the dishes I spotted coming out looked mouthwatering. A creamy burrata with cherry tomatoes and basil and zucchini flowers didn’t disappoint, followed by ravioli with goat’s ricotta. A hungrier Mr Smith plumped for Parma ham and pickles, garganelli tubes with zingy arrabiata sauce and grilled lobster. Accompanied by a pale, local white wine recommended by the sommelier, our dinner was well seasoned, nicely balanced and perfectly sized in portion (a recent US tour to promote my cookbook turned me off large portions and food waste). After a moonlit stroll alongside the lake as a digestivo, we hit those crisp cotton sheets.
Refreshed from a great night’s sleep, another feast awaited: a generous breakfast buffet of cold meats, cheeses, fresh fruit, pastries, breads and even chocolate M&Ms. The clincher needed to be an excellent cup of coffee – and this being Italy that’s what we expected. It arrived black with a creamy froth on top, an indication it has been made exactly right.
Ready for a day of action, a quick chat to the receptionist and a few phone calls later and we had our own speedboat booked for half a day and a lunch reservation on the other side of the lake. After speeding around like locals we were back at our boutique hotel ready for some pedal-pushing – so we borrowed the hotel’s bikes. Mr Smith is the sporty kind and he even persuaded me to cycle up the hill for the best view over the lake. Speeding back down was pretty fun too.
Having earned more relaxation, the hardest work left was walking down from the room to the terrace to sit back with a cool glass of Bianco di Custoza and savour the sun setting over Lake Garda. Truthfully, the concept of a hotel being overly romantic usually makes me cringe. But these Smiths have been converted – Hotel Bella Riva serves up romance with Italian style and ease. And not a cheesy violin player in sight.
Life on Lake Garda is one of simple pleasures: waking up in a very large and very comfortable bed, breakfast on a sun-streaked balcony, leisurely dips in the pool. BellaRiva has taken a leaf out of its book of Italian dolce far niente, with all the sunloungers, graciously mixed cocktails and Rovato beef and truffled specialities you’ll ever need. A ferry hop away, quaint villages, eccentric villas and bustling markets offer plenty of local charm, and where Alpine hill meets lake there’s trekking, climbing and sailing for the resolutely restless, too. BellaRiva’s prescription for weary feet and weary souls is effortlessly potent: kick off those sandals, dangle your toes off the private jetty, and let those views work their soothing magic.