Casa Olea, a former 18th-century vicarage turned boutique hotel on the bank of Lake Como, has such austere design (hunks of stone, brushed concrete, wood flooring, bare-necessity furnishings), that rooms and suites resemble extremely chic monastic cells. But, in the big picture, the villa moves beyond building and into sculpture: vaults coarse with ancient brick, a modern steel staircase snaking around a nevera (an ancient fridge) beaded with cobbles, massive beams shouldering huge glass-walled antechambers and ceilings with weathered struts. It has the spatial awareness of a Richard Serra piece with the odd colourful eye-catcher or creeping plant. And, of course, the only feature to really focus on: those views.
Double rooms from £167.46 (€190), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates usually include a lavish breakfast spread.
Olive trees stand proudly all around (in fact, the hotel’s name means ‘house of the olive tree’), but the garden has a fragrant medley of flowers and plants too, scenting your lakeside reveries with jasmine, wisteria, roses, blue verbena, hydrangeas and aromatic herbs.
The hotel’s summer season runs from 1 April to 30 October.
At the hotel
Spa with a sauna, lake-view terrace, garden, small courtyard, free WiFi. In rooms: TV, Illy coffee machine, tea-making kit, air-conditioning, linens from Society Limonta and Comfort Zone bath products.
Our favourite rooms
There’s a monastic austerity to the minimalist rooms, but this is due to the reverence for the view. It’s worth every Euro, so by any means find yourself in a suite with a terrace. Your eyes will thank us.
When excavations began for adding the pool to the property they encountered a typically Italian problem when they stumbled upon a Neolithic necropolis (circa 2000 BC) and the remains of a Roman villa. Apparently this didn’t impede work too much because the hotel has a blue-tourmaline gem of a pool, from which you can rest up and admire San Vito’s historic belltower and the backdrop of mountain and lake in between doggy paddles. Pairs of sunloungers are laid out on a wooden deck.
There’s a small soaking pool in the chestnut-wood-lined spa with a submerged bench where a waterfall and hydromassage jets will gently pummel you – plus picture windows with lake views to zone out to. After, take yourself on a thermal rollercoaster ride with a spin through the sauna, ice-cascade and emotional showers. The space must be booked exclusively; up to four guests can be pampered at a time for an hour (€45 for a couple, €55 for three people and €65 for four).
Those who live and holiday near the villa have strong swimwear game, so suit up in style: men, tailor those trunks; and women, if you’ve been wondering where to wear that piece with the impractical cut-outs, perilous gusset or unnecessary accoutrements, it’s their time to shine.
The historic layout and modern staircase mean the hotel’s not suited to guests with mobility issues.
Older, swim-confident kids will find more to do here, but kids are welcome. Babysitting can be arranged (at booking or at least five days in advance) for €15 an hour.
The hotel has a healthy relationship to the lake and its surrounds. The owners have committed to organically nurture 600 native olive trees, which give them high-quality oil on tap; dairy, meat, eggs and juices are all sourced from local farms; and they work with local authorities to help preserve Cremia’s historic beauty. There are charging points for electric cars and within the hotel is equally Earth-kind. In renovating natural materials, bio insulation and low-emission windows were used; the stay runs on renewable energy, water-saving devices are on taps and eco-friendly bath and cleaning products are in place; and staff are strict about recycling.
Stretch out on a sunlounger by the pool for drinks, they offer the best vantage point for lake ogling. If you have a terrace, count your blessings and enjoy a glass or two there.
Couch-potato contes and contessas.
Breakfast is the main (and only) event here, so the owners put on quite the show, loading up the table in the vaults with fruit, yoghurts, pastries, cakes, breads, pancakes, Italian cheeses and meats, and eggs all ways, pus hot drinks and organic juices. With the rare exception, all ingredients are sourced from local farms.
There’s no fixed bar, drinks are ferried out to lounging areas poolside, the garden or leafy courtyard. Italian wines of all hues take precedence – as they should – but staff will whip you up a pre- or post-dinner cocktail if you wish.
Breakfast is served from 8am to 10am. Drinks flow from 11am to 8pm.
Breakfast is taken in the taverna, but drinks can be ordered to your room if you need an Aperol fix.
Casa Olea is about halfway down the west bank of Lake Como, in Lombardy’s comely Cremia commune, close to the ancient churches of Gravedona, the sweet mediaeval borgo Corenno Plinio and just a two-hour drive north of Milan.
Milan’s two airports are both a two-hour drive away. Linate has direct routes from all over Europe, while Malpensa serves as a more global hub. The hotel can arrange transfers for two in a car or up to six members of the same family in a minivan (prices vary). Book seven or more days in advance.
Frustratingly, the RE8 and R13 lines run down the eastern bank of the lake, on the opposite side. But, Colico is just a 30-minute drive away, and a scenic one at that (the hotel can pick you up from €60 one-way). The RE8 runs all the way from Milan to Tirano via Lecco and the length of Lake Como, while the R13 runs a shorter route from Lecco.
Speedboats will only get you so far – there’s much to discover around Lake Como’s periphery, and not much in the way of public transport. Hop around historic villages and glamorous lacustrian towns, head up to mountain-top viewing points and take a look-see at Lombardy’s other great lakes: Lugano, Maggiore, Garda, Iseo. There’s charging points for electric cars and free secure parking in the hotel garage; you’ll get your own key-card on arrival.
Worth getting out of bed for
From above, Lake Como’s long slender form looks a little like a dancer in the throes of a tour jeté – and Casa Olea sits proudly on its chest. Your trip will largely be spent looking out over the water and sighing like an unrequited lover from the 18th century – but you might also go kitesurfing, windsurfing or zipping across its surface in a vintage Riva speedboat or going full keel in a sloop. (The beach just in front of the hotel has a kitesurfing school and equipment hire). The great, good, rich, famous and beautiful have built up the banks in picturesque style, whether it’s ancient hideaways (various Roman philosophers had holiday homes here), mediaeval villages with all their antiquated charms intact, or poetic neoclassical villas for Grand Tour goers. Villa del Balbianello has the most credits to its name, having starred in Casino Royale and Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones, but you can swan around several like you own them (we wish): former nunnery Villa Monastero with its vividly hued botanical gardens; 17th-century wedding-cake of a house and sculpture gallery Villa Carlotta; and Villa Melzi with its leafy surrounds of many colours. Corenno Plinio, across the way from the hotel, has churches, frescoes and castle walls that tell a tale of many ages, sherbet-hued Bellagio cascades like a rainbow down a hillside, and Varenna’s bright villas are laid out like a higgledy-piggledy spice rack, while Tremezzo is a leafier enclave, and Lecco – settled amid towering peaks – dates back to the 5th century and offers skiing, cycling, hiking, history and alpine cheeses and charcuterie by the platterload. Climb the hill behind the hotel and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views at the top, or cross the water to the Orrido di Bellano viewing bridge, which overlooks a 15-million-year-old gorge and waterfall. Tour Lombardy’s great (and lesser) lakes with trips out to Lake Garda or Lake Maggiore, and pair your break with a spell in Italy’s fashion-plate city Milan, just a two-hour drive away.
The hotel only serves breakfast – it’s one that’ll keep you going, but you’ll need to seek out sustenance too. Cremia has Pizzeria Lumin, whose offerings are thin, crispy and generously topped, and Ristorante de La Baia is renowned for its seafood (say, tuna tartare with cuttlefish-ink ice-cream, and scallops au gratin with pistachio and lime). Further north, Osteria del Bumbardin is virulently saffron-hued and has a small menu, but one that excels in fresh salads, handmade ravioli and steak. To the south, Gatto Nero’s dining room is dominated by its large antler chandelier, but there’s plenty of romance in the air, with flowers, candles and a terrace overlooking the water. The menu is finer here: red shrimp comes with burrata cream and mango coulis, pumpkin-stuffed tortellini swims in parmesan fondue and breaded tuna steak has a slick of balsamic mayo.
In Tremezzo, Bar Gelateria Helvetia has a convivial terrace on which punters sip cappuccinos while gazing out across the lake and indulge in scoops of excellent gelato – and the seafood is beautifully done if brunch spills over into lunch. North of the hotel, family-run Bar Pace does coffee and cake (and more ice-cream) the way only Italians can: with gusto.
Bar Lo Scalo’s (9 Frazione San Vito) tables and chairs are scattered beneath the spreading branches of centennial platanus just by the lake. It’s set just in front of the hotel and serves cocktails, wines and simple aperitivi – it’s especially romantic after dark when the fairy-lights entwined in the branches are aglow. Otherwise, most nightlife is centered in Bellagio, so hop in a speedboat and zip down there for a nightcap. Art nouveau Bar Rossi (22 Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini) is delightfully old-school with its checkerboard tiles and ornate wood panelling, and its promising line-up of spirits ensure tip-top cocktails.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this era-shuffling stay on the banks of Lake Como and unpacked their silk headscarves (for stopping those flyaways on speedboat jaunts) and pouches of dried porcini, a full account of their waterworld break will be with you. In the meantime, to wet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Casa Olea in Lombardy…
Some might say: a house that’s built on a Neolithic necropolis doesn’t bode well. But, this is no horror story – in fact, Casa Olea, an 18th-century vicarage turned bed and breakfast on the west bank of Lake Como, radiates peace and light, and this millennia-old cemetery is just another part of its architecturally alluring fabric. Surrounding villas have the pomp of Byronic poetry, but this casa doesn’t flounce about, instead favouring pared-back rooms with brushed-concrete walls, coolly spartan furnishings, hardwood floors, ageing-well wood beams and softly rumpled linens. Because the owners know that all the gilding, frescoes and frippery can only hope to compete with the natural showstoppers right outside the window, including the mountain-fringed Lake Como and the groves the owners cultivate to produce delicacy oils. Even with this selectiveness of style it remains visually enthralling – the bulk of the hotel’s beauty lies in its historic bedrock and gentle modernising. A wooden spiral staircase wraps around the heft of an ancient stone nevera (an old-school fridge), tree-trunk beams prop up roughshod stone walls, and wonky vaults and corridors are artfully contrasted with contemporaneity: just-so wooden staircases and panels, wire sofas that appear to float, chartreuse-shaded super-high-backed armchairs that feel like a big hug when you curl up in them. That necropolis slumbers under the recently added pool and spa, but you needn’t worry about it – there are no eldritch curses in this casa, but you will be in danger of falling under its spell.