Overlooking the mirror-flat expanse of Lake Garda from its perch atop the historic town of Salò, Villa Arcadio Hotel & Resort is where Italy's smart set go for refined R ’n’ R. Vistas of lake, town and mountain – variously enjoyed from elegant bedside, infinity poolside and marble-clad fireside – guarantee it a spot among the world's best hotels with a view.
Noon; late check-outs are possible, subject to availability (and a €50 charge). Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £298.70 (€330), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates include a generous Continental buffet breakfast, on-site parking and WiFi.
The town of Salò is walkable (it's a brisk 40 minutes), but if you're without a car, you might want to jump in a cab for the uphill return ride (about €15). Back at base, you can refine your Italian cuisine with cooking lessons (request in advance).
Every winter from November until mid March (specific dates vary annually).
At the hotel
Landscaped grounds with olive groves and orchards, terrace, Finnish sauna and treatment rooms. In rooms: flatscreen TV, air-conditioning, minifridge, Erbario Toscano olive-oil toiletries, robes, slippers, hairdryer.
Our favourite rooms
Rooms are all decorated with the same light touch: neutral colours and simple, stylish furniture serve to highlight, rather than distract from, original beamed ceilings, terracotta floor tiles and 14th-century frescoes. Any one’s a winner – ask for a lake view. Marble bathrooms are petite but practical, with walk-in showers and twin sinks.
With daydreamy views across distant Lake Garda and its misty mountain backdrop, the outdoor infinity pool is surrounded by lounger-sprinkled decking, clipped lawns and olive trees.
Outdoorsy gear for biking or rambling in the national park; bubble-wrap for antiques and foodie finds; deck shoes and binoculars for excursions across the lake on the hotel's vintage Riva Aquarama motor launch (or a more affordable catamaran ferry); ultra-sleek swimwear and plenty of books for poolside lounging.
Ayurvedic treatments, Shiatsu massage, Nordic walking, yoga and Pilates all available on request.
Welcome (this is Italy, after all). Extra beds (free for under-eights; otherwise €40–€80 a night) and cots (€20) can be added to suites. The restaurant is child-friendly, and nannies can be drafted in with a week’s notice (€30 an hour).
Chef Walter Zanoni sources seasonal regional ingredients (some straight from the villa’s kitchen garden) to create typical dishes with a twist: don’t miss fresh pike plucked from the lake, delicious handmade gnocchi and zingy gelati. Two elegant rooms – vaulted stone ceilings, grand marble fireplaces and 18th-century prints – lead out onto a pretty terrace: the perfect place to drink in those bella vistas and bellinis.
Take top-notch tipples in the sophisticated wooden bar area, snugly set between the lounge and terrace. You can call for cocktails until midnight. Dip into a bottle of local Groppello, Bardolino or Soave from the excellent wine list.
You can call for cocktails until midnight. Breakfast is served 7.30am–10.30am; lunch, 12.30pm–2.30pm; and dinner, 7pm–11pm.
Dishes from the main menu can be ordered in-room from 7:30am to 10pm in high season (from mid May to September), and during restaurant hours in low season – staff aim to please, so there’s no harm in asking if you have a specific snack in mind.
Verona is the closest, about 40km or half an hour's drive away, but there's a greater number of international flights to Milan's Malpensa and Linate airports (both about 140km or 90 minutes away). Bergamo is another good option, about 65km away.
Lake Garda's Desenzano del Garda station is 20km away, with regular connections to Venice, Milan, Verona, Brescia and other Italian cities. Villa Arcadio can arrange transfers (from €50), or hop aboard the SIA bus for Salò – the bus stop is just a few hundred metres from the hotel grounds.
A hire car is a must if you want to explore, but if you're not planning to travel much futher than the perimiter of the hotel pool, you can manage without one (you could, for instance, take taxis to and from nearby Salò, about €15 each way – or you could walk there in about 40 minutes). From Milan, Salò is easily reached via the A4 motorway to Venice; exit east at Brescia and, at the Salò tunnel intersection, take the Desenzano road; turn off when you hit Viale Europa and, a little under 2km away, you’ll find Villa Arcadio on Via Palazzina. If you're using SatNav and it doesn't recognise this newer road name, try inputting Via Navelli in Salò instead. Brescia and Verona are both half an hour away by car.
Arriving by helicopter is a possibility: contact Villa Arcadio for the helipad coordinates.
Worth getting out of bed for
Blow the budget and book Villa Arcadio's stylish mahogany motor boat (a classic Riva Aquarama Special) for speedy lake crossings or shoreside picnic jaunts; full- or half-day trips with the captain make for a thrilling day out (and make you feel a bit like a 1960s screen star). A body of water as large as Lake Garda attracts all manner of water-sporters, with windsurfing, water-skiing, canoeing and more on tap. Back at base, you can refine your Italian cuisine with cooking lessons at the hotel (on request).
There are beautiful hiking and biking trails on your doorstep (not to mention walking trails through Villa Arcadio's orchards and herb gardens): the Alto Garda Bresciano national park is also where canyoning and climbing enthusiasts get their rocks off.
For something a little more cultural, take a stroll around Salò, where the original Roman road plan is still very much in evidence. There are regular antiques fairs around the Lake; check for details. Hop on one of the frequent ferries from Salò's port to other towns around the south of Lake Garda: Sirmione is a nice day trip.
The centre of Salò is only 2.5km away (a €15 cab ride) and has a plentiful choice of restaurants, bars and cafés; alternatively head into San Felice del Benaco for a similar spread of trattorias, enotecas and caffès.
In Salò, top picks include Antica Trattoria alle Rose on Via Gasparo (+39 0365 43220), which has been serving up regional delights for 25 years, and Osteria dell'Orologio (+39 0365 290158), a younger, more laid-back outpost run by the same family, on via Butturini. Tucked down a cobbled alley in the town centre, Osteria di Mezzo (+39 0365 290966) is a favourite with locals for its fresh pastas and unswerving focus on Gardese ingredients and wines. There's a fantastic cheese trolley, and you can even order gluten-free pasta and puddings. Locanda del Benaco (+39 0365 20308) on Salò’s lakeside promenade is perfectly positioned for passegiata pitstops; the lakefish tartare with black truffle is unmissable.
Fun, colourful wine bar and restaurant La Dispensa in San Felice di Benaco (+39 0365 557023) provides a mouthwatering Modern Italian menu care of chef Michele Bontempi and occasional live jazz performances. Ingredients are top-notch, market-fresh and locally sourced.
Mr Smith and I like to consider ourselves seasoned travellers. You know: sophisticates with well-stickered ‘weekend’ luggage, versed on which local aperitivo to order, and dedicated to staying in so-stylish-you-wouldn’t-know-it’s-a-hotel-without-SatNav kind of places. The type who gad about Lake Garda on a speedboat, swapping trattoria tips with the captain. Not the sort who get sunburn on the first day. Or look the wrong way when they cross the road. No, no, no. Not the sort who stand filming the very fast and shiny catamaran from what they think is the ferry terminal, only to watch it sail past into the next pretty bay. Never. Not us.
But, you see, holidaying in Italy is relaxing. And holidaying at Lake Garda, without your tantrumming toddler in tow, and with sunshine, mountain vistas and non-stop fabulous food and wine, is especially relaxing. In fact, so enchanting is holidaying here, it’s brain-befuddling, stupidity-magnifying – turning even the most seasoned travellers (sophisticates with special weekending bags!) into craven half-wits. Thankfully, during our stay at the exclusive Villa Arcadio hotel, staff are professional enough to overlook poolside narcolepsy, dangerous toaster mismanagement and other breakfast-buffet blunders (which we blame on them, for placing an ice-bucket of champagne right next to the fresh blood-orange juice).
They also provide the kind of subtle prompts that allow off-duty parents and loved-up fools to swagger about like bona fide minibreak gurus. Would Signor Smith perhaps like a ‘spritz’? It’s that prosecco, Aperol and soda cocktail he has no doubt seen the pastel-chino-shorts crowd drinking in Salò’s fashionable lake-front bars. The one he perhaps naively mistook for bright-orange IrnBru? Yes, that one. Would Signorina (why, thank you) perhaps like chef to whip up some handmade gnocchi with tomato ragu for lunch today, to soak up last night’s multi-spritz-spree in aforementioned lake-front bars? And (in mezzopiano tones) would Signor like the table dressed with a posy of wild flowers plucked from the hotel grounds, because it is also Mother’s Day, which he has forgotten? Tutto va bene.
Elbows suavely propped on immaculate linen and enjoying a sensational alfresco meal, we pause to fully appreciate our surroundings. From this handsomely restored monastery, set on a wooded hillside overlooking the town of Salò, the view is mesmerising. When it is misty, it’s hard to know where the world ends. When it is clear, snow-capped peaks loom majestically in the distance. Little boats buzz across the water; songbirds flit busily among olive trees; the owners’ spaniel, Diana, bounds through buttercup-sprinkled grass with a blackbird in her muzzle. It’s all very… Arcadian. I’ve already taken about 4,000 pictures. At least.
We’ve enjoyed those splendid views from the bed, designer sofa and dressing area of our junior suite (admittedly we enjoyed it less at 6am – we’d forgotten to close the light-stopping wooden shutters at bedtime. I still took a few pictures, though). Our room is serene, and blissfully free of unnecessary trinkets (most refreshingly, there are no plastic fire engines to trip over). The beams overhead may be new, but they marry harmoniously with original architectural features, terracotta flooring and creamy linen drapes. A single, striking modern canvas packs a colourful punch amid an otherwise neutral palette – undoubtedly taken from the owners’ enviable stash of art and antiques.
Jaana and Francesco have an unerring eye for quality: their collection – generously shared around Villa Arcadio’s 18 bedrooms, dining rooms, bar and lounge – spans bronze figurines, 18th-century etchings, frescoes, Alvar Aalto glassware and contemporary carvings by Loris Marazzi. They also own a boat. Not just any boat, mind: a vintage Riva Aquarama launch. Calling it ‘a boat’ is a bit like calling a hand-built Bugatti ‘a runaround’. They even let you charter it.
As we polish off lunch with some local Bardolino and ristrettos, my of-Italian-descent Mr Smith declares this the sort of terrace Merchant Ivory would have picked for the scene where the brooding farmhand is overcome with desire for the English governess. He says it quite suggestively, and throws in ‘mi amore’, for good measure. I ignore him, partly because he forgot Mother’s Day, but mostly because I want to go and explore. And have another spritz.
Sirmione – which we (eventually) reach aboard the very fast and shiny catamaran that leaves from Salò’s Lungolargo promenade – is a spindly peninsula packed with café-cornered piazzas, gelaterie and touristy trinket shops. It’s Grand Tour gold. The town’s star attractions (apart from Maria Callas’ holiday home) are the so-called grottoes of Catullus, and the moated mediaeval fortress, all swallow’s-tail crenellations and reflections of ducks. Tennyson’s been; and Ezra Pound bumped into James Joyce here.
But, for us, draw of the day is a Riva-style cruiser. OK, it’s just a water taxi, but still. Approached by a rakishly handsome Italian speaking in a seductively incomprehensible rolling staccato, I thought my luck had turned, but Paolo is simply offering us a spin in his nice boat, on the cheap, since it’s quiet. He navigates us round the tip of the peninsula, letting the engine idle and the wheel spin so he can take a snap of us as we pass the Augustan Roman villa on the headland. He waves his arms, gesticulating for us to get closer (to each other, presumably, not the perilous rocks).
It turns out to be the perfect picture: romantic, sunlit, elegant. It makes us look like the type who gad about Lake Garda on a speedboat, swapping trattoria tips with the captain. You can barely notice the sunburn.