I rattled out of the Italian Alps from the village of Domodosolla on the swaying rack-and-pinion mountain train; jack pines gave way to palm trees, but I wasn't heading back into Switzerland just for the semi-tropical climate. Locarno gleamed in the distance on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore, in the lowest and hottest and oldest Swiss canton — Ticino.
At the bi-level Locarno train station Franco waved a placard with my name on it and . . . Voila! — I was whisked away in a Castello Del Sole resort town car to the suburb of Ascona, the Beverly Hills of the city.
As a travel nomad and writer I often live out of a bag and eat out of a can so it was a superb pleasure to meet Simon, the General Manager of Castello del Sole, the largest resort in Switzerland at 14 hectares, or about 30 acres, with another 150 hectares added in by the surrounding farmland, Terreni alla Maggia SA.
An aerial view of Castello Del Sole's farmlands.
As Franco stored my bags in my room Simon sidled me into the al fresco Parco Saleggi for a patio lunch under sunburst yellow umbrellas, where I immediately became friends with the Maître d’ hôtel — Guido Livrini. ("My name is very Italian, yes, it is very Italian," boasted Guido with a Clint Eastwood squint and a mega-watt smile.) Ticino is often considered the Italian Switzerland, and the mountains form a semi-circle around the topographical peninsular canton. In fact, the CH symbol on the Swiss Franc represents a letter in the Latin alphabet.
Voila! . . . I had a culinary Guido guide to point out the delicacies laid out before me; no eating out of a can today. Guido and all the wait staff were crisply dressed in the trademark white Relais-Chateaux jackets; they were more fashionable than the guests on the sun dappled patio; I noticed the tiny R&C pin affixed to Guido's lapel, signally demurred luxurious dining served discretely.
Casual patio dining at Parco Saleggii.
The latest food movement is "Farm-to-Table" fare, often described as "du jour" because the ingredients are picked and harvested and prepared that day from the closest farm, and in Castello del Sole's case, they are the farm; rich loamy gardens buttressed up to my table. This is all part of the "Slow Food" philosophy, casual organic dining spread out over hours. The Italians have been bascally ripped off with all their menu ideas, after all, Catherine de Mici brought the Italian table to Henry II's French court. You don't have to be an heir to a dynasty for this fabulous dining experience, just check into Castello Del Sole, where nothing is ever canned or frozen or homogenized or pasteurized, everything is hand-crafted from scratch.
Guido explained that lunch came in three editions: hot, cold, and warm tables. The warm table was a starter of anti pastas, noodle dishes, risottos, a sushi buffet, and Hors d`oeuvres.
The cold table held huge, translucent green grapes grown behind the resort, and hearty gazpachos, varietal cheese balls, and salads with hand-blended herbal dressings, with the ingredients pulled from the spice and herb garden.
The sous chef and his staff hovered over the open burner flames at the hot table where meats and fish were pan seared on the grill. The homemade pizzas were a thick pile of herbs and cheese on artisan bread crust straight from the wood burning stove.
The chefs work in unisome for perfection.
The sous chef pointed out with an open hand the entrée choices of veal, chicken, beef, and fish. Guido's smile crinkled. "Choose the Sole . . . .it is very Italian, yes, very Italian. " Guido guided me back to my unwrinkled linen-clad table. The golden toasty filet flank of sautéed Adriatic sole was seared with hibiscus salt, artichoke jam, and accompanied by baby corn. Sole is a bottom feeding fish similar to cod or flounder. Voila! . . .as Guido knew, "The Italian sole was good for the soul at Castello del Sole."
Fresh herbs and spices from the garden.
I ordered a glass of sparkling water. "San Pellegrino," Guido stated emphatically with a burst, "it is very Italian."
Everything is grown right at the farm surrounding the resort. The lettuce was un-wilted, it was freshly picked. Most kidney beans are mushy in their own juices, not here, their thin skins slid off with the touch of the tongue, bursting with flavor. I was amazed that corn was grown in small patches throughout Switzerland; the hotel had its own field ripening in the sun. I was awed that the Sole's risotto rice was planted in the northern most rice paddy in all of Europe. Risotto is a north Italian rice dish cooked in broth to a creamy consistency. The broth can be derived from meat, fish, or vegetables. Many types of risotto contain butter, wine, and onions. At the one Michelin star Locanda Barbarossa restaurant the chef creates a Loto Risotto from the farm with yuzu lemon-basil pesto, green soya, sugar peas, and scallop.
The touchstone of taste from the farm.
There were many choices on the unwritten menu at the Dolci table, but the rich Swiss Tiramisu with dark chocolate leafs popped out of the crowd. Guido surprised me with a scoop of rich dark blueberry purple artisan ice cream; I wondered who milked the goats and cows. Berries required enormous blasts of photons from the sun. The next day I was treated to a scoop of green Americana grape ice cream. Castello del Sole has certainly moved the farm closer to the table.
Later in the afternoon I sat in the warm Sole sun in a wicker sofa in the middle of the apple nursery, where spindly trees with withered dinky fruit barely clung to wispy branches. I presumed the trees would later be transplanted around the resort in the spring, or maybe iced hard apple cider was on the agenda. The resort has an extensive underground wine cellar with its own label and it brews its own beers from grain that it grows in the fields that are now fallow. Many of the products from the hotel kitchen are sold in the farm's shop located in Ascona village.
Watch wild birds in the gardens.
The resort is surrounded by a WWF bird sanctuary, so I wasn't sure if the globular light globes nestled in spindles forks of iron lamp poles were ostrich egg clutches waiting to hatch. The staff can organize a picnic in the garden or an evening group event lit by the ostrich eggs. You won't find any endangered fowl species on the hotel menu, but you will cluck with delight over the Terrine of fowl and duck with pistachio-macadamia pesto and Mashed Cannellini beans with Farina Bona and Beluga lentils with licorice.
I watched sailboats ply Lake Maggiore; on the Sole's Spiaggia, or private beach, hotel guests lounged and read the last pages of novels started in summer. The Ascona Harbor marina is next door and the Sole's concierge can arrange all sorts of water sports. Next door to the marina the private golf course offers guests green privileges. The resort has its own indoor and outdoor tennis facility, and a newly added indoor outdoor pool, plus a fitness center.
Spiaggia is Sole's private beach on Lake Maggiore.
Locarno is noted for sports, from skiing in the Alps, or parasailing the narrow valleys from glide centers. The hotel has its own fleet of mountain bikes. Get an adrenaline rush with James Bond Bungee Jumping off a nearby dam, featured in the 007 pot boiler, "For Your Eyes Only", starring Pierce Brosnan. Fish for trout from a kayak under a 2,000 year old Roman foot bridge where Julius Caesar may have crossed with his legions, but let it be known, he didn't invent the Caesar's salad, that came from Tijuana, Mexico in the 1920s. Explore the numerous small towns at the end of the valleys around Locarno.
The main Hotel building at Castello Del Sole.
Castello del Sole was originally built in 1540 by Francesco Orelli as a Protestant haven. In 1900 the property operated as a six room "Osteria" inn. The main building burned down around World War II, but in 1945/46 a new foundation was laid for the new hotel of 24 beds and then it was extended to the present 75 beds. The main building today features two suites, 15 junior suites, and 43 double and single rooms. My second story junior suite was located in the new Pavilion Locarno that gull-winged over the spa, pool, and kids activity center. This wing also has a total of two luxe suites and 11 junior suites. On the other side of the centralized hotel was the all suite Pavilion Ascona wing with four junior suites and two ultra villa-like luxury suites measuring 158m2, and two unique duplex suites measuring 201m2 that are great for families.
A Junior Suite in the Pavilion Locarno wing.
My junior suite immersed me in the warm fall colors; striped sofas and chairs and the private deck chairs gave it a beachy feel. Expansive windows let in so much light it begged for Castle of the Sun bathing. I fiddled with the wall electronic panel that raised and lowered the wide bug screen, opened or closed the blinds, or manipulated the height of the sun awning, A wide screen LED TV rolled around the tile floor on a trolley. Thick tapestry type rugs softened the furniture feet and my feet.
The wide junior bed coddled me in crisp sheets and puffed up pillows. Turn down each night saw a different type of Swiss chocolate on the pillow. Farm fresh fruit filled the table bowl. Plush towels embedded with the trademark Castello Del Sole smiling sun soaked up the bath beads off the skin from a bathtub I could float in.
The ultra luxury Pavilion Ascona suites.
Castello Del Sole's primary restaurant is Tre Stagioni; the unfaced stone walls reminded me an alpine lodge, so I knew I was in Switzerland. I was surprised to see Guido directing the evening dining traffic. It was too cool for the terrace but Guido guided me to a candle-lit window table. A pale walnut with the thin skein removed, appeared like perfect butterfly wings stuck in a dollop of amber honey. Walnuts are noted as the highest nut for minerals. "It's very Italian," I laughed; "yes, very Italian," Guide agreed. The pianist appeared with calming renditions on the grand piano.
I had to admire the enthusiasm of Enrico, the neophyte waiter-in-training who rolled up with the cheese trolley. With only a smattering of English he pointed out the cheeses; I chose the gorgonzola, the only one I recognized in his and mine lengua franca. Mario, my waiter of the evening, showed up and announced the special of the night was a braised sea bass. Sea bass in the Mediterranean were depleted for years but have made a strong comeback so I was not reluctant for my choice.
Tre Stagioni is the main restaurant.
But first the starter of anti pasta of Lukewarm Castello del Sole lobster salad with elderflower vinegar and citrus fruit with olive oil. Then it was the Lobster bisque with Sauternes, seafood dumplings with wild fennel. Wine flowed, or a cocktail could be ordered from the chef de bar at Bassa Selim in the inner courtyard near the hotel's other gourmet restaurant.
Locanda Barbarossa has been awarded 18 points by the prestigious Gault-Millau Association and has one Michelin Star. Mediterranean delights are created by chef Othmar Schlegel; Sergio Bassi, is the chef de service. The "Cortile Leone" is the summer version of the Locanda Barbarossa. Guests may choose from over 250 selected wines by the Sommelier, Mario Leone. Locanda Barbarossa is a private, intimate dining experience that reminded me of a chapel.
The elegant Michelin starred Locanda Barbarossa.
Menu selections in Italian sound so . . . sophisicado. But the menus here are also sub-titled in English, such as: Roasted turbot filet with fava beans and shallots with Red Kampot pepper, served with crunchy ravioli stuffed with green peas and olive oil sauce and soya. My index finger moved down to the Carpaccio of free range veal with Taggiasca olive oil and tartar of tuna with quail egg. I was going to settle for Filet of Turbot with potatoes, summer truffle vinaigrette, Beluga lentils, and marinated red radishes because it sounded "very Italian". Turbot, which can grow to 60 pounds, was a popular flatfish even in Roman times.
Then, Daniel, my young waiter, suggested the six course Degustation Menu that included venison as the entrée. It was Fall deer hunting season in Switzerland, but this wild game came from the Austria Alps. Ibex have been reintroduced into the Swiss Alps from Italy, but they are off the menu because they are an endangered species, so I gladly picked the venison and wasn't disappointed when the tidbits arrived in a thick sauce.. Gold needs a touchstone to prove purity; my tongue was a touchstone of taste, proving organic purity.
I started the next morning with the bountifuls breakfast buffet in Tre Stagioni. Guido was once again running the cuisine show. A separate bread table saw piles of different types and shapes of bread, made from the grains taken in and stored in silos by the barn. A chef de bread sliced the breads to any thickness; cheeses from a separate station supplanted butter. The cold fresh juices were pulpy, so I knew they came from the farm.
Farm to Spa Beauty from the Boanical garden.
After the awesome ala carte buffet breakfast I checked in with Stephania at the Sole Spa.+ Beauty, a 2,500 square meter relaxation station — VineaSole for the face and VineaAqua for the body. The resort prides itself on its Farm-to-Spa product line — VineaSole that are produced in-house from the lakeside botanical gardens. They grind and transmute flowers and plants into compounds, lotions, sprays, blushes, creams, and soaps, which are also found in the guest baths.
I met Roberta, who worked me over with a one hour facial. She massaged and soothed my skin with warm wraps, she pinched and plucked oil blemishes from my pours, she snipped wayward hairs. My face came back to a youthful state with a botanical herbal slap of skin bracers. Voila! . . .the metro man emerged.
Tha amazing Hydro Therapy pool.
Castello Del Sole has one of the most unique Hydro Therapy pools I ever encountered. In the light of the large windows the lounge chairs were heated internally; the ambient air temperature was at body heat level; the spa jets covered every aspect of my frame from neck to feet; massaging therapeutic jets made my skin throb; a rush of blood flowed in my shins with the capillary action. The spa has numerous packages and treatments, so book them directly with the hotel.
Castello del Sole is only open in the Spring, Summer, and Fall; many of the staff then moved up into the Alps to bring their trade to the skiing aficionados.
I was not ready to leave the Etruscan lifestyle of Castello Del Sol, but Franco was waiting with the town car; as I stepped into the plush leather, a staff member rushed out and handed me a mesh bag containing a kilo of Sole's hallmark rice. Voila! . . . it was very Italian, yes, very Italian.
— Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos by the author and courtesy of Castello Del Sole. Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature, Ride the High Country With Swiss Rail. Get current travel news about Switzerland at Jetsettersblog.com/blog.