The postcard perfect towns of the Amalfi Coast epitomize most traveler’s Mediterranean fantasy. Which is why, after a few peak summer visits featuring packed cafes and elbow-to-elbow strolls through lovely town squares, I began to research alternative destinations that offered the charms of this region, minus the tourist gridlock. My checklist: balmy climes, picturesque waterfront village, sophisticated hotel, preferably bougainvillea rimmed with updated interiors (read: no bedspreads or chintz armchairs), access to water sports, killer local wine and family-run trattorias with fresh, no fuss fare.
I found Ticino, a canton in southern Switzerland about two hours north of Milan where la dolce vita flows freely amongst palm tree fringed lakes and water-facing cafes filled with Aperol Spritz sipping locals. Just 20 minutes from the Italian border, the vibe is decidedly Mediterranean. But, you’re in Switzerland. The snow capped Swiss Alps glisten in the sunlight with the promise of alpine recreation, a nice contrast to lazing by the water. There are hikes, from easy walks to hard core trekking, through wildflower carpeted meadows. You can visit tiny mountain villages and then swim in glacially chilled alpine lakes.
There are cable cars to ferry less active visitors up the mountains to admire the fairy tale panoramas. Public transportation is clean and precise. And, service is snappy. You also have unrestricted access to Swiss wines (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Gamay) that are almost impossible to find in the United States. Ticino felt like a secret slice of Mediterranean made even better by the fact that there were so few Americans that English menus were scarce or nonexistent.
Sophisticated, balmy Lugano is a perfect base to explore the region. Lakeside holidays demand lake activities. In Lugano, It’s easy to book windsurfing, stand up paddle boarding, sailing and water skiing. There are numerous sightseeing boat tours that stop at the small, villages- Gandria, Melide, Capolago, Morcote- dotting the lake. Or, you can just hang out at Lido Lugano, the local beach. Lugano is a classic, upscale town and thus filled with predictable luxury boutiques (Chanel, Louis Vuitton). On the elegant Via Nassa, I was happy to discover Antonioli, an indie Barney’s -feeling shop with pieces by Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens and Haider Ackermann hanging with lesser known designers like Ssheena, Rokh, Alyx and Aalto. Another find was Mauri near Piazza della Riforma, a hybrid concept store with barber shop, spa and stylish cafe filled with cool kids communing over house-made pastries and espresso. Pharmacies in Switzerland are known for premier beauty products. I hit a few of them and found the perfect souvenirs in the form of under-the-radar Swiss skincare brands such as Lubex, Cellcosmet, Valmont, Vitry.
There was only time for one museum, so I opted for the sleek, new LAC (Lugano Arte + Cultura) for an exhibit on Balthasar Burkhard, a contemporary photographer. The space doubles as performance space for opera, theater and dance.
For alpine thrills, I took the Cardada Cimetta cable car from Lake Maggiore up to the peak of Monte Rosa mountain range to hike (you can also bike) and have lunch in an alpine hut (risotto was bubbling in an outdoor cauldron) that felt plucked from the set of Heidi. In the remote village of Mergoscia is Valle Verzasca where you can hike up and around the remote village and then plunge (or just opt for swimming as I did) into the mind-numbingly cold turquoise green river and then relax on the sun-warmed rocks watching teens canoodle. This popular hangout has another draw: jumping 600 feet from Ponte dei Salti bridge (assisted by an elastic rope) into the water, an adventure featured in the opening sequence of the James Bond film Goldeneye.
The ritzy, sun-soaked enclave of Ascona on upper Lago Maggiore is arguably the most glamorous pocket of Ticino, it’s colorful buildings, narrow, shop-filled pedestrian streets and cafe-lined promenade overlooking the lake resemble a mini Sorrento. To best experience Lago Maggiore, I connected with Tony Meier of Asconautica to organize a sailing class with my daughter. Lack of wind, however, landed us on a speedboat, tearing through the wake of Rivas and yachts, past ochre-hued villas and over to the Brissago Islands, a botanic park of tropical plants which borders Italy. Asconautica can also organize a skipper to expertly ferry you to sweet port towns like Cannobio and as far as the Borromean Islands, so you can sightsee and kick back with a few bottles of the region’s acclaimed white merlot. For a swanky lunch, the terrace of the lakefront Eden Roc (which is in front of Asconautica) offers a classic fish and pasta menu with dreamy views of the lake.
Though gastronomic restaurants and lively cafes abound, I opted for grottos, rustic outdoor tavernas known for hearty, local fare and lost-in-time settings. At Grotto America near Locarno, my al fresco lunch of alpine charcuterie and grilled fish was as delightful as the setting: a stone house in a wooded grove complete with babbling brook. A dinner at Grotto dei Pescatori (reachable only by boat) was equally remarkable.From my perch at a wooden picnic table under a canopy of trees, my group feasted upon platters of risotto, vegetable tarts, marinated fish and grilled beef (along with plenty of white merlot) as we took in the fiery sunset over Lake Lugano.
Most resorts surrounding the perimeter of Lake Lugano are classic, the majority begging for a facelift. Which is why we opted for the sleek 11 room The View Lugano in the hills of Paradiso whose quiet luxury-feathery soft Flexilan mattresses, custom Quagliotti jacquard sheets, Vergnano espresso machines (with biodegradable capsules), lighting by Oluce and Penta- whispered “made-in Italy.” (Other sophisticated touches were water and pillow menus and in room chromotherapy shower). The all-white, multi-floor spa was equally elegant with a Himalayan salt room, Kneipp Circuit, Thalassotherapy baths and a surprisingly massive pool with adjacent “vitality” hot tub. Of course, as suggested by the hotel’s name, the sweeping views of Lake Lugano-from the teak deck where breakfast is served, our room and the pool area-is the main attraction. Another perk: The hotel offers guests the use of electric smart cars to tool around the lake.
Throughout the fall, there are cultural events (Blues, Art, Food and Wine, Opera) happening throughout he region. Check here for calendar listings.
Plan Your Trip
Fly into Zurich and connect to Lugano (about 45 minute flight) or organize train tickets through Rail Europe from nearby European cities.
The View Lugano Chic 11 room luxury boutique hotel with state- of -the -art spa and elegant Italian restaurant in Lugano
Eden Roc, A swanky, old school hotel with whimsical Carlo Rampazzi designed interiors on the shores of Lago Maggiore in Ascona
Art Hotel Riposa, A groovy, small family- run boutique hotel in Ascona
When To Go
The Article Originally Appeared in Forbes