If you’re going to a spa in Europe, you can’t be shy. I thought about this as I awaited the Cradle of Olos, La Culla, in Italian, treatment at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni spa.
I was lying face-up on a heated treatment table. Covering the table was a gel-filled mattress that allowed me to imagine myself drifting lazily upon nearby Lake Como. Covering me? Not a lot, to be honest. No, you can’t be shy.
Maura, the spa therapist, slathered me top to toe with botanical oil from the Italian product line Olos Natura. It smelled vaguely like sugary lemon, but she told me later it was derived from strawberries. The treatment lasted one hour, during which Maura worked tirelessly, alternately moisturizing and exfoliating. At one point she affixed a frame over the treatment table and spread it with a drape to create a tent that enveloped me in warm moist heat. At another juncture, Maura lowered the motorized table and used a gentle spray to remove the gritty exfoliant from my skin.
The treatment concentrated on my face a bit too much for my taste. (I’m not a fan of facials.) The massage strokes were soothing, but didn’t penetrate enough to remove the cricks and cramps from my flight. Still, I reflected as I peeked blearily at the pin-dot lights in the ceiling, it was an original treatment and my skin did feel awfully soft.
I collected my clothing from the locker room, co-ed, with individual changing rooms for privacy, and wore my bathrobe back to my room. If anyone disapproved of me padding through the stately lobby in slippers, I didn’t notice. And I was too tingly to care.
The spa in its current location, in the lower level of this sprawling villa hotel, opened in 2001. There are six multipurpose treatment rooms, plus one reserved expressly for La Culla. Each is painted in its own soothing motif — floating clouds on a blue sky, leaping dolphins, sprays of peachy-pink flowers.
The hotel itself, with roots that trail back to the 18th century, was originally a staff building for the gardeners who worked at the main villa up the hill (now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation). The place is glorious. Many of its gilded and frescoed ceilings are original and maintained by 78-year-old master painter Severino Castelli. The entire hotel, which has been owned by the Bucher family from Switzerland since 1918, receives an annual sprucing when it closes for the winter — November through March.
The vast, high-ceilinged, antique-filled guestrooms have modern conveniences including TV, spacious bathrooms and air conditioning. You can even use your laptop, and many guests do because the hotel does a brisk business in meetings, conferences and incentive trips. But truly, this is a place to relax. Given the choice between checking your email and gazing at Lake Como, which would you prefer?
The charming lakeside town of Bellagio is at the hotel’s doorstep. Just a short walk away is the ferry that takes you across the lake to visit Villa del Balbianello, an 18th century residence that was bequeathed to FAI, Italy’s version of the National Trust, in 1988 by its last owner, polar explorer Guido Monzino. It’s been a setting for a number of movies, most recently “Casino Royale.”
Two days after settling into Bellagio’s easy pace, I returned to the spa for the Pindas treatment, a massage done with aromatic oil and heated, fist-sized sacks filled with sea salt, dried seaweed and lavender. Placed on key points, including the solar plexus, shoulders and the top and base of the spine, the heat from the sacks penetrates and loosens the muscles. When Antonella, the therapist, used them to massage in sweeping or pouncing strokes, they made a satisfying crunch like soft footsteps on gravel. The treatment is similar to hot stone massage, but the sacks have a more pleasing texture and allow for more versatility.
Spa director Daniela Barindelli works with the staff to develop the treatments offered at the Grand Villa Serbelloni spa. Together, they achieve a level of originality that’s clever without being gimmicky. Plans for the future include the addition of two treatment rooms in 2008 to focus on wet treatments such as seaweed wraps and thalassotherapy.
Besides the spa, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni has a well-equipped fitness center in a building separate from the main hotel. There’s a squash court, scheduled fitness classes, a whirlpool, steam room and sauna with a cold plunge pool in addition to the usual stationary bikes, treadmills and weight machines. There also are indoor and outdoor pools, and in the early morning you’ll encounter hotel guests jogging through the quiet streets of the town.
For an old hotel, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is remarkably forward-thinking. Chef Ettore Bocchia earned a Michelin star for the hotel’s Mistral restaurant with his high-concept “molecular gastronomy” menu. The dishes take food chemistry to new heights by blending the acidic and sweet, the creamy and tangy, to create combinations that ping on the palate. Ever tried Sicilian red prawns with guacamole ice cream? How about a dessert of robust strawberries with a frothy mint meringue that, given the chance, would float right off the plate?
It’s an art to provide an experience that’s good for you yet still feels decadent. From its food to its creative spa treatments to its fine accommodations and glorious views of Lake Como, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni does it well.
GRAND HOTEL VILLA SERBELLONI
Bellagio, Como, Italy
tel 39 031 950216, fax 39 031 951529
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