Private jet, helicopter, limo . . . Cath Urquhart finds the smart way to travel to Lake Garda
AS OUR helicopter hovered over the croquet lawn at Villa Feltrinelli, smart staff in starched white aprons rushed towards us. At first, I thought they were extending an enthusiastic welcome, but they dashed to the oversized plant pots on a nearby wall and clung on to them for dear life, so they did not blow over in the helicopter’s downdraught.
Arriving anywhere in a black Augusta 109 chopper, with our dashing, Armani-suited pilot Alberto at the controls, would be thrilling, but this ten-minute hop was the last stage in a particularly swish journey.
I had joined a group of friends to try a trip with Jeffersons, a newish tour operator featuring lovely hotels and ski resorts in Europe, whose entire programme uses private jets. Since the demise of Concorde, holidaymakers who want “treat” trips are increasingly turning to private jets, Jeffersons’ MD, Robin Fawcett, told me. Hence Jeffersons’ customers are not so much the rich and famous, but people who have saved long and hard to celebrate an anniversary or other landmark — such as the cancer survivor who took his surgeon and a dozen friends away to thank them for helping him recover.
In these security-conscious times, private jet travel really is a throwback to an earlier, gentler era: your limo takes you to the steps of the plane, formalities are brisk, and security is bolstered by the fact that you know all your travelling companions.
Our journey from Luton to Brescia, in a Hawker 800 jet with three crew, took less than two hours, just time for us to enjoy champagne and canapés. I had visited Villa Feltrinelli, on the western shore of Lake Garda, soon after it opened in 2002, so I knew what an exquisite choice this was for a short break (as did the actress Katie Holmes, who reportedly considered holding her wedding to Tom Cruise here before choosing Bracciano, near Rome, last November).
It’s not just the beautifully decorated rooms, the perfect setting with the lake lapping beneath the terrace restaurant, or the delicious Italian dishes, though these are all important: it’s that the staff have pulled off the difficult trick of making you feel as though you are staying at the home of an extremely wealthy friend (whose laundry maids are at your disposal, too).
With only 13 bedrooms, and another half dozen in smaller villas in the grounds, the hotel never feels crowded. And the bedrooms, all styled differently, are quite beautiful. Mine, La Poeta, on the second floor, had two star-shaped, shuttered windows offering a postcard-perfect view over the lake.
A gigantic mahogany bed, set at an angle, dominated the room, which was filled with mismatched antique furniture: a huge gilt-framed mirror, a marble-topped occasional table with a vase of yellow roses, silver-framed family photos, a leopardskin rug. There is no hint that you are in a paying establishment: no laundry list, no “do not disturb” sign, no plastic room key. And, classily, bottled water and wine are not charged for. The marble bath-room offered underfloor heating, generous Acqua di Parma toiletries and hangers that I feared cost more than the clothes I put on them.
The villa was built in 1892 by the sons of a lumber merchant, Faustino Feltrinelli (the Feltrinelli name is still synonymous with high-quality stationery in Italy today), and with its crenellated roof and ochre and vanilla stripes has something of the wedding cake about it. In 1943 the Germans took over the villa and installed Mussolini here. He was effectively under house arrest, guarded by German officers, until he escaped in 1945, was captured and killed by partisans.
In 1997 the villa was bought by the current owner, Robert Burns, 76, one of the world’s most renowned hoteliers, for $3.5 million. As renovation costs spiralled — he admits to $30 million — he decided to open it as a hotel, albeit one which could never make money. Perhaps with that in mind, he sold it this week for a reported £27 million (see story, page 39). Only the best furniture and decorations have been used, but it’s the lavish, all-en-veloping attention to detail and money-no-object mentality that puts Villa Feltrinelli at the top of so many lists of the world’s best hotels.
Mussolini might have thought twice about escaping had he had the 20m grey-green granite pool to swim in, or the elegant salon boat La Contessa to whisk him across the lake for lunch at a water-side trattoria, or the opera at Verona. In his time the villa’s olive grove would have been less shady, the limonaianot yet planted. And while the lake would have offered up bream and perch, I doubt it would have been prepared as simply, with lemon grass and olive oil, and served with a fine asparagus risotto, as it was for us.
Over this delicious dinner Burns summed up his philosophy for the hotel. “In the basement, we had a choice of a health club or a wine cellar. We chose the wine cellar.”
And when we came to leave, it was the wine that held us up. Because it dawned on us that, with a private jet at our disposal, there was nothing to stop us taking several cases of wine home. So we simply rang the pilot to delay our return flight by two hours while the staff loaded up the limo.