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Como’s Glamorous Upstart

Designer credentials, a high staff-to-guest ratio and palatial rooms are the USP of this exciting hotel on Lake Como.

Il Sereno on the shores of Como, and its in-house Riva

For a new luxury hotel, there can’t be many more star-studded an opening night than that of Il Sereno, one of Lake Como’s most exclusive resorts.

Its launch in 2016 was booked out for the wedding party of Swedish media tycoon Daniel Ek, co-founder of Spotify, and his fiancée Sofia Lavender. The marriage was officiated by Chris Rock, while Bruno Mars provided the evening’s entertainment. Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was Ek’s best man.

For Luis Contreras, owner of Il Sereno and its sister hotel in Saint Barths, in the Caribbean, it was the culmination of years of planning applications and redraws, much of which was done in conjunction with the hotel’s celebrity designer, Patricia Urquiola.

The combination of Contreras’s and Urquiola’s vision on the glamorous shores of Lake Como is electric. Located in the quiet village of Torno, surrounded by the traditional grand dame villa hotels of Como, such as its neighbour to the west, The Mandarin Oriental, and its peer across the lake, Passalacqua, Il Sereno turns heads simply by being the only modern hotel on Como’s shores.

Inside Ristorante Il Sereno Al Lago, the Michelin-starred lakeside restaurant

Its uber-modern design was not — at first — well received, but there was never a question to change it, says Contreras, as we sit in the hotel’s jaw-dropping penthouse suite.

“Many of our advisors said it was a crazy decision because when people come to Lake Como, they want to stay in a big old palace. So, either we build something new or build a fake baroque or renaissance-style hotel. But we are living in the 21st century and, for me, it was never an option to do something fake-old. We’re a few kilometres from Milan, one of the best design districts in the world, so I said, let’s do an incredible design hotel.”

To give some context, Contreras is not a man afraid to take a risk.

Growing up in Venezuela before moving to the US, in his youth he was an avid off-road bike racer. An engineer by training who cut his teeth in the family real-estate and hospitality business in Miami, Contreras learned a lot from his father — who built one of the first hotels in Miami — about going against the grain.

Luis Contreras and his wife Angelica pictured in the Penthouse Suite

For Il Sereno, a project a long time in the making, Contreras enlisted the powers of Spanish architect and industrial designer Urquiola to realise his vision. An architect and an artist, her works are housed in institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Triennale di Milano and the National Contemporary Art Foundation in Paris. Contreras talks about Urquiola with admiration, calling her experience and knowledge “boundless”.

The penthouse alone is a work of art. Accessed via an exclusive lift, the enormous suite, which sleeps four, includes a 30-square-metre terrace, plus an additional 50-square-metre lawn area. It’s actually, Contreras confides, a shoppable suite: every gorgeous item in here can be bought in a catalogue, albeit a very sophisticated one. Most of it is bespoke designed by Urquiola, down to the Lariana bathtub, the sofas, armchairs, rugs and even the bowls.

As for the exterior of the hotel, it literally does turn heads. Sitting in one of the cabanas at Il Sereno’s 60ft-long freshwater infinity pool suspended over the lake, don’t be surprised to see touring powerboats kill their motors in front of the hotel, to allow their passengers to capture a picture or two.

Patricia Urquiola, the designer behind Il Sereno

Modern it may be, but the design was not created in a vacuum. The inspiration for the exterior came from a rather unusual source, says Contreras; namely Como’s local police station, housed in Casa Del Fascio (literally translated as house of the fascists), which is located opposite Como’s Cathedral. Completed in 1936, the historic police building was designed by the famous architect from Como, Giuseppe Terragni, who worked under Mussolini’s regime and pioneered the Italian modern movement under the rubric of Rationalism.

Despite the historic local nod, getting the permit for such a bold building was difficult, Contreras admits. Urquiola’s concept helped to persuade the local officials, by softening the floor-to-ceiling steel and glass of the bones of the building with wooden louvres, which allow a view of the lake from every balcony. She used beautiful wood and natural fibres such as wool to create a timeless elegance, as well as traditional Venetian Terrazzo and Travertine stone, along with dramatic Moltrasio stone arches to evoke the spirit of Lake Como.

The lake-front gardens, designed by landscape guru Flavio Pollano, are planted with fragrant lavender, herbs and citrus trees, some of which are used in the cocktails served later (a freshly orange slice adorns my Aperol Spritz). The real horticultural wow is on the walls. Contreras hired the famed botanist Patrick Blanc to create two large vertical gardens, while inside the lobby a huge green cascade of plants is encased inside a glass box. The attention to detail is mesmerising.

Breakfast is served at Il Sereno

But the other secret to the hotel’s success, believes Contreras, lies in two things: having staggeringly large rooms — the average is 900 square feet but even the smallest is 650 square feet — and having a heavy staff-to-guest ratio of three staff per room. “That’s probably 80 percent of the reason behind our success,” he says. “While we make use of technology, our service is old-school, prioritising the human touch and conversation.”

The rooms are indeed magnificent but, at the same time, calming, with soft blues, greens and taupe reflecting the lake’s colours. Every detail is meticulously thought out, even to the gift, a huge panettone complete with a specialised bone-handled panettone knife sourced by Contreras’s wife Angelica.

There are 40 rooms here but, so far, we have only seen a couple of other guests, so we are curious, as we head down to breakfast, who else might be there. At Ristorante Il Sereno Al Lago, the Michelin-starred lakeside restaurant headed up by Raffaele Lenzi, it’s quiet, only four or five tables filled. Hardly surprising, when you reflect on the price tag – at the very minimum for the night expect not much change from €1,500. “We do not sell out our rooms,” Contreras says emphatically. Here, one also pays for the exclusivity — having the pool or spa practically to yourself.

And at a hotel like this, we would not expect so primitive a thing as a breakfast buffet. Instead, a cart heaving with sugary goodies is wheeled to our table, the waiter wearing signature mint-and-white striped apron. My children’s eyes light up. He urges them to try the mini-bombolone, tiny fresh doughnuts that are lighter than air, like eating crispy clouds. A panettone streaked with melt-in-your-mouth apricots is a must, he says, as are the crunchy cannoli rolls, filled with creamy ricotta and shavings of chocolate. They are happy to oblige. By the time they are finished, my children are bouncing off the walls.

Luckily, they can burn off some steam in the infinity pool, which is, as usual, gloriously empty.

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Taste and Travel Issue. To subscribe, click here.