Merely hearing the word Brissago brings back memories of subtropical islands with lush vegetation in a sparkling lake.
Above the town of Brissago, which is a distance from the islands and nearly on the border with Italy, we are about to discover a hidden gem. This Park Hotel Brenscino is a resort that many regulars have visited for years, some even for decades. Worst case, it would have taken us many more years before ever finding it. But thanks to an invitation by Ascona-Locarno Tourism, no more time was wasted.
Park Hotel Brenscino is a modern resort for people like you and me
Be it by postal bus or by car, the hotel is easily reachable from nearby towns such as Ascona. Once we drive past the islands and enter the village of Brissago, we look for a road leading up the hillside. A sign points us in the right direction. And a short while later, we turn onto the private drive leading to the hotel.
On a sprawling property above Brissago, the Park Hotel Brenscino occupies a prime spot. Once the official holiday hotel for the Swiss Federal Railways Union, the Brenscino has reinvented itself into the modern family resort it is today.
During the check-in, I wonder out loud whether our room has lake views. With a smile, the receptionist replies that all rooms and suites have lake views. I have clearly outed myself as a first-timer…
From our Large Classic Double Room, we have panoramic vistas ranging from Ascona to Italy. With the glittering lake below and a welcome beverage in hand, we can hardly believe that the Brenscino is classified as a three-star superior hotel.
A pool and botanical garden to write home about
Across an access bridge from the main building is the resort’s outdoor swimming pool. The views from up here are striking: there is nothing but sky and lake! While the pool was not conceived to be an infinity pool, I quickly figure out the perfect spot to get the illusion that it connects.
Some lawn chairs are right by the water while others are placed in quiet spots perfect for reading a novel. I particularly like the stone bench beside the pool: it heats up during the day and is perfect for quick drying after a swim.
Next, we go to the lowest floor of the hotel where the lounge, activity room, and restaurant are located. From the terrace, a few steps lead down to the hotel’s own botanical garden.
Given the hotel’s century-old history, some of the plants here have been around for a long time. Once a jungle forest, the gardens have been under the attention of the same head gardener for thirty-plus years. With our proximity to the Brissago Islands, I can feel an invisible connection between the subtropical flora there and the lush vegetation here.
Among the more than 500 plant species, there are some common suspects such as banana trees, bamboo, ferns, or water lilies. Many more plants are new to my eyes, such as the evergreen araucaria tree. One of the oldest plants here, this tree is native to Chile and reminds of a Dr. Seuss comic. The next time, we will ask for a guided tour to learn even more about this Mediterranean oasis!
Back on the terrace, we stumble across one of those typical Italian tricycle bikes. The Piaggo bar is one of the latest experiences the resort has added. The selection of gins includes local brands such as Bisbino Gin from the Muggio Valley. There are non-alcoholic refreshments such as Gazzosa soda as well, so we grab a lounge and let the evening take its course.
Ristorante Al Fresco surpasses expectations
We have a dinner reservation at the hotel’s own Ristorante Al Fresco. On this warm summer night, all diners are seated outdoors. There are young and old couples, as well as some families of three generations. It is an easy-going atmosphere and the Italian staff adds to the feeling that we are on a vacation.
From full-on carnivore to vegetarian and even vegan dishes, the menu is very extensive. Mamiko goes for “fours kinds of meat on a hot stone” while I stick to a nutritious summer salad. (The next day, Mamiko has spaghetti vongole.)
These attributes describe the dishes at Ristorante Al Fresco best: fresh and crunchy, surprising, generous, high quality, nicely presented.
Jungle hiking in the nearby Centovalli
Brissago is ideally located for those who like to spice up their resort getaway with some outdoor activities. The tennis courts at the Brenscino have just been redone this season. There is even mini-golf on the premise. Or you could drive to Ascona and Losone to play on two 18-hole golf courses (Par 71).
Lake Maggiore is a playground of its own: there are several lido swimming areas from where to take a plunge. And a ten-minute walk from the Brenscino, boats depart for the Brissago Islands, Ascona, S. Nazzaro and Locarno.
And then, there are the one-hundred valleys, a region called the Centovalli. We have previously hiked to the Foroglio waterfall, among other routes. For this trip, we have scouted the hike from Rasa to Intragna.
To get to the cable car in Verdasio, we ride the Centovalli Railway from Ponte Brolla past the town of Intragna. Many tourists might ride the express line all the way to Domodossola in Italy, a place known for its Saturday market. Hikers and townspeople choose the local line for its frequent stops.
Riding in this vintage coach feels a bit like traveling back in time. We lower the windows to feel the summer breeze and snap unobstructed photographs. At times, it feels like riding a streetcar. As we cross viaducts, the Centovalli Railway has the air of a great railway line. And sometimes, I have to be honest, it feels as unpredictable and shifty as a “mousetrap” roller coaster...
The remote town of Rasa is connected to civilization by a cable car. We opt to start the hike from there and walk down to Intragna. Many itineraries point the opposite way, but what if that final cable car were ever out of service?
After locating the outdoor swing above the town, we embark on a nearly four-hour hike. Maybe it was due to our slowing down for picture-taking, but we expected to get done in three. We don’t fret because this trail never gets boring. From ancient times up until 1957, this path was used to access the higher altitude settlements.
The hiking trail is mainly in the shade of a chestnut forest. Once in a while, we dip out to cross a meadow or patch of farmland. Water finds its way to the valley by way of waterfalls and creeks. The closer we get to the Melezza river down below, the lusher the forest turns. Combined with the heat and humidity, it feels like jungle trekking at times.
The Roman Bridge in Intragna
Unlike what the name might suggest, the Ponte Romano was built by two Brissago brothers in 1578. While it was not the Romans, this still makes it ancient nonetheless!
At 36 meters in length and 26 meters in height, this bridge is quite an adventure to cross. Have a look at Mamiko as she nearly climbs the steep slopes towards the chapel in the center: