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Glorious Garda: olives, red wine and a biomass boiler by Italy’s largest lake

Ruth Styles

14th March, 2012

From wood chips to lights that turn themselves off, Lake Garda’s Lefay Resort and Spa offers an unusually green experience to travellers. What’s more, says Ruth Styles, the views of the lake and mountains are sensational

Standing looking up at the tall silver cylinders softly rumbling in front of me, it felt as if I’d by-passed Lake Garda and ended up in a scene from Barbarella. But I wasn’t looking at a frighteningly industrial vision of the future; I was contemplating a massive biomass boiler. Futuristic in some respects, the biomass boiler powering Lefay Resort and Spa was distinctly old-fashioned in others, not least in its fuel – wood chips discarded by the Italian furniture making industry. I looked down into the pit feeding the silver beast, smelt the resinous aroma of pine and watched a cascade of pale chips get sucked down a pipe into the fiery heart of the boiler. They were spat out into a crimson tank at the far end as soft grey ash destined for local compost makers, who use it to pep up their organic fertiliser blends.

At first glance, you’d never realise that such technology was on hand at Lefay. The route up the hillside to the hotel took us along twisting roads that looped back and forth, revealing the lake in silver splendour at the bottom and hulking snow capped Alpine escarpments above. Tiny villages with huddles of crumbling stone houses decked a hillside splashed with bright green olive groves. The odd white sail could be spotted drifting around on the lake while old-fashioned scarlet tractors chuntered along dusty dirt tracks. As we reached the top of the steep hill, Lefay hoved into view, tucked behind a wall of trees and surrounded by gardens in an 11-hectare nature reserve. Of the boiler, there was no sign.

Lefay is one of a new breed of Italian hotels characterised by putting sustainability at the forefront of the business plan along with a typically Latin dedication to style. And in a country where the environment comes close to the bottom of the priorities list, that’s a real reason to be cheerful. Sitting in the minimalist lobby, all dark wood and violet accents, with manager, Alcide Leali, Lefay’s approach to décor was a million miles away from the old-fashioned perception of eco travel as tents, patchouli and hemp blankets. But then, as Leali explained, today’s travellers, green or not, are after a side order of style with their sustainability. ‘Guests play a big role in making [Lefay] more sustainable, whether that’s reducing rubbish or not asking to have their sheets changed but at the same time you have to provide the service that people expect,’ he says. Leali, who estimates that 80 per cent of Lefay guests get involved in the hotel’s eco-initiatives, also says that a greener approach can pay dividends, both in terms of efficiency and in encouraging more people to come and stay.

At Lefay, this has meant a combination of renewable power, water recycling, locally grown food and a raft of creative ways to minimise the impact the hotel has on its surroundings. As a guest, you’d never notice anything other than a polite request next to your bed to put off having your sheets changed but behind the scenes, there’s plenty going on. ‘Sustainability isn’t only good because it’s ethical,’ adds Leali. ‘It’s good because it’s cheaper in the long run.’ In a classic case of eco sense making general sense, the biomass boiler – an expensive initial investment – will be paying for itself within a couple of years, while leftovers from the breakfast buffet end up in the staff canteen. Anything left goes to feed the local pigs. On the roof of the breakfast room, solar panels are disguised as a cool design feature, while on the menu you’ll find dishes made from the hotel’s own olive oil and a fish called ‘luccio’ (pike) sourced directly from the lake. Lights switch off automatically and water from the pool (which has to be changed daily under Italian law) is saved and used to water the gardens and the olive groves. In short, it’s a five star operation with a five star approach to efficiency.

The green ethos chimes beautifully with the hotel’s magical Lake Garda location, which apart from being exceptionally easy on the eye, boasts an eco-system that’s entirely unique. To the north, vast Alpine ridges huddle close to its shores, while to the south, Italy’s largest lake meets the fertile wine-growing plateaux of Brescia and Verona. The lake also has its own microclimate, which means, unusually for northern Italy, that citrus groves are common and temperatures never drop too low. There’s plenty to do too, with the pretty village of Gargnano nestled on the lakeshore immediately below the hotel, and the magical André Heller Botanical Garden a few miles away in the small town of Gardone Riviera. For cyclists and walkers, the hills around Lefay are criss-crossed with winding paths that take you past some of Lombardy’s most picturesque panoramas, while for sailors, the annual Centomiglia Regatta is not to be missed. Back at Lefay, the hotel’s array of spa treatments and thermal pools are worth getting to grips with, not least for the holistic brand of healing they offer. The small salt pool does wonders for scaly skin, while a massage using the hotel’s own oil blend is the ultimate way to chill out.

Not surprisingly, given Lake Garda’s natural wonders and excellent line in local wine, it has attracted legions of celebrity fans (including George Clooney) but until now, it hasn’t had much to offer green travellers in terms of accommodation. Thanks to that gleaming biomass boiler, Lake Garda is now a holiday spot that’s becoming as green as it is chic. No wonder George loves it.

Need to know

Stay: Kuoni (01306 747008, www.kuoni.co.uk) offers three nights on room and breakfast at Lefay Resort & Spa Lago di Garda in a prestige junior suite, including transport.  Prices for March 2012 start from £586 per person, based on two sharing. For more information, see www.lefayresorts.com

Getting there: Verona is as close as the train will take you to Lake Garda (it’s right at the southern end) and a combination of Eurostar and Thello sleeper train gets you there in civilised (and speedy) style. If you’d rather take the scenic route and see a bit of the Swiss Alps on the way, hop on the Eurostar to Paris before switching to TGV and heading to Zurich. Spend a night enjoying the Swiss capital before taking the EuroCity train to Milan, where you change to a high-speed train to Verona. A considerably lengthier route but great if you’re after a two-centre trip and some stunning mountain scenery. See www.raileurope.co.uk for more information.

 

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