News & Reviews Europe Italy Review: Il Sereno, Lake Como

Il Sereno

Il Sereno, Lake Como
Room type: Grand Suite Lago
Duration: 27th May > 29th May, 2018
Booked with: Dorsia Travel

I cannot say I wasn’t warned.  Not only were the growing whispers of discontent spreading online like stupidity at a referendum, but the clear indication that something would really be wrong: the large number of awards.  Further proof that the accolades travel magazines hand out – from Conde Nast to Bloomberg – count for as much as a Trump midnight tweet.  The average age of guests must be early 30s, so we’ve not had a chance yet to understand true luxury and reflect it accurately in the media.  Forgive us.

Great hospitality is anticipating your guests needs, yet Il Sereno was not even anticipating guests.  Finding it was enough of a challenge, but unfortunately we did.  We drove from Villa Feltrinelli and the experience could not have been more different; instead of a welcome akin to a luxury resort, it had the coldness of being forced by your parents into bootcamp – the type run by some religious nut that insisted on praying away some made-up sins.  It would have been better suited for an airport check-in, not a €1600/n property.  A form was pushed towards us: they needed to pass all our details onto the police, but before that they needed to make sure every single member of staff asked for our passports. Like somehow Lake Como was an internationally recognised money haven for Russians or something.

A property of this size doesn’t even need a reception, except perhaps for queries.  Yet the arrival showed a complete lack of awareness of luxury, which is the issue this hotel has in abundance.  And as with so many elements of service, it is so easy to fix and costs nothing: welcomed, sit down to enjoy the view, have a drink on us, relax and then someone requests your passport.  Instead, Il Sereno dances from one mishap to another, like a gorilla on ice.

There are a few reasons worth visiting Il Sereno, but none are enough to actually do it.  The food, the architecture and being on Lake Como.  The design is stunning, even if it did feel somewhat sterile and there is little doubt regarding the beauty of Lake Como.  It does not have the tranquility of Garda due to the copious planes and boats, but it certainly makes up for it with the sightings.  It’s all very glamorous, until you arrive at Il Sereno and feel the place cheapened by being able to see every guest on their balconies, like we’re coming to stare at them in their cages.

David Attenborough voice: And here, we have the modern day Millennial, completely confused by what happiness really is.

The beauty of being on Lake Como is that you do not have to spend most of your time in Il Sereno.  They’re even kind enough to supply a selection of boats, so let’s just assume they’ve already concluded you’re better off elsewhere.  We did so for 2 hours, yet even then we felt their lack of foresight – the only drinking water you will receive is directly from splashes of the lake, and food is but a distant dream of the fish swimming by.  We decided to finish up by visit Villa d’Este, a hotel run by humans with a sense of humanity.  When time travel exists, I will not go back immediately to kill Hitler, but to book into Villa d’Este instead.

The choice of room here is important.  Not all rooms are made equal, with our original room, 306, being absent of any light, a bathroom with only remnants of a door and a surprise amount of wear and tear.  We asked to move and ended up in 201, which strangely was the same room category, but contains a separate desk area, light and even doors where they should be.  The design is definitely not for those not into minimalism, but I’m fond of very little, so we found common ground.  Each room has lake facing views with an outdoor balcony, with ours also overlooking the pool.  They also contain large areas where you have no WiFi and at no point will you have any phone signal, so your family cannot be warned off.


I have been away so much that when I woke up to thunder it took me over 5 seconds to remember where I was.  I thought it was the bins being collected at The Connaught.  Wishful thinking.

Although I normally praise a hotel for their free non-alcoholic minibar and movies, the real praise for Il Sereno actually goes to their bathrooms and large wardrobes.  They look elegantly designed, but just like everything at Il Sereno, they fail to deceive.  With just a single vanity and some unique design flaws regarding being unable to open the bathroom door without standing in the shower, you begin to wonder who this hotel was designed for.  The light sensors, set off by motion, starts off novel, but eventually when it won’t turn off you will wish for blindness.  More strangeness awaited in the toilet: a remote control (in case you forgot to flush and you’ve left the room?), and the doors have mirrors, so you can see the look on your face as you do the lords waste disposal work, which coincidentally is the same look you’ll have on your face when you get the bill.  For an extra bonus, you will also get to see the look on your face go from puzzled to shocked, as you realise that housekeeping didn’t replace the toilet rolls, so you’re going to have to get inventive.

The food was much better, even if we did have to rewrite the rules of English to communicate.  The prices were very fair, although after Villa Feltrinelli, what isn’t?  A burger for a weeks wage would suddenly appear a bargain.  The style of cuisine for lunch is definitely not fine dining, which suited me well; chicken and mash potato, but done to perfection; the best selection of Italian cheeses I’ve ever had; a team of staff that were friendly and desperate to please.  The setting was yet more proof of the architects skill: brick work with with views into another world, and much needed, discreet heaters hanging from the ceiling.

Ristorante Al Lago

At dinner it transforms into a Michelin star restaurant – one that would not be getting any stars were I inspecting, but once again it was decent value for money.  Where it all goes wrong is not in the kitchen, but elsewhere.  There was a complete ignorance regarding my stay list: no idea about allergies, food being offered I made clear I hated and alcohol offered.  I mentioned I was allergic to some food, the waiter said “perfect” and then suggested that food.  Wrong courses came, courses were missing, mustard was provided with the seal already broken – and yet we had complained so much by this point that we gave up.

I wish I could stop there, but when you call something a buffet and then do not offer a buffet, you need to be called up on it.  When you include free breakfast, but then actually charge for eggs, someone needs to comment on how cheap it feels.  When they try and supplement the buffet by having daily specials brought directly to your table, but then forget to do it on the second day, it’s worthy of comment.

The sense of exclusivity is just not here.  With only 30 rooms you may hope, even expect, so.  Yet come lunch time the calm is gone, the crowds are present and worst of all, George isn’t amongst them.  Strangely, the pool never suffered the same fate and was relatively empty.  Perhaps the incredibly sketchy Internet connectivity drove people away, or, maybe, people actually spent most of the day enjoying the lake with either a guided tour or self-driving – no license required.

They may have even been in the spa, which if anyone bothered to show us more than 10 minutes prior to departure, we would have been really impressed by.  The design is uniquely carved into an old boathouse, with a beautiful jacuzzi hovering above the lake, and additional sauna, steam room and experience showers available.

Yet let me come back to the service, as this is the real issue with Il Sereno.  It still amazes me that hoteliers think they can make a beautiful hard product and the mission accomplished banners get thrown around.  Anyone can make a beautiful building, but a beautiful brochure will only get people there, it will never get them to return unless the service matches it.

Even Jane Austen era had good service.  The BBC never showed a house party in a grand setting where the butler was calling all the guests a twat – luxury has always been about service.  But here we are, several hundred years later and multiple versions of Mr. Darcy on, and we’ve still not grasped it.

Back to reception – where dreams are crushed

Let’s take the initial welcome: a printed welcome note.  Elegant.  Before that, we had a show around from a rude receptionist who had zero knowledge of the property and managed to only waste our time in teaching us that maybe manners do cost something – our patience.  After our initial impression was set off with such a low, we made a note to complain and found ourselves being ignored by said member of staff the rest of the stay, which perfectly summarised the professional attitude here.

Further fun continued to take place when we asked to move room, where our bestest friend forever at reception cared zero shits.  We escalated and managed to move, only to wait over an hour for our luggage.  When we asked for some of the amenities to be moved too, the porter told us to dial 9 for someone else to do it.  As we moved through the complaint procedure, we ended up with the guest relations manager, a wonderful woman that was desperate to help, yet when we asked for her again reception wasn’t even sure if she was around and would be around tomorrow.  Headless chickens must breed here. 

At 6pm, she came to talk to us and apologised.  It felt warm and welcomed, but this is where it began to unravel: she had never worked in hospitality before, she had dined here once and got to know the owners.  God knows how other people were employed? Someone once swam past and became GM?   A radio competition winner, maybe?

It became almost comical at what was going wrong.  My favourite moment was when I looked for what others were saying about Il Sereno, so checked Mr and Mrs Smith only to find an error message saying their IP was banned.  Whatever they had done, it was clearly very naughty.

As we made our way back to our room, we decided we’d had enough and would leave the next day.  We arrived to receive a scarf and tie as gifts with a note of apology.  It felt more threatening than generous.  The tie was the kind you kill yourself with, as it definitely had no other practical use.  We were asked to meet the GM the next day, which resulted in a further dose of bizarre.

We were immediately asked who we were, rather than what our complaint was; like we were under the spotlight.  How dare we complain of this mighty establishment.  We provided feedback and he seemed non-plussed by it; then we were informed we couldn’t get a refund on the 2nd night if we left early as “it’s their busy season”; then it was onto the business case that refunding us he loses money and an unhappy client, so it makes no sense for him.  As a luxury property, what is best for them is not what the guest wants to discuss.  He insisted he wanted to make it up.  Queue awkward silence whilst tumbleweed blew past.  I can say this about almost everyone in the luxury industry: nice guy.  But that doesn’t excuse the defensiveness.  In the end a free boat ride was offered, but I was still ready to just walk out.  I wish I had.

The Good

  • Elegant, modern architecture
  • Food

The Bad

  • Service, service and service.

The Luxurious

  • Lake Como


They say time heals all wounds, but I’m struggling.  Il Sereno is complete style over substance, which is a real shame as it has abundance of style.  It is a property that can be bothered to make plastic branded cases for plug adapters, but cannot train their staff on how to talk to people.  They say manners cost nothing, but good service rarely does either – it’s often the cheapest things that leave the best impression.

You have a GM with no prior knowledge of running a hotel; a new Guest Relations Manager that has never worked in the industry and a Front Office Manager, who couldn’t remember where she previously worked as her CV was too large.  It does not bode well.  Il Sereno needs a proper leadership team to show them how customers think and how other 5 star hotels work.

Go for lunch, admire the view and then run/swim/sail away.  As fast as you can.

Il Sereno

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 24th Jun '18

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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