The wind was blowing at 20 to 25 knots out of the north, straight off the snowcapped Swiss Alps that rose majestically just beyond the end of the lake, so we tucked into the lee of a small peninsula for some temporary shelter. The villa there looked vaguely familiar; oh, that's where George Lucas shot the last scene of Star Wars. That wasn't the only spot that caused a double-take. A few minutes before we had cruised by the villa where James Bond recuperated from being tortured in the final scenes of Casino Royale. Well, we wondered, is all of Lake Como a movie set? Hardly. But it is one of the most beautiful, glamorous and naturally appealing places I've ever seen. And I'm not alone. Ever since the days of Pliny the Elder (62 A.D.), Lake Como has been a magnet for the rich and famous, for royalty, romantics, poets, writers and (like us) just plain tourists.
For good reason. Tucked away in the Lake Country in Northern Italy, Lago di Como, an inverted Y-shaped, azure-hued deep body of water about 35 miles long, is home to some of the prettiest little towns in Europe, with narrow, cobblestone streets, lakeside piazzas, pealing bell towers, exquisite villas and palazzos and breathtaking views. Oddly enough, given the Alps in the background, the lake is blessed by a Mediterranean climate (unfortunately not evident when we were there in early November) that produces orange and palm trees and bougainvillea dotting the shoreline. The countryside is rich and verdant, with terraced gardens (often graced by statuary) marching down the hillsides to the lake. No wonder it inspired Lord Byron, Verdi and Rossini, not to mention Alfred Hitchcock, who shot The Pleasure Garden, his first movie, there and who returned often.
I grew up in San Francisco and spent many summers at Lake Tahoe, snuggled up against the Sierra Nevadas at 5,000 feet, where I learned how to water ski behind a friend's classic mahogany Chris-Craft runabout. I thought that was as good as it ever was going to get. Wrong. George Clooney had it right. Head for Lake Como (where he has a traditional villa with a boat-launch ramp) on the western side of the lake, just up from the place that Tom Cruise is renovating. Even better, go there on a beautiful new Hinckley T29 R runabout, as we did.
Lake Como is only an hour's drive north of Milan and my wife, Renée, and I found our hotel, Le Due Corti (dating from 1857), in the town of Como just before dark. Como, on the southwest shore, is the largest city on the lake, and it's been around for a while. In fact, Como was once a flourishing Roman outpost (it became part of the Roman Empire in 172 A.D.); it has a stunning part-Gothic, part- Renaissance duomo (cathedral) that took 400 years to complete.
We caught up with Ed Roberts, vice president of Hinckley Yachts, at the hotel and wandered across the street to the walled medieval Old Town, where narrow old cobblestone streets lead down to the lake. We simply picked a restaurant at random. It was after the season so there were only locals around, and we spent the evening planning our foray into the lake over an enjoyable red wine and pasta dinner.
The next morning Renée and I walked through the Old Town again to meet Ed and Gary John Norman, the photographer, at the boat, which was tied up at the Yacht Club Como, across the street from a verdant waterfront park. It was easy to find. All we had to do was follow the seaplanes, since there's a large seaplane training center (the only one in Italy) next to the yacht club and they were practicing takeoffs and landings.
The boat looked familiar; indeed, I had seen it (and Ed) a few weeks earlier at the Monaco yacht show where Ed had been busy taking out potential buyers. With its sweeping sheerline, sensuous tumblehome, incredible woodwork and gleaming teak, the Hinckley T29 R (essentially a gorgeous runabout) has to be one of the prettiest small boats in the world. The morning was bright and clear and the American ensign was snapping in a 10-knot breeze. The seaplanes were circling, off in the distance a glider was carving gentle circles over the Alps, some 1920s vintage steamships were heading up the lake-this was a good start. We smiled and climbed on the boat.
The Hinckley drew approving stares as we left the yacht club. Ed drove for a few minutes and then turned the helm over to me, and we cruised up the lake at an easy 25 knots at 3100 rpm, hugging the western shore to get a closer look at the villas and gardens. We were beaming. After a while we got to our first destination, Villa d'Este in Cernobbio, one of the most luxurious, and famous, resort hotels in the world. A white Renaissance villa on 10 landscaped acres, Villa d'Este simply reeks of history and glamour-even when viewed from the water. Napoleon stayed there. So did Ava Gardner. And everybody who's anybody. We couldn't spot anybody we knew, so we sped north awhile until we passed the casa di Clooney, but he wasn't home either.
Time for lunch, and in Italy this is important. When in Rome, etc.We saw an inviting waterfront restaurant, L'Altra Riva, in the little village of Carate Urio, with a dock in front and people eating on the terrace, so we pulled in. And here's where Hinckley's JetStick control did its stuff. In its docking mode, the patented JetStick can move the boat precisely in any direction you want, including sideways. Ed pulled us bow-in to the dock, which was parallel to the shore, and, under the direction of the headwaiter/dockmaster and some waving of the arms, we picked up the Med-style underwater cable for stern and spring lines. Ed easily maneuvered the boat into its spot. As we climbed off the bow onto the dock, we also were grateful for Hinckley's nonslip, which is everywhere. Once on the terrace, we settled in for a long, languid Italian lunch.
After lunch, with the shadows starting to spread over the mountains, we simply cruised around the lake, relaxing in the Hinckley's cockpit, which is almost as large as the one in the 36-foot Picnic Boat. At one point we picked up some weeds or something in the drive, so Ed just reversed the bucket in the Hamilton Waterjet and flushed it out, no problem. We certainly didn't have to worry about water under the keel. The boat only draws 18 inches, just a little more than a champagne bottle, and Lago di Como is one of the deepest lakes in Europe. When the late afternoon chill set in, we headed up the western shore to another little village, Tremezzo, and La Darsena Ristorante, which also is a small hotel, where we tied up the same way as at lunch. By now, Ed has this down pat. Better yet, after helping with the lines and looking longingly at the boat, the hotel owner waived any dock fee. "The dock is complimentary because the boat is so beautiful," he said. We got a car and drove back to Como for another dinner in the Old Town.
The next morning the weather turned. When we got back on the boat, the wind was blowing a good 25 knots straight off the Alps and the lake had an interesting two-foot chop. Still, we hadn't seen Bellagio, the pearl of the lake, so we fired up the Volvo 370 D-6 (this is truly a smokeless engine) and headed across the lake, tacking at times to avoid a beam sea. This was a great boat test, and the Hinckley behaved admirably; it's only a 29-foot runabout (not a displacement trawler), but it also is as sturdy and solid as can be. The ferry occupied the only dock space in Bellagio (the wind was blowing too hard to attempt a landing elsewhere), so we cruised along the shore, taking pictures, admiring the view, and then spent the rest of the day down in the southern part of the lake which is more protected. And we loved every minute.
The next morning as Renée and I drove back to Milan, we promised each other that we'd return to Lake Como. But I have to be nice to Ed Roberts. We really want to come back on a Hinckley.
Contact: Hinckley Yachts, www.hinckleyyachts.com