ASCONA, Switzerland — France has its St. Tropez, Italy its Positano and Spain its Marbella, but when well-to-do Swiss and many other fashionable Europeans want ideal weather, lots of palm trees, flowers and blue water outside the front window, they head for this garden spot on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino.
Old stone homes and farmhouses of Ticino are quite different from those made primarily of wood farther north in rural Switzerland. Roofs are usually of Italian tile or slate, walls often three feet thick and, in the absence of inside stairways, traffic between stories is by outdoor stairs and galleries.
Ascona's ideal climate drew inhabitants from the south as early as 800 BC, but it remained a simple fishing village until early in the 20th Century. That's when an influx of "naturists" from countries in Northern Europe began arriving. They were strict vegetarians who sought a simple and austere life on a nearby mountain.
That first cadre soon attracted others interested in the same life style, or simply curious, and a tourist industry of sorts was born, growing by great leaps every year.
Today's visitors, after walking Ascona's cafe-lined lake front and narrow streets festooned with flowers and pricey shops or they can visit the simple cabins of those early naturists. The life-style choice is then up to them, with most choosing the former.
Getting here: Fly American, Pan Am or TWA to Zurich, Balair through October when Swissair begins nonstop Los Angeles-Zurich service. From Zurich to Ascona you'll see much of Switzerland in 3 1/2 hours of a scenic train ride, using a Swiss Pass that lets you ride trains, buses, lake steamers and city trams all over the nation. The Zurich train arrives in Lucarno, separated only by a river from Ascona and a five-minute cab or bus ride from the station.
How long/how much? For sights within this town of only 5,000, a day or two will do it. But please allow time for boat rides along Lake Maggiore. Ascona's hotels are moderately priced, dining the same.
A few fast facts: The Swiss franc recently sold at 61 cents each, about 1.6 to the dollar. Weather from late spring through fall is marvelous, but during July and August the town turns into "people city." No problem at all to walk anywhere in the village.
Getting settled in: Romantik Hotel Tamaro (on the lake; $85 to $128 double with huge buffet breakfasts) is a 16th-Century patrician home very much in the Mediterranean style, built around a central patio dining room loaded with vines and flowers. Bedrooms are beautifully decorated, with TV, mini-bar and lake-side rooms with balconies.
On the roof you'll find a sunny terrace with more flowers, views of the lake, mountains and islands. The dining room is exquisite, the food excellent.
Hotel Riposo (middle of town, a minute walk to the lake; $107-$124 double with half-pension) is another old Ticinese home renovated into a fine hotel. Riposo has a tiny inside courtyard awash in flowers, roof garden with pool, more flowers and views of lake, plus a rustic grotto bar with occasional music at night.
Bellaria (Via delle Cappelle; $123 double, half-pension) is a modern hotel set beside vineyards yet a short walk from the lake and main piazza. There's a huge lawn and heated pool, sauna, most bedrooms of moderate size with contemporary furnishings in cool pastels, some with balconies.
Regional food and drink: Nearby Italy's influence is strong on Ascona's tables, to the point of domination. Try the minestrone ticinese , or with tripe added, busecca . Trota in carpione is trout marinated in red wine and vinegar and served as a cold hors d'oeuvre.
Pork is a staple here, particularly in the wonderful salamis, salametti and mortadella. It is also combined with cabbage in the Ticinese dish cazzola. Surrounding mountains provide plentiful game, and piora (a small cheese eaten with oil and pepper) often ends a meal. Or you may choose the local torta de pane , a semi-sweet bread with nuts.
Ticino's excellent Merlot red wines are reasonably priced, as are most Italian wines, but some of the Swiss bottles are outlandishly expensive.
Good dining: One of the many joys of dining in Ticino is to have a meal in a simple grotto. These rustic places, usually set within or beside rocky mountain caves, almost always have authentic local dishes often prepared on an outside grill. We had a pleasant lunch at Grotto della Fontana (on Monte Verita) of wild rabbit ragout prepared with tons of garlic. Or you may have a daily menu such as salami, roast chicken, potatoes and salad for $6.75, which you consume at granite tables under the trees.