Travel Lifestyle Interview Series: Valentina De Santis

Travel Lifestyle Interview Series: Valentina De Santis

19 March 2024
Travel Lifestyle Interview Series: Valentina De Santis

In our exclusive interview with Grand Hotel Tremezzo owner and CEO, Valentina De Santis, we find out the stories behind the family hotel business, how to spend the perfect weekend on Lake Como, and Valentina's ultimate travel mantra...

Valentina De Santis - Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Passalacqua & Villa Sola Cabiati

Valentina De Santis

How would you describe growing up on Lake Como?

Lake Como is a magical place suspended in time, and heritage is something we take very seriously here – and yet, this place somehow manages to reinvent itself for each new generation! As a child, I spent my summers at Grand Hotel Tremezzo, and my favourite pastime was running down the corridors and barging into the kitchens and backrooms. Working in hospitality was not something I ever even thought about; to me, the hotel was my castle, and I was its princess. I feel very blessed to have been born amidst all this beauty, and there is no place I would rather raise my own children.

Working for your family’s hotel business, hospitality is in your blood. What do you love most about managing Grand Hotel Tremezzo?

The fact that every day can be so completely different! That is one of the things I love most about my job (Can you even call it a job if you love it so much?). When I started working in the family business back in 2010, Grand Hotel Tremezzo was about to celebrate its centenary. A lot has changed since then – for one, my role went from marketing manager to CEO – but my passion is still the same! I’m so proud to be the third generation of my family leading our hospitality business, and every day I aspire to honour the legacy of my parents and grandparents. They taught me to love our properties and our projects unconditionally and to approach even the smallest task with care and respect.

Passalacqua is a beautiful new addition to your hotel collection. What’s the story behind bringing it into the fold?

My love affair with Passalacqua began the moment I came through the gate. Right away, I had a deep sense that this property was meant to belong in our family and that restoring it was an almost sacred calling. None of us had any idea of the incredible adventure that was starting for us. The renovations evolved into a three-year labour of love, with countless hands, hearts and minds involved in making Passalacqua what it is today – and I think our guests can feel that love and dedication when they come here.

Your properties are renowned for their spectacular interiors. Walk us through the Passalacqua renovation: where did you source so many beautiful decorations and what were the biggest challenges?

When we set out to restore the historic Villa Passalacqua, our vision was to create a jewel box of a property. And we were just as passionate and particular curating these interiors as we were decorating our own home! It was truly a family affair; my whole family worked tirelessly with a range of local artisans and generations-old small businesses to ensure a sense of place, our heritage and Italian craftsmanship resonate throughout the property. We all loved sourcing prints and paintings, antiques and objets d’art at local markets and auction houses – each one chosen with the character of the space in mind. Take for example our bar, what we call the ‘print room’ showcases on its walls more than 300 ancient prints representing only birds, flowers and butterflies: not only did we cherry-picked each of them, but also we framed them individually and decided how to display them one by one. So much fun in this single room!

If someone has a weekend on Como, how do you recommend they spend it?

Above all else, I think every visitor should explore Lake Como’s charms on the water. Most of the prettiest lakeside villas and gardens are hidden behind hedges and gates, so the best way to experience the lake is… from the lake! You can book a vintage cruiser and let your captain guide you, hop on a typical battello, or ferry, crowded with a perfect mix of visitors and locals, or take the helm in your own motorboat rental. I promise that you will never forget what it is like to cruise past Villa del Balbianello for the first time… After you visit this iconic villa, head down the coast to one of my favourite local restaurants, La Tirlindana, for some old-world charm and gorgeous food.

An Italian phrase or saying that the British could learn from?

If there is one thing Italy is known for, it is enjoying life. A big part of that is dolce far niente, the sweet art of doing nothing that we have perfected over the centuries. Mind you, doing nothing doesn’t mean being lazy; it’s more about living in the moment, free from the pressures and expectations of daily life. Centuries of travellers have come to Italy chasing this dream, and we believe Lake Como is the perfect place to find it. You can do as much or as little as you like here, read by the pool, learn the secret to a great pasta al pomodoro or simply stroll around the park with the breeze on your skin. I think we all could benefit from a little more dolce far niente in our lives!

Brand of luggage and why?

For sure Bric’s, another family-owned business with its roots on Lake Como that is passionate about quality and craftsmanship. Their designs have such timeless elegance, taking us back to the golden days of steamship travel with trunks full of petticoats. For our shop and online boutique Sense of Lake, we partnered with Bric’s to design a line of limited-edition trolleys and holdalls dedicated to Passalacqua and Grand Hotel Tremezzo. I don’t go anywhere without them!

What luxury do you never travel without?

An oversized cashmere shawl that a dear friend gave me – it’s the perfect accessory in the plane or on a boat, light enough for summer but warm and cosy when winter falls.

Three must haves in your carry on?

My phone, to stay connected and take snapshots of things that inspire me. My camera to capture transformative journeys I want to remember forever. And of course, some drawings and little notes from my adored children that make me feel close to them even when I am not.

What’s on your travel reading list at the moment?

At the moment, I’m reading a book by my dear Swedish friend Golnaz Hashemzadeh called What We Owe. It offers deep insight into motherhood and mothering, a theme especially close to my heart at this moment of my life.

Favourite hotel in the world, besides GHT?

As an all-time lover of hospitality, I don’t think I have ever met a hotel I didn’t adore. There wouldn’t be one particular property that stands out in my mind; in the end, it is the personal encounters and precious details that make a stay memorable. When you love what you do – and I *really* love working in hospitality! – it not only becomes who you are but makes every experience in a new hotel one to cherish.

First thing you do in a hotel room?

The first thing I do is take a photo of any little details that catch my eye. I am endlessly curious about what gives a property its unique sense of place. Particularly in independent, family-run hotels, the charm is often defined by personal style or unexpected details. When I leave, I snap a few final shots of the things that I noticed over time. I am an avid collector of these details, they are where the best ideas come from.

Favourite part of a hotel?

The bar is often my favourite spot in a hotel (even if I am not a heavy drinker!). It just says so much about a property’s overall vibe, and there is great people-watching!

Where do you long to go next?

Before becoming a mum I travelled every year quite extensively, but the list of places I am missing is still very long! With Peru, India and Tibet at the top. Each of these places has a magnetic attraction for me, especially for their incredible culture. They are places where I would really love to dive in and immerse myself in the local traditions and incredible landscapes – but I need my kids to grow up first!

Best purchase made abroad, or favourite shop near Grand Hotel Tremezzo?

When I am travelling, I like to bring back a special souvenir from each place I visit, just as a special memory to treasure forever. A ring with a wild pearl I bought in Indonesia, a typical dress made by an emerging designer in Shanghai design district Xintiandi, a special necklace created by a beautiful lady of the Himba tribe in Nambia, or some beautiful shells that a local sold us on a completely desert (and wildly beautiful) beach in Sri Lanka: these objects have the secret power to bring back that exact moment every time I look at them. As for my favourite shop near the Grand – it is actually inside it! Our T Shop has a range of capsule collections designed with niche Italian brands, which are also available in our online boutique called Sense of Lake. I worked very closely with my mother to curate the collection, and that’s why this project is so near and dear to my heart.

Funniest travelling experience or most memorable journey you’ve ever had?

I have been blessed to have so many that I couldn’t possibly choose one! Of all the places I have fallen in love with over the years, the one travel memory that will forever have a special place in my heart is Australia. That was my first trip overseas, and the beginning of a lifelong love affair with travel. On the other side, if I think of the funniest moment from my travels, I remember when my husband went to the wrong place to organize a horseback ride on the beach in Jericoacoara in Brazil and our horses where so tired that we never managed to reach our final destination (while every now and then we were surpassed by beautiful horses with other travelers luckier than us!!).

What would you like to see in the future for the GHT collection?

My vision for our hotel collection is to continue to strive for excellence in everything we do, and to build and sustain a team that is dedicated, happy and proud to be a part of our family.

Finally - your ultimate travel mantra?

A very special person once taught me that “if you can dream it, you can do it.” This is the best advice I’ve ever received, and the best advice I could share with anyone else.

Find out more on Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Passalacqua & Villa Sola Cabiati > 

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Sarah Mason

Every time I explore a new destination, whether it’s on an adventure holiday in Peru or a luxury beach escape in the Indian Ocean, I return home full of excitement to share the amazing sights I have seen. Through my own experiences I have developed a love of helping others experience the great wonders of the world; truly getting under the skin of the extraordinary destinations that are at your fingertips. Getting the details right, from which hotel is perfectly located for exploring away from the crowds, to which local guide is most knowledgeable on history or culture or art, is of paramount importance to me. I am constantly seeking out new and exciting experiences and exploring off the beaten track to ensure my clients are receiving the best and most honest first-hand advice.

Take a look at my travel diaries for food for thought on your next trip...

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