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Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Cool Travel Guide to the Italian Lakes

We were surprised during our recent research trip in Italy to find that after Venice and Rome the country's next most popular travel destination seemed to be Sirmione, a small walled town on a tiny peninsula, accessed by a drawbridge across the moat of a castle on gorgeous Lake Garda. It's a place you rarely read about in travel magazines and yet its cobblestone streets, hotel sun decks and narrow beaches were crammed with sunburnt tourists. While the rest of Italy may have seen far fewer Americans than usual (due to the devalued dollar and stateside recession), the Lakes weren't feeling the dramatic drop in numbers of US visitors that other parts of Italy were. The Clooney factor played a part on Lake Como of course (more on that later), however, the waterfront towns and mesmerizing villages on the other lakes, especially Lakes Maggiore, Lugano and Orta, were buzzing with foreign visitors. Irish, Australians and Russians in particular descended on Italy's most romantic of destinations. Want to find out why? Here's a quick cool travel guide to Italy's alluring lakes:
* Lake Orta (pictured) - the most enchanting and our favorite, it's also one of the smallest lakes, and one of the most exclusive, with elegant private villas gracing its shores and only wooden row boats to cause ripples on its tranquil waters. Three reasons to visit: the magical fairy-tale hotel Villa Crespi and its sublime Michelin two-starred restaurant, the pedestrian-only medieval village of Orta San Giulo, and pretty postcard-perfect Isola San Giulo opposite.
Lake Como - aside from George Clooney, other handsome stars include the city of Como itself (very elegant with great restaurants and good shopping), pretty Bellagio at the end of a peninsula, with an array of grand hotels and superb restaurants, including Villa Serbelloni; the elegant waterfront village of Menaggio, Grand Hotel Tremezzo, and lush lakeside botanical gardens such as those at Villa Carlotta.
Lake Garda - known more these days for its fishing, watersports (especially windsurfing) and theme parks (Gardaland), Lake Garda was once more infamously known as the home of Salo, the capital of Mussolini's puppet-state. Boasting its fair share of genteel lakeside towns (namely Salo, Gardone Riviera and Sirmione), elegant villa hotels (Villa Feltrinelli), and sublime Michelin-starred restaurants (Villa Fiordaliso), it's also home to one of the whackiest house-museums around, Il Vittoriale, which once belonged to eccentric and flamboyant writer-poet Gabriele d'Annunzio.
Lake Maggiore - a massive lake (as its name indicates) that's famous for its islands, Isola Borromee, Isola Madre, Isola Bella and Isole di Brissago; while not as pretty as the other lakes, it's still enormously popular with Italians and northern Europeans; the beautiful village of Cannobio with its waterfront lined with restaurants and cafes is the highlight, followed by Verbania with its breathakingly beautiful gardens at Villa Taranto.
When to go:
summer is when the lakes are at their most beautiful and is the most popular time, but it's also the most crowded; spring and autumn are also lovely periods; in winter the lakes are misty and moody, but many hotels and restaurants are closed.

How to get there:
fly into airports at Milan (
Malpensa is closest for Como, Orta and Maggiore and is served by most major international airlines) or Bergamo (served by myriad low-cost airlines and situated between Lakes Como and Garda) then hire a car. Your own transport is essential to really explore the lakes.
What to do:
spend your days driving around the lakes (they're enormous so allow a minimum of 2-3 days for each), taking boat trips around the lakes (public ferries run frequently and are affordable; car ferries less affordable but handy; taxi boats expensive but memorable); strolling elaborately landscaped botanical gardens; reading a book in the many lakeside parks; enjoying apertivi at a waterfront bar as you savour the sunset; and lingering over a long dinner as you watch the moonlight reflect upon the water.
Where to stay:
the lakes are home to some exquisite and often opulent waterside hotels; we stayed at
Albergo Terminus at Como; Villa Crespi at Lake Orta; Villa Serbelloni at Bellagio; and Grand Hotel Gardone on Lake Garda.


Nomadic Matt said...

I never got around to the lakes while I was in italy but they are on my list for when I i have a good reference list.

ps- are you still interested in doing the interview?

Lara Dunston said...

Sorry, Matt! I thought I'd responded to this. You *must* do the Lakes next time. And obviously I am happy to do the interview. :)