Lap up the timeless beauty of the Italian lakes

Editor Hollie-Rae Brader embraces la dolce vita in Como, Garda, Maggiore and Iseo

Life is good”, says the skipper of the classic, dark mahogany boat whisking me around the sights of Lake Como. He smiles brightly, I nod; it’s impossible not to agree with him as we pass the iconic 18th-century Villa del Balbianello – a mansion known for its elaborate terraced gardens. 

We’re en route to the iconic village of Bellagio, having set off from the jetty at Grand Hotel Tremezzo for a tour of the lake’s key landmarks. We whizz past Villa Carlotta, Isola Comacina and a string of other gorgeous hotspots.

The midday sun beams down, causing the surface of the lake to shimmer like a disco ball. I sip on the champagne our guide has popped into my hand, still nodding in disbelief at how beautiful my surroundings are.

Lake Como is my first stop on a grand adventure around the Italian lakes – also exploring the shores of Lake Garda and the lesser-known Maggiore and Iseo – with my husband and our then four-month-old son in tow.

Each lake is different in its appeal, product offering and the clientele it attracts – so clients will find something they love in the land of la dolce vita.

Lake Como

Como is arguably the most glamorous option, helped by the celebrities that flock here year after year. Of course, some have fallen so deeply for Como’s charm that they own properties here too, à la George and Amal Clooney.

The lake has long been a retreat for the wealthy, and it remains the case today – perhaps because affluent holidaymakers are incredibly well catered for.

It has a number of luxury hotels from the modern and sleek Il Sereno and neighbouring newbie Mandarin Oriental to the long-established grande dame properties of Villa D’Este and the aforementioned Grand Hotel Tremezzo (GHT), complete with its Grand Budapest Hotel-style facade.

Our boat – one of two owned by GHT – pulls into a jetty in Bellagio, leaving us to explore this little rabbit run of steep cobblestoned alleys that sweep up the hillside from the shores of the lake.

A plethora of jewellery shops, boutiques and restaurants line the pedestrianised streets. Each building is painted a different pastel shade; hues of peach, pink and lilac follow us back down towards the water.

Perfectly located where three branches of the lake meet, Bellagio’s iconic status means it has long been a victim of overtourism, but the pandemic has left it quieter and, in my opinion, more appealing as a result.

While Bellagio might be the lake’s crown jewel, there’s plenty more to see. The town of Como is brimming with life, with locals and tourists congregating in the many piazzas for a cappuccino in the sunshine. 

There’s an impressive cathedral close to the water, while a funicular links Como with the hilltop village of Brunate, offering spectacular panoramic views of the western leg of the lake.

Varenna is one of the quietest towns, but in my opinion also one of the prettiest. Originally a fishing village, it’s lined by a pretty pasarella (boardwalk) and is home to the stunning gardens of Villa Monastero and Vezio Castle.

The latter is quite a hike to reach but the outstanding view from the top is the reward for those who make it.

Remnants of the medieval walls of Menaggio can be found in the older parts of the town, while the tiny hamlet of Torno has little more than a couple of restaurants, a bar and a church, but it’s quaint, cute and is home to my favourite pizza spot!

Palatial villas, draping bougainvillea and dramatic landscapes make Lake Como a postcard-perfect spot on any Italian itinerary.

Lake Garda

While Como is home to countless charming little villages and is often regarded as the queen of the Italian lakes, Lake Garda is not to be ignored. Visitors to Garda – Italy’s largest lake – will find bigger ‘destination’ towns brimming with history and culture, and there’s plenty to be explored.

So while Como is a firm favourite among the jet set, Garda is perfectly primed for families. Driving from Como to Garda, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia.

When I was a child, my parents would drive us from Suffolk, down to Dover to take the ferry across to Calais and then all the way down to Garda year after year.

Those magical childhood memories are etched in my mind forever, and now we’re driving our son to somewhere that holds a very special place in my heart.

Seeing signposts for Bardolino, Desenzano, Lazise, Sirmione and theme park Gardaland, feels so familiar; I feel like I’ve returned home. Lake Garda has entranced writers for years.

Countless poets – from Lord Tennyson and Lord Byron to DH Lawrence and Dante – have written about the allure of this magical place.

From the colour of the water, which seemingly changes through a kaleidoscope of blues depending on the time of day, to the luscious green mountainous peaks that encase it – Garda is simply stunning.

There are numerous top hotels here too, including my personal favourite, Lefay Resort in Gargnano (Review, page 84), but also the impressive Quellenhof Luxury Resort and Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli.

Sirmoine is the showstopper here, home to top property Villa Cortine but also a 13th-century castle, thermal baths and countless restaurants and trinket shops.

I challenge you to come here and not sample the ice cream. Gelato shops are found around every corner and the stracciatella is worth every single calorie.

On the eastern shores of the lake, you’ll find Lazise, a medieval town with beautiful piazzas and a harbour full of brightly coloured fishing boats. Neighbouring Bardolino is home to countless vineyards and olive groves, while Peschiera del Garda boasts an island fortress and walls dating back to the 16th century.

And while there’s plenty to do on the lake, Garda is also a great springboard for those wanting to explore farther afield with Verona and Brescia both short drives away and Venice reachable within a couple of hours on the train.

Lake Maggiore

Lake Maggiore flies firmly under the radar when compared with Como or Garda, but it’s this quiet, unpretentious air that appeals most.

 You won’t find hordes of travellers here, but those who do venture to its shores tend to visit time and time again, enchanted by the lake that straddles two Italian regions (Piedmont and Lombardy) while also protruding into Switzerland.

Recommend clients catch a boat from the town of Stresa to the Borromean Islands – a string of three isles that lie a few hundred metres offshore. Isola Madre, Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori boast baroque palaces, elaborate tiered gardens and even a pride of peacocks.

Madre and Bella both require tickets to enter, while Pescatori, known as Fishermen’s Island, is home to a handful of locals and entry is free.

Lake Iseo

If clients head to Maggiore for off-the-beaten-track serenity, they head to Iseo for the culinary offering. Iseo lies within the stunning wine-producing region of Franciacorta, which is emerging as a top producer of sparkling wine.

I tried my share during my stay and it’s now one of my favourite tipples. Forget Prosecco, which only takes a couple of months to make, it’s all about the nicely aged Franciacorta bubbles! And while quaffing good wine, devouring good food is a must – and that’s where the exceptional L’Albereta comes in.

This Relais & Châteaux property is hidden among the vineyards, and the hotel even produces its own selection of divine wines (Review, page 89). Lake Iseo is home to the country’s largest inland isle – Monte Isola.

Accessible via a short ferry ride from the town of Iseo, the little island is almost car free. Here locals perch along the shore fishing for the goodies that lie beneath the water’s surface. Iseo is worlds apart from Como, where our journey began weeks earlier.

I feel like I’ve stumbled across a hidden gem, and I’m glad I visited Iseo before others realise its potential. Sipping from another glass of bubbles (from Franciacorta, of course!), I smile again and think to myself – life isn’t just good, it’s great.

Book it: Citalia offers numerous Italian lake itineraries including the eight-day Lake Maggiore and Lake Como trip, which leads in at £1,079 per person.

Hollie-Rae Brader

Hollie is editor of Aspire’s print and online products. She is responsible for the running of the club and ensuring the content produced and the events organised are relevant to the Aspire audience. She was previously deputy news editor and cruise writer for sister title Travel Weekly. She loves exploring new destinations and is gradually ticking new countries off her list. She most enjoys writing about cruise, South America and Japan. Before working in the travel industry she held news reporting roles at the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star.

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