The ethereal scenery and calm indigo water of Italy's Alpine lakes — Maggiore, Como and Garda — have had an irresistible appeal since Roman times, when aristocrats and artists began summering on their shores. Author and lawmaker Pliny the Younger wrote ecstatically of his view of Como, while the poet Catullus lived in his family’s villa at Sirmione on Lake Garda. Eighteen hundred years later, the British Romantic poets, chiefly Byron and Shelley, put the lakes on the map as a mandatory part of the Grand Tour. (Shelley wrote of Como, “This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty ... and has the appearance of a mighty river winding among the mountains and the forests.”) Each generation falls in love all over again: Ernest Hemingway was besotted with Lake Maggiore; today, George Clooney has a villa in Laglio on Lake Como, keeping the region’s glamour current.
The lakes provide a perfect time-out during a tour of Italy, being less than an hour from Milan and about three hours from Venice, but they should also be considered a destination in their own right.
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Once you arrive in Verona, pick up a car at the airport and drive for 50 miles through the countryside, pink and white with blossom, to Salò, a resort town on the western shore of Lake Garda. Check in to the 18-room Villa Arcadio. Occupying a stone convent, which dates to the 14th century, the hotel is surrounded by 27 acres of orchards and olive groves and is perched on a hillside that affords panoramic views of the lake.
The hotel’s excellent (and reasonably priced) restaurant comprises two elegant rooms with vaulted ceilings and marble fireplaces, which extend onto a sublime terrace where wrought-iron tables are tucked amid vine arbors. Lake fish such as pike are frequently found on the menu, and the wine list features local wines that include enjoyable light reds such as Groppello and Bardolino.
Cooking classes are available on request. Amenities include a fitness area with a Finnish sauna, plus a menu of massage and yoga. The hotel has a classic mahogany Riva Aquarama Special speedboat for picnics and full- or half-day trips. (Lake Garda is 32 miles long, so it presents many opportunities for exploration. However, it is the most popular of the Italian lakes with domestic tourists, so is best visited in the shoulder seasons of May-June and September-October.)
The hotel’s grand and vibrantly colored public areas include a handsome billiards room, a huge lounge and an excellent bar with a cocktail list that include notable grappas. The main La Terrazza Restaurant offers sublime views of the lake and the town of Bellagio directly opposite.
Other facilities include three swimming pools, a flood-lit clay tennis court and a well-equipped fitness room. An impressive spa offers treatments by ESPA and has a spectacular 50-foot indoor infinity pool that appears to merge with the waters of the lake. Adjustable water jets enable powerful swimmers to forge against a current. There are also five kinds of Jacuzzi, including one on the lakefront specifically for hydromassage. Golf is available at the well-regarded Menaggio & Cadenabbia Golf Club just three miles away. Water skiing, sailing and windsurfing on the lake can readily be arranged.
This morning, head south down the western shore of the lake, and stop for lunch at one of our favorite local restaurants, the idyllic Crotto dei Platani in Brienno.
Arrive at the 13-room Relais Villa Vittoria, an intimate peach-colored mansion, in Laglio by late afternoon. It was originally constructed in the 18th century by a wealthy family from Milan.
Facilities include a diminutive spa with a Jacuzzi and Turkish bath, a small lakeside infinity pool, a spacious lounge with a grand piano, and an intimate restaurant. (The hotel is closed seasonally from November to April.)
From Laglio, take the pleasant 90-minute drive along back roads to Stresa, on the western shore of Lake Maggiore. Blessed with the same balmy microclimate as Garda and Como, Maggiore is distinguished by a more subdued and genteel atmosphere, a reflection of the fact that the northern Italian aristocracy and industrialists from Turin and Milan have been building extravagant villas along its shores for centuries.
Arrive at your destination, the 172-room Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, a property that was once a great favorite of Ernest Hemingway and featured in “A Farewell to Arms.” (The writer’s preferred room, now known as the Suite Hemingway, can be yours for a mere €3,300 a night!)
Hotel facilities include two large outdoor swimming pools, a grass tennis court and a spa with an indoor pool, sauna, massage and an elaborate menu of beauty treatments. The main Borromeo Restaurant offers standard Italian fare in an opulent setting.
Take advantage of the private water taxis that can be arranged from the hotel’s jetty to the exquisite Borromean Islands; many restaurants, including the excellent Casabella on Isola dei Pescatori, will send a boat to pick you up.
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