Go beyond Garda with Katie McGonagle’s guide to the Italian Lake District

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When George Clooney became the suave, sophisticated face of coffee maker Nespresso, its UK sales jumped by more than a third.

If a simple endorsement can give that kind of boost, it makes sense that the Hollywood A-lister’s longest-lasting love affair – with Lake Como, of course, where he owns a sprawling villa in small town Laglio – should attract ever-increasing numbers to the scenic Lake District in northern Italy.

So much so that high-end operators are expanding their product across the region, with Cox & Kings adding the lakes to its short-break collection this year and Travel 2 introducing the region to its 2015 Simply Luxury brochure in response to demand.

So, which resort is right for your clients? While the three largest lakes – family-friendly Garda, elegant Maggiore and oh-so-romantic Como – are well-served by operators across the board, it takes a bit more know-how to put together breaks to lesser-known lakes like Orta and Iseo.

Even after you’ve identified the lake, there follows the puzzle of picking out the right resort.

Never fear – check out our guide to the lakes and the only thing left to do will be working out how to guarantee a Clooney sighting with every sale.

Lake Garda: Big and beautiful

Italy’s largest lake is the gateway to this region for many first-time visitors and understandably so – it’s hard to find another destination with such broad appeal to families, honeymooners, adventure-seekers and the more mature traveller.

Its 100-mile circumference is home to numerous resorts (Lake Garda Lowdown, page 88) but, as a general rule, the west is quieter with a classically Italian feel, while the busier east attracts coach trips and visitors from neighbouring Austria.

Send families and sightseers south for excursions to Milan, Verona or Venice, but steer active types towards the mountainous north where sailing, windsurfing, hiking and cycling are readily available.

This is easily the most family-orientated of the lakes, with Italy’s largest theme park Gardaland plus fellow attractions Movieland and Caneva Aquapark clustered around Peschiera in the south.

Families on a budget can take advantage of its many holiday parks – Al Fresco features seven parks and Eurocamp has 10 in Lake Garda alone – with facilities to suit all ages.

Or enjoy the flexibility afforded by Typically Italian Holidays’ new self-catering apartments, introduced this year; Residence Goethe in Malcesine is well suited to families and kids will love the nearby Monte Baldo cable car.

Lake Garda is just as popular with couples and older travellers, from newlyweds keen to de-stress at hillside hideaway Lefay Resort & Spa in Gargnano, one of Kuoni’s most popular honeymoon hotels here, to mature clients looking for the convenience of an escorted tour.

Lake Garda is Newmarket Holidays’ number-one seller across all destinations, while Riviera Travel and Cosmos Tours & Cruises report retired clients make up a huge proportion of their sales to this region.

Lake Como: Chic stays

Villa d

Sitting near the Swiss border, Lake Como has a different feel from Garda, with charming resort towns and jaw-dropping villas affording a sense of exclusivity, helped along by having Clooney, Madonna, Donatella Versace and Sir Richard Branson as part-time residents.

Sell it to clients who like to take their time, whether exploring its ornate gardens – Villa del Balbianello, Villa Carlotte and Villa d’Este are favourites of Citalia general manager Joanna Pristernik – or browsing boutique shops.

The lake is shaped like an upside-down Y, with biggest resort Bellagio located at the meeting-point of all three legs and the hub for the lake’s boat service.

Bellagio is beautiful but pricey – historic properties such as the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, a five-star residence offered by Classic Collection and Sardatur Holidays, are standard – so steer budget-conscious clients elsewhere.

Tremezzo and Menaggio on the western shore make up the trinity of Lake Como’s most popular resorts, boasting pretty waterfronts and easy boat connections.

Como town at the southwestern tip is a good add on for those who want to see the birthplace of Pliny the Elder or enjoy a view from the Volta Lighthouse, named after the inventor of the battery.

Lake Maggiore: Extra style points

Lake Maggiore, Image credit: Cox&Kings
Image credit: Cox&Kings

Around 30 miles west of Como lies Lake Maggiore, the second-largest in the region.

It’s divided between Italy and Switzerland, yet with the grand Belle Epoque hotels and long promenade lining the shores of the main resort Stresa, it feels more like an English seaside resort in its Victorian heyday.

One of Stresa’s defining features is its view of the Borromean Islands – Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori – in the centre of the lake and just a 10-minute ferry ride for those who want a closer look at Isola Bella’s historic gardens.

This is one of the optional extras on Insight Vacations’ Treasures of Italy tour, taking a private boat to Isola Bella for a guided tour of the privately owned palace and time to explore the gardens (€37).

Sister brand Trafalgar also finishes its new Secrets of Italy tour with a farewell dinner at Lake Maggiore.

Lesser-known Lakes: Delve deeper

Both mainstream operators and Italian specialists are beginning to feature the region’s lower key landmarks, introducing a quieter alternative to the better-known sites.

Inghams has introduced Lake Ledro, which it calls “one of the smallest but most charming Italian lakes” and Lake Orta this year. These round out a programme which includes Lake Trasimeno on the Umbria-Tuscany border, a good base from which to explore, and Lake Iseo, which would suit clients looking for a quieter, less developed spot.

Italy specialist Citalia has also added a hotel in Lake Iseo this year, the Relais Franciacorta, alongside two properties in tranquil Lake Orta.

If choosing between the smaller lakes proves too tricky, an upcoming Travelsphere tour promises passengers the bragging rights of visiting lakes their friends have probably never even heard of, namely Iseo, Levico, Idro, Ledro, Molveno and Caldaro.

Senior product manager Alicia Welsman says: “For those looking to explore the lesser-known lakes, Travelsphere will soon be launching Secret Lakes, a tour of six relatively unknown, tranquil spots.

“The scenery will be the highlight, with beautiful blue freshwater lakes, rolling hills and spectacular mountain backdrops.”

Multi-centres: See more on tour

Bernina Express, Image credit: Switzerland Tourism
Image credit: Switzerland Tourism

No stay in the Lake District will leave visitors disappointed, but it might leave them wanting more.

For single-centre stays, a simple excursion will open up more of the region. Attraction World’s top-selling tours from Lake Garda are an evening trip to Venice (from £80 adult/£41 child) and a Lake Tour visiting Limone, Sirmione and medieval town Lasize (£49/£26).

Those who aren’t content with staying in one place will find a plethora of tours – escorted and tailor-made – covering this destination. Self-drive options abound, such as Sunvil’s 10-day Venice and the Italian Lakes itinerary, which spends two nights each in Lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore, but can be adapted to clients’ preferences.

Self-driving the winding roads isn’t for everyone though. Leger Holidays’ head of retail sales, Ashley Dellow, says: “Agents should consider coach tours a great option to see the lakes and mountains of Italy, as the scenery changes with every turn in the road.

“As this destination is all about stunning views, by coach really is the best way to maximise this in a relaxed environment – definitely a key selling point.”

The region also lends itself to rail travel. The journey through Europe is as much a part of the trip as the destination.

Western & Oriental offers seven-night rail holiday The Scenic Route to Lake Como, which whisks clients across the Continent via a two-night stay in St Moritz and a journey on the iconic Bernina Express to the boutique Albergo Milano hotel in Lake Como (from £1,625 B&B including flights on the return leg).

Specialist operator Great Rail Journeys offers an even wider array of tours, including tailor made options under its GRJ Independent brand. Sharon Smith, head of sales and distribution, says: “Lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore are easily reached by rail, with the majority of tours offering an overnight stop.

“It’s a fantastic option as customers can unwind while they travel and check in feeling relaxed.”

Sample Product

Simply Luxury by Travel 2 offers five nights’ B&B at the Grand Hotel Gardone in Lake Garda from £639, including flights from Gatwick and private transfers.

Great Rail Journeys’ 10-day Beside Lake Como Rail Tour starts at £1,695, including first-class rail and coach travel, a Bernina Express journey, B&B accommodation, guided excursions and a return flight from Milan to London.

Lake Maggiore, Orta & the Matterhorn is an eight-day tour from Riviera Travel, staying in Stresa with cruises to Isola Bella and Locarno on Lake Maggiore, and visits to Lake Como and medieval village Orta San Giulio. Prices start at £939 including flights.