When it comes time to visit the spectacular Lake District of Northern Italy, there are some basic choices.
You can stay at some of the smaller but charming inns, and save money while still enjoying the incomparable scenery.
You can throw caution to the winds and stay at some of Europe's most lavish hotels, rubbing elbows (quietly) with the rich and famous.
You can do a little of both, and tell yourself that you had your cake while eating it, too.
We chose the latter course, and we weren't sorry. Maybe a little guilty about the splurging, but not sorry.
There are other choices to be made, too, because--with six principal lakes and several smaller lakes and tributaries--there's so much to see that you probably won't have time for everything.
Starting From Milan
We limited ourselves to an arc--beginning and ending in nearby Milan--a route that, over a period of about a week, took us through a varied selection of beautiful Alpine country. About an hour out of Milan in a rented car--with two massive peaks, Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa, visible in the distance--we arrived at the southern tip of Lake Maggiore, near the town of Arona.
The countryside there is lush, almost semitropical, with lakefront villas that feature stands of orange trees, magnolias and wisteria-draped palms. But as you head north along the lake, the mountains begin to climb and the gentler aspects give way to the dramatic.
Halfway up the 40-mile-long lake you reach Stresa, with its grand hotels, elegant restaurants and renowned views of the Borromean Islands.
We chose more modest lodgings in an incomparable setting--the Isola de Pescatori, at about 200 yards long and 75 yards wide, the smallest of the three islands acquired by the Borromeo family in the 12th Century.
You get there by boat, stopping off along the way at the Isola Bella, on which Count Vitaliano Borromeo built a handsome palace amid terraced gardens in the 17th Century--now open to the public for a modest fee.
Fisherfolk and Cats
All but a handful of the other tourists headed for shore at dusk, leaving us, the fishing community of 300 and about an equal number of cats--sprawling in the last rays of sunlight, skulking in a dark alleyway or staging careful raids on discarded leftovers from the day's catch.
Our room in the cozy old Hotel Verbano on the southernmost point of the island offered plain but serviceable furnishings, an adequate private bath and stunning views--especially of the count's palace a few hundred yards across the water. A mile or so to the east, the Isola Madre, with another palace and gardens created by the Borromeo family, disappeared in the deepening shadows. The price for two for a pleasant dinner, blissfully comfortable night and indifferent breakfast--about $70.
A visit to little Lake Orta, with a short boat ride over to its minuscule Isola San Giulio, makes an easy and pleasant day trip, a round-trip drive of less than 75 miles. San Giulio features a Romanesque basilica, said to date from the 4th Century, and if you scramble down the steps behind the altar, you can view a gilded reliquary containing withered remains said to be those of St. Julius, who is credited with ridding the island of snakes and a dragon.
To get to Lake Lugano, you drive north and east from Stresa, crossing into Switzerland almost before you realize it. That's the odd part about one of Italy's most famous lakes--it's almost entirely in Switzerland.
Mountains and Sculpture
The city of Lugano is handsomely sited in an elbow of the lake, with mountains plunging into the water on every side. Sleek hotels line the lakefront boulevard, which is separated from the water's edge by a tree-lined promenade and a series of small parks, one of which features an impressive sculpture garden.
Our hotel, the Bellevue au Lac, was about halfway up the row--big, modern, Swiss-efficient with oceans of hot water, stacks of fluffy towels, a refrigerator that really made ice and plumbing that really worked. The dining-room food was hearty but uninspired. Except for the setting, it was much like spending the night in a good American hotel. So were the prices--the room for two about $95, dinner about $25.
A few miles out of town, it was back into Italy again, east to the far end of the 20-mile-long lake, then around the corner to Tremezzo, the midpoint of Lake Como.
Boat to Bellagio
You can visit the Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo--a handsome, 18th-Century mansion overlooking the lake. You can also take the ferryboat from there across to the beautifully situated town of Bellagio--a 15-minute boat ride that can save you a four-hour drive around the shoreline.
Bellagio sits astride the point that divides the southern half of the long, slender lake into two forks. Standing on that point, in a quiet little park, you can gaze south toward the bucolic, green valleys that characterize the lower ends of the lake, or north toward the stark, glacial canyons soaring into the clouds.