STYLE IN ITALY?
But, of course, where else would you find such a wonderful mix of high art, high fashion and high-class accommodation in such a glorious setting? And here's how to seek it out: the most luxurious places to stay, the chic areas to visit, the most glamorous things to do.
I'D LIKE A CLASSIC CITY BREAK
From the elegance of the Pantheon and the opulence of St Peter's, to the chichi shops of the Via Condotti, Rome is a wonderful mix that will inspire and exhaust in equal measures. All the more reason to book into a central hotel, and preferably one that captures the Eternal City's sense of style. An impossible combination? Not at all. Set right in the heart of the city, between Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps, Hotel de Russie (00 39 06 32 88 81; www.hotelderussie.it) is a chic retreat with an extensive terraced garden - a rare treat in Rome. The 94-room haven was relaunched in 2000 by Rocco Forte, its bar discreetly attracting Prada-clad locals. The short-break specialist Kirker Holidays (0870 112 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com) can arrange three nights there from £972 per person (based on two sharing, with breakfast) including flights from Heathrow or Gatwick and private transfers.
In Venice, the city's most celebrated hotels combine unhurried luxury, glorious views and slick service. The Luna Hotel Baglioni (00 39 041 289840; www.baglionihotels.com - rooms from €330/£235 excluding breakfast) has frescoed ceilings and Murano-glass chandeliers, while the fabulous Hotel Gritti Palace (00 39 041 794611; gritti.hotelinvenice.com - doubles from €315/£225 excluding breakfast) was built in 1525 as the residence of the Doge Gritti. The main part of Venice's legendary Hotel Cipriani, across the lagoon from St Mark's Square, is closed until 7 April for its annual refurbishment, thus ensuring that its sumptuous rooms are in peak condition. When it reopens, Carrier (0161-491 7650; www.carrier.co.uk), which specialises in luxurious travel, can take you there from £1,195 per person, covering a three-night stay with breakfast, flights from Gatwick and private boat transfers.
Winter and spring are also good times to visit Florence. Without peak-season crowds, you'll be able to stand back and admire the Renaissance flourishes of the city of Giotto, Dante, Michelangelo and more - and you may even be able to get into the Uffizi without too much queuing (or pay extra to book ahead on www.yourwaytoflorence.com/uffizi; the gallery is open Tuesday-Sunday 8.15am-6.50pm, entrance €9.50/£6.80 plus €5.70/£4 if using the booking service). What's more, the luxury-travel operator ITC Classics (01244 355 527; www.itcclassics.co.uk) is offering three nights including breakfast at the exquisite Hotel Lungarno (owned by the Ferragamo family, how's that for style credentials?) close to the Ponte Vecchio, from £585 per person. The price includes flights from Gatwick to Pisa and transfers.
HOW ABOUT SCENIC STYLE?
For glamour and visual drama, the Italian Lakes are in a league of their own. Perhaps nowhere more so than Lake Como, where the fortunate stay at the Villa d'Este, at Cernobbio. Built in the 16th century as the Cardinal of Como's residence, and transformed into a hotel in 1873, it is set in beautifully landscaped grounds, and is still the epitome of gracious living, with silk furnishings, frescoed ceilings and marble columns. Abercrombie & Kent (0845 0700 612; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) can arrange a package of three nights there from £865 per person, with breakfast, flights from Heathrow to Milan Malpensa and private transfers.
Of course, northern Italy is also the setting of many idyllic rural retreats. The best villas to rent in Tuscany and Umbria are the traditional properties that are off the beaten track, with great views and stylish interiors. The Italian portfolio of Real Holidays (020-7359 3938; www.realholidays.co.uk), for example, includes a stunning villa in northern Umbria, close to Perugia and Assisi. Casale de Lanci e Mezzatore sits on a hillside amid 70 acres of forested land. It has been lovingly renovated in authentic Umbrian style, with stone or terracotta-tiled floors, and much of its furniture is from the nearby town of Citta di Castello, known for its craftsmen and -women. It sleeps 10 comfortably and its facilities range from an enormous swimming pool with a Jacuzzi section, to a tennis court and a large dining terrace. The property costs £5,200 per week (villa only) and can be rented from May to the end of October. Other companies offering good villa choices include Wimco (0870 850 1144; www.wimco.com); Vintage Travel (0845 344 0460; www.vintagetravel.co.uk); and Ilios Travel (08700 600 607; www.iliostravel.com).
AND THE SEASIDE?
Of all the pretty villages dotted along Italy's northern coast, Portofino is undoubtedly the most glamorous. There, the Hotel Splendido has acquired near-iconic status as a sophisticated retreat. But you don't quite hide away here, since half the idea of staying at this former monastery is to be seen gazing over the bay from the terrace. There are 65 pretty bedrooms, tennis courts, large gardens, a saltwater swimming pool and speedboats for excursions. The hotel closes annually for winter refurbishment, and opens again this year on 24 March. Seasons in Style (01244 202 000; www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk) offers one-week packages at the Splendido from an eye-watering £2,725 per person, including flights from Gatwick to Pisa, breakfast and private transfers.
Down on southern Italy's Amalfi Coast, the vertical little town of Positano oozes appeal. Set high on the cliffs, the discreetly fashionable Il San Pietro di Positano hotel offers stunning views and serene service. The 62 rooms have private terraces and sea views; the restaurant, spilling outdoors, has a Michelin star; and the private beach and tennis court are dramatically accessed from the lobby via a lift whose shaft was carved through the rock. Elegant Resorts (01244 897 515; www.elegantresorts.co.uk) offers three nights with breakfast from £745 per person, including flights from Gatwick to Naples and private transfers.
Further up the coast, just outside Sorrento, Maison la Minervetta is a glorious new boutique hotel. It is owned and run by the Cacace family, and feels more like a private villa than a hotel. The 12 rooms are furnished in strong colours, and each has floor-to-ceiling windows with jaw-dropping views over the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius. A week's stay costs from £935 per person including breakfast through Sunvil Discovery (020-8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk). This also covers flights from Gatwick to Naples and private transfers.
Three miles off the Sorrento peninsula, the tiny island of Capri combines natural drama, gracious villas, beautiful gardens and more. With the ebb and flow of fashion, its sheen of glamour has become a little tarnished of late, but the venerable Grand Hotel Quisisana is beyond such vagaries. Dating from 1845, this supremely elegant establishment in Capri town is the place to stay, with its chandeliers, piano bar, fabulous views, and 150 dreamy, creamy rooms. Aspire (0845 345 9096; www.aspireholidays.co.uk) offers a week here from £1,190 per person, including flights from Gatwick to Naples, transfers by private car and hydrofoil, and breakfast.
Sicily, meanwhile, has been enjoying a boost in popularity, in part fuelled by its increased accessibility. British Airways and Air Malta offer flights from Gatwick and Stansted respectively to Catania, on the island's east coast, while Ryanair has a service from Stansted to the capital, Palermo.
The largest island in the Mediterranean also boasts stunning beauty, a rich array of architecture, superb sandy beaches and Europe's highest active volcano. The grandest hotel on Sicily is the San Domenico Palace, built as a monastery in the 15th century and still looking the part, from the outside that is. Situated in the little town of Taormina, it offers mesmerising views of Mount Etna. CV Travel (0870 606 0803; www.cvtravel.co.uk) offers a week there for £770 per person, including accommodation with breakfast and British Airways flights from Gatwick to Catania. The offer is valid until the second week in April. Exclusive holidays in Sicily can also be arranged by the Italy specialist Lanza & Baucina (020-7738 2222; www.lanzabaucina.com), including luxurious villa accommodation and private viewings of palaces, churches and art collections.
I'D LIKE TO SAIL AWAY...
Then head for the island of Sardinia, with its spectacular cliffs, wonderful beaches, tree-clad mountains and mysterious Nuraghic Age remains, including some strange cone towers. At Il Porto marina in Santa Teresa, on the northern tip, you can charter a yacht through Just Sardinia (01202 484858; www.justsardinia.co.uk). From there, you can sail around the chic Costa Smeralda, and then explore quieter, wilder reaches of the coastline. A week's bare-boat charter costs from £678 for a four-berth yacht (for which clients need to fax over a Yachtmaster certificate when booking). Those without the requisite yachting qualifications can hire a skipper for a week for an additional €1,000 (£700) plus board. The nearest airport to Santa Teresa is Olbia, served by easyJet from Gatwick.
Alternatively, in Venice there's a real treat in store: a luxury cruise on board a bragozzo, complete with brightly coloured sails. Traditionally, these flat-bottomed wooden boats were used for fishing in the lagoon, but the beautifully refitted Eolo (00 39 49 807 8032; www.cruisingvenice.com) now offers comfortable living quarters and superb cuisine. Itineraries range from day trips to the islands in the north of the lagoon (minimum six guests at €330/£236 each, including lunch or dinner) to three- and eight-day cruises, during which you eat on board and stay in hotels along the way (minimum six guests with all-inclusive fare of €2,000/£1,428 and €5,800/£4,142 respectively).
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
The first two weeks of January and July is when the sales are on in Milan, so a good time for hitting the Golden Quadrangle - the fashion heaven of Chanel, Prada, Versace, Armani and more, contained by vias Montenapoleone, Sant'Andrea, della Spiga and Manzoni. And, when you're laden with glossy bags, the city also has some extraordinary boutique hotels. Luxury goods house Bulgari opened one back in May 2004 (00 39 02 805 8051; www.bulgarihotels.com; doubles around €590/£421). As might be expected, the luxury here is expansive: the 52 bedrooms, in neutral shades, have oak flooring and teak balconies; the huge bathrooms have flamboyant flourishes such as black marble and granite tubs. Facilities include a restaurant attracting Milan's beautiful people and a spa with a gold and green mosaic swimming pool.
THE ULTIMATE ESCAPE
Down on the southern "heel" of Italy, Puglia was being heralded as the new Tuscany (or was it the new Umbria?) last year - although this sunny region is rather wilder. With British Airways now flying from Gatwick to Bari, and Ryanair from Stansted to Bari and Brindisi, accessibility is a big draw. As is accommodation: the area is dotted with trulli, traditional limestone dwellings with conical roofs, which have been converted for holiday use. Long Travel (01694 722367; www.long-travel.co.uk) has many such unusual properties, including the restored Trullo Noce, an hour from Brindisi and Bari, yet wonderfully rural. The one bedroom, kitchen and sitting/dining room are simply yet elegantly furnished, and there's a pretty terrace with superb views. A week's stay costs from £695 per person (based on two sharing) including car hire but without flights.
WHEN IN ROMAN ARENAS...
There's nothing quite like seeing grand opera in some of the world's most renowned venues - and taking in the other glorious aspects of Italy at the same time. In April, Travel for the Arts (020-8799 8350; www.travelforthearts.co.uk) offers a particularly appealing five-day trip to see Tosca at La Scala in Milan and The Magic Flute at La Fenice in Venice. The price, from £1,495 per person, includes flights from Heathrow to Milan and back from Venice; four nights' accommodation in four-star hotels; sightseeing tours; transfers; and top category tickets for the two performances.
One of the most majestic settings for opera is the Roman arena in Verona, whose ever-popular festival takes place this year between 24 June and 27 August. Wine specialist Arblaster and Clarke (01730 893344; www.winetours.co.uk) is organising a wine and opera tour to Verona from 4-7 August.
The cost of £999 per person includes three nights' accommodation at the four-star Giberti Hotel, three visits to wine estates (with lunch) and a night at the opera - you choose between Carmen, Madame Butterfly or Aida.