WHICH LAKES ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
There are plenty of lakes all over Italy, but here the phrase refers specifically to an area in the north, where a string of narrow glacial lakes lies interspersed between the Prealpine foothills, straddling the border with Switzerland.
The four most important lakes are, from west to east, Lake Maggiore, Lake Lugano, Lake Como and Lake Garda. Between and around these are several minor lakes - such as Lake Orta, west of Maggiore, and Lake Iseo, midway between Como and Garda - as well as countless Alpine tarns trapped in the high valleys. The region offers classic images of Italy: balconies over blue water, sleepy cobblestone villages and stone cottages, secluded gardens and exotic flora.
SHOW ME SOMEWHERE REALLY GRAND
Bellagio, on Lake Como, has been called the most beautiful town in Italy. It's not hard to see why. There is a promenade planted with oleanders and lime trees, fin-de-siècle hotels painted shades of butterscotch, peach and cream, a spectacular mid-lake location facing west and a heart of stepped, cobbled alleyways, all of which make Bellagio the quintessential Italian Lakes destination.
Stresa is the grande dame of Lake Maggiore's resorts, a graceful little town that came to life in 1906 with the opening of the Simplon rail tunnel. It quickly became a favoured holiday retreat for Europe's nobility; Hemingway was a regular visitor and the Grand Hôtel des Iles Borromées (00 39 0323 938 938; www.borromees.it) features in A Farewell to Arms. It remains as stuffy as ever, with doubles from €450/£309, including breakfast.
At the southern end of Lake Garda, within the chic little spa resort of Sirmione, you find Villa Cortine (00 39 030 990 5890; www.hotelvillacortine.com), built in 1870 and now an exclusive holiday retreat spread over a beautiful waterfront park. Its interiors are lavish to the point of bombast, with frescoes, marble and gilding everywhere, dovetailing perfectly with the atmosphere of monied seclusion. Doubles start at €560/£384, including half-board.
The lakes host many other grand palace hotels, from the celebrated Villa d'Este on Lake Como (00 39 031 3491; www.villadeste.it) to the discreet Villa Principe Leopoldo above Lugano in Switzerland (00 41 91 985 8855; www.leopoldohotel.com).
A ROMANTIC HIDEAWAY?
Take your pick. Squeezed below steep cliffs on the east shore of Lake Como is Varenna, its idyllic "Lovers' Walkway" coiling along the shore. The family-run Albergo Milano (00 39 0341 830 298; www.varenna.net), freshly modernised this year, is tucked into the narrow alleys higher up - all patterned tile floors and crisp white linens, with doubles for €140/£96 including breakfast. In a similar vein is Gandria on Lake Lugano, a tranquil hamlet of stone-built cottages, with no access by car (only a few boats stop in each day); and Cannobio, a genteel old Lake Maggiore town with an expansive promenade backed by high mountains.
Most beautiful of all is Orta San Giulio, a medieval village hidden away on little Lake Orta, where cobbled lanes wind between tall, pastel-washed houses and peeling palazzi and fishing boats lie pulled up onto the waterfront. Orta's main square faces the Isola San Giulio, an islet - once a nest of fearsome dragons - adorned with an ancient convent and church. The harmonious ensemble of town, piazza and island is pure theatre, especially captivating under spotlights after dark.
WHAT ABOUT LAKE GARDA?
With all the package tourism to Lake Garda, the best-known destinations - such as Riva, Limone and Malcesine - are crowded. Instead, go for less renowned names. Gargnano is a quiet village of lemon trees and olive groves where, in 1912, DH Lawrence wrote Twilight in Italy. Its Villa Feltrinelli (00 39 0365 798 000; www.villafeltrinelli.com) is a country house that has become a luxury boutique hotel (double rooms start at €980/£672, including breakfast).
Equally little-visited is Torri del Benaco, an atmospheric one-street village. Here, the Gardesana (00 39 045 722 5411; www.hotel-gardesana.com) overlooks the harbour and castle walls. This is a classic old lakes hotel, first recorded in 1452, which has hosted the likes of Churchill, Stephen Spender and King Juan Carlos I of Spain; in 1954, Laurence Olivier holidayed here with Vivien Leigh. Yet it wears its history lightly, without pomposity. Opt for room 123, the Poet's Room (€154/£106, including breakfast), where a double balcony offers a panorama across virtually the full length of Lake Garda.
SHOW ME THE LOVELIEST GARDENS
Isola Bella and Isola Madre are twin islands in Lake Maggiore. Isola Bella is occupied by an eye-poppingly ornate baroque palazzo, built for the Borromeo family in the 17th century; its formal, terraced gardens are dotted with fountains, statues and flora ranging from oranges and lemons to camellias and magnolias. Isola Madre features exotics such as carob trees, a colony of parrots and the largest Kashmir cypress in Europe, over 200 years old. You have to pay for admission: a ticket for both islands costs €15/£10.30 ( www.borromeoturismo.it); RHS members get in for free.
Lake Como boasts the splendid gardens of Villa Monastero at Varenna (€2/£1.40; www.villamonastero.it), while on Lake Garda stands the Vittoriale (€11/£7.50; www.vittoriale.it), the former residence of Mussolini's favourite poet, Gabriele D'Annunzio. The villa's decor is bizarre, a tribute more to D'Annunzio's egotism than any concept of good taste, but the gardens, terraced above the glittering lake, are magnificent.
WHAT CAN I SEE ON TWO LEGS - OR TWO WHEELS?
Monte Generoso is the highest peak for miles around, rising to 1,700m between the lakes of Lugano and Como and served by a scenic rack-railway from the Swiss village of Capolago (Sfr38/€25/£17; 00 41 91 630 5111; www.montegeneroso.ch). The views are breathtaking, extending as far as the Matterhorn on one side and Milan on the other. Plenty of walks fan out from the summit station, including a full-day trail into the hidden Valle di Muggio.
Above Malcesine on Lake Garda, Monte Baldo - with a cable car to the top (€10/£7; www.funiviamalcesine.com) - has long ridge-top walks as well as panoramic mountain-bike trails. Towering 600m above Lake Iseo is Monte Isola ( www.monteisola.com), Europe's largest lake island, with a fine 9km perimeter trail.
ANYTHING FOR ADRENALIN JUNKIES?
Torbole, at the northern end of Lake Garda, is a centre for watersports, with operators including www.windsurfconca.com and www.pierwindsurf.it running beginners' windsurf sessions for around €60/£41. Nearby are canyoning (€45/£31 for a half day; www.wetway.it) and tandem paragliding off Monte Baldo (€70/£48; www.condorfly.com).
SOME URBAN LIFE?
Como's atmospheric medieval quarter is centred on the Duomo, renowned for its elegant melding of gothic and renaissance styles. Just to the north is Lugano, the largest city in Italian-speaking Switzerland, a sassy place with some great shopping. Its arcaded Via Nassa, in the old centre, is lined with designer fashion and jewellery stores, while labyrinthine lanes behind Piazza della Riforma hide the Gabbani delicatessen, an Aladdin's cave of fine salsicce and Alpine cheeses. Lugano's annual three-day open-air jazz festival ( www.estivaljazz.ch; free) culminates next Saturday, 8 July, with a show by the legendary funk artist George Clinton and his 21-piece band.
If that sounds a little frenetic, head to nearby Varese, just across the border in Italy. You'll find the superb Villa Panza gallery, housing a permanent exhibit of contemporary art focused on American painters of the 1980s and 90s, with many pieces from New York's Guggenheim Collection, including site-specific light installations by Dan Flavin (€8/£5.50; www.fondoambiente.it).
HOW DO I GET THERE...?
Six airports serve the lakes, of which the most convenient for the western lakes is Milan Malpensa - just 15km from Lake Maggiore, and handy for Orta and Como too; it has flights on Alitalia (08705 448 259; www.alitalia.co.uk) from Heathrow and Manchester, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick and British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow, London City, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester. Milan Linate, a short drive from Como, is served by BA and Alitalia from Heathrow and easyJet from Gatwick.
Bergamo's Orio al Serio airport - Milan's third airport - is a gateway for both Como and Garda; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies there from Luton, Stansted, Liverpool, Newcastle and Prestwick, as does Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) from Leeds-Bradford. Airports within easy reach of Lake Garda include Brescia, served by Ryanair from Stansted, and Verona, served by BA from Gatwick. Lugano is reached on Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com/uk) via Zurich from Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester, or on Darwin (00 800 1771 7777; www.darwinairline.com) from London City.
...AND GET AROUND?
All six airports are well connected by public transport. From Malpensa, the "Malpensa Express" train departs frequently for Milan; it stops midway at Saronno, where you can change for the lines heading north to Como, Varese and Lake Maggiore. Buses also run directly from Malpensa to Stresa, Como, Lugano and other destinations.
From Linate or Bergamo airports, take the express coach to Milan's Stazione Centrale, from where trains run to Stresa and other Lake Maggiore towns, Como and Varenna on Lake Como, Lugano and the southern shores of Lake Garda.
From Brescia and Verona airports, buses shuttle to Verona's Porta Nuova station, from where Lake Garda is a short train ride away. A minibus meets arrivals at Lugano airport, dropping off anywhere you like in the city centre; trains run regularly between Lugano and Como.
There are some great deals to be had on rental cars. "Sixti" ( www.sixti.com), the low-cost arm of Sixt car rental, based at Malpensa, Linate and Bergamo airports, rents small cars - such as Smart or Fiat Panda - for as little as €8/£5.50 a day, even in July and August. That price includes 100 free kilometres and a loss damage waiver with a high excess (€800/£550). By comparison, Maggiore ( www.maggiore.it), a big Italian agency, is charging €69/£47 to rent a slightly larger Fiat Punto with unlimited mileage from Malpensa, Linate, Bergamo or Verona airports for any weekend (Fri 2pm-Mon 10am) in July or August.
As much as possible, though, you should go by boat: the lakeside roads are often jammed solid with traffic during the summer peak. Ferries, catamarans and hydrofoils operate reliably to regular timetables, which are published online: for lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore, see www.navigazionelaghi.it; for Lake Lugano, see www.lakelugano.ch. You could also opt for a cruise, to see the best of the scenery in a day, or a romantic dinner for two on board.
The "Lago Maggiore Express" (€28/£19; www.lagomaggioreexpress.com) comprises a memorable three-stage journey by train and boat around the lake and through the mountains, starting in Stresa and taking in a spectacular ride on the narrow-gauge Centovalli line between Locarno (in Switzerland) and Domodossola.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Italian Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk). Switzerland Tourism (free- phone 00800 100 200 30; www.MySwitzerland.com).
Matthew Teller is co-author of the Rough Guide to the Italian Lakes (£12.99).