There are five major lakes in the Italian lake district – from west to east: Lakes Maggiore, Lugano, Como, Iseo and Garda – and each has its own particular character. The Italian Lakes offer a bit of everything; pretty towns and villages perched on the water's edge, a backdrop of mountains, fine buildings and, of course, stunning scenery.
Embraced by green wooded escarpments and backed by the snow-capped Alps, Lake Como is the most dramatic of the lakes and is popular with the Milanese (it's under an hour from Milan). Como is a thriving town best known for its silk production; you can take a ferry from its pier to reach Bellagio, a jewel of a town sitting at the spot where Lake Como divides into three parts. Villa Carlotta is an elegant 17th-century mansion set in lush formal terraced gardens. If you want to splash out on a linen suit and a room with a view, dress for dinner or swagger over retro cocktails on a time-warp terrace then Lake Como is the place for you. Varenna is the lake’s most engaging village, shaded by pines and plane trees but less picture-postcard perfect than Bellagio.
The westernmost lake, Lake Maggiore, has a special attraction: Isola Bella, the most romantic of the three Borromean Islands, famous for their palazzi and gardens. The main resort of Stresa has a delightful lakeside promenade known for its flowers and views of the lake's islands, dotted with Belle époque villas and is the resort closest to the glorious Borromean Islands. Take the cable car to the peak of Mottarone for an exhilarating view of the Lombardy lakes, the Alps and the Po Valley.
The peak of Monte Mottarone separates Lake Maggiore from Lago d’Orta to the west. For all its popularity, Lake Orta has retained its mystique; Orta San Giulio, a particularly beautiful spot, evokes the shimmering timelessness of the lakes. The medieval village is set snugly on a peninsula, providing a discreet resort distinguished by its chic hotels, soft light and air of spirituality.
Lake Garda, Italy's largest and easternmost lake, is surrounded by rolling green hills and gardens, vineyards, lemon trees and olive groves. The spa town of Sirmione is Garda's most popular resort.
Lake Garda is awash with sailing regattas and windsurfing competitions. Even if you're not a yachtie, the spectacle of unfurled sails will enliven any stay. The key locations are Torbole and Riva del Garda on the northern part of the lake, and Gargnano in the north-west.
Just east of Bergamo, Lake Iseo is the least self-consciously quaint of the great northern lakes. I love its authenticity, which is the antithesis of the celebrity lifestyle. Lake Iseo’s soft, smoky, vine-clad landscapes even find their way into the backdrops of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings.
The lake may lack breathtaking villas but the dramatic vistas, gentle pace of life, and fine food and wine are temptation enough. Unlike the Mediterranean climate of the larger lakes, Lake Iseo is Alpine, with olives and horse chestnuts rather than lemon groves and palms.