Whilst I have been to Milan, Venice and Rome, I had never visited any of the Italian lakes before, so was looking forward to seeing what Lake Maggiore had to offer.
At this time of year (early October), you can still get some lovely weather. The average temperature is around 18-20 C, warm enough to just want a jacket of an evening. If you are lucky enough to get clear blue skies, the views are spectacular.
Stresa is about a 50-minute transfer from Malpensa (Milan) Airport. It is probably the most well know resort on Lake Maggiore. The construction of the coast road ordered by Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th Century boosted tourism in this area, and many famous visitors have stayed here during their Grand Tour (Hemmingway, Dickens and Byron for example). The most prestigious lakeside hotels were built here between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are set among stunning gardens – some of which I had the opportunity to visit and stay in.
Stresa itself remains a small town with everything in reasonable walking distance and has quaint streets, full of character and some lovely little restaurants and shops to visit, a lovely lakeside promenade and sits at the foot of Mount Mottarone, which in the winter months boasts a small ski resort. The summit of Mount Mottarone, 1492m above sea level, is accessible by 2 cable cars and chair lift taking about 20 minutes, and on a clear day offers breath-taking views of the lake and surrounding area.
A visit to the Borromean Islands is a must. Isola Madre is the largest of the 2 islands and is home to a botanical garden, famous for its rare species from all over the world, animals with colourful plumage and luxurious vegetation. The gardens are set out in an English style and the best time to visit is in the spring, when all the Rhododendrons and Azaleas are in full bloom. Whilst here, it is worth visiting the mansion house that was home to the Borromean family for centuries and houses the puppet theatre rooms with their stages, props and puppets, where the family entertained their guests.
Isola Bella, the closest to the lake side, in contrast to Isola Madre, is home to a Baroque garden, with parterres and terraces dotted with statues and architecture. Climbing to the highest terrace, you will be rewarded with stunning views around the lake. The mansion house here is still lived in by the family, so only a few rooms are open. The most impressive of these is the cobblestoned shell grottoes on the lower floors. These were built as a place of coolness and house many of the treasures of Vitaliano Borromeo.
If you chose to visit both islands in one day as I did, you can break for lunch on the Isola dei Pescatori. The island is still inhabited by a few fishing families and is criss-crossed with many narrow winding streets. Here, you can visit the chapel of San Vittore and a small fishing museum before enjoying lunch in one of its many restaurants. I would highly recommend the Belvedere for its dining terrace and stunning views across the lake.
With many regal hotels to choose from, my recommendation would be to stay in the smaller, friendlier Villa & Palazzo Aminta. It’s a little further out, but the welcome here is second to none. The former villa is now a 5* hotel with just over 70 rooms, all individually decorated in true Italian style. Set in its own grounds, its restaurants and terrace afford beautiful views of the lake and its islands. It features fitness and spa facilities, a private beach with 3 moorings and limousine and helicopter services. Spoil yourself and be sure to use the jacuzzi set in its own grotto beneath the villa.
In the evening, I would highly recommend a visit to the Skybar at the La Palme hotel before dinner. This rooftop bar is great place to sit and relax, admire the view and enjoy some music and a drink after a long day exploring.
All in all, this a beautiful area with plenty to offer. The places above were just some of the days out that I would recommend. For the adventurous there is plenty of hiking or mountain biking to be had in the area too. There are many boat taxis that criss-cross the Lake to take to other points of interest too. Would I go again, Most definitely! However, I would probably twin centre it with Milan, for the contrast of the bustling city, and the relaxation of the Lake area. If you want to know more, please give me a call, I’d be happy to chat to you about it.