Largest of Italy’s famous mountain lakes, the Lago Di Garda is clearly an area that gets under the skin. We’re not far out of Verona airport on the transfer bus before I discover that as Garda virgins, my husband and I are very much in the minority. Several of our fellow passengers are making a welcome return to the Western shore whilst others have systematically worked their way round various lake resorts over many happy years.
It’s late in the season for Garda and we’re blessed with glorious September sunshine as we turn off the motorway and catch our first view of sparkling blue water backed by the dusky silhouettes of mountain peaks. So it’s hard to believe that only days earlier, an unseasonal spell of wet weather whipped up 12-foot waves across today’s tranquil scene.
We’re bound for Gardone Riviera and as we wind around the south-west corner of the pear-shaped lake, the Venetian facades along Salo’s pretty promenade glow golden in the late afternoon sun. I can instantly see the Garda attraction.
We’re spending a week at the Chalet Hotel Galeazzi, which is managed and run by Silver Travel Advisor partner Inghams throughout the summer season and staffed from the UK. Just minutes’ walk from the lakeside, it offers 35 spacious rooms in traditional style, most with balcony and lake views through the trees. We instantly pick up on the warm, friendly atmosphere, which radiates in bucket loads from the young staff who multi-task around the clock.
Inghams’ summer chalet hotel concept operates like a winter ski chalet and represents excellent value for money. Guests enjoy buffet hot and cold breakfast; picnic lunch; afternoon tea and cake; and 5-course dinner with complimentary wines, tea and coffee. Simply choose your dinner options at breakfast with gluten-free choices always available. Prices start at just £584 per person, including return flights to Verona and resort transfers.
We found the food to be fresh, competently cooked, and international in style rather than gastronomic, but with a distinct flavour of Italy. But you don’t have to miss out on local restaurants. Monday is staff day off, so guests dine out independently. You can also do as we did and forgo picnic lunch some days in favour of a table on a picturesque waterfront or town square.
Gardone Riviera is one of Lake Garda’s smaller resorts, which we really liked. A clutch of restaurants and a couple of large hotels – also offered by Inghams as part of their summer programme – stand on the modest promenade near the jetty. Here you can pick up public ferries to all points on the lake, as well as excursion boats.
But Gardone itself has a unique attraction, the Vittoriale degli Italiani, a short walk up hill. This was the home of flamboyant figure Gabriele d’Annunzio, World War I hero, celebrated poet, and all-round ladies’ man. His house is crammed with collectables and his multi-tiered park dotted with war memorabilia, including the front end of a battleship, all crowned with his mausoleum high above the lake. Whatever your view of this larger-than-life figure, the man was certainly a master of self-promotion! Don’t miss it. Also in Gardone, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll round the Heller Botanic Garden where species from across the world thrive in close proximity besides ponds and seating areas dotted with contemporary artworks.
The Chalet Hotel Galeazzi is a level 20-minute walk from neighbouring Salo, one of the bigger towns around the lake. For 19 months from 1943-45, the town was the seat of government of the Italian Social Republic under Mussolini, and many large buildings here and in Gardone, are marked with plaques describing their use during during this period. Indeed the Galeazzi was club for Italian and German soldiers. But today Salo is a relaxed town with a long promenade, pretty streets, and some smart shops and cafes. Don’t miss the beautiful Cathedral by the water front, nor a scrumptious slice of indulgence from the stylish Vassalli cafe and cake shop in the old town.
For those who want to be independent, it’s easy to get to all points of the lake by bus or ferry. But do plan ahead with a timetable. Lake Garda is almost 40 miles from top to bottom and journeys can take longer than you think – over 3.5 hours by regular ferry to Riva del Garda at the top of the lake unless you pay a supplement to travel on one of the fast ferries. We took the speedy option across the south of the lake – the widest part – to Garda then followed the lakeside trail to neighbouring Bardolino for lunch. And on Sunday afternoon, we enjoyed an exclusive excursion for Inghams guests by motor launch (complimentary for Galeazzi guests) to Sirmione which lies at the end of a narrow peninsula protruding from the southern shore.
Many tourists don’t get further than the ice cream parlours and souvenir shops near the imposing castle, but I’d recommend following the panoramic path that hugs the eastern shore. Spring water emerges at various spots on the peninsula at 70° and at Jamaica Beach you can paddle in the wake of a strategically placed outlet pipe. But if you like ancient history, leave time for the three-tiered ruins of the huge Roman villa, the Grotte di Catullo, that stood in pole position on the tip of the peninsula.
Other optional excursions are run by a local tour operator with pick-up for Inghams’ guests at your hotel with options including Venice, Mantova and the Dolomites. We enjoyed the full-day guided tour of Lake Garda by coach which gave us relaxed free time in Lazise, Malcesine and Riva del Garda, plus a ferry ride from Riva to Limone, once the lemon capital of northern Italy. A half-day wine tour was interesting but, from our hotel, involved more time on the coach than it did tasting wine or visiting the pretty but tiny watermill village of Borghetto, so not really recommended.
But we were bowled over by our day trip to beautiful Verona where we opted out of the optional walking tour in favour of five hours to wander at will in the footsteps of Romeo and Juliet. Hidden courtyards, lofty towers, magnificent squares … but that’s another story!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Inghams