In May I went on an HF walking holiday with my husband – to Lake Maggiore in Italy. I was attracted to the holiday by the photographs of the Grand Hotel Bristol and the chance to see the Borromean Islands. I have done a separate review of the Hotel Bristol and will also do one about Stresa, the Borromean Islands and the Villa Taranto Botanical Garden that we visited on our free day.
The only HF holidays I’ve been on in the past have been Discovery Tours in Sorrento and Venice and self-guided walking in the UK. On the Lake Maggiore holiday we had five days of guided walking with two options on each day – a Grade 2 and a Grade 4. The walking grades on the UK holidays are Grades 1 & 2 (leisurely walking), Grades 3 & 4 (moderate walking) and Grades 5 & 6 (challenging walking). However, in Europe the walking grades are different and regular HF walkers in our group thought the Grade 2 walks that we did in Italy were definitely more difficult than the Grade 2 walks in the UK. I opted for the easier walks but still found descending steep mule trails with cobbles and loose stones underfoot difficult, even with my walking poles. Each group had to have an experienced local guide, both of whom were excellent. We also had an HF Tour Manager with us who did his best to sort out the food issues in the hotel (see separate review) and with one exception he also came on the easier walks to offer assistance to those of us who struggled at times. There were 18 of us including the very personable Tour Manager and his wife – four couples, eight women, five of whom we called `the girls` as they were younger than the rest of the group – and we all got on well together – socialiasing in the bar in the evening and, one evening going to the rooftop bar of a neighbouring hotel to enjoy the view. Apart from one lady we were all from the UK; she had travelled to Stresa from her home near Munich by railway, changing trains several times. She spoke good Italian and English and had come on the holiday as she had made friends with two of the other women in the group on past HF walking holidays.
The BA flight from Heathrow to Milan Malpensa airport and coach transfer to Stresa was included in our holiday price, although anyone wishing to make their own travel arrangements could have chosen the holiday without flights. Travel to the starts and ends of each walk were also included in the holiday price, whether by private boat, public bus, train or coach. On one day those of us doing the easier walk had to return to Stresa by ferry as the public bus failed to stop for us at a request stop and there wasn’t another for an hour, however it was no hardship sitting in the sun on the upper deck of the ferry and stopping at the three Borromean islands en route. Although we normally arrange our own holidays and always research the areas well, including finding public transport details, it was good to relax and rely on a local who knows exactly where the bus stops are (not always obvious and not necessarily marked on maps, even online ones).
The easier walks ranged in distance from 3.5 to 6 miles and longer ones from 6 to 8 miles. However, for me it was the ascent and descent and walking surfaces involved that made me less confident and slower than I would have liked. With the exception of one day both walk options started from the same place but on Day 3 Option 1 walkers went by bus to Suna while the Option 2 walkers caught a train to Verbania and walked in a different area. The walk leaders kept a close eye on weather forecasts and swapped one walk in a more mountainous area to a different day to take advantage of better weather conditions. We carried wet weather clothing as sudden storms were possible, plus snacks and water, particularly helpful for the Option 1 routes that tended not to pass anywhere near a bar or cafe. The Option 2 walkers sometimes managed to stop at bars to buy refreshments. I only needed the wet weather clothing once as we were incredibly lucky with the weather.
I won’t describe each walk – our group visited many interesting medieval villages, stopped to eat our lunches in picturesque clearings, sitting on walls and benches beside old churches, and on one occasion were served coffee in the garden of a friend of our guide; he also showed and demonstrated the beautiful ocarinas in many shapes and sizes that he made in his pottery. Usually locked churches were unlocked for us by prior arrangement so we were able to see the beautiful frescoes and other treasures inside. The common theme was ancient mule trails through chestnut woods but we also walked alongside meadows of wild flowers, past farms – working and abandoned – and learned about the trades and agriculture associated with each area we visited. And on each walk we were rewarded with fleeting glimpses or stunning panoramas of lakes and mountains, some distant peaks still capped with snow. Lake Maggiore is approximately 80% in Italy and 20% in Switzerland and on one day we went to Cannobio, the last lakeside town before the Swiss border. We travelled by coach to Cannero Riviera and both options did a circular walk ending back at our coach. The original plan of walking to Cannobio had to be abandoned due to a landslip so we were driven to Cannobio which was an attractive tourist destination that had customs gates on the lakeside where the ferries arrived. On another day the group left the lakes behind and went to the Anzasca Valley and into the foothills of Mont Rosa, Italy’s highest mountain: I opted out of this walk as I thought it sounded too strenuous for me and instead enjoyed swimming in splendid isolation in the warm water of the hotel’s indoor swimming pool.
The final day was a trip to Lake Orta and we all followed the same route, stopping for coffee and cake at a bar/restaurant – a comfort break that had been arranged by our other local guide who led us all on this walk. The countryside was very different here – flat pastures, cows and parkland. We had time for a late lunch and shopping in Orta San Giulio before some of the group walked to see the Sacro Monte, a World Heritage Site of 20 small individual chapels set in a park, each chapel containing scenes depicting the life of Francis of Assisi in full size painted terracotta figures.
As someone who doesn’t normally enjoy guided walks I found it wonderful having really knowledgable local guides to tell us so many interesting facts about each place we visited, the wider area and Italy in general. I can thoroughly recommend HF and this holiday – I’d have given it five stars had the hotel food been better; I hope HF at least deletes the reference to salad buffets being available at the Hotel Bristol if it doesn’t manage to resolve this issue.