By Ashley Davies
After a few hours on Lake Maggiore you might start to believe you’re on the set of a 1960s Bond film. The place is so glamorous, stylish and expensive-looking that you half expect to come across an in-his-prime Sean Connery smirking from a speedboat. It makes you feel like it’s OK to smoke cocktail cigarettes, carry a gold handbag and wear a lot more eyeliner than you normally would or should on holiday. It almost makes you forget that a tenner is an insane amount to pay for a gin and tonic.
Italy is addictive for so many reasons, one of them being the dramatic difference between the regions. Maggiore is a revelation to me because, while so much about it is Italian – the romantic quality of the light, much of the architecture and the food – it is so close to Switzerland that you can feel its efficient neighbour’s Gruyere breath on your face. Everything runs like clockwork, the traffic does not terrify, the climate is mild and you can see the Alps.
At 68km, Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy, snaking from Piedmont to Lombardy, its northern tip nudging into Switzerland. We spend a few days near Verbania, on the western arm of the lake, which is about a 90-minute drive from Milan (flying straight from Edinburgh, this makes for a super-smooth journey). We stay at the Grand Hotel Majestic, which more than lives up to its name. From the lake, the recently refurbished Belle Epoque building looks like a palazzo, with its beautifully kept gardens and verandahs. From the balcony of our room, it’s easy to see why the 19th-century French writer Stendhal is supposed to have said: “If a man has a heart and a shirt, he should sell the shirt to see Maggiore.”
As well as having a million-dollar view of the twinkling lake, we can see the Alps and several of the famous Borromean islands. It’s definitely worth having supper at one of the hotel’s two restaurants – they serve extraordinarily good food with five-star service. Grand Hotel Majestic also has a fantastic spa and an amazingly inviting indoor pool. I am slightly uncomfortable when a member of staff provides me with a dry towel after every swim, but sometimes you just have to grin and bear it.
Although Lake Maggiore looks similar to its neighbours, Lakes Como (where, as every red-blooded woman knows, George Clooney has a pad, and where the tourist industry never knowingly undersells its Clooneyness) and Garda, parts of the latter two are somewhat more lively and more likely to attract people interested in watersports. Although it is by no means snooty, Maggiore is more staid. The lake is dotted with dozens of fascinating islands, and the Verbania part of it is home to the Borromean islands, named after the Borromeo family who started buying them up in the 16th century and still own most of them. For about £12 you can buy a pass that will allow you to take as many trips from island to island – specifically within this zone – and spend the day exploring. No journey takes more than 20 minutes, and the service is easy, efficient and fun. Even the little ferry ports have elegant spots at which to kill time with a drink and a snack while you are waiting. Isola Bella, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Madre – each very different from one other – are absolutely not to be missed.
Isola Bella, which is very close to the lakeside town of Stresa, is dominated by an exquisite palace built by King Carlo III for his wife, Isabella D’Adda, in the mid 17th century. Various dramas – including the outbreak of the plague in Milan – halted the construction but eventually, the following century, Carlo’s nephew Carlo IV completed the palazzo and the incredible gardens. By the 18th century, the Borromeos had taken it over, and their guests there included Napoleon and Josephine. Exquisite flowers, lawns and some ostentatious albino peacocks make this a stimulating spot for lingering, particularly if the heat is getting the better of you.
The island I am most in love with is Pescatori, the fishermen’s island. It is no longer owned by the Borromeos and has a higgledy-piggledy charm and several fantastic fish restaurants on the waterfront. Although tourism has overtaken fishing as the main industry, it feels authentic enough and you can easily let many hours slip through your fingers as you sip your prosecco and admire the wooden motor launches.
Also worth a visit is Isola Madre – still owned by the Borromeo family – which is famous for its impressive British-style garden and an important collection of wisterias, as well as a beautiful 16th-century palace.
The treats for garden fans don’t end there – thanks to an enterprising Scot by the name of Captain Neil Boyd McEacharn. In the 1930s he bought a piece of land in Pallanza, beside the lake, and over the years developed it into an outstanding botanical garden called Villa Taranto. Thanks to the mild climate he was able to cultivate hundreds of plant species one wouldn’t normally see in Italy. He died on the verandah overlooking the gardens in 1964, and Villa Taranto includes a pretty little memorial to his life.
Autumn and spring are probably the best times to visit Lake Maggiore. But whatever time of year you go, I dare you not to have the Bond theme tune in your head.
Italian specialist Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9315, http://www.classic-collection.co.uk) offer seven nights at Grand Hotel Majestic, Lake Maggiore (www.grandhotelmajestic.it) from £1,037 per person. Price is based on two adults sharing a classic room on a bed and breakfast basis and includes return flights from Edinburgh to Milan Malpensa and private transfers.
This article first appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 6 December, 2011