Approaching by boat, the monastery of Santa Caterina can be seen clinging perilously onto the rock overlooking the Lombard shores of Lake Maggiore. The carefully restored frescoes in the chapel are definitely worth a visit and the 180 degree views of the lake are spectacular, especially at sunset. It's a tranquil oasis away from the tourist bustle of many other places on the lake.
From the lakeside town of Laveno, you can take the cable car up the 1100m Sasso del Ferro. From the top, there are wonderful views of Lago Maggiore, the Alps and some of the smaller Lombard lakes too. The best part though is the ride itself - you stand up in cable cars which are more like human-sized buckets, completely open to the elements.
Follow in the footsteps of Napoleon and Churchill and go and paint at the lush promontory of Punta San Vigilio. Park the car and walk down to the lake through the olive grove where you will be rewarded by a spectacular view. Or walk there along the lake from the town of Garda, on a trail edged with lemon and cypress trees.
If you really want to indulge your artistic, romantic side, you can stay at the hotel there, right on the edge of the lake.
Isola dei Pescatori (the Isle of the Fishermen) on Lake Maggiore is strung out like an extended teardrop in the wake of the Baroque battleship of Isola Bella. Its attractive informality is a breath of fresh air after the formal gardens that almost choke the larger island.
Head for the Belvedere restaurant on its northern shore, where the more formal seafront gives way to gardens and terraces – of which, the Belvedere has just about the best, with a spacious veranda overlooking the lake. We arrived unannounced in a sizeable party late in the afternoon, but were swiftly made to feel welcome and served a sumptuous feast at the terrace’s grandest table. ‘Fish from the lake’ is their disarmingly simple pitch, but the mixed pickle lake fish is an eye-opener of a dish.
Via di Mezzo, Isola Pescatori, 28838 Stresa (VB)
The Villa Balbianello is situated in a small town called Lenno on the west side of Lake Como. It is open from Easter and throughout the summer and you can get there both by boat shuttle or through the back gate (when opened) although this is a hilly way to get there but very pleasant. It was built in the 1500's by Cardinal Angelo Durini but was last privately owned by the famous Italian arctic explorer Guido Monzino who died in 1988 and left the entire villa estate and gardens to the Italian National Trust. It stays the same today as it did when he died and you can almost feel his presence as you take the guided tour throughout the property. Entrance into the main house is only permitted with an authorised guide (which can be booked) but if you like you can enjoy the magnificent terraced gardens for a small fee. The Villa is famous for its film scenes from Casino Royale and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones as they were both filmed there. The views are stunning, the flowers glorious and the range of artifacts contained within the house both stunning and priceless. In my view this is the best place to visit on Lake Como. Don't miss out!
At 2800 metres, the Pont de Normandie was the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world when it was completed in 1995. Then the Japanese built a longer one in 1999. But that doesn't diminish the impact of this spectacular example of the French ability to meld engineering design with art. For one of the best views in Normandy, take the ferry to Le Havre, and don't forget your bicycle; the bridge, which is seldom busy, has its own cycle lane. The steep hump in the middle will keep you on your toes, but the panorama from the top is worth it. At the end of the 25km journey, you'll be able to sup calvados or cidre beside Honfleur’s pretty harbour.
To fully enjoy the scenery, travel during daylight, and remember to go off season to avoid the hordes. If you go by car, it's still great.
Across the Seine, between Le Havre and Honfleur, on the A29 coastal road.
Toll bridge: €5.10 (cars) €5.90 (car with caravan)
Google map: bit.ly/MabqqN
The westernmost of the major lakes, Orta is a (relatively) undiscovered gem. Car free, the town's steep and narrow cobbled streets create an entrancing atmosphere. The lake itself contains the serene Isola San Giulio, dominated by an exquisite medieval basilica. Multiple excellent restaurants are situated on the main square overlooking the lake - a personal favourite was Leon d'Oro. Scrumptious local food served in the most delightful of settings; the best recommendation is that we returned twice!
After you have visited the villages around Lake Como head north for the Balcone d' Italia. Standing on the edge of a cliff you cast your eyes over the green valleys and vineyards of Italy and Switzerland but are drawn to the mountains behind them. In one astonishing sweep you have the south slopes of some of the biggest mountains in the Alps - Monte Rosa at 4634m and the Matahorn at 4478m and nestled beneath them are Lake Lugano, Lake Varese and Lake Maggiore. Travel north from Argegno to Lanzo d'Intelvi where you can drive, bus or walk through the forests up to the Balcone. For those who want to stop awhile and absorb the spectacular views and atmosphere have a coffee in the small cafe or relax on one of the seats nestled in the trees. The day we arrived we were lucky enough to be entertained by some local 'singing' walkers who just added that something special to make our trip unforgettable.
Take the S340 along side Lake Como, turn left at Argegno and travel through the Intelvi Valley. The road climbs steeply offering increasingly wide beautiful views of Lake Como, the villages and villas along both shores. 12 miles further on through the spa resort of Lanzo d'Intelvi, the road leads to the viewing point of Balcone d'Italia.
Google map: bit.ly/MmWDyL
If you are going to, or passing through, Milan make time to get the train to Como (just over an hour) and then the slow ferry to Bellagio. Perch yourself by ancient cobbled streets at the Trattoria San Giacomo and feast on freshly made pasta washed down with exquisite local Bardolino wine. Heaven.
Almost hidden valley, just inland from the village of Toscolano-Maderno on the western shore of Lake Garda is the Valle delle Cartiere. Now a peaceful and green place - not on most tourist agendas - this valley has a history of paper production on a huge scale, making use of the river to power the machinery. The ruins of the old factories litter the valley and some are made visitor friendly with exhibits and information plaques and there is a visitor centre at the start of the trail. Allow a couple of hours to walk to the top and back. Pack reasonable walking shoes for the walk, and swim wear if you want to cool off in the icy stream - good shallow swim area at the top of the valley.
Interesting day out, with a chance to see some different scenery from the lakes - despite being very close.
Driving north on the main road up the lake, take the first left after crossing the small river, follow the road past some houses and then through some tunnels until you come to the car park - you will have to continue on foot after this.
Google map: bit.ly/LJFHMW
There are spectacular views from the elegant lakeside promenade to the Borromean Islands while the restaurants and bars have a more relaxed, less “touristy” atmosphere than the larger resorts on Lake Maggiore. Baveno may not be as famous or as fashionable as its larger neighbour, Stresa – it’s probably as well known for the red granite quarried behind the town as for tourism, but it was good enough for both Queen Victoria to stay and as the destination for Winston Churchill’s honeymoon. It’s also an ideal centre for exploring the lake, either to visit the nearby islands or to sail to the Swiss towns at the north of the lake.
Tema Beach Club is just outside the Tema Container Port, some 15 miles from the capital, Accra.
The container port itself is one of the biggest port facilities in West Africa, and lacks charm. But head along the beach road from Accra and you drive along a thin spit of land with a serene lagoon to one side and the crashing waves of the Atlantic on the other. Under a full moon it is a journey of unworldly beauty.
At the start of the road is the Tema Beach Club. The Queen stayed here in 1962, and in her honour the place appears not to have been redecorated since, but you swim in a seawater pool, sit almost above the breakers, drink ice-cold Star beer, snack on octopus kebabs and watch queues of giant container ships waiting patiently to enter the container port.
Google map: bit.ly/MrTPzH
One of the most amazing sights to see if you're near Alghero, the large coastal town to the north of Sardinia, is the Grotta di Nettuno, an incredible cave network of stalactites which are tens of thousands of years old. Standing only one metre above sea level, the caves can be reached by a winding staircase of steps cut into the rock, leading you down 100 metres from the cliffs above. It costs 10 euros, but you won't regret paying for this experience once you're inside - the clever lighting and majesty of the stalactites creates an eerie subterranean environment that makes you feel like you've travelled back to the beginning of time. Guided tours run every half hour, and although these are nearly always full, the enormity of the caves and the long and winding trail through them means that you never feel too crowded by other tourists. Well worth a visit, particularly if you have kids.
With just a population of 1500 and a spattering of small hotels, the gulf of Orosei's Cala Gonone is the perfect base to explore the surrounding regions. It is so small that there is no taxi firm, so you will need a car from the closest airport, some two hours away.
The gulf's many beaches are some of the best in the world and only one is obtainable by foot, Cala Luna, the rest you will need a boat for. Stranded on a perfect beach for a couple of hours - the horror.
Gorropu gorge is the most unbelievable walk you'll ever do. It's so off the beaten track it took us 45 minutes to actually get IN to it from the path we'd enjoyed for three hours around mountainous, beautiful scenery - there are no signs. There are no roads. It was akin to a level of Tomb Raider, circa 2000.
Cala Osala to the north was a deserted kilometre of white sand perfection, mid week.
The fresh gulf fish and local Dorgali wines are something to shout about and the little delis in Cala Gonone make taking packed lunches on mega day walks/bathes a truly delicious experience.
It's the luxury package of life people pay a lot for but you don't have to pay the huge prices if you know it's there.
After enjoying the beaches and busy old town of Alghero, take the bus down the winding coastal road to Bosa and from there to Oristano. Make sure you sit on the righthand side for the best views and photos of the cliffs and beaches! Explore the alleyways and narrow cobbled streets between Bosa’s multicoloured buildings. Cross the river to gain a better perspective of the Havana-esque street next to the river. Oristano is a smart city with a stunning baroque cathedral and pleasant streets to wander around and have a coffee or gelato. The city is also a great base for visiting the famous Is Aruttas beach and the Roman site of Tharros. Bed and Breakfast Porta a Mari is a great budget option – it’s a traditional Sardinian house within walking distance of the city centre.
B&B Porta a Mari
Via Cagliari 308, 09170, Oristano
Google map: bit.ly/MAz3KG
Bus timetable for Alghero - Bosa
Bus timetable for Bosa - Oristano
The plateau of the Giara di Gesturi stands 500 metres above the surrounding Sardinian farmland: a startling, rocky ecosystem of twisted cork oaks, scrubland and shallow lakes.
A thunderstorm was building one September evening when we first encountered the surreal terrain and we were so spooked by its sharp contrast to the rest of the island we left almost immediately.
The following morning, feeling braver in the sunshine, we returned and hired mountain bikes to explore.
We’d been warned of the feral pigs who can be rather curious of visitors, but the highlight was undoubtedly the scores of miniature wild horses we encountered – another oddity in this curious landscape.
The Sacro Monte di San Francesco is a pilgrim route devoted to St Francis of Assisi, on Lake Orta’s eastern shore. This UNESCO World Heritage site has wonderful views across the lake, and along the pathway are twenty-one chapels containing colourful, vibrant frescoes which depict the life of the famous saint. They were constructed between 1591 and 1750 and encompass a range of architectural styles from Baroque to Renaissance. In all, there are no fewer than 900 frescoes and 376 sculptures, recreating the tumultuous life and times of St Francis. Art lovers, historians and contemplative individuals come here from all over the world to drink in the views and breathe the fresh air. It’s a place for meditation and relaxation, and speaking of drinking there’s a fine restaurant beside the church of St Nicholas with great views across the lake – just the place to refresh with an iced tea or something stronger.
Eastern shore of Lake Orta in the Italian Lakes (Piedmont & Lombardy).
Google map: bit.ly/MbaCYy
This 8km fairytale system of underground caverns is truly magical, consisting of tunnels and rock-rooms encrusted with minerals and festooned with magnificent stalagmites and stalactites that glitter in the lamplight. They’ve been created by the rivers Placido and Rapido in their underground courses. Although the caverns delve deep into the mountain, the first cave has walkways for visitors to get up close and marvel at these natural wonders. If you want to explore further you can go in with a group of experienced cave explorers from the local speleologists’ association. Not for the claustrophobic, or if you’re afraid of the odd bat, but certainly a breathtaking experience even if you just visit the first vast cavern.
Grotte di Su Mannau s.r.l, Via Vittorio Emanuele, 3 – 09010, Fluminimaggiori
Google map: bit.ly/LV5Yxr
A short water taxi from Hvar Town takes you to the beautiful islet of Marinkovac, the highlight of which is not the amazing, sheltered bay in the southern corner, but rather the small, blink-and-you'll miss it bar by the taxi pontoon.
Having missed our boat we had to console ourselves with a glass of their own wine and were invited by the owner to take a walk around the vineyard from which the grapes came. Truly locally sourced.
The owners are wonderfully enthusiastic and knowledgeable about wines, and it was a pleasure to settle in and miss a few more boats while we chatted with them.
Take the water taxi from Havr Town to Marinkovac, the bar is right next to the pontoon.
Google map: bit.ly/LuIS1k
We have just spent a month in Croatia travelling by bus from Istria down the coast to Dubrovnik, taking ferries to Korcula and Mljet on-route. Our stay at Zadar was a gem, full of Croatian character but not full of tourists. Accommodation can be found in private houses in area around the bus station - look for the blue 'apartman' signs, or book in advance using hostelworld.com. In the old town: enjoy the view from bell tower of Anastasia's cathedral, feast on a gelato and walk along the esplanade to the large 'disk of light' solar panel, listen to the sea organ, visit St Donat's church built on a roman site, appreciate the art museum. Eat at Pet Bunara restaurant (close to the city gate).
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