Escape to Lake Como, a serene Italian getaway

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If you love picturesque views, this is the holiday for you. (Photographs by: Naveen Shakir)
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Bellagio is perfect for an afternoon stroll.
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Bellagio will charm you with its cobbled streets and quaint houses.
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Decorative Murano glassware can be found in Bellagio.
Updated 20 August 2017

Escape to Lake Como, a serene Italian getaway

BELLAGIO, Italy: When I think of the perfect getaway, I now picture the lakes and mountains of Lake Como. I first heard about this particular lake in Italy when George Clooney bought a vacation home there in 2002. I remember seeing pictures of a small town with charming villas, surrounded by beautiful green mountains and the clear blue waters of the lake. So, when my husband mentioned that he wanted to plan a trip to Italy, I jumped at the chance to visit Lake Como.
We planned a six-day trip during which we would spend three days in Lake Como and then drive through the Swiss Alps to spend the rest of our days on Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. Our two-hour flight from London to Milan on British Airways left bright and early so that we could take full advantage of the day when we got there. After picking up our little rental car, we finally made the trip north — which took about one hour — to the Italian Lake District.
Almost immediately, the site of the majestic mountains of Lake Como came into view from the highway. When we got to the base of the mountains and began seeing the blue and turquoise waters of the lake on our right is when the excitement really began to build. I also remember the thrilling realization at that point that we were only halfway there and that the views were about to get so much better.
The mountain roads took us up to the town of Bellagio — “the Pearl of Lake Como” — on the northern edge of the lake and then south to our hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Villa Aurora in Lezzeno, a small town just 10 minutes away from Bellagio. This quaint family-owned hotel built in 1912 was just perfect for us — it was simple, serene and was surrounded by stunning views of the lake and mountains. Families were swimming, canoeing and sunbathing while others were sitting at the lakeside restaurant relaxing with their drinks and enjoying their freshly-made pasta with fish caught in the lake. I immediately felt a sense of peace and relief — this was exactly the kind of vacation we had been longing for.
For lunch, while I wanted to try a real Italian pizza, our hotel’s restaurant only served pizza for dinner so I tried their delectable seafood pasta instead. I had heard from many people that I would really enjoy authentic Italian food, but I never realized how much I would love it. Their food is really in a class of its own. It is full of flavor and surprisingly light. I think it can be attributed to the fact that these lakeside towns mostly use locally-produced fresh ingredients that are in season. As a seafood lover, my lake fish seafood pasta was one of the best I have ever had. After that meal, I found any and every excuse to throw some seafood onto my pastas and pizzas.
After lunch and a long nap, we decided to drive to Bellagio. The weather, however, was determined to ruin our night with a massive thunderstorm so instead of finding the restaurant that we wanted to eat at, we ran into a small pizzeria, Ristoro Forma and Gusto. My first taste of real Italian pizza was amazing and I continued to enjoy pizzas for the duration of my trip.
The next day we were blessed with amazing weather, so we decided that we would inhale our breakfast and start exploring immediately. We decided to go back to Bellagio. I have to say, I dare you to not be charmed by this town. Its cobbled walkways, colorful villas, vine-draped walls and blooming flowers are so incredibly alluring. It also helps that such a pretty town has some fabulous shopping as well. I found stores with gorgeous silk scarves, leather purses, jewelry, decorative Murano glass pieces and, of course, a plush Salvatore Ferragamo store. I snagged a couple of beautiful earrings from a quaint little store called Saraceno, owned by a woman who used to design for Armani. The prices were so reasonable that I might have to make an excuse to go back soon!
After walking around Bellagio, we took a short ferry ride to my husband’s favorite town in northern Italy, Varenna. We made our way up the cobbled streets to yet another popular spot for pizza, The Victoria Grill. From there, we walked five minutes to the Villa Monastero, a museum and gorgeous botanical garden with rare species of plants from all over the world. The museum itself was a fairly interesting experience, but what I enjoyed the most was walking through the botanical gardens while enjoying the fresh scent of lavender and the exquisite views of the lake.
We then decided to walk down to the waterfront to see what shopping Varenna had in store for us but, as it was a hot day, we got distracted by the multiple gelato stores on the waterfront and ended up stopping by Gelateria Riva di Riva Duilio. My coffee gelato and my husband’s hazelnut gelato were the best we have ever had in our lives.
The next day was rainy, so we decided to drive two hours south to sunshine and shopping at a fantastic designer outlet just south of Milan called Serravalle. After driving back to Lezzeno, we spent our last night eating pizza at the restaurant in our hotel. I ordered a sumptuous lake fish pizza and my husband ordered not one, but two, margarita pizzas for dinner. It was definitely worth all of the extra calories!
On our last day, we packed up and made our way out of beautiful Italy, through the Swiss Alps to Montreux. While this is not the last of my Italian adventures, as we will be heading to Rome and Florence later this summer, I almost regret having gone to Lake Como first. I think it will be very hard to beat the beauty and serenity of the Italian Lake District.

Chill out: top cities for a cold winter break

Get planning that all-important vacation now. (Shutterstock)
Updated 11 September 2019

Chill out: top cities for a cold winter break

DUBAI: Yes, we know, the summer holidays have barely ended. So is now really the time to discuss winter breaks? Well, we all need something to get us through the daily grind, right? And visualizing your next escape is a good way to beat those back-to-work (or –school) blues. Here are a few suggestions for great places to visit for a true ‘winter wonderland’ experience.

Bergen, Norway

Thanks to its coastal location near the Gulf Stream, the ancient city of Bergen can be up to 20 degrees warmer than Norway’s capital, Oslo, in the winter. (NB: It can still get very cold.) It’s a ridiculously picturesque location surrounded by astonishing scenery, from the mountains to the east to the fjords to the west. Its docks are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Vienna, Austria

The Austrian capital is so beautiful in the wintertime that it’s more like an artist’s imagining of a perfect winter scene than an actual place. And despite the temperatures, there is plenty to do and see even on the coldest days in this wonderful old city. It’s a great place all year round, but we’d recommend a visit to the winter market to really experience the magic of this place.

Bolzano, Italy

This unsung gem, located in a valley near the Dolomites range of the Italian Alps, might look like a typical provincial city, but as Lonely Planet says, Bolzano is “worldly and engaged, a long-time conduit between cultures.” Even if you don’t venture into the mountains themselves, at least take a cable car into the hills and enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery. It’s also a popular city for winter shopping, and Italians know how to shop.

Minneapolis, USA

It’s not the most obvious place to visit if you’re heading to America, but Minneapolis really shines in the winter. Aside from its numerous indoor options for culture-vultures and foodies (and its miles of climate-controlled pedestrian footbridges connecting much of downtown), the city is home to the Great Northern Festival (begins Jan. 23, 2020) — a 10-day celebration combining the premier winter events in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul’s, which includes carnivals, hockey championships, live shows and more, much of which is free.

Abisko, Sweden

This small town, north of the Arctic circle in Swedish Lapland, is just next to the stunning 75-square-kilometer Abisko National Park, which is widely recognized as possibly the best place in the world from which to view the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). As well as reindeer and lemmings, the park hosts the Aurora Sky Station — situated on Mt. Njullà — a site specifically created to ensure the best possible environment in which to view the phenomenon.