Image: motorboat taxi
Oberto Gili  /  via Travel + Leisure
Hop a motorboat taxi to San Giulio Island on Lake Orta and tour its ancient basilica.
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updated 5/1/2011 7:54:51 AM ET 2011-05-01T11:54:51

The lake region, which stretches from Piedmont to Lombardy and the Veneto, has had a mythic quality for centuries. Ancient Roman writers, including Pliny the Younger, were among the first to use the area as a summer escape. They wrote lovingly about its shady plane-tree walks and flowery banks. Today, its legendary reputation continues. Celebrities including George Clooney and Richard Branson have owned villas on Como for more than 10 years, while Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi purchased a 30-room mansion on Maggiore in 2008.

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Little has changed in the past 50 years, though several grand hotel openings (most recently the lavish Castadiva Resort, in Como) have added to the lakes’ cachet. The main attractions, however, remain the simple, authentic pleasures that travelers have appreciated since the days of the grand tour.

Slideshow: Best of the Italian Lakes

Despite a high celeb quotient, Como, Italy’s most sophisticated lake, embodies low-key glamour, history, and tradition. Its 30-mile-long western shoreline runs from the miniature sailing port of Cernobbio through sleepy Laglio to Menaggio. On the eastern shore is the chic hillside village of Bellagio, with its rainbow-colored villas; the old stone fishing villages of Bellano and Varenna are popular with culture and nature buffs, thanks to their medieval castles and elaborate Renaissance gardens.

Set along the southern banks of the Alps, Maggiore, Italy’s second-largest lake, is the busiest and most untamed. The eastern, Lombard shore is characterized by wild woodlands, but most travelers go to the western side, where the village of Stresa is chock-full of artisanal shops. Close to the Swiss border you’ll find the town of Cannobio, a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets, medieval palazzi, and waterfront restaurants. Less than 10 miles west of Maggiore, Lake Orta is only eight miles long and less than a mile wide. In its main village, Orta san Giulio, the central stairway leads from the ocher-and-cream-colored Santa Maria Assunta church to the lakeside Piazza Mario Motta, which is lined with arcades and outdoor cafés.

Built by a powerful industrialist in 1879, the turreted Villa Crespi is a moorish-style estate with original plasterwork ceilings, four-poster beds, and damask draperies. The real draw, however, is the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, where chef-owner Antonino Cannavacciuolo, formerly of Capri’s Grand Hotel Quisisana, whips up such creative dishes as buffalo mozzarella ice cream with tomato sauce and basil granita.

Fringed by lemon groves, olive trees, and vineyards, Garda is the balmiest of the lakes — and also the largest. Sailors and windsurfers come for its breezy waters, while foodies are drawn to the award-winning olive oils and Bardolino and Valpolicella wines. On the eastern shore, a cluster of small villages (San Felice del Benaco; Gargnano) have glorious Roman ruins, villa museums, and a clutch of upscale hotels, including historic Villa Feltrinelli.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

Video: Vacation villas you can afford!

  1. Closed captioning of: Vacation villas you can afford!

    >> up next, affordable villas for your next vacation. first this is "today" on nbc.

    >>> we're back at 8:45. this morning, affordable vacation villas may sound expensive but they can be a little bit cheaper than hotel rooms . conde nast traveler takes a look in its upcoming edition. kate, nice to see you.

    >> nice to see you.

    >> villas sound very la-di-da but we are saying they are any rental property or house.

    >> you think of a sprawling tuscan estate with the price tag to match but villa is a generic term for vacation rentals .

    >> what kind of traveler are they suited for?

    >> they are good for big groups. they sleep 10 people. also a slightly more independent traveler. you're not going to be able to call to get your club sandwich at 3:00 a.m . but you can make it yourself because they have full kitchens which is a way to save money because you don't have to eat out three times a day.

    >> it's more authentic because you're living in a house, someone's neighborhood. let's look at examples you brought. the first is in sonoma, california. this comes at under $100 per person.

    >> the villa specialist, we have a list of the top meticulously vetted villa specialists. beautiful places and sonoma is west of napa. classic wine country . it's on the sebastiani winery. you have views of the vines, orchards. it's $97 per person per night.

    >> that's a good price. you have housekeeping?

    >> and a great pool. for a sophisticated bachelor party or a cross generational trip which is increasingly popular.

    >> that's a contradiction in terms. sophisticated bachelor party . this one's in costa rica . has a private pool, housekeeping, access to a beach club and still under $100 per person.

    >> $90 per night. fantastic houses on the pacific coast of costa rica . they can set up zip lining, surf lessons and visits to volcanos.

    >> this place will be booked ten years in a row now.

    >> they have multiple properties, sometimes 300 in the area.

    >> let's move to montana. this villa is like a log cabin . the towering pines on the madison river . tell me about this one.

    >> villas come in all shapes an sizes. this is on the madison river . if you like fly fishing this is for you. 30 minutes from yellowstone. it sleeps six and works out to $65 per person per night. it's a mountain home .

    >> does that company mountain home also allow you to connect to fishing guides and things like that? do they help with the other part of travel?

    >> they are like a friend on the ground. they can organize that stuff for you.

    >> let's get more exotic, not that the first ones aren't. now to tuscany in europe which people think the dollar isn't great there. not a good time to go. what do you say?

    >> it's $122 per person per night. compared to the hotels it compares favorably. this is casa gertrude. it's close to sienna which is a stunning city. absolutely gorgeous. it has a lovely pool and lovely al fres codining area.

    >> looks gorgeous.

    >> it's lovely.

    >> finale one in the caribbean on st. martin. you have a good tip. you say if people are trying to book a villa in the caribbean, best in terms of price, be willing to take something not right on the beach but steps from the beach.

    >> that's a common sense way to save money. thisle villa means honeymoon in french. it has a stunning wraparound pool. three minutes' drive from the beach. a gorgeous island with great food. it's $135 per person per night. it sleeps four people, so two couples.

    >> but your point is well taken. for people rushing to the phones now to book these particular villas the companies that rent the villas have other great options as well.

    >> they have loads of options.

    >> good information, kate. thank you

Explainer: New cruise ships sailing into 2011

  • Image: Allure of the Seas
    Roni Lehti  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Allure of the Seas

    Looks like it’s full speed ahead for the cruise industry. With Allure of the Seas now in Fort Lauderdale, Disney Dream set to debut and a half-dozen other new ships on the way, the rough seas of the recession are growing calmer by the day.

    That’s good news for cruisers, says Stewart Chiron, aka The Cruise Guy. “The fact that these ships are coming out during difficult times is a testament to the industry’s resilience,” he said. “A lot of people who wouldn’t have taken a cruise before are now considering one.”

    First-timer or not, here’s a look at eight new additions to the fleet:

  • Allure of the Seas

    Image: Allure of the Seas' zipline
    Rob Lovitt

    Allure embarked on her inaugural cruise on Dec. 5, and she shares the title of world’s biggest cruise ship with its twin Oasis of the Seas, but adds a few new amenities. In addition to the zip line and skating rink, the surf machines and climbing walls, you’ll also find a 3-D theater, the first Romero Britto store at sea and two new restaurants, including a Mexican cantina and Brazilian steakhouse. Get some sleep before you go, suggests Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief at CruiseCritic.com, or be prepared to swing by another new onboard amenity: the first Starbucks at sea.

  • Marina

    Image: Oceania Marina
    Oceania

    A Lalique grand staircase, a hands-on culinary arts center co-sponsored by Bon Appétit and a trio of owners’ suites with Ralph Lauren furnishings — Marina has all the makings of an ultra-premium experience, but with a surprisingly “egalitarian” ambience. As Oceania’s first purpose-built ship (launching Jan. 22), Marina is significantly larger than its siblings (65,000 tons vs. 30,000), carries more passengers (1,258 vs. 684) and features several new restaurants, including Jacques, the first eatery anywhere to bear the name of famed French chef Jacques Pépin. “[Marina] will be an intriguing hybrid of luxury and mid-market pricing,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s a category that’s never existed before.”

  • Disney Dream

    Image: Disney Dream
    Disney

    It’s been 11 years since Disney launched a new cruise ship and Mickey’s minions have clearly gone all out. Launching on Jan. 26, the ship will carry 2,500 passengers (4,000 with all beds filled) on fantasy-filled cruises between Port Canaveral and the Bahamas. Among the innovations: The Enchanted Garden restaurant, where the decor changes from day to night; inside cabins with virtual portholes with underwater scenes, and the AquaDuck, a 750-foot “watercoaster” that winds up, down and around the ship’s upper decks. “Dream is the Oasis of 2011,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s going to be different than everything that’s come before it.”

  • L’Austral

    Image: L'Austral
    Erick Larrieu  /  L'Austral

    Having opened a U.S. office just this year, the French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant is probably still unfamiliar to many American cruisers. That may change with the arrival of the line’s fifth ship, L’Austral, a 132-cabin mega-yacht that will launch on April 27. Not surprisingly, the onboard amenities — two restaurants, plus a spa, theater, lounge and library — will provide more than a soupçon of French flair even as the ship’s itineraries take her far beyond the Côte d’Azur. After spending the summer in the Mediterranean, the ship will sail on to Africa, Antarctica and other exotic ports of call.

  • Carnival Magic

    Image: Carnival Magic
    Carnival

    The latest addition to the Carnival fleet manages a neat trick: Although it’s a carbon copy of Carnival Dream, this 130,000-ton, 3,690-passenger ship tweaks the Fun Ship formula with several new amenities. Get a workout on the first ropes course at sea; cool off in a waterpark featuring a 500-gallon dump bucket, then retire to the RedFrog Pub for private-label beers and Caribbean-flavored snacks or Cucina del Capitano for hand-made pastas and select Italian wines. Launching on May 1, “Magic is perfect for entry-level or first-time cruisers,” said Dwain Wall, senior vice president/general manager for CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

  • Seabourn Quest

    Image: Seabourn Odyssey
    Copyright 2009 Michel Verdure

    As the sister ship to the Odyssey (pictured) and Sojourn, Seabourn Quest joins a fleet that Chiron calls “quite possibly the nicest cruise ships on the planet.” Like her predecessors, the ship features a two-deck spa, four restaurants and 225 suite-style cabins, 90 percent of which have private balconies. The result: a yacht-like experience without upper-crust fustiness that draws younger cruisers than other ultra-luxury lines. You can join them on a three-day pre-inaugural cruise from Monte Carlo on June 9, a 14-day maiden voyage from Barcelona on June 20 or, if you’re feeling flush, a 109-day world cruise starting Jan. 5, 2012.

  • Costa Favolosa

    Image: Costa Favoloso
    Matteo Piazza  /  Courtesy of Costa Cruises

    The name is Italian for fairy tale; the decor is modeled after an enchanted castle, and the ambience is Carnival Fun Ship (Costa’s parent company) meets the Continent. Launching on July 4, the 3,000-passenger ship offers several of Costa’s signature Concordia-class amenities, including a Grand Prix driving simulator, 4-D cinema (3-D, plus physical effects) and two-level pool deck with a glass roof and movie screen. New additions, including verandah suites with Jacuzzi tubs, a teen entertainment area and a water park for little cruisers, should only add to la dolce vita.

  • Celebrity Silhouette

    Image: Celebrity Eclipse
    Simon Brooke-Webb  /  Celebrity

    Details are still sketchy on Celebrity’s newest ship, but the fourth vessel in the line’s innovative Solstice class will replicate the most popular amenities of her predecessors, including a glass-blowing studio, recreation area with real grass and Qsine, the eclectic, iPad-menu-equipped restaurant that debuted on Eclipse (pictured). “It’ll be like a floating boutique hotel,” said Chiron of the 2,850-passenger ship, which will begin sailing Mediterranean and Holy Land itineraries on July 23. Those who prefer more tropical itineraries will have to wait until next fall when the ship will start offering 12-night Caribbean cruises from Bayonne, N.J.

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