By Leah Page, Bookings Consultant

When it comes to choosing which Italian lake to holiday at, it might seem an impossible task. How do you pick between the timeless Maggiore, glamorous Como and majestically mountainous Garda? Well, Leah and her partner have just spent a romantic week exploring all three, and even squeezed in a night in Milan on the way back. Here’s how they got on with their lake-hopping road trip.

Stop 1: La Dama del Porto, Lake Maggiore

Once we’d flown into Milan and picked up our car, we headed northwest to Lake Maggiore. It marks the point where Piedmont and Lombardy meet, and its northern tip straddles the border with Switzerland. Compared with the other big lakes, it tends to be more popular with Italian daytrippers than foreign holidaymakers – perhaps why it’s known for having a more old-school, unspoilt charm than the others.

Our destination was the little village of Cerro, just south of Laveno, and the beautiful La Dama del Porto. This secluded waterfront guesthouse is the passion project of brothers Matteo and Davide, an experienced host and Michelin-trained chef respectively. The hotel is situated right on the shore of the lake with breathtaking views of the mountains in the distance and the small villages and towns that dot the water’s edge. There are only 5 rooms, so even when full nothing disturbs the peaceful setting. Our room (Ceramica) had panoramic views from the wraparound balcony of the town on one side and lake on the other. We could’ve easily sat out there for hours daydreaming to the gentle soundtrack of lapping water.

But if anything was going to pull us out of our trance, it was the promise of Davide’s cooking. When evening set in, we moved downstairs to the glass-fronted restaurant. Our dinner was nothing short of exquisite. All produce is locally sourced and each dish is home made by chef Davide. We devoured dishes of mondeghini (traditional Milanese meatballs) and beef ragu ravioli topped with parmesan sauce. Then a sharing plate of mouth-watering mini desserts came out, and it became clear we’d be rolling back to our suite.

La Dama del Porto is a short walk from Cerro beach, one of the best on the lake, though it was a bit too chilly for a swim and sunbathe while we were there. Having a car is definitely essential to fully explore the area. We drove down to Santa Caterina to see the beautiful old monastery carved out of the cliff, and also caught the short ferry from Laveno across to Intra, a pretty town where we indulged in some superb regional fare. There are also several stunning hikes into the Alps that start from Laveno, which are at their best in the spring.

Rooms from GBP 73

Stop 2: Relais Villa Vittoria, Lake Como

After spending a couple of days exploring the delights of Lake Maggiore, we headed east to Lake Como. Arguably the most famous of the lakes, it’s known for being the glitzy retreat of choice for big Hollywood names. The sparkling water is flanked by grand Belle Époque mansions, botanical gardens and little roads that wind through pastel-hued villages. It’s easy to see why George Clooney chose to buy a house (or four) here. A short drive upshore from his spectacular waterfront villa in Laglio is Relais Villa Vittoria, our next stop.

Once the holiday home of a wealthy Milanese family, there are now 13 guestrooms, a small spa and a brilliant restaurant set in the beautiful old house. Steps down to the garden reveal a large lakeside pool and loungers so close to the water you feel as though you’re floating. We stayed in one of their Romantic Lake View rooms; décor is classically romantic, with gauze curtains and subtle floral touches, and French doors opened onto a balcony with astonishing views of the lake and mountains.

We had less time here so were keen to explore the local area while also taking a break from driving. Luckily, the hotel has bikes to borrow to reach nearby villages, as well as kayaks to see the scenery from the water and discover hidden bays (pack a picnic and thank me later). Then, so as not to over-exert yourself, you can wind down in the spa and Turkish bath or soak up the last of the day’s rays poolside with a cold glass of wine.

When dinner time came around, there was no need to head further than the conservatory. We enjoyed a romantic candlelit dinner, set against a backdrop of watery views, feeling the warmth of the wood burner in the corner. We tried their saffron rice and ragu arancino on Castelmagno fondue, then their spaghetti with datterino tomato sauce, all of which was cooked to perfection. The next morning we filled up on their delicious continental breakfast, featuring plenty of salami, cured meats, cheese, pastries, yoghurt and muesli, before hitting the road once again.

Rooms from GBP 197

Stop 3: Lake Garda Boutique Apartments, Lake Garda

Onto the last of our Italian lakes trio, Garda. It was the longest drive between all the lakes but we loved travelling through the mountainous scenery. On arrival at Lake Garda Boutique Apartments we were warmly greeted by owners Francesca and Gianluca. They bought the property when it was a disused church and Sunday school, spending a couple of years renovating it to the highest standard, and now it is a smart apartment complex with incredible views across Italy’s largest lake.

We stayed in their Happiness Apartment which has two bedrooms, a lounge and a fully equipped kitchen. Outside we had a private patio with sunloungers, a table and chairs for relaxing and al fresco meals, and access to a large shared garden and pool. You get 360-degree vistas from here;  sweeping views of the lake on one side give way to a changing landscape of quiet town to manicured golf course to rugged mountainside.

We loved having the choice to either self-cater in our apartment’s kitchen and dine on our terrace, pop out to one of the nearby pizzerias, or walk down the hill into Gargnano where there were plenty of excellent options (though bear in mind it’s an uphill hike back up – you may prefer to drive). Lake Garda has its own Mediterranean-like microclimate, which means vineyards thrive here and produce some of the country’s finest wines, so we had to make sure we sampled a glass or two.

The warmer climate also makes it easy to get outdoors; cycling, hiking, sailing and all sorts of watersports are popular pursuits in the area. We also drove to Limone sul Garda, a town once famous for growing lemons and now adorned in lemon motifs everywhere you look; it’s a charming place, and the drive was very scenic. If you’re more into a slow pace of holiday, back at the apartments the gardens are the perfect place to kick back; find one of the scattered loungers in a hidden corner of the terraced lawn and lie back with a book as the sound of birdsong fills the air. It’s bliss.

Apartments from GBP 179

Stop 4: Palazzo Segreti, Milan

After five pasta- and wine-filled days on the lakes, it was almost time for us to fly home, but not before we dosed up on some culture and high style in Milan. A two-hour drive from Garda found us back in the city. It was a shock to the system to be somewhere so fast-paced after our laidback days of lake-hopping, but Palazzo Segreti was there to ease us in.

This contemporary design hotel is slap bang in the centre of the city, tucked down a remarkably quiet side street a stone’s throw from the Duomo. Eclectic collections of modern art and vintage memorabilia added playful character to this otherwise intentionally minimalist hotel. Most suites feature whitewashed walls, crisp white sheets on low-slung platform beds and pops of red or yellow to inject some colour. I thought I’d find the minimalist interiors quite stark, but actually the clean palette was cool and relaxing; a tonic to the bustle outside.

Between bag drops, check-in, and a stop by the bar for complimentary prosecco and nibbles at happy hour, we squeezed in a whistle-stop tour of the major sights and busy streets of the city centre. The Duomo is a true masterpiece; it’s worth paying a little extra to access the roof for panoramic views and a closer look at the intricate carvings. Then we wandered through Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, admiring the frescoes and glass-domed ceilings, window-shopping at all the designer brands that made our wallets quiver.

As evening fell, on advice from the team at the front desk we steered away from the central hub and strolled into the nearby Brera neighbourhood. Here we found pretty streets lined with independent boutiques, trendy homestores, and lively bars and eateries. This was more our speed. We pulled up a rattan chair at a traditional pizzeria for our final alfresco dinner, watching as the waiters skilfully manoeuvred huge pizzas between the pavements packed with gingham-laden tables. What a quintessentially Italian scene to round off our road trip through northern Italy.

Apartments from GBP 231