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Lake Como for less

It may not be the obvious choice for a family getaway, but George Clooney’s Italian haven has affordable retreats – you just have to find them

Lake Como for less
Varenna waterfront, Lake Como. Image: Getty

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“Don’t, stop! Stop!” Hearing these words, it’s hard, at first, to tell if our plucky seven-year-old is enjoying himself or not. Noticing his white-knuckled hands clinging to the inflatable tube as if his life depended on it, I suspect not, and frantically signal to the driver of the speedboat, to which we’re attached, to cut the engine. By the time I catch my own breath, spit the water from my mouth and glance to my side, I can see the exhilaration on his face as he roars again: “Don’t stop, it’s awesome!”

This is encouragement enough for our suave Italian skipper. The water begins churning behind the boat’s throaty engine and we’re off once more.

We’re on Lake Como, the superstar of Italian lakes. For centuries, it’s been the summer retreat of choice for the country’s aristocracy and literary figures, and, more recently, a magnet for such Hollywood A-listers as George Clooney.

With pockets less deep than his, our family are proving it’s entirely possible to holiday on the luminous lake for less. While there’s no shortage of expensive-looking powerboats, high-adrenalin sports boats and Venetian-style floating limousines, the lake is also dotted with reasonably priced passenger ferries, plus self-drive motorboats and rowing boats to hire.

The next day, I’m favouring a more sedate cruise on board an elegant steamship. The children have other ideas, though. Soon, they’re coaxing me to bounce skyward on a trampoline that’s positioned mid-lake and attempt a water bomb. It turns out to be a lot of fun and, after repeating the same swim-climb-bounce-jump routine for close to three hours, we finally realise that everyone else has dried off and packed up a while ago. Time to head to the restaurant terrace for a bowl of pasta and a glass of Prosecco.

Or so I hoped. Noticing that the nearby watersports rental outfit finally has paddleboards available, the kids cajole me into spending a further two hours attempting to stand up on one. Two hours, I will note, was barely enough to find a modicum of balance.

By now, we’re too late to get a table on the terrace so we order a take-out and head back to our apartment, which has two terraces of its own. We drink in the uninterrupted lake views along with a first-class bottle of chilled white and some antipasti from the local deli. Much cheaper than dining in a restaurant: about €20 (£17) buys you a large platter of delicious local cheeses, meats, olives and pickles, plus wonderful artichoke hearts in vinegar. Mesmerised by this and the changing face of the glass-like water, now that the sun has dipped behind the mountains opposite, we forget all about the pizza we’ve also ordered. The kids don’t seem to notice, either. They’ve gone for a last dip of the day in the swimming pool.

Next morning, we venture up Monte San Primo, Lake Como’s highest mountain — home to a ski resort in winter and a downhill bike park during the summer. We’re heading for its high ropes park — which pleases everyone, plus the views from the top are pretty spectacular. But it’s not long before the lake is drawing us back. All week, we paddle, swim, float and splash, which is cheap and cheerful, if not always entirely free, while the children eat their way through every conceivable flavour of gelato. Convinced they’re going to recreate the sour amarena cherry flavour or gorgeously smooth pistachio taste at home, we decide to attend a gelato-making class at Ristorante Salice Blu, at the nearby Hotel Bellagio. Chef Luigi takes us through a four-hour crash course on creating the showstopping gelatos, as well as pasta, risotto and gnocchi.

On the last day, we rent our own speedboat, which is incentive enough for Josh, my husband, to picture himself as Don Johnson in Miami Vice. We hug the shoreline for a while, ogling the opulent string of 18th- and 19th-century villas that line the shore, including the jaw-dropping Villa del Balbianello, where Casino Royale was filmed. The villa, with elaborate terraced gardens and turreted rooftops, was last privately owned by explorer Guido Monzino, who, when he died in 1988, left it to the Italian equivalent of the National Trust.

It happens to be closed on the day we’re there, unfortunately, so we motor on before stopping in a quiet nook, where Josh, who now fancies himself as James Bond, shuts off the engine and leads the charge by diving into the clear blue water. We’re joined by a family of five ducks who uncannily appear to mirror our actions — heads down, bottoms up — as we each take the plunge.

We round the day off with a stop at the colourful town of Varenna (a more affordable version of glitzy Bellagio), where we jostle for a berth at the harbour, and make a beeline for the gelateria. We sit with our legs dangling over the harbour wall and all eyes on the ridiculously pretty yellow and red buildings flanking the lake.

It’s no surprise that the rich and famous love it here — and now, we do too. When the children ask if we can come back next year, we can’t think of a reason why not. Although we might need to cut back on the ice cream.

Essentials

Who 
Sarah travelled with husband Josh and three children: Louis (13), Olivia (10) and Jude (7).

Best for 
All ages.

Activities
Cookery lessons: €120 (£95) per adult, €60 (£47) per child. ristorante-saliceblu-bellagio.it
Paddleboards, kayaks, from €5 (£4) for half a day. hotelauroralezzeno.com
Aquatubing: €25 (£20) for 10 minutes. jrcwakeboard.com
Boat rental: From €70 (£56) per hour, with fuel. bellagiorentaboat.com

How to do it
Bellagio Village apartments start from £130 a night (for up to eight people).

Published in the Summer 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)