Photo of Lake of Plenty

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 6th July 2005.

The largest of northern Italy's great lakes is in a world of its own. With a balmy microclimate - there are cypresses and vines, olive trees and citrus groves - it's like a little sea, with little ports, little vessels and little storms that blow up from nowhere.The southern end of Lake Garda broadens into two bays sheltered by the Sirmione peninsula in between; the north narrows fjord-like into a rocky cleft between cliffs on the west and Monte Baldo on the east.In high season, the tourists in the pretty lakeside towns can be wearisome. You could take to the water (the sailing is excellent), circumnavigating the lake in a passenger boat, or to the road, the Gardesana, which hugs the shore, with wonderful views. Or you could venture farther afield. Lake Garda makes a great base for day trips, close to both Verona and the mountains and within reach of Vicenza, Mantua, Padua and Venice.

The pick of places to stay on Garda's shores represent every genre of Italian hotel, from farm accommodation (agriturismo) and pensions to one of the most luxurious hotels in Europe. In between, there are excellent examples of b&bs, restaurants with rooms, resort hotels and Italy's stock-in-trade: privately owned villas that have been lovingly handed on through the generations.The prices quoted below are for a double room, including breakfast, in high season. Some hotels are closed between October and April, others for a shorter period during the winter. The phone code for Italy is 0039.

Albergo Grifone It might be one of the cheapest and most modest hotels in Sirmione, but the Grifone has one of the loveliest locations, overlooking both lake and castle. Essentially it is a restaurant specialising in fish, with a mouth-watering selection of antipasti. It has an enticing tree-filled terrace with views across the water, and a scrap of a beach. Even if the weather is cool, you can enjoy the scenery through the restaurant's picture windows. There is a small sitting room with cheerful bamboo furniture and, upstairs, the rooms are simple but spotless. Vicolo Bisse, Sirmione (030 916014). £39.

Bellevue San Lorenzo Italian hotel prices are by no means the bargain they once were, but there are exceptions. Perched above the Gardesana road, overlooking the lake, the Bellevue San Lorenzo is a cut above its many similar competitors. Its core is a fine old villa, whose spacious grounds are filled with olive, cypress and magnolia trees and dotted with contemporary sculpture. There's also a large pool and sun terrace and a fitness and beauty centre. The multi-lingual receptionists are hard working and helpful, the food is more than acceptable, and the bedrooms are comfortable if unremarkable (the best are in the main villa). And the bill, when it comes, is a pleasant surprise. Località Dosde Feri, Malcesine (045 740 1598; £108, including dinner for two.

Dimora Bolsone: this unusual b&b might be remote - reached by a switchback road and a bumpy track high above the town - but it is surprisingly sophisticated. Raffaele Bonaspetti, an elegant lawyer, bought the house (together with the hillside) as a 14th-century ruin some 20 years ago. With "the spirit of the place" in mind, he transformed both property and land, replanting the garden with olives, cypresses and laurels to satisfy his passion for trees. Every room in the house is different, beautifully decorated and filled with exquisite things. Breakfast is a delicious buffet, prepared by Raffaele's wife, Catia, and the views are magical. Via Panoramica 23, Gardone Riviera (0365 21022; £132.

Villa Fiordaliso A feature of Lake Garda is the many Liberty-style villas built by wealthy Italians at the turn of the 20th century. One of the loveliest is Villa Fiordaliso, once occupied by Gabriele d'Annunzio and later by Claretta Petacci, Mussolini's mistress. Inside, the intricately carved wood and marble work and the splendid gold and frescoed ceilings are the perfectly preserved remnants of another age. A magnificent Venetian-style staircase leads to seven cosseting bedrooms, three of which have their original furniture and decoration. The hotel's heart, though, is its romantic Michelin-starred first floor restaurant. The food here is exquisite (the chef has a penchant for little glass pots filled with delectable things) and beautifully presented. Above all, the setting is wonderfully intimate. Corso Zanardelli 132, Gardone Riviera (0365 20158; £182.

It's a treat to tuck into the chef's speciality fish soup on the delightful first-floor dining terrace of this long-established hotel and restaurant, in a plum position overlooking Torri's pretty harbour and 14th-century castle. It makes the perfect vantage point for watching the boats come and go, and the changing colours of the lake. The smartly renovated bedrooms are almost identical, with wooden furnishings and soft fabrics. Corner rooms are best; try for a balcony. Piazza Calderini 20, Torri del Benaco (045 722 5411; £52.Villa Giulia Once a simple pensione, Villa Giulia is a beautiful, spacious house built more than 100 years ago in Victorian style with Gothic touches. Gardens and terraces run practically to the water's edge while, inside, light, airy rooms lead off handsome corridors, including a civilised sitting room with Victorian armchairs and a beautiful dining room with Murano chandeliers and gold walls. Bedrooms in the villa (preferable to those in the annexe and grounds) range from light and modern to large rooms with antiques, timbered ceilings and balconies overlooking Lake Garda and the garden (which has a particularly lovely swimming pool). A second, simpler dining room opens on to a spacious terrace with gorgeous views. The food is excellent, and the owners, the Bombardelli family, who have been here for more than 50 years, are delightful. Viale Rimembranza 20, Gargnano (0365 71022; £197.

Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli. This astonishing hotel makes even the most spoilt guests feel lucky to be there, and the most jaded feel soothed, relaxed and at home. Built in 1892, the historic pink and white villa was the summer residence of Italy's wealthiest family, the Feltrinellis, and later sheltered Mussolini during the war. With much of the original furniture intact, it has been superbly restored by the American hotelier Bob Burns, no expense spared, and once more feels like the most arresting, opulent and luxurious private home you could hope to stay in. The suites, whether in the villa itself or the lakeside grounds, are eye-poppingly sumptuous, especially the bathrooms; the solicitous, welcoming staff are in droves. Wildly expensive, but worth it. Via Rimembranza 38-40, Gargnano (0365 798000; £808.Hotel du Lac The Arosio family have been welcoming guests to their friendly lakeside hotel since 1959. Endearingly old-fashioned, it seems to have changed little since. Downstairs, Persian rugs adorn warm mosaic or tiled floors, and pictures jostle for space on the walls. Reception rooms and bedrooms are furnished with substantial antiques, including a piano, high wooden beds and carved wardrobes. Try for one of the six rooms with a private terrace or balcony. Meals are accompanied by the sound of lapping water as the terrace and airy restaurant jut into the lake. Via Colletta 21, Gargnano (0365 71107; £58.

Locanda San Vigilio. If you are looking for somewhere exclusive but unflashy and low key, this small hotel on a lush peninsula, privately owned by Conte Agostino Guarienti, is the answer. It comprises a lakeside taverna, open to the public, and a 400-year-old inn, the Locanda San Vigilio. Homely, yet sophisticated, with the intimacy of a well-worn country house, it has antiques and creaky wooden floors, a ceramic stove and sideboards displaying plates and bottles. You can eat in the cosy dining room, on a little arched veranda or under huge white umbrellas on the terrace. A delightful spot for the discriminating. Punta San Vigilio, San Vigilio (045 725 6688; £196.Tenuta Le Sorgive Organic farmer Vittorio Serengelli has converted his grandfather's farm in rural countryside south of Lake Garda into a rather special agriturismo. Its riding school, stables, working farm, gymnasium and swimming pool make it ideal for energetic families and fresh-air fiends. Food for the unpretentious restaurant, Le Volpi (a few hundred yards away), is produced on the farm, including organic vegetables and Fiorentina steak from a fine herd of Chianina cattle. Rooms are simple and rustic, with beams, tiled floors and antique furniture; two have sleeping platforms for children. Località Sorgive, Solferino (0376 854252; £73.

The closest airport to Lake Garda is Verona (Brescia) to which Ryanair (0871 246 0000; flies daily for an average of £63.18 return. If you prefer not to travel independently, there are several tour operators that offer a wide choice of hotels, including the Bellevue San Lorenzo, around the lake. They include Inghams Ski, Lakes and Mountains (020 8780 4433;, Citalia (0870 909 7555; and Magic of Italy (020 8939 5453). As an example, Citalia offers a minimum seven nights\' b and b at the Hotel Bellevue San Lorenzo from £821 per person in high season, including flights.