Three under-the-radar Italian retreats

As vacation getaways go, Italy is hard to beat. But the country is more than Rome, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. Dreamy destinations, of course, but they’re hardly undiscovered. As the masses flock to Italy’s better-known holiday spots, do as I did last fall and escape to less touristy and off-the-beaten-path places for your next vacation. Here are three favorites I discovered along the way.

Less celebrated than nearby Como, Lake Maggiore is a paradise of crystal-clear water and garden islands backed by towering mountains and breath-taking landscapes.

Lake Maggiore

It’s an unseasonably warm October morning, and I’m perched on our room’s Juliet balcony fronting the esteemed Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in charming, lakefront Stresa. Looking over a tree-lined promenade, I gaze over Lake Maggiore. Its rippling blue surface melds into a backdrop of towering, purplish peaks formed by the Alps. Isola Bella enthralls as it rises from the sparkling water like an elaborately embellished confection. The isle is almost completely covered by the Borromeo Palace, a Baroque residence and tiered gardens sculpted over the centuries.

British garden celeb Monte Don colorfully described the sight, saying “Its true public face screams across the lake, a tipsy drag queen of a garden ready to party.” Who can resist that? A short ferry ride later, my partner Don and I are soon strolling through the opulent residence and its perfectly coiffed giardini—a jaw-dropping interplay of formal terraces adorned with sculptures, fountains and choreographed plantings cascading to the lake.

Located in the iconic Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, the Hemingway Bar in Stresa is named after the famous writer who stayed there.

Our next boat stop is Villa Taranto, a parklike hillside garden on the lake’s western shore. There, expansive grounds teem with rare and exotic plants, towering conifers, fountains, terraces and pavilions. The beautiful gardens are arranged in thematic sections connected by ribbons of paths and walkways. Like the porcini risotto we enjoy at the venue’s cafe, Villa Taranto is meant to be savored slowly. We take our time and eventually board the ferry to return to Stresa, stopping along the way to visit the more informal gardens of Isola Madre. Showy peacocks strut across sun-dappled lawns surrounded by woods, lush greenery and flowering azaleas and rhododendrons. Rows of palm and citrus trees soak in the afternoon sun. That evening we dine in Stresa’s compact town center, crowded with people eating outdoors and strolling with gelato in hand. Over plates of pasta, we plan the next day’s lakeside drive to Locarno, Switzerland, above which we’ll hike in the Alps and be back to Stresa in time for a cocktail in our opulent hotel’s Hemingway Bar, named for its most famous and frequent patron.

In Stresa, an open-air restaurant overlooks Lake Maggiore.
Where To StayWith its elegant Belle Époque architecture and easy-going charm, Stresa boasts stunning views of Lake Maggiore and easy access to its Borromean Islands. The Swiss Alps are nearby and Stresa’s railway station makes the lake-front town a super starting point from which to explore the surrounding area.

Piedmont Wine Country

Move over Chianti, Piedmont is a region rich with famous grapes, truffles and a tapestry of scenic destinations.

Ceretto Winery’s domed platform overlooks its vineyards and the surrounding countryside.

My 6-foot-4-inch frame makes me an unlikely driver of the vintage Alpha Romeo convertible parked in front of our 18th-century hotel crowning the ancient hilltop town of Guarene. But in my imagination, those are the wheels we’ll be taking tomorrow as we explore southern Piedmont’s undulating wine country that flows and folds below our hilltop perch like the sweeping train of a Valentino gown. Instead, we drive out in our Lancia coupe headed for Alba, a market town where medieval towers cast shadows over lively piazzas and streets lined with boutiques, wine bars and sidewalk cafes.

Medieval towers overlooking Piazza Duomo in Alba.

This is truffle season, and the earthy gem dominates menus, from gnocchi to gelato. We chose polenta, infused with truffle oil and topped with aromatic shavings. The dish teams with a robust red—we’re in the land of Barolo and Barbaresco, after all. Sated, we depart for a tasting at the nearby Ceretto Winery. It begins with a tour of the “Grape”—a transparent domed platform that serves as a tasting room, jutting out from the hillside like a bubble floating above the vineyards. Its futuristic architecture starkly contrasts our hotel Castello di Guarene—a lavishly decorated 18th-century palace constructed on the grounds of a medieval fortress overlooking the Langhe vineyards. We return in time for an evening stroll through the parterres and shapely topiaries of its terraced gardens, reflecting on today’s adventures and planning more of the same for the rest of our visit.

The formal gardens of the luxury hotel Castello di Guarene.

“Piedmont, where every vineyard tells a story, every bottle is a poem, and every sip is a journey through rolling hills, truffle-scented air and the artistry of winemaking.

– Anonymous

Tagliatelle al Tartufo Nero, one of many dishes served during Piedmont’s truffle season.
Don’t Miss OutAlba, the small Langhe town once known as the City of a Hundred Towers, is at the epicenter of Italy’s truffle trade and boasts many Michelin-rated restaurants. Its vineyards are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, producing internationally famous Langhe wines including Barolo and Barbaresco.


The charming coastal town of Portovenere remains a hidden gem, offering a serenity that sets it apart from its more popular neighbors in Cinque Terre

With its small harbor lined with colorful houses, Portovenere is a picturesque port town south of Cinque Terre.

I sit on the fig-shaded terrace of our hillside villa overlooking Portovenere’s coin-sized piazza and quiet harbor. So this is what Italians mean when they say, “dolce far niente”—the joy of doing nothing. Not that there isn’t plenty to do. This morning, we wake to the rhythm of the village coming to life, fishing boats motoring out to sea and pastry shop doors being thrown open. We walk into town and pass along the waterfront to reach San Pietro perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Ligurian coast of the Italian Riviera.

Chiesa di San Pietro overlooks the Ligurian Sea.

Early morning bathes the Romanesque church in glorious light and awakens views of upcoming adventures that surround us. There’s nearby Palmaria Island, where we’ll trek trails while gazing at the sea and Bay of Poets, there are hidden coves and Byron’s Grotto that we’ll discover by small boat, and of course, the narrow cobblestone streets of Portovenere’s core where we’ll dine late into the evenings. One day we’ll lunch cliffside in Vernazza and then hike the famous footpath above Cinque Terre. Exhausted, we’ll return to our villa and watch the water turning from brilliant blue to deep purple as another glorious day ends.

The Sentiero Azzurro, the Blue Path, connects Portovenere to Cinque Terre’s five famous villages.
Add To Your ItineraryAccessible by boat or car, Portovenere is frequently visited in concert with nearby Cinque Terre villages, creating a remarkable coastal itinerary. There is a ferryboat service that departs or arrives hourly (almost, hey it’s Italy) to and from Portovenere to Cinque Terre. 

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Brad Mee
Brad Mee is the Editor-in-Chief of Utah Style & Design Magazine.