One glimpse of fabulous Lake Como in Northern Italy and you can understand immediately why George Clooney fell in love with it.
The Hollywood heartthrob has a home on the shores of the beautiful lake where he played host to former US president Barack Obama and wife Michelle during the summer.
Arriving just a couple of days later for a short break, I missed the chance of hanging out with the 58-year-old actor and the former First Couple, although I suspect a large number of men in dark glasses may have prevented me getting up close and personal.
George and wife Amal are not the first celebrities to fall in love with this spectacular area, where the surrounding mountains plunge thousands of feet to the water’s edge.
Madonna, Richard Branson, Sylvester Stallone, Julian Lennon, footballer Ronaldinho and the late Gianni Versace are just a few of the stars who own or owned properties on this beautiful glacial lake.
There are stunning homes everywhere and beautiful, historic villas created by aristocrats and wealthy merchants in the early1800s although some date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
TV and movie crews are no strangers to the area and Villa del Balbianello in Lenno was used in the James Bond film, Casino Royale.
Nestling on the water’s edge are some of the most picture postcard villages imaginable.
Our base was the recently modernised three star Hotel Bazzoni in the lovely lakeside town of Tremezzo, just across the water from one of the jewels of the region, Bellagio.
The Bazzoni and its sister hotel down the road, the Britannia, will be known to many Irish tourists as the Travel Department sends about one thousand tourists to the hotels each year.
They are owned by British hotelier Ross Whieldon and his Italian wife Doriana who are busy planning new extensions and facilities.
The hotels are in stunning settings, with restaurants sitting right over the water’s edge. We dined in both, just a 20 minute walk apart, although there is a free shuttle between the two locations.
Arriving at lunchtime after a direct Aer Lingus flight to Milan and a 90 minute transfer we were spellbound by the drive along the Lake’s western shore.
The views of the 146 sq km lake, which plunges to a depth of 400m (over 1,300ft), are breathtaking.
The Bazzoni’s waterside brasserie and patio was an idyllic setting after our hot drive and we rushed in for a cold beer and a delicious lunch of pasta followed by chicken and roasted peppers.
We spent the afternoon exploring the area and checking out the floating pool at the Britannia, believed to be the biggest in Europe.
Next day we took the hotel’s free shuttle ferry across the lake to the gorgeous town of Bellagio where we wandered its narrow, cobbled streets and its beautiful waterside promenade full of colourful plants.
Weekends here are chock-a-block but our weekday visit was nice and relaxed. We sat in the town’s picturesque square enjoying a cold drink while watching visitors try their hand at a whole range of free wooden games set up for their entertainment. There was a lot of laughter and parent-child bonding going on.
Bellagio is one of the most visited towns on Lake Como but so many of them are worth visiting.
Another afternoon we took a little tourist street train from Tremezzo to Menaggio, a gorgeous town with a large central square a few miles north on the same western shore.
And you could hardly visit Lake Como without touring the city of Como itself. Situated right on the southern tip, it is bustling with life and has a very busy waterfront.
It’s a great destination for a day trip as there is plenty to see. A funicular train takes you up a nearby mountain for glorious views of the whole area but the main attraction is the old town with its medieval walls, cathedral, narrow streets, pavement cafes and small squares. The perfect place to while away a few hours.
We got there on a direct high speed hydrofoil from Tremezzo which costs €15, returning on a slower €10 ferry to take in more of the villages. And the ferry port is just 100m from the hotel.
Public ferries are the best and cheapest way to see the lake – and they are everywhere. If you feel extravagant you could take a boat plane which you see regularly flying overhead or hire a speedboat at €70 an hour, which is not expensive if there are a few of you.
For walkers there is a newly established 10km Lake Como Greenway with Tremezzo sitting in the middle.
We happened to be in Italy during the summer heatwave when temperatures hit 43C degrees, the hottest day ever recorded in the country in June.
But we were determined to try out the hiking trail and took off early at 8am to do two hours on the greenway walking south as far as Lenno and back.
It felt like a camino as the path took us up hills on an old Roman road, through the outskirts of villages and on to the lake shore in Lenno, with spectacular views of the lake along the way.
After our sterling efforts we fled to the air conditioning in our hotel as the mercury climbed ever higher, venturing out later to lay in the shade by one of the Bazzoni’s two pools.
Another afternoon we spent in Silvio’s, a gorgeous restaurant just outside Bellagio on the recommendation of Ross Whieldon, a friend of the owner. Our table looked directly down over the lake and its glistening water.
It turned out to be a gourmet establishment where we dined on lake trout caught that very morning after a refreshing glass of prosecco.
As expected in Italy, the food during our visit was excellent and another highlight was dining in the Lido restaurant of the Britannia where our table was literally over the water and where I sampled an octopus salad with cherry tomatoes and potatoes followed by ravioli filled with salmon and trout.
Another evening we tried the Britannia’s Chiurasco Cove restaurant for a Brazilian night with a feast of barbecued steak, pork, lamb and shrimp served directly from giant skewers by the chef.
You can eat as much as you like but despite our sterling efforts we eventually had to call time on this culinary extravaganza.
All good things come to an end, and so too did our wonderful trip to Lake Como.
We flew with Aer Lingus: www.aerlingus.com
Hotel Bazzoni: www.hotelbazzonitremezzo.com or ring 00 39 0344 40403.
Hotel Britannia: http://www.hotelbritanniacadenabbia.com/
Travel Department, which specialises in guided holidays, do packages to Hotel Bazzoni on a half board basis with various day trips included from €729pp. www.traveldepartment.ie
For information on Lake Como see: www.discovercomo.com
The Greenway: https://greenwaylagodicomo.com/en/
Written by Jim Gallagher