La Dolce Vita on a lake
Ice cream, scenery, the Italian good life. What more could you want, asks Ailish O'Hora
Think of the wonderful Killary Harbour and then the equally magical Jurassic Park. Now think of them glistening in the sun. That will give you a taste of what the enchanting Lake Garda in northern Italy has to offer, at least visually.
Although when our plane landed in Milan on that summer's day in August it didn't exactly feel like that.
It was dark and lashing rain as a busload of knackered, pale and cranky (okay, so maybe not all of us) Irish tourists pulled off to head towards the water that is claimed by Tyroleans and Bavarians alike and now loved by many more.
Thankfully the dreary weather was short-lived and as the sun rose the rain cleared.
The Travel Department, with which I travelled, flies into both Milan and Verona and here's the first tip.
The transfer from Milan was just over 130 kilometres long and while the Autostrada are good I would recommend flying into Verona which is only a short trip away from the final destination of Riva del Garda on the northern tip of the Lake, where we were staying.
Having said that, the countryside is beautiful as are the different views of the Lake en route.
The lake opens up impressively as you drive alongside it and it's more of a gradual realisation of its breathtaking scale and grandeur than a sudden one.
The lake itself is 52km long, has an area of 370 square metres with a surface elevation of 65 metres.
Glaciers formed this Alpine region at the end of the last Ice Age.
(A micro-climate exists at the north of the lake so the snow-capped Alps can also be enjoyed without freezing to death.)
We stayed at the very top tip of the lake, at the Grand Hotel Liberty in Riva del Garda – a four star gem in a great location right in the centre of town and just a five minute's walk from the lake.
The half board deal from the hotel provided a great buffet style breakfast, with both hot and cold fare.
It's architecture was straight out of the days of the Grand Tour and while it also boasts a beautiful terrace off the dining room over-looking a great pool – it was only really used at breakfast time, which was a shame.
The food was very good, usually a meat and vegetable main course in the evening, with service that seemed a little old-fashioned at times as waiters in traditional attire buzzed around the dining room.
Still there are great little trattoria, gelateria and bars alongside the lake and in the old town as an alternative (the prices are cheaper than here, but not that much, although beer and wine are much better value).
The hotel was spotless, as was the whole of Riva del Garda, which is probably a testament to its Germanic history more than anything else.
And the lake was a delight.
It would seem everything in Riva del Garda centres around that large pond of water and rightly so.
The options ranged from windsurfing to paddle-boating and there were people out on the late from 7am until the sun went down.
Garda was wonderful for a swim – although it has a strong current that I didn't expect.
Very popular are the many boat trips and water taxis that criss-cross the lake that stop at a range of little towns like Limone and Malcesine – two picture postcard towns that could have been built for lake lovers to take in views all day long.
They are perfect for a leisurely drink or spot of lunch as well as good shopping.
I took a number of these – being on the water very relaxing and it was a great way to enjoy the expanse of the lake.
There are also a number of great walks along the lake – Turbola is a leisurely 45 minute walk away and is a great way to watch the Italians preen and show-off.
And with cycle paths everywhere, this is another cheap and cheerful option and a great way to travel around Riva.
For braver souls, and I wasn't one of them, was a trek to the church of San Alessandro, which sits on a cliff overlooking Riva .
We stayed in Riva for a week but the ever-efficient Travel Department had a number of excursions on tap including visits to Verona and Venice.
I didn't take the trip to Venice – to be honest I didn't fancy a three hour coach trip for a one day trip.
However, I took in Verona, and it was as impressive as one would expect with the spectacular Arena di Verona centre stage (to be honest the Romeo and Juliet balcony was a major anti-climax although I don't know what I was expecting).
Our group was made up a great mix of travellers, some more seasoned than others and some with more mileage on the clock.
The highlights were the two oldest – Una and Marie – two Dubs who ended up living in Cork and rearing their families there while becoming best friends.
To the rest of us they will forever be known as the two gentleladies of Verona.