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Pictured left to right outside the new store are: Paul Hardwick, Fred. Olsen Travel Agents Director of Retail; Emma Bailey, Fred. Olsen Travel Agents; Tutti Taylor, Fred. Olsen Travel Agents; Councillor Candy Vaughan, Mayor of Eastbourne; Trevor Ridler, Fred. Olsen Travel Agents Business Development Manager; and Shirley Waters, Fred. Olsen Travel Agents..

A truly stunning Italian Lakes Tour

Like a lot of people, I had an underlying misconception that organised tours were aimed more at elderly travellers, or those who lacked the confidence for independent travel. This trip to Italy, organised by The Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers to dispel just such myths, has proved me fantastically wrong!  

The outbound flight was with British Airways, which was on time with everything running smoothly and to plan. The early morning flight time meant the airport was quieter than it would be later in the day, and I was through security and relaxing airside within 10 minutes.

Our base for the trip was to be the Grand Hotel Imperiale Resort & Spa, which is a 4-star hotel in a stunning location on the edge of Lake Como. This beautiful period hotel offers such spacious bedrooms - probably the largest I have ever stayed in – and considering my profession this is quite an accolade. The rooms are modern, with elements of old school charm. The room was very clean with all the usual amenities and a large balcony offering perfect views over the lake, especially at sunset and sunrise. The hotel boasts a swimming pool overlooking the lake for all guests to relax and enjoy, with a spa and yoga studio at an additional cost.

Our first evening was spent cruising on Lake Como for a sunset cruise. What better way to unwind than chatting with your fellow guests as the sun goes down over the most beautiful stretch of water, nestled between the foothills of the Alps. The weather was perfect and the sunset utterly breathtaking.

Riviera Travel hosted my next foray across the lake the following morning, for a tour of Villa Del Balbianello. This beautiful 19th century villa sits on a private island, overlooking the western shore of Lake Como, where they shot parts of the James Bond film Casino Royale and Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. Our tour guide was very informative, injecting a good sense of humour into the history of the Villa and its former owner, entrepreneur and explorer Guido Monzino. Monzino left the Villa and a significant portion of Dosso di Lavedo, the wooded peninsula it is sited on, to the Italian National Trust in 1988 and the foundation has opened Balbianello to the public ever since.  

That afternoon, we visited the gorgeous lakeside town of Bellagio. If ever I pictured a typical Italian town, this was what I would envisage - narrow, winding, cobbled streets and houses perched on the hillside - stopping for an Aperol or cappuccino outside a café in the afternoon sun. Most definitely a world away from Bellagio’s namesake hotel in Las Vegas, with its famous dancing fountains.

The beauty of the lake and its mountainous backdrop is best-viewed from the water, so my top tip would be do a boat tour, to catch those stunning sunsets or perhaps after dark to see reflections of lakeside life lit up along the shores. As well as the tours there are small boats every 20 mins that stop off at all the towns and villages around the lake, for just a few euros return. Stop off at some of these lesser-known stops, leaving behind the more touristy resorts, to truly immerse yourself in local Italian life. Here you can find some amazing restaurants with locally sourced fish for a taste of the real Italy - the shrimp lasagne I had was a real favourite.

From Como you can take the Funicular train up to the village of Brunate. The vertical journey lasts just 7 minutes on a track at 55% gradient – the steepest gradient permitted! The train made its first journey in 1894 and still links the city with the summit where there are walks and some charming restaurants and bars to soak up the panoramic views over the mountain. If I had had more time I would have joined an E-bike tour to explore the local region further - there was still so much to see.

This trip has opened my eyes to the joy of a Tour, whether old or young, seasoned traveller or not. A broad variety of operators and itineraries can cater for everyone – whether you are an adventure seeker, cultural explorer or wildlife enthusiast. All are underpinned with expert local knowledge and the nitty gritty details of transfers, excursion options and finding your feet smoothed away for you so you can just relax and enjoy. All you need to do is decide where next?!

You can find Darren at our Bury St. Edmunds branch.