Lake Garda is a very different kind of holiday when you’re travelling with kids. You can combine the beach experience (lakeside rather than sea, of course) with castles, spas and much, much more. So here are one or two Garda tips.
Go to a spa
Lake Garda has been known and loved for its thermal springs for hundreds of years. Its modern presence is more interesting, however: in 1889, a Venetian gentleman named Procipio, upon hearing stories from extremely healthy locals of hot waters emanating as if from nowhere, smelt a gap in the market. He bought a diving suit in England, and went down to see what was actually going on down there. He soon found what we was looking for – boiling hot water gurgling out of the rocks below – inserted a large tube into the lake bed, and an industry was born.
The first spa opened for business a year later, and today a network of pipes carries the hot sulphuric waters to the surface. The lake’s natural hot spring, the Boiola, spurts out of the mineral-rich rocks at a temperature of 69° centigrade, and is rich in sulphur, sodium and iodine. It’s great for treating respiratory problems, rheumatism, skin disorders and conditions you probably didn’t even know you had. You can get a wide range of treatments in thermal pools, mud baths, massages in open-air and indoor spas dotted up and down the shores of the lake, including the luxurious Catullo Spa, the Virgilio Spa, the Aquaria, and most famously of all, Terme di Sirmione, Italy’s leading facility for treating rhinogenous deafness – all while enjoying the nature, mild climate and beautiful views of Lake Garda itself, of course. It all adds up to a different experience from your local GP.
Get on your bike
There are few places better-suited to lovers of the two-wheeled holiday experience than Lake Garda. The region has over 1,000 km of well-signposted trails, with something for everyone: extreme athletes will love the mountains to the north, while the gently rolling hills further south are perfect for those seeking something less strenuous, or with little cyclists in tow. Breathtaking (as in beautiful) cycle paths, scenic roads and country tracks criss-cross and connect to make a great way of exploring the art, history and culture of the region surrounding Lake Garda. Tips: check out the lakeside path to Desenzano, the route beside the River Mincio at Peschiera or cycle the wine routes through the vineyards of Lugana. The Parco Sigurtà, which has a path going straight through it, even has botanical areas and a petting zoo for the ragazzi.
Do the Pearl of Garda
Perched on a thin peninsula of land protruding into the lake, the ancient town of Sirmione has it all: amazing views across the water in three directions at once, historic buildings, some great beaches, shopping for everything from souvenirs to high-end fashion, great dining and much more besides. The peninsula used to be a resort for rich and powerful Romans, and it’s not hard to see why. Cars are only allowed in for essential use nowadays, so you can do the town’s narrow streets and alleyways at very much your own pace. Do Sirmione as the mood takes you: play a sunny round of golf on one of the best courses in Europe here, treat yourself to a spa treatment, or spend some time exploring the town and sampling the cafés down by the harbour. The tip of the peninsula is home to the remains of a once sublime Roman villa, the Grotto of Catullus, a huge archaeological complex of teetering stone arches and tumbledown walls up to three storeys high. It’s the largest domestic Roman villa in northern Italy, and the terraced hillsides offer spine-tingling 360-degree views of the lake. There’s also Rocca Scaligera, a fairytale castle, again surrounded by the lake, and considered one of Italy’s most complete and well preserved castles. Like all good castles, it has a colourful history, from romantic legends to myths of murder aplenty. The original residents, the Scaliger family, were the local version of the Borgias, so the mediaeval goings-on sometimes got ugly. And once the kids (or you) have had enough of history, Sirmione also has a reputation for its delicious ice-cream: as soon as you enter the town through the castle, head straight ahead for Via Vittorio Emanuele, known locally as ‘Gelato Alley’, where you’ll find one gelateria after another selling dozens of flavours, each one wackier than the last.
Do a market
A series of lakeside markets work their way up and down the towns on both sides of Lake Garda. Each town has its own market day, and they start early – the markets have usually packed up and gone by lunchtime. The markets are great fun, as is the haggling. Sirmione’s nearest markets are on Mondays at Colombare (just south of the town) and Fridays at Lugana di Sirmione (a few minutes to the south-east). If you’re staying in Sirmione old town, you’re better off combining a market visit with a ferry trip to Bardolino or the town of Garda. In Bardolino, the market arrives early on Thursday morning and stretches right along the lakeside path, filling the harbour area, and in Garda town it arrives on Friday morning, also spanning the lake shore around the harbour. To enjoy the markets at their best, think about catching an early ferry and buying a South of the Lake ticket, a one-day, hop-on hop-off ticket that gets you ferry travel between any of the towns along the southern coast of Lake Garda, so you can visit more than one town in a day.
Spend a day at the beach
As you can probably imagine, the lakeside spaces offer dozens of great beaches. The best include the Lido delle Bionde beach, about 15 minutes’ from Sirmione, with large, smooth clay rocks, outdoor thermal pools and water that’s said to be the clearest anywhere in Lake Garda, which is like saying its cooking is the best in Italy, i.e. quite something. Just in front of the Grotto of Catullus in Sirmione, meanwhile, there’s a natural beach of smooth white rock that make the perfect bathing spot: with history behind you, the Dolomites stretching away in the distance in front of you and the waters of Lake Garda all around you, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered with crowded and sandy.
Single Parents on Holiday offer a week at Lake Garda from 21 to 28 August 2015. This holiday is a combination of an activity and relaxation holiday with accommodation at a beautiful 4-star family hotel near Garda with great facilities, including Olympic size pool, kids club, tennis courts and much more.