There can be few places more romantic than Lake Garda. There is something so peaceful and tranquil about the lakeside setting, with none of the busy, overpopulated feel of beachside resorts. Whether you are looking for a romantic getaway, an easygoing family holiday or an adventure break, Lake Garda has loads to offer. Along the southern banks of the lake you'll find family-friendly stretches of beach while the northern shores are wilder, with rocky cliffs and high winds making them very popular with kite-surfers and adrenaline sport fans.
It was our wedding anniversary, so we had left the kids and kite-boards at home. Our only goal was to eat and drink ourselves silly, with possibly a bit of sunbathing by the lake thrown in. We were headed to the western shore of the lake to a small town called Gargnano.
We flew into Milan and then drove to the lake, stopping off in Salo for lunch. It's amazing how good a simple lunch of crusty bread served with olive oil, spaghetti alle vongole and a chilled glass of local rosé can taste when it is served to you in the sunshine by the cool waters of the lake.
The reason we were making a bee-line for Gargnano was to seek out the magnificent Villa Feltrinelli. When we arrived, we knew we were in for something special – we had to ring a buzzer on the hotel's ornate iron gates to even enter the grounds. But once in, the welcome couldn't have been warmer. We were greeted by a dashing young man with a small posy of flowers, which he presented to me. This gesture was just the beginning of a host of wonderfully romantic touches.
Once inside we were blown away by the old-world beauty of the hotel. Built in 1892, the villa is a magnificent building replete with ornate carved ceilings, stained-glass windows, panelled walls and marble floors. The place is genuinely 'boutique', with only 13 guest rooms in the main villa and seven more in buildings dotted around the grounds.
The splendid villa was originally commissioned as a summer home for one of the region's leading industrialist families, the Feltrinellis. And it later went on to be Benito Mussolini's last residence – he was virtually held prisoner there by the Nazis from 1943 to 1945.
Hotelier Bob Burns (founder of Regent International Hotels) acquired the property in the 1990s and poured £20m into the building's painstaking restoration. He then opened it as a very special luxury hotel in 2001. Needless to say, with such a budget, the hotel boasts so many exquisite details you could never list them all. But just imagine an octagonal bathroom's deep purple marble bath, the kaleidoscope effect of the tower room's round windows, chandeliers dripping with Murano glass, hand-painted ceilings (crafted by the Lieti brothers in 1890), gleaming gilt mirrors and wonderfully friendly staff all gliding about in their starched whites. You could be forgiven for coming over all Grace Kelly.
We settled in with a white peach bellini out by the water before retiring to the pergola for dinner – we had heard much about the Michelin-starred skills of chef Stephano Baiocco and our expectations were high. Baiocco trained with Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse, Raymond Blanc and Feran Adria, before coming to work at the Villa. We chose his tasting menu and were rendered speechless by the height at which he set the bar with the first course. 'La Zuppetta' was a dish of tiny baby squid filled with a wonderfully subtle garden-fresh pea and lemon cream, poured over with a savoury, rock fish jus.
Next came a picture-perfect plate of vegetable crudités with a quenelle of tomato mousse and crispy panzanella croutons – what this man can do with a plate of raw vegetables has to be tasted to be believed. Suffice it to say, the fresh, clean flavours burst in your mouth to perfectly prepare the palate for the richer dishes to come.
Next came the winning dish for me – tortelloni filled with king crab in a base of ginger broth – the zingy ginger a perfect complement to the rich crab. After this followed a wonderfully light dessert of natural yoghurt-filled milk crèpe offset by two lines of intensely flavoured lavender and ginger syrup.
We were in gourmet heaven as we floated back up to our room to find the staff, in hyper-romance mode, had laid out our (thankfully presentable) nightwear on cushions and had sprinkled the toilet bowl with red rose petals.
The grand hotel Villa Feltrinelli, with its elegant embellishments, stellar cooking, dreamy lakeside setting and private guest boat, definitely offers a level of romantic retreat that few mere mortal hotels could compete with. It is straight out of The Great Gatsby, and that said Gatsby's millions would come in handy, as the hotel is legendarily expensive. But as a honeymoon treat or to celebrate a special anniversary in proper style, there are few places around to rival it.
For the Culture Vultures: Neighbouring towns of Sirmione, Salo and Gardone are all must-visits. Sirmione is a cultural hub, admired over the centuries by artists and poets for its medieval centre, dominated by the castle. The town is known for its thermal bath resorts and for housing 'Le Grotte di Catullo' – the ruins of the family villa of Catullus, one of the Roman Empire's most famous senators and writers.
For the Kids: Peschiera del Garda is one of the most picturesque towns on the southern shore of the lake and is very family friendly. It is well served by trains, buses and the ferry so makes a good base. It's also near Gardaland – the largest amusement park in Italy, so loads for the kids to enjoy. There's a free shuttle bus from the Peschiera train station.
For the Kicks: Riva del Garda, situated on the wilder northern shores, is a popular summer sports resort and one of the best places for wind-surfing and kite-surfing.
For the Views: Head to Malcesine on the eastern shore where you can explore its tiny streets, small harbour, and medieval castle before taking the cable car up to Monte Baldo.