GETTING AROUND: We began our lake crawl in Vicenza, about 45 miles west of Venice, where we rented a mid-size car with manual transmission for about $65 per day. We traveled the autostradas: A8 to Maggiore, A9 to Como and A4 to Garda. The only snag of the entire trip was trying to pump gas at self-service stations on a Sunday morning when there were no attendants on duty. We left $20 at one pit stop, unable to activate the pump or retrieve our bills.
Our best investment was a $10 road map. We finished our 595-mile drive at Lake Como, where we returned by train to Milan and then continued on to Germany.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Olivi (5 Via San Pietro, 011-39-030-990-5365, www.hotelolivi.it) in Sirmione has 64 rooms in three price ranges, and some rooms have balconies. An abundant breakfast buffet (included) is served outside in summer. Doubles run about $75 to $157.
LAKE TRIPS: It takes about 21/2 hours to go from one end of the lake to the other on diesel-powered ordinarios; the rapido or hydrofoil doubles the price and more than cuts the time in half. Tariff ranges from a couple of bucks to go to the next town to $20 for faster, farther trips.
WHERE TO EAT: It's hard to top fresh lake fish and rucola (arugula) salad. We tended to eat what was caught locally and drink what was grown locally. Trattoria La Fiasca (Via S. Maria Maggiore 11, Sirmione) has a loyal clientele, and dinner for two with wine runs about $70.
WHAT TO DO: The Malcesine-Monte Baldo funicular ($12) offers views of Lake Garda, Po Valley and the Dolomites; bikes are permitted for those who want a thrill on the trip down.
The Museo dell'Olio (Cissano di Bardolino, www.museodellolio.com; free), or Olive Oil Museum, has a historical exhibition and tasting shop. I left with olive oil moisturizer, rejuvenating cream, a bottle of local Bardolino wine and two heavenly vinegars. The wine cost $3, the moisturizer three times that.
Vittoriale degli Italiani (25083 Gardone Riviera, www.vittoriale.it; $7-$20) is an art deco villa crammed with oddities and beautiful furnishings, including Murano glass and extensive gardens. There is also a war museum and gardens.
Market day is Wednesday in Gardone Riviera, Thursday in Bardolino, Friday in Sirmione and Saturday in Malcesine.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Pironi (Via Marconi 35, Cannobio, 011-39-0323-70624, www.pironihotel.it) is small and intimate. Once a Franciscan monastery, the 12-room hotel is appointed with antiques, with a locals' bar on the ground floor. Rates are $127 to $170, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT: Ristorante A.D. (Plaza V. Emanuelle 27), along the lakefront, serves fresh fish and vegetables seasoned with fresh herbs; dinner for two with wine is about $55.
WHAT TO DO: Hikers and mountain bikers are attracted to the quiet charm of Cannobio, just three miles from the Swiss border. Maps and trail guides are readily available. Routes range from easy walks to strenuous hikes over rugged terrain.
The Alessi design factory (www.alessi.it) is at 6 Via Privata Alessi in the town of Crusinallo di Omegna on Lake Orta; look for the teapot in the sky.
Michele Abate's blacksmith shop (Via Magistris 16, Cannobio) is easy to find. His goods spill out of the entrance and onto the lakeside promenade.
Market day is Sunday in Cannobio, Wednesday in Luino and Friday in Stresa.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Excelsior Splendide (Via Lungo Lago Manzoni 28, 011-39-031-950225, www.hsplendide.com) in Bellagio offers a range of rates and plans. Figure $160 to $185 for a double with breakfast and dinner. Skip the dinner, but have a glass of wine and watch: Guests look as if they have stories to tell. The Kennedy Farm (Piani de Nesso, 011-39-031-918906), seven miles outside the town of Nesso, offers lodging from March to October. There is no heat, so the season ends when it gets cold. Prices start at about $42 double, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT: It is 103 steps up to Trattoria S. Giacomo (Salita Serbelloni 45, Bellagio), and worth every huff and puff. It is so popular that customers are given pillows to sit on the steps and wait for a table. Try the smoked fish salad and the creme caramel. Dinner and wine for two runs about $75.
WHAT TO DO: Market days in Como are Monday through Saturday at Via Mentana 15; an antiques market is held the last Saturday of the month.
INFORMATION: Italian Government Tourism Board, 212-245-5618 , www.italiantourism.com.
-- Susan Harb