Bella Italia - gem on the shores of Lake Garda
As a veteran of summers spent in family holiday villages across Europe it is difficult to sum up 10 days in Bella Italia, on the southern shore of Lake Garda, Italy, without running out of superlatives.
The list of great things to do is long. The list of things to avoid is short but if I had read it before this holiday I would have saved money and time.
If you don’t fancy hiring a car you can easily wile away a week on site, down by the lake and stroll into the quaint town of Peschiera in the evenings to eat and shop.
On site everything is at hand – great pools, restaurants, supermarket, bouncy castle, playgrounds, shops and bars.
Bella Italia runs down to the lake where you can swim, windsurf and hire pedalos – watch out for Italy’s grumpiest pedalo hire man. He is based at the gate to Bella Itlalia and under no circumstances should your son move any of the three oars he has placed in the sand to mark out his territory.
There are many companies offering accommodation but before deciding which to choose bear in mind that some do not have air-conditioning as standard and some are not located close to site amenities.
The Canvas staff really should be commended on several fronts, not least because the mobiles were spotless on arrival.
One evening mid-week they hosted an al fresco pizza “street party” where you and all your new neighbours gather round a very long table – just like in the Ragu sauce TV ads.
While abroad I go out of my way to avoid speaking to anyone from a country not attached to mainland Europe. My wife doesn’t approve of this. The accents just shatter my dreamy holiday mindset. But my fears were ill-founded – the food and wine went down well and it soon became clear I was not expected to remember anyone’s name the next day.
My children even started playing with other small people from neighbouring mobiles – flying in the face of my stranger danger drill.
The most admirable quality of the Canvas staff was there unflinching, selfless endeavours to entertain swarms of children. They have boundless energy and seem to be up and about before sunrise every day hatching whacky, fun-packed plans to entertain the little ones.
Entertainment on-site is child-centred. If you have a problem with tour reps and locals with stars in their eyes belting through High School Musical “songs” three nights on the trot then you are on the wrong holiday. Either find a local orphanage for the kids and take yourself off to the Riviera or hum along and for goodness sake stop checking your watch. Besides, my research has shown that there are no local orphanages willing to take in Irish children – not even “for a couple of nights”.
If you are staying for longer than a week – hire a car and start exploring.
Many folk tour right around the lake - with pit-stops at all the recommended towns. One family we met drove to Austria, Leichenstein, Switzerland and back to Lake Garda in a day.
We stuck to the southern and eastern shores of the lake. Definitely worth visiting are the spit town Sirmione, Verona and Mount Baldo.
Sirmione is situated on a narrow peninsula which stretches far into the lake. The old town is packed with cafes, shops and restaurants. Take a boat trip around the peninsula and you will see the ruins of one of Italy’s jewels - the once beautiful Roman villa Catallus Grottoes – and watch the water’s surface come alive with bubbles rising from sulphur springs on the lake bed.
Verona, is one of Italy’s most impressive historical cities and if you are only visiting for the afternoon then check out the Roman arena – now used for summer opera - and the San Zeno basilica. There is also a rather contrived “Romeo and Juliet house”, complete with balcony and plaster cast figures of the doomed lovers – worth a visit if only to read some of the angst-ridden adolescent notes pinned to the wall.
The cable car ride from Malcesine to the top of Mount Baldo should be on everyone’s day trip list – it scores top marks on every front.
The ascent has that slight stomach churning theme park ride quality to it - wife and kids thought this was fun - but that’s because they weren’t responsible enough to spend the entire ride wondering about the strength of the cable, the maintenance records, does the driver have a drink problem, have the doors ever suddenly opened due to an electrical fault.
The views from the summit of Mount Baldo - with Lake Garda glistening below were superb. The ponies that graze freely on the mountain are used to people and do not seem in the least bothered by the attentions of children. I am not saying they won’t bite or kick your children – but they didn’t damage mine and that’s the main thing.
There’s also a café and a small playground but the most surprising building is the little chapel where I offered up a novena for the doors, the cable and the maintenance records.
One of the most appealing features of Mount Baldo in July and August is the cool, fresh respite it offers from the searing 30-40degree temperatures at lake-level.
Tickets for the cable car can only be bought with cash– don’t turn up with just a credit card.
The Parco Naturo Viva provides one of the best and one of the worst day trips around Peschiera. It is two parks in one.
The Parco Faunistico hosts an impressive array of animals – including snow leopards, tigers and bears – as well as a pretty awesome collection of life-size dinosaurs. It is an easy, relaxing and interesting attraction with plenty to occupy adults and children.
Its next-door neighbour the Parco Safari is a different story. A very long convoy of cars passes very slowly through the different enclosures, the occupants peering in vain to spy one of the more exotic animals.
There are few places to overtake so you are stuck in a queue of traffic for a couple of hours. If one of your children decides they need the toilet it’s either hold it in “even if you are only three” or take your chances with the cheetahs – if you can find them, that is.
If some fool in a car up ahead sees some movement in the undergrowth on go the brakes and every car grinds to another halt. An agonising couple of hours.
The other thing to avoid is Gardaland on the cheap. Don’t try and visit the massive theme park using the cut-price after 7.30pm ticket unless you have been before and know your way around. Otherwise you end up herding tired, grumpy children from one very long queue to another, never quite and managing to reach the top of any one queue. It was a torturous.
But these unfortunate episodes were the exceptions. The Canvas experience at Bella Itlalia ticks every box when it comes to family holidays – and when summer’s gone, the kids are back at school and you dig out the holiday pics on a winter’s evening you can lie back, a glass of chianti in hand, High School Musical seeping through from the bedroom above, close your eyes.... and wish you were there.
You can contact Canvas by calling 0845 268 0827 or visiting their website