THEY WERE POPULAR IN THE 1960s AND 1970s, BUT ARE PACKAGE HOLIDAYS STILL A THING IN THE INTERNET AGE? WE DECIDED TO FIND OUT.
Lake Garda is a stunning area in northern Italy, between Milan and Venice. I’d enjoyed a memorable holiday there with my father in the early 2000s, so I was keen to show my Kiwi husband around the area some 15 years later.
Usually we book all our travel online – flights, hotels and so on – but this time we decided to let someone else do all the work, and try out a package holiday. My first-ever trip abroad, aged 16, was on a package tour to Spain – a long time ago! – so I was interested to find out how things had evolved since the 1970s.
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TOURING WITH TUI
As we were starting in the UK, we chose our holiday from Thomson Lakes and Mountains, a well-known British operator that was part of a larger European leisure group called Tui. We decided on a nice-looking lakeside hotel called The Sportsman* – very Italian! – located between the towns of Bardolino and Garda.
Our flights between London Gatwick and Verona were operated by the company’s own airline. We weren’t sure what to expect, but in fact they were excellent. The aircraft were modern, clean and comfortable, the staff friendly and professional and the food really good. We were very pleasantly surprised. It was a great start to our holiday.
At Verona, the coaches were waiting to take us all to our hotels. This was very reminiscent of my Spanish experience – lots of tanned young people in uniforms with clipboards, trying their best to make sure that everyone boarded the right bus and that their luggage accompanied them.
As with an airport supershuttle service, those travellers whose hotel happened to be the final drop-off point ended up spending a long time on the bus. But nobody seemed to mind. Lake Garda is so beautiful, and the pretty towns around it are quintessentially Italian. So it was a little like a free scenic tour.
The largest in Italy, Lake Garda is 51.6 km long, from Riva del Garda in the north to Peschiera del Garda in the south, and around 16.7 km at its widest. 3 different provinces share its shoreline: we happened to be based in the Veneto, on the south eastern side.
For me, this is picture postcard Italy – stunning mountain scenery, beautiful old towns with cobbled streets, and gorgeous dreamy villas with lush gardens, huge wrought-iron gates and cypress trees lining their driveways.
The Sportsman Hotel was quite a modern building, unlike the palatial old Grand Hotel Gardone* which I’d stayed in during the previous visit with my dad. But it was very comfortable and nicely decorated. One of its best features was its private beach on the lakeside, which was a lovely place to chill out. The waters of the lake were warm and very pleasant to swim in.
We were on full board, which was 3 meals a day, but the hotel offered packed lunches by prior arrangement for people who wanted to go out for the day. The food was excellent and the staff were very professional and attentive.
We really enjoyed exploring the local area, particularly the lakeside path which took us either to Bardolino to the south or Garda to the north. One day, we climbed up La Rocca, the nearby hill overlooking the lake which is a good way to get your bearings. The countryside up there is really pretty, with olive groves, orchards and lots of wild flowers.
Our hotel offered a free shuttle to Bardolino, but we preferred to walk. The town is very attractive, with a lively main street leading directly from its colourful marina. The waterfront is lined with delightful cafes and bars where you can watch the boats and ferries coming and going. There’s also a market held there every Thursday.
We enjoyed strolling around the streets, exploring the shops and finding a place for coffee or a gelato. Through good fortune, we timed our visit to coincide with a festival celebrating the local rosé wine known as chiaretto. Local producers set up stalls around the waterfront and offered tastings.
One feature of a package holiday is that you have a resort representative to guide you on all the best local sights, culture, transport options, opening and closing times, bars, restaurants – and answer any questions. Our rep was a cheerful, energetic Scots lass called Sarah, who welcomed all the new arrivals at the hotel with a drink and a chat.
We learned that the local drink of choice was Aperol Spritz and that the best gelati were to be found at Cristallo’s in Bardolino. And that everything closed between midday and 3.30 pm.
Our package included a boat trip, but we were offered a range of other excursions which could be booked and paid for. We chose a sunset lake cruise, a day trip to Verona and an afternoon of tastings at local wineries.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to this beautiful riverside city, home to Juliet Capulet and a magnificent Roman amphitheatre.
There was plenty of time to wander around the lovely medieval centre, visiting the stylish shops and also Juliet’s house. The latter was very busy and very touristy, but you just have to do it.
The trip gave us the chance to see more of the local area and to learn about its history from local guides. We heard about the powerful Della Scala, or Scaligeri, family, who ruled Verona and most of Veneto during the 13th and 14th centuries. A number of their fortresses can still be seen in the area, notably the Scaliger castles in Sirmione and Malcesine. They have an architectural style which is very distinctive.
Sunset lake cruise
Our sunset cruise began with prosecco and antipasti on board, as we sailed north as far as the Baia delle Sirene then turned south, passing Garda and Bardolino and eventually stopping at the town of Lazise. Here, we visited the barrelage belonging to local vintner Giovanna Tantini, who led us through a tasting session of local wines including some from her own vineyard.
After a very enjoyable evening we sailed home to Bardolino in time for supper. By this time, we were learning that there was much more to our local wine region than just Valpolicella.
Speaking of wines, our next excursion – an afternoon of tastings at local wineries – turned out to be an equally good choice. That morning, the heavens opened. We felt sorry for fellow guests who had booked a full day tour to the Dolomites. Not exactly the best day for it.
By the time our bus arrived to collect us, the rain had eased a little. So we were able to enjoy the lovely grounds and vineyards of the cantinas we visited to the south of the lake near Desenzano.
After a very agreeable afternoon of tastings and food pairings, we emerged to find that the weather had cleared, so our driver treated us to a stop in the beautiful medieval village of Borghetto sul Mincio. If there were ever a perfect place for the ultimate romantic getaway, this would surely be it. Picturesque narrow streets, bell tower, water wheels and the ‘long bridge’ leading to – yes, another – Scaliger castle.
Back in our hotel for dinner, we saw the Dolomite travellers returning, soaked and weary having encountered not only rain but snow and hail, and too much mist to see anything at all of the dramatic scenery. They were admirably philosophical about it – an essential quality for any traveller. Which is probably a good time to talk about…
Weather in any mountainous area can be unpredictable, and northern Italy is no exception (see my separate post on Liguria!) We were lucky on this particular holiday, with only one wet day. The rest of the time was pleasantly warm.
On both my trips to Garda, I noticed that clear blue skies are quite rare – there’s usually a bit of mist around the lake and the mountains.
The summer months are hot and humid, so shoulder seasons are the best time to visit. We travelled in late May, which was a lovely time to go. Gardens were blooming with jasmine, oleander, honeysuckle and magnolias. The hills were dotted with poppies. Birdsong filled the air, and we even heard the occasional call of a cuckoo.
We noticed that there were surprisingly few flies, which was really nice although inevitably there were always a few mosquitoes lurking in the evenings. So insect repellent is a must.
We enjoyed walking between towns and around the lake. Some fellow guests hired bicycles. For longer distances, you can take the lake ferries – which can be slow – or the buses, which are faster. Tickets can be purchased in tobacconist shops and at bus stations. Buying bus tickets on board is often the most expensive option.
package holidays – final thoughts
We really enjoyed our holiday and would definitely consider buying a package again if price, availability and choice suited our needs. Although we’re used to our independence and we usually enjoy selecting ‘off the beaten track,’ less touristy options, we did enjoy having everything organized for us – it was a pleasant change.
We felt that choosing a long-established company was a good idea. Thomson/Tui had been running these holidays for decades, and had clearly developed a high level of expertise and knowledge. Everyone appeared to be well-trained.
Package and all-inclusive holidays can be very relaxing and enjoyable when done well.
POST SCRIPT – conversation overheard in a cafe:
“Dov’è la macchina?” – where’s the car?
“Che macchina?” – which car?
“La nostra!” – ours!
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