By Rick Steves
For a pleasant daytrip escape from the big-city bustle of Milan, consider little Stresa on Lake Maggiore, an hour's train ride away. While this resort town has few sights of its own, it lures visitors with easy boat connections to lovely islands brimming with lush, exuberant gardens.
Ringed by mountains snow-capped in spring and fall, Lake Maggiore has three islands, once owned by the wealthy Borromeo family. From the 16th to the 19th centuries the Borromeo clan lovingly turned the islands into magical retreats with elaborate villas and fragrant, terraced gardens. Today, tourists flock to the lakes in spring (when flowers are in luscious bloom) and fall.
The town of Stresa clings to its shore, hosting guests in a string of stately, expensive lakeside hotels. Ernest Hemingway set part of his novel A Farewell to Arms in the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, where the luxurious "Hemingway Suite" goes for a couple of thousand dollars a night. A narrow promenade runs along most of Stresa's waterfront, offering expansive views of the lake, islands, and mountains.
Hop a boat to the islands at one of Stresa's two docks. The two top islands for sightseeing are Isola Bella (visit in the afternoon because it's mobbed with tour groups in the mornings) and Isola Madre. Isola Pescatori has no sights, but is a great place for lunch.
Isola Bella — named by Charles Borromeo for his wife, Isabella — is dominated by a palatial villa and gardens. The villa boasts Murano glass chandeliers, Gobelin-covered chairs, intricate tapestries, plenty of paintings, and even some historic importance. The Conference of Stresa was held in the palace's Music Room in 1935, when Mussolini met with British and French diplomats in an attempt to scare Germany out of starting World War II; this "Stresa Front" soon fizzled when Mussolini attacked Ethiopia and later joined forces with Hitler.
Pop into the villa's fun puppetry room which displays marionettes of dragons, donkeys, an early King Kong, servants, and the uppity upper-class. The 18th-century grotto downstairs, decorated from ceiling to floor with shell motifs and black-and-white stones, still serves its original function of providing a cool refuge from Italy's heat. The terraced Baroque gardens, which give the island the look of a stepped pyramid from the water, are topped with a nautically-themed wall and a rearing unicorn — the symbol of the Borromeo family.
Isola Pescatori, a sleepy island that's the smallest and most residential of the three, has a couple of seafood restaurants, picnic benches, views, and blissfully nothing to do — under arbors of wisteria.
The third island, Isola Madre, consists almost solely of its sight: an interesting, furnished villa and a lovely garden with exotic birds and plants. The 16th-century villa, filled with enough furniture and art to give it warmth, is notable for its 19th-century puppet theater and many marionettes — angels, soldiers, villains, and more — made out of wood, fabric, and porcelain. The smaller Hell Theater has suitably spooky skeleton puppets and devilish dragons. You'll also see canopied beds, period clothing, and jewelry, along with Countess Borromeo's 19th-century doll collection (not a Barbie in the bunch). The gardens, which bloom from April through October, are especially beautiful in May when the azaleas and rhododendrons perform.
For a different look at the islands, catch a mountain cable-car in Stresa for a 20-minute ride to top of Mount Mottarone summit (about 5,000 feet). From here, you can get an incredible view of the islands floating in the lake below, while your spirits soar high above.