The girls’ ears pricked up, as John, our Thomas Holiday Advisor, described some of the sights in and around Garda.
“To the north, you’ll see a massive crocodile...” he began.
Immediately Isla, nine, and Evelyn, five, were hooked – and fooled into thinking there was actually a real giant reptile in the lake. They are a bit young to have seen movie Lake Placid, I thought. However, from our base up in the hills, we could see exactly what Josh was on about. The ‘Crocodile’ or ‘Crocodile Rock’, as it’s known, is a hill that separates Garda from the next town, aptly named because of its shape. And although the girls would have (naively) liked to have encountered a real croc in Lake Garda, they did wake to an awesome view of the landmark each morning.
Poiano Hotel and Apartments enjoys one of the most picturesque locations on the lake. It stands in a natural amphitheatre, sheltered by San Vigilio and La Rocca on either side and surrounded by lush Mediterranean gardens. For our family, an apartment was the perfect choice, and provided us with our own garden, as well as access to the hotel’s spa, TV lounge, piano bar, restaurant and panoramic terrace.
But the Poiano’s strength is undoubtedly its sporting facilities. Back home, Isla is a keen club swimmer, and she was overjoyed splashing around in the 50m outdoor pool, previously a training base for Olympic teams. And there was a whole range of other activities to keep us busy – from bowls, tennis and beach volleyball, to aqua aerobics, table tennis and archery in the resort’s Mini Club. On the face of all that, you may think there is no need to leave the hotel at all. But if you do manage to tear yourself away from Poiano and explore Garda, the hotel offers a free shuttle bus to town – or you can walk the 2km down the hill instead. When on holiday, I find you usually don’t go far wrong sticking to what the locals do. So in Garda, it’s best to drink their wine and eat their pizza, seafood and gelato – you will end up with full stomach and cash in your pocket.
According to the locals and the Thomson reps, La Bussola is the best restaurant in the town.
One balmy evening, we had cheese antipasti, pizza and pasta washed down by a bottle of white wine and kids’ cocktails, and all for less than 15 euros per head. As for the lake itself, people who haven’t been to Lago de Garda seem to seriously underestimate it scale.
When we returned home, we were asked a few times if we’d “walked round the lake”. That would actually be quite an epic challenge – the ladle-shaped expanse of water is 50 miles long and 11 miles wide in some places.
The trick to getting the best out of Garda is to find a homely base, and then spend leisurely days exploring the lake, picking out what each little town dotted around the shore has to offer. In these resorts, holidaymakers swarm off the ferries, explore the tiny, winding streets, settle at waterfront cafés, and line up for multicoloured, gravity-defying cones of gelato.
Each town has its own discoveries – a church rich with Renaissance frescoes, ancient walls, botanical gardens, a ski lift soaring high into the mountains and, of course, the local red wine. We jumped on one of Navigazione Laghi’s fleet of ferries and travelled across the lake to the Gardone Riviera. This area is sheltered from any extreme weather by the mountains, creating a subtropical climate.
It’s a small welcoming place, with a few hotels and a little piazza, and ideal for a lazy afternoon strolling along the flower-lined promenade enjoying the lake views.
You can’t go on a family holiday to Lake Garda without spending a day at Gardaland in Castelnuovo del Garda, just a short bus or taxi ride from Garda.
We broke up our holiday with a stay at its brand-new Adventure Hotel, which has four types of themed rooms – Jungle, Arabian, Wild West and Arctic. The attention to detail in our Wild West Adventure room caught the kids’ imagination right away. And although Evelyn seemed a little apprehensive about staying in a bedroom made to look like a sheriff’s jail, complete with bent bars and a hole dug inside bricks, she soon felt at home – especially after helping her big sister play the ‘crack the safe’ game and claim the bounty inside.
The Adventure Hotel also has its own fully themed eatery – Tutankhamon Restaurant – in which guests dine out on Italian and Egyptian-themed dishes in an imposing Egyptian temple surrounded by hieroglyphics, statues, mummies and pharaohs.
Inside Gardaland itself, the €8million Kung Fu Panda Academy is 2016’s new addition to Italy’s No.1 theme park.
Plus, there are the other high-octane favourites including Mammut, Jungle Rapids, Blue Tornado, Raptor and their newest white-knuckle coaster, Oblivion, as well at the Sea Life Aquarium next door.
Our final day in Garda was slightly less adrenaline-fuelled as we embarked on the stunning 1.8-mile walk south to Bardolino.
After a bite to eat or a glass of prosecco, the best way to relax is to go for a dip in the crystal clear lake waters, and even better – hire a pedalo.
Despite the wonderful week we’d had, the four of us agreed that this simple hour peddling out into the refreshing water was the highlight.
There can’t be that many places in the world where can you go for a dip in fresh, unsalted water, sunbathe on a small boat, snorkel and go looking for fish, while a pair of mallards and their ducklings merrily swim past.
And all under the watchful eye of a magnificent ‘crocodile’.
But not a real one, of course – although I’m sure the girls were pretending to be hungry crocs as they chased the ducks around in the lake.