When I told friends I was headed to Lake Orta, precious few had heard of it. "Where's that?" they asked, looking blankly at me as I explained its proximity to Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. I could see what they were thinking; why not just go there? After all, these two famed locations have long held mastery over Northern Italy's lake region, dotted with luxury hotels, restaurants and the odd Clooney (or four). They had me worried that I had chosen their poor relation. This concern was dispelled the minute I arrived.
Lake Orta is roughly an hour's drive from Milan airport, in the Piedmonte region of undulating vineyard-dappled hills and alpine lakes. As our car snaked through leafy copses, shots of azure waters began to emerge. You quickly realise the lake - the smallest in the area - is picture-perfect from every angle. It is not clogged with buildings but mostly embraced by greenery and the odd smattering of houses, meaning its (still) vast expanse of blue feels idyllic. We were heading to its main town, Orta San Giulio, which sits on a peninsula with a direct view of the lake's only island, the tiny and picturesque Isola San Giulio.
Orta San Giulio is, quite simply, a film set. Faded frescos adorn the walls and each building is painted in Italy's traditional salmon and ochre hues, with stone balconies and peeling shutters. Cobbled squares beget winding streets, each with narrow alleyways snaking off towards snapshots of the water. Steps, carved into the hill, twist upwards towards renaissance churches and ivy-wrapped villas behind wrought iron gates.
The main square, Piazza Motta, hosts a small harbour of boats that ferry to and from the island, and a collection of ice-cream parlours, chic restaurants (do check out both Ristorante Venus and Leon d'Oro) and cafés. On our first day, we ate Italian charcuterie at Pan & Vino in the piazza; a prime spot for both lunch and people-watching, as well as loading up on treats at their very well stocked store, groaning with truffles, wine, fresh pasta and olive oil.
Lake Orta's Piedmonte location means it is in one of Italy's premier gastronomical destinations. Piedmonte is the home of Barolo, of truffles, of innumerable special dishes like tajarin - a light, thin spaghetti- and ravioli del plin - pillowy pasta parcels filled with veal or pork and drenched in a roasted vegetable sauce. We gorged ourselves on the latter at Locanda di Orta, a small hotel with undoubtedly one of the town's finest eateries. We dined at the Olive Terrace on the rooftop at sunset, which boasted views of the island and lake and was almost as diverting as the food itself.
It was an effortlessly romantic, almost clichéd, moonlit stroll back from dinner to our hotel. There are plenty of great accommodation options in Lake Orta (Hotel San Rocco, in the heart of Orta San Giulio, is a great shout, with a beautiful lakeside bar) but we had opted for the lake's most unique; Villa Crespi. Once a private home, built in 1879 in Moorish style by a Milanese businessman, it is now a 14-room Relais & Chateaux hotel, set in private gardens overlooking the lake. Each room is breathtakingly decorated like a palatial suite, with huge windows and a proliferation of antique furniture, and every guest is treated with a warm, almost royal reverence, perfectly suited to its sumptuous decor A stay here really does feel like slipping back in time, in the best possible way.
Villa Crespi contains a 2 Michelin Star restaurant, by Italian celebrity chef (and co-owner - it's a husband and wife run operation) Antonino Cannavacciuolo, which means the hotel is also a local hotspot, with a gorgeous bar and sun-drenched terrace that served us particularly well for our breakfast the next day, after a refreshing 7am dip in the lake.
That day we took a boat out to Isola San Giulio. It is easy to book a private charter, which can take you to any number of the small towns and villages around the lake, or to hop on the water bus, which leaves roughly every 15-30 minutes from Piazza Motta. The island is dubbed 'the island of silence' thanks to the still-functioning monastery which dominates. Though you cannot peek inside, you can visit the main basilica, and visitors are encouraged to take the 'walk of silence' (easily signposted) around the island. Think of it as a medieval meditation app.
There are plenty of quirky art and crafts shops on the island, selling local pottery and paintings, and browsing through the unique, narrow paths will eat up a pleasant morning, which you can then follow with lunch at the gorgeous Ristorante San Giulio.
Just above Orta San Giuilio is Sacro Monte, an old pilgrimage site and religious community that dates back to 1583 and is populated with 20 chapels, various statues and shrines. It is a short, but steep, walk uphill and is worth the sweaty ascent for the site's calm beauty and breathtaking views. Save yourself the perspiration, and head up for just before sunset, when the area is lit up magically and you can watch the sun dip below beautiful Lake Orta. Who needs Como after all?