Kayaking on Lake Sils. Photo by Debbie Stone

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I was finally one with my paddle and I glided efficiently and smoothly through the water in my kayak. The feeling was Zenlike, as the motions had a meditative quality to them.

My movements were instinctive and almost effortless. And instead of being hyper-focused on doing all the right things, I was able to actually relax and really take in my surroundings. And ah, what beauty!

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Plan Your Trip with Kayak Xplore

This was my second kayaking trip in Italy with Enrico Carrossino, guide extraordinaire and owner of Kayak Xplore. Several years ago, I had paddled around Cinque Terra and Sardinia and vowed I would return to do the Italian Lake District. This time I brought my husband along for the adventure.

Kayak Xplore offers private, customized trips and tailored made itineraries for small groups interested in various regions of Italy and Switzerland. You’ll kayak as much as you desire, but you’ll also have options to hike, sightsee, paddleboard, swim and even do some retail therapy if you wish. 

My husband and I had Enrico plan a nine-day itinerary to include numerous experiences for a well-rounded trip that kept us active and immersed in the culture of the Italian Lake District. 

Hand painted bottles for sale. Photo by Debbie Stone
Hand painted bottles for sale. Photo by Debbie Stone

Italy’s Lake District is Sublime

It’s hard not to be mesmerized by this region of Italy, which encompasses three main lakes located at the Italian Swiss border, including Lake Como, Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano. The landscape captivates visitors with its picture postcard scenery, mild climate, rich history and some of the best food and wine in Italy. And for kayakers, it’s heaven.

Picture the fjords of Norway, but with a distinctly Mediterranean vibe. Here you’ll discover crystal-clear lakes lined with luxurious villas and lush gardens that echo a bygone time of opulence. Surrounding you are snowcapped peaks that stand proud and watchful in sentinel mode.

Narrow, cobblestoned streets and walkways lead you in maze fashion through medieval towns and fairytale villages with sun-drenched plazas and lovely old churches. 

Kayaking Lake Como. Photo by Debbie Stone
Kayaking Lake Como. Photo by Debbie Stone

Check Out the Opulent Villas

In a kayak, you’re free to explore these dreamy lakes at your own pace, choosing when and where to stop and discover all the delights on terra firma. Like Villa Melzi, a summer residence built in the 1800s for Francesco Melzi, the Vice President of the Italian Republic.

Stroll the grounds (the villa is not open to the public) and admire the stunning meld of architecture and natural beauty. 

Villa Balbianello is another popular attraction on Lake Como. Most visitors gain entrance via a footpath or boat taxi. We, however, reached the place on our kayaks. And the perspectives offered of the estate and its artistically terraced gardens from the water were splendid.

A guided tour of the villa showcases its many English and French furnishings, glass paintings, ethnic sculptures and artifacts dating back to the 17th century. The top floor is dedicated to Guido Monzini, former owner of the villa and leader of the first Italian expedition to Mt. Everest.

Pictures, flags and honors belonging to the famous Italian explorer are on display, in addition to one of the sleds he used to reach the North Pole. 

If this setting looks familiar to you, it’s most likely because it was used in several movies, including “Casino Royale” and “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.”

Villa Balbianello. Photo by Debbie Stone
Villa Balbianello. Photo by Debbie Stone

Explore Ancient Castles

For a sweeping panorama of Lake Como, we journeyed up the hill to Vezio Castle. Built between the 11th and 12th centuries, this bastion draws people not only for its views and history but for the quirky ghosts that haunt its grounds.

Each year, the managers of the castle create white apparitions out of plaster. Tourists volunteer to have the plaster fitted to them to create the figures, which remain until they disintegrate on their own, only to be recast again. 

The ghosts are connected to a legend regarding Theodelinda, the Queen of the Lombards, the Germanic people who ruled this part of Italy for several hundred years. Story has it that Theodelinda’s heart and soul are buried with the walls of the castle and that her soul roams its halls on moonless nights. 

Learn About Italy’s Cycling History

Cycling aficionados will be thrilled to learn of the Ghisallo Cycling Museum, another highlight of the area. The Ghisallo Pass is one of the best-known places for cyclists, as some of the most famous competitions in the history of cycling have concluded (and been decided) on top of this pass.

Cyclists of all ages come here to ride up the pass and to visit the 17th-century Sanctuary. Inside is a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, called the Madonna del Ghisallo, proclaimed Patroness of Cyclists. 

They also make the trip to visit the Ghisallo Cycling Museum. Even if you’re not into cycling, you’ll appreciate the wealth of information, photos, jerseys, bikes and other memorabilia on display within this multi-level museum.

Villa Melzi gardens. Photo by Debbie Stone
Villa Melzi gardens. Photo by Debbie Stone

Charming Villages Abound

As for hidden treasures, there are many, such as the quaint village of Guarda in the scenic Engadine Valley of Switzerland. This gem is tucked into a remote section of the valley and perched atop a hill with views as far as the eye can see.

The village has retained its rich culture and heritage and is akin to an outdoor museum. Most of the 150 residents speak Romansch, one of the descendant languages of the spoken Latin language of the Roman Empire. 

Guarda is known for its architecture and preserved Sgraffito houses, which have beautifully painted facades that can be traced back to the first half of the 17th century.

The homes are built of wood, lime and stone and often have white, cream or light brown washed colors, which provide a good background for murals. These decorations are typically done on plaster using freehand paints and stencils. When the plaster is wet, it’s scraped away to create the images. 

I’d like to return to Guarda on March 1st when the ancient tradition of Chalandamarz is observed. This is the festival in which boys and girls dressed in traditional Engadin costumes go from house to house singing traditional songs. They clank huge cowbells to drive away the spirits of winter and usher in spring. 

Inside Villa Balbianello. Photo by Debbie Stone
Inside Villa Balbianello. Photo by Debbie Stone

A Hike of a Different Kind

One of my favorite hikes during the trip was Bobosco Val Verzasca. This 5K trail is full of surprises. But first you’ll need to purchase a bocci ball at the nearby shop.

With ball in hand, we used it on the variety of pulleys, cables and catapults at the different stations built along the wooded path. The trail follows the Verzasca River with its clear turquoise water and vibrant colored rocks. 

Kayaking Lake Sils is Motto Bello!

Kayaking on Lake Sils outside of St. Moritz has to be one of my top paddling experiences during the trip. It was an early morning and no one else was on the reflective lake. Nature was in prime form and played the ultimate host.

It was peaceful, serene and magical as we leisurely glided through the pristine water with only the birds and a few cows on the banks to accompany us. Truly motto bello! 

Ride the Bernina Express for High-Altitude Scenic Splendor

Our trip also included a train ride on the scenic Bernina Express, the highest railway across the Alps, spanning from Chur, Switzerland to Tirano, Italy. We rode a 2.5-hour section of the route from Tirano to St. Moritz, which has UNESCO World Heritage status.

Traveling in spacious panoramic cars, we had unrestricted views of the unspoiled landscape. The train winds its way through the splendid landscape, negotiating tunnels, bridges and steep inclines with ease.

It’s a kaleidoscope of dramatic beauty with towering, snowcapped mountains, glaciers, verdant valleys and quaint villages.

All aboard for the Bernina Express! Photo by Debbie Stone
All aboard for the Bernina Express! Photo by Debbie Stone

Embrace the Food Scene

You’ll find that eating in Italy is more than just an opportunity for sustenance. It’s a leisurely, multi-sensory experience, accompanied by warm conviviality. In the Lake District, the mixture of Mediterranean cuisine infused with the specialties of the Alps is deliziosa!

I had so many sumptuous meals of pasta and risotto, pizza, fresh grilled seafood and bountiful veggies, and of course, I sampled gelato everywhere I went. With so much activity, my gelato-a-day habit was easy to maintain. 


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Author Bio: Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.

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