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Garda patrol

IT'S got the dramatic beauty and excellent service of the Austrian Alps combined with the laid-back lifestyle of Italy. Lake Garda has long been a favourite with Irish families - and it's easy to see why. The sprawling lake is a mecca for watersports enthusiasts -- while the Dolomite mountain range dominates the landscape.

Once in possession of the Austrians, you can see why they were sad to let go of this landscape, which is straight out of The Sound of Music.

We travelled with Topflight, flying in to the beautiful city of Verona, and staying at the Ambassador Suite hotel -- at the top end of the lake in the bustling town of Riva del Garda.

Filled with shops and bars (you can see the Germanic influence given the great beer halls), it's the perfect base for exploring the lake, which is huge at over 200sq km.

Just 200m from the shore, it's a popular choice for families and couples (and the area's own theme park, Gardaland, is a must-visit).


The kids have their own soccer pitch, table tennis, playhouse and play area, complete with trampoline.

If that's not enough to tire them out, there's a good-sized pool with beautiful vistas of the panoramic area.

The hotel's got wifi, too, and mums and dads will love the outdoor hot tub to massage tired limbs while sipping prosecco.

You've a choice of self-catering or B&B, with the latter providing a great buffet breakfast, where you can even boil your own fresh eggs from the area to add to the bacon and heaps of offerings.

And hey, this is Italy so the 10am deadline is elastic, as the fresh mountain and lake air will have you sleeping contentedly.

Once up, the area tempts you to go exploring.

A manicured park runs along the 1.2 km walk into the town of Riva.

The shore is a haven for swans and cygnets, ducks and ducklings nestling and swimming in clear water alongside the wooden bridges which dip out into the crystal clear waters.

Give yourself half an hour to make the walk into town -- and double that if you, like me, get tempted into one of the two cafe-bars or onto the lakeside benches.

Riva itself is oh so Italian -- full of delightful pastel shades on the walls, historic churches and twisting alleyways.

The main square's 16th century Apponale Tower is a must stop -- and for a euro you can climb the steps for amazing views of the town and surrounding lakeside villages.

Also worth visiting is the Santa Maria Assunta Church. First mentioned in documents way back in 1106, the church underwent restoration in 1728 and is stuffed with incredible art and boasts nine baroque altars.

If you've got the stamina, bicycles are the transport of choice here for all ages -- but be warned, the mountains around these parts make the Hill of Howth seem like a bump in the road.

Alternatively you could let someone else do the work -- and take an excursion to the surrounding areas.

Venice, Verona and the Dolomites are catered for on day trips through Topflight, while villages, including picture perfect Limone and Malcesine, dotted around the lake can be easily reached by the local ferries. A tour of the Trentino Dolomites costs €55 and a trip to Verona, €36. The amazing city's opera season opens this weekend and runs until September 2.

We visited the villages of Limone and Malcesine. From the latter, those with a head for heights can take a cable car with fully rotating cabins to the environmental oasis of Monte Baldo.

The ferries run to all resorts around the lake, with an average return fare of €14 and a full lake tour for €41.

Mountains, lakes, fine food and wine.

It's what dreams are made of.