For years, the typical tourist route in Italy was Rome-Florence-Venice. But now, with the growth in repeat tourism, the traveling public's yen for off-the-beaten-path experiences and the proliferation of media that spread the word about less-familiar destinations, tourists are venturing to all parts of the country.
Regions in northern Italy include Liguria—home to the Italian Riviera—and the lakes, near the border of Switzerland, which George Clooney (who owns a home on Lake Como) has helped thrust into the spotlight. Gateway to the lakes is either Turin, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics, or Milan, the fashion and opera capital of the world. Farther east is the Dolomites, the German-influenced Alps area usually reached via Venice.
Central Italy generally refers to everything between Florence and Rome, including legendary Tuscany. This region has become so well traveled, tour operators are now offering more packages to neighboring Umbria as an alternative. Piemonte (Turin's region) also has emerged as a leading alternative to Tuscany for oenophiles—this is where such prized wines as Barolo and Dolcetto come from.
Moving south from Rome, you come to the unforgettably picturesque and romantic Amalfi coast. Sorrento, Positano and Ravello are the main towns here; Naples is usually the jumping-off point, and side trips to the islands of Capri and Ischia are often on the itinerary. Also in southern Italy, the region of Puglia (Bari is its largest city) extends along the east coast—the heel of the boot. The "toe" comprises Calabria and its many seaside destinations. Finally, there are the Mediterranean islands of Italy, including Sicily, Sardinia and the smaller, less-famous but much-raved-about Aeolians.
Because Italy is both a place that people return to again and again and a top choice for those just beginning to explore the continent, a vast array of tours and packages is available to travelers. While highlights tours remain best-sellers, operators have been expanding their range of specialized tour products. And it's getting ever more specialized.
One of 2008's new itineraries from active operator Backroads, for instance, is a biking and hiking trip in the Dolomites designed for parents and children. This year, Backroads also introduced a tour line called Insider, with Tuscany/Umbria being one of the dozen inaugural Insider trips worldwide. The emphasis is less on physical activity and more on personal, in-depth encounters and experiences with the local culture—artisans, chefs, historians, vintners and such.
Walking and biking tours are a popular niche in the Italy market. Not surprisingly, so are food and wine—a market no longer being served only by specialty operators. Trafalgar Tours and other companies known for their general-interest tours have started adding culinary activities to some itineraries. Trafalgar's 11-day "Flavours of Italy," for example, includes a cooking lesson at a Tuscany restaurant and tastings and lunch at an olive oil mill.
Mainstream operators are creating tour packages with other features previously offered just by smaller, specialized companies, such as extended stays. Two of Insight Vacations' 10 escorted tours in Italy are labeled "Easy Pace," as every hotel stay is three nights and there is free time in every major destination.
There also are Italy tours for every budget. Both Cosmos and Abercrombie & Kent feature an eight-night package titled "Splendors of Italy," but the two trips are at opposite ends of the price spectrum. Cosmos' land-only rate starts at $1,030, and its "Splendors" entail Rome, Tuscany and Venice. Only two meals besides daily breakfast are included, and certain excursions/activities in each city cost extra. A&K's similarly named product, meanwhile, charts a course from the lakes down to the Amalfi coast via Bologna, Ravenna and Rome, with a land-only price tag of $12,475 (plus $325 for intra-Italy airfare). You get top hotels, a dine-around plan and a first-class Eurostar ticket from Milan to Bologna. Signature features include Design Your Day—a choice of sightseeing excursions in select destinations—and Travelling Bell Boy service, which picks up and delivers luggage from/to hotel rooms when the guest is ready, not according to a pre-set schedule.
For more flexibility in crafting your Italian vacation, you should look to companies like Central Holidays, Gate 1 Travel, Travel Bound and go-today.com, which sell independent travel components: hotel nights; hotels packaged with rail tickets or car rentals; sightseeing, cultural or sport activities; and so on. You can build your own itinerary that includes the things you want to do and the type of accommodations you prefer at each stop. These operators offer hosted and escorted tours as well.
One specialty FIT company with a vast Italy inventory is Doorways Ltd., which rents villas, flats and farmhouses in and around Piemonte, Liguria, Venice, Bologna, Rome, Tuscany, Puglia, the Amalfi coast, Sicily and many other places. The company recently expanded into Abruzzo and Sardinia.