Destination Report: Italy

Maureen Jones, president of Los Altos, CA-based All Horizons Travel, Inc., a member of Signature Travel Network, shares her tips for a trip to Italy.

Every year it seems that Italy is among the top three destinations that people want to visit. A sunset over the Umbrian hills from your private balcony, white sands between your toes on a beach in Sicily, hear the echo of an aria making its way down a Venetian canal, or taste your way through Tuscany.

Keep in mind that these are unusual times. I am giving you suggestions and ideas for a future trip, whenever that might be. The whole world is in a turmoil; we are not the only one with health problems. It helps to plan something nice for the future, so I am recommending destinations I have enjoyed in the past.

You can save as much as 40 percent by taking a packaged escorted tour. You get excellent hotels, most meals, and sightseeing. You can take a five-, six-, eight- or 10 day tour. A very popular way to see the country is to combine any three- or four-day itinerary with one customized trip that fits all of your needs. If you are interested in art and history, you can see Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. For the food and wine itinerary, take the Rome, Florence and Tuscany, Bologna and Parma, Apulia, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, or even Taormina. Yes, you can do all the sightseeing on your own but I think it is time consuming, tiring, expensive and it is far easier to have someone take you from place to place and you get all the culture and history in one go. When we go past the mobs of people standing in line at each attraction, you will appreciate the advice from someone who has been to Italy more times than you have had a hot dinner.

A big advantage to taking a packaged tour is that they get private admission times to most of the key sights whereas if you go alone, you could stay in line for hours to get into places like the Vatican. It is also possible to go sightseeing with your own driver and guide, and, of course, you have early admission to the various sights without any delay. There were only four of us in the Sistine Chapel when we were there last time and I noted the thousands in line outside when we left even though it was early in the morning. If you book with someone like Insight Vacations or Trafalgar, which are two good companies, you will only get English speaking guides and drivers. It is horrible to be on a tour which explains everything in five different languages. You end up not listening to anything they have to say.

I grew up going to the Italian Lakes every summer for four weeks with my parents who loved Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. They rented the same villa for about 20 years, which came with servants, and even a tennis court and ball boys. Two other places they were fond of was Cinque Terre and Sardinia, if you wanted to experience a different region.

The train service within Italy is excellent. For example, if you have Rome as your base, then it's easy to take the train to Venice (3 hours and 40 minutes) for a day trip, or Rome to Florence (1 hour and 30 minutes). Many people stay in one town and take day trips out.

I have recommended to many clients that a wonderful way to experience Italy is to take a cruise for a week on the Mediterranean then do a week on land in Italy. It is possible to visit 21 different countries on three continents while on a cruise. We have seen free airfares with some cruises, and even two-for-one cabins, so it makes for a great cost-savings trip. You can go on a ship with 500 to 5,000 passengers depending on which line you choose. If this is your first time to Italy, a cruise is a good investment or a motor coach tour.

Tip: I would avoid going in August if you have a choice. It is extremely hot and humid and many of the Italian shop keepers close up for the month (they, too, take a holiday to get out of the heat).

Shopping in Italy is a delight. I always buy shoes and handbags. The silk and wool items are fantastic, and I usually do all my Christmas shopping when I am there. The street markets are so much fun to wander around, with quality items at a good price.

Many people ask me to arrange for a cooking lesson. If you have children in the group, it is fun to see them learn how to make pizza from a pro.

You can rent a villa if you want a base for your family, or just yourself for privacy. It is a wonderful honeymoon destination. There are many great opportunities if you consult with an Italian expert.

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