LIKE a siren, the beautiful little island called to us. And so we swam, like crazed Olympic sprinters, from a cobblestone Italian town square to a serene island monastery in the middle of glittering Lago d’Orta.
It started as a bet among three wine-happy men, one of whom was my husband. But I don’t blame them, really. The bewitching beauty of Orta, a secluded jewel of a lake just a mile wide and to the west of Maggiore, tucked in the Italian Lakes District, is well chronicled: Friedrich Nietzsche, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all wrote about how sublimely gorgeous the lake and its surroundings were (Balzac called Orta’s island “a spot coyly hidden and left to nature, a wild garden”). Was it any wonder we were drawn in, too?
These days, everyone flocks to flashy Lago di Como and Lago di Maggiore, but Lago d’Orta is the secret little sister. It’s popular as a weekend destination from Milan, but little known outside Italy. During the visits that my husband, Matt, and I made to the lake over the last two summers, we saw mostly Italians, a few Germans and Dutch, and a handful of British. And there are plenty of Italians who don’t know about its quiet, forested shores, peppered with sleepy medieval towns, or that distinctive monastery on the tiny island about a quarter-mile from Piazza Motta, the main square on the water in the town of Orta San Giulio.
The island, Isola San Giulio, is home to a 12th-century basilica and a 19th-century seminary-turned-monastery. The island and the town are largely pedestrian-only, which makes for romantic, leisurely daily life in umbrella-filled piazzas lined with cafes, markets and little family-owned restaurants. And the friendly, small-town vibe is a huge part of its charm.
“When I was growing up, we would drive up every school holiday,” said Yasmin Schwitzer, a Londoner whose parents fell in love with the lake two decades ago. They were looking for a weekend retreat from Turin, where they were living at the time.
Fluent in Italian, Ms. Schwitzer now lives in a small village just above Orta San Giulio and works in one of the few hotels in town. She loves the slower pace of life. “The people here are so much friendlier and so much less superficial than back in London,” she said. “I feel like I can make friends with everyone, old and young.”
There are sumptuous palazzi and old buildings, but Orta San Giulio’s most architecturally significant piece of history is the Sacro Monte di San Francesco, one of nine “sacred mountains” in northern Italy that are collectively designated a World Heritage Site. At 1,200 feet above sea level and perched on a hilltop, Orta San Giulio’s sacred mount is a complex that includes a series of 20 beautiful chapels built over two centuries and dedicated to the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
A walk here is a lovely, meditative experience, with exceptional views over the town and lake. The frescoed chapels spiral out around a tranquil, wooded site — it holds “special nature reserve” status in Italy — and encompass a range of architectural styles, from the classical influence of the late Renaissance to the ornate rococo of the 18th century.
There is certainly a lot of history here, but Orta has some surprisingly avant-garde draws, too. Serious home-design aficionados make the pilgrimage to the northern end of the lake, where, amid the no-frills headquarters of other Italian cookware companies, they’ll find a temple to modern international design: the Alessi factory, whose namesake family set up shop here in 1921.
What has remained the same throughout is that the pleasures of Orta San Giulio and its lake are as easygoing as ever. On our most recent visit, in July, we swam, strolled and napped. We spent hours sipping wine at Al Boeuc, an enoteca housed in a 500-year-old wine cave, and frequented Agri-Gelateria, a shop serving creamy gelato made with organic milk from its own dairy farm. We lounged at the Orta Beach Club, where most patrons were heavily oiled and impressively sun-bronzed. At our most ambitious, we typically managed to swim a few lazy laps from one buoy to another before climbing onto shaded lounge chairs with books for the remainder of each afternoon.
In keeping with this theme, we’d been content to gaze out at Isola San Giulio from our apartment window, three floors above Piazza Motta and with a direct sight line to the island. For such a fantastically clear, calm lake in the heat of summer, Orta was remarkably free of boats (we probably saw one water-skier a day, at most). A handful of ferries plied the waters between the town, the island and the tiny villages on the lake’s opposite shore. But this being Italy, things didn’t get started until about 8:30 each morning — including the ferries.
But, as it will in a place like this, the conversation — fueled by wine and friends — took a turn for the imaginative. One evening, Matt made a bet that he could run downstairs, swim to and from the island, and end up back on the couch, all in under 21 minutes. A longtime swimmer, I was appointed his companion and scout. A couple of mornings later, we went for it.
Signora Irene, as she insisted that we call her, the shopkeeper at Orta Market, told us to be careful. “É pericoloso!” she cried as we dashed past. “Attenzione per le barche!” (You have to appreciate the neighborly concern — that’s pure Orta.)
And so we swam, with me paying particular “attenzione” to those boats and popping my head up every once in a while to make sure we wouldn’t be run over by an errant ferry. But the water was glassy and cool, a perfect mirror to the bluebird-sky above; it turned out there wasn’t a boat to be spotted, save for one slow-moving launch that gave us a wide berth.
After a while, I relaxed and began to enjoy the fish-eye view. After all, how often does one get such a unique perspective on such an utterly enchanting spot? As we neared the island, we could spy tantalizing evidence of everyday life in the homes that, from land, seemed so cloistered: toys on a garden patio, an inflatable water trampoline floating near one of the private docks. As a small boat putt-putted away from one of those docks, the man driving it swiveled his head to greet us.
“Buon giorno!” he called, and he and his young daughter waved heartily. I returned the greeting with a grin, before Matt and I turned and busted our tails back to the line of bobbing boats by the town jetty. We emerged from the water to find an elderly paparazza in red pants clicking away with her camera. As I toweled off, Matt sprinted upstairs to our apartment and was back on the couch, less than 18 minutes after he left it.
Later, when we stopped downstairs to get dinner fixings with our 2-year-old son, Felix, Signora Irene greeted us with claps and a hearty “Bravissimo!” Not only did the dreamy vision of Orta move us to jump in and do the unexpected — swim to the monastery and back as fast as we could! — but we were cheered on by the locals. She handed us our reward: lollipops for Felix.
IF YOU GO
Orta San Giulio is 28 miles from Milan Malpensa International Airport, and most major rental car agencies operate from there.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a handful of small hotels in the central town of Orta San Giulio, where you’ll want to base yourself.
The most elegant of these is Villa Crespi (Via G. Fava 18; 39-0322-911-902; hotelvillacrespi.it; from 284 euros a night, or about $360, at $1.25 to the euro), a 14-room Moorish confection built in the 19th century by an Italian trader upon his return from the Middle East. Don’t miss a meal at its two-Michelin-starred restaurant — the chef, Antonino Cannavacciuolo, sends out a whimsical parade of modern Mediterranean creations, including a salpicon of fish with zucchini, all served under a cloud of sea foam.
Some short-term apartment rentals are available, though you’ll have to do a little digging; we rented our lovely two-bedroom apartment from Holiday Homes at Orta (lakeorta.com).
WHERE TO EAT
A recent opening near the train station, Agriturismo Il Cucchiaio di Legno (Via Prisciola 10; 39-322-905-280) is a terrific place to sample the region’s dishes.
Oenophiles will want to duck into tiny Al Boeuc (Via Bersani 28; 39-3395-840-039) for pre-dinner wines by the glass and platters of bruschette.
WHAT TO DO
Tanned ferry captains wait by the jetty to run you across to Isola San Giulio, where a pedestrian path loops around the Benedictine monastery. For a more strenuous climb, head up to the Sacro Monte di San Francesco(sacrimonti.net) and enjoy the spectacular view.
And spend a leisurely afternoon at the Orta Beach Club (ortabeachclub.com), where you can swim, rent kayaks or just pass out on a lounge chair.