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My husband, in a stereotypically understated British manner, mentioned I might enjoy visiting his friend's olive grove on our next trip to Italy. Knowing neither his friend nor the area, I took plenty of toys for our toddler and braced for a budget experience that would hopefully pass quickly.

It turned out to be the best part of our 45 day Corsica to Copenhagen journey.

Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake, is relatively unknown to Americans, even amongst those familiar with it's Northern neighbor Lake Como. The diversity of activities, postcard-like scenery and affordability have made it a longstanding favorite summer destination for Italians, Germans and Swiss families.

The Southern End is Italy's Orlando, anchored as it is by Gardaland (www.gardaland.it/en/), a version of Disneyworld with less commercialism, shorter lines, and much better value tickets (starting at € 30 for one day and going up to € 99 for a season pass). Thrill-seeking children and adults have numerous roller-coasters and water rides. We found there were far more activities for younger children than at the typical Disney or Sea World park. Try Palablu, the dolphin amphitheater; Fantasyland with its train, merry go round, rides, and tree-house playground; the ice skating show and Tunga, the African river cruise. Buy tickets online in advance and save 10%.

Canevaworld Resort (www.canevaworld.it), a few miles north of Gardaland, has Italy's largest water park, Movieland, a Universal-style theme park, and the self-explanatory Medieval Times and Rock Star cafe.

To be fully immersed in non-stop amusement park action, stay at one of hotels in this area. The official Gardaland Hotel (www.gardalandhotel.it) begins at about € 250 per night. At € 100 per room, the Hotel Fornaci (www.hotelfornaci.com) is a good value for families who want basic accommodations; pool and breakfast are included .

Although we might do a day at Gardaland, we far prefer to drive north past all the crowds and chaos to what we consider the real Lago Di Garda -- the lake that inspired Dante, Thomas Mann, Maria Callas, Brahms and DH Lawrence.

Beginning with the town of Garda, the area transforms from theme park thrills into quiet Mediterranean style villages, Roman ruins, and 15th generation families protecting the warm turquoise lake. Although you could easily pass the time lazing by the pool and lake or sipping Chianti in a trattoria, there are plenty of other natural and man-made attractions to keep both adults and kids busy. We suggest making the town of Torri Del Benaco your base as it has reasonably priced restaurants, a good gelateria a playground in a garden, and easy lake access.

Here are a few of our highlights:

Scaligero Castle (tel. 0045-6296111; www.museodelcastelloditorridelbenaco.it) was built in the 14th century on the ruins of a 10th century castle. This is what kids imagine when they hear the word castle: a battlement with merlons and crenels, a high middle tower, and thick stone walls. This one also houses a museum of local traditions.

Buy some ice cream at Gelateria Miralago (C. So Dante Alighieri 35, Torri Del Benaco; tel. 0045-722511) then walk along Piazza Chiesa, a path bordering the lake and ending at the beach.

Take the funicular (www.funiviedelbaldo.it/eng/funivia.asp) to the top of Monte Baldo for spectacular views of the whole Garda region. During the 10 minute ride you'll ascend 1,650 feet while turning 360 degrees. At the top, there are several easy walks and bike paths, and even more challenging ones.

Visit the Parco Natura Viva (www.parconaturaviva.it), an animal sanctuary with a three mile drive-through the African Savannah that includes exotic animals like giraffe and lions. There is also a dinousaur park with life-size sculptures of perennial kid favorites like the Tyrannsaurus and Pteranodan.

Olive Oil museum (www.museum.it) is one of my favorite museums for its simplicity, cost (free) and efficacy. A few rooms are filled with the impressively large and rustic wood, iron and stone equipment used for extraction over the centuries.

For water warmer than the lake, go to Thermal Park Garda (www.villadeicedri.it/eng/lago.html) where there are 100 degree waterfalls and spring-fed lakes.

Stay at the Agriturismo Costadoro (www.agriturismocostadoro.com) to get the right mix of an authentic lake family experience (its on a working vineyard and olive grove) and amenities (nice rooms, a pool, great view). For a more traditional hotel experience, stay at the top rated Torri del Garda (www.letorridelgarda.com) with two staff members specifically dedicated to amusing kids and all the standard family favorites (a playground, children's menu, spacious rooms, and shows for kids two nights per week in summer).

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