Isola Madre is the largest of the three islands, and it is also the one that is furthest away from the shore. Therefore, it is less crowded because not all visitors go here, which is an advantage for sure!
In the middle ages, there was a castle here which belonged to the defenses of Lago Maggiore, and there was also a parish church called San Vittore, therefore the island was called Isola di San Vittore. When the Borromeo family acquired this island in 1501 and decided to built a palace here, they disposed of everything that was left of the old castle, and the parish seat was moved to Isola Bella. Renato I constructed the new palace in the 16th century, and during these times the island was named Isola Renata. However, in the 17th century the family became more interested in Isola Bella, and the palace on Isola Renata was neglected. The large park surrounding it was subsequently used for agricultural purposes, to grow oranges and lemons. I could not find out why the island is now called Isola Madre!
As said before, this island is less visited compared to the other islands because it is further away from Stresa. It is also completely owned by the Borromeo family and there is nothing else there besides the palace and the park, therefore you cannot enter the island without buying in entrance ticket. This means that it is much quieter, there are no souvenir shops and restaurants like on the other islands, but only the official ones that belong to the palace.
We visited Isola Madre late in the day and it was very beautiful. I enjoyed seeing the interesting palace and relaxing in the park, before we returned to Stresa in the evening. It is a wonderful place with its spacious park and the beautiful palace, and I also preferred this palace to the palace on Isola Bella for several reasons.
Isola Pescatori is the smallest of the islands and it is very different because it has no palace. It is home to a small former fishing village and has a small harbour, an old church and delightful alleys and cobble-stoned lanes. Although there were many tourists here, too, it did not feel as crowded, and I enjoyed the atmosphere a lot. It was a joy to wander around this small island and explore its hidden corners. It seemed to be much more down to earth, and locals still live here, although today they live of tourism and not of fishing.
We also had lunch here in a small restaurant, and spent the rest of the time just wandering around where our feet took us, enjoying this picturesque island and discovering many pretty places.
Isola Pescatori was originally named Isola Superiore, and this name is still given on the boat timetables and information signs - you therefore need to keep it in mind, otherwise you might be confused when you are looking for the boat to this island! Isola Superiore means "upper island", because this island is further away from the shore than Isola Bella.
Isola Pescatori once belonged to the House of Borromeo just as the other two islands, but today it belongs to the town of Stresa, and therefore there is no entrance fee when you visit here.
Isola Bella is the island that is closest to the shore, and from Stresa it can be seen very clearly. Until 1630, this island was called Isola Inferiore (the lower island, because it was closer to the shore), but then it caught the attention of the House of Borromeo and Carlo III decided to construct a palace here. He named the island after his wife, Isola Isabella, and the name was later shortened to Isola Bella. After Carlo's death, his sons continued the work. Today it is an island of luxury, with its splendid palace and large baroque gardens. Along the waterfront, there are many souvenir shops, as well as the small harbour. To the north, there is an area close to the palace where you can go for free (you need to pay an admission fee to visit the palace and gardens). This area has some benches and nice trees, and is a good place to sit and have a break, enjoying the views across the lake.
Isola Bella is the most famous of the islands, but I must admit that it was the one I liked the least. One reason for this was that it was very, very crowded. When you leave the boat, there are many tacky souvenir stalls, and during the two hours we stayed there, more and more people arrived. The atmosphere in this part of the island was very commercial. On the other hand, I did not feel very well while we visited here, so this might have influenced my perception and I thought I should add this to be fair.
Of course the great backdrop of Lago Maggiore with the large surface of blue water and the mountains all around the lake makes the islands all the more special. We came here on a very grey day, but even then it was beautiful. I bet that in sunshine it must be stunning, when the water must be very blue, and the mountains can be seen much more clearly. From all the three islands you can see the shore and Stresa very close, as well as the other islands.
Even in this grey weather, it was amazing to see this large lake surrounded by the mountains. It looks so large, but of course this is still only a small part of the lake! However, this part is so big that, when the weather got worse in the end of our stay and it became very windy, the waves got quite high and it even felt a little like being at the sea.
One of the most frequent pictures you will see of the islands are the exotic birds that roam the parks and gardens of Isola Bella and Isola Madre. The most photographed is probably the white peacock fanning out his tail. Unfortunately I did not see this, but I saw a white peacock and it certainly was beautiful! Its feathers looked so white and soft that I couldn't help but wished to touch it, although of course I didn't try. In fact I am rather critical of the purposeful breeding of albino animals, especially in a sunny climate, but that's another matter...
Other birds include usual peacocks and Chinese pheasants, and other species I did not recognize. They all look very beautiful and add to the southern feel of the place. They were harder to photograph than I thought, though, because they were rather shy and just did not want to stand still!
While we were having a rest at the lakefront of Isola Bella, we watched a family of great crested grebes - two adults and two young ones. I was quite excited because, although having seen young ones before, I never saw them so close! They were already a little older and not that small anymore, but still had the characteristic stripes. We could see the adults dive and come up with fish which they fed to their young ones. I was really fascinated because it all happened so close!
It might be surprising to see such water birds at such a spot, where many people visit and there is constant movement of many boats. I saw an information sign explaining that there is a project going on which is trying to make Isola Bella a better environment for birds and other animals.
The island is open to visitors from the last Saturday of March to the last Sunday of October, but if you want to see it at its best you should go there in the last week of April or the first week of May, because it is the time when the spring flowering is at its peak.
Also the summer flowering is beautiful, with oleanders, geraniums, fuchsias and hibiscus, from July to September.
Visiting in October, instead, has another kind of charm, because the changeing colours of foliage mingles beautifully with the flowers and the evergreens.