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(2016 - Fall/Winter Issue)


Beyond a Tuscan villa, a whole new world beckons in Chianti country.

There is a bounty of vinifera and other earthly delights that spill past the bosomy mountains in the Chianti-rich Montalbano landscape softened by centuries of farming. Surrounded by towering cypress trees and whitewashed walls draped in blossoming wisteria, the aromatic spring breeze of fruits and herbs lingers in a setting that has been virtually untouched since the days of its most famous son, Leonardo da Vinci.


For centuries the majestic hills of Tuscany have lured kings, popes and bank tycoons like the Medici family, all on a quest for respite. And there I stand wide eyed, scared to blink at an enchanting hillside house in Italy that reminds me of the film, Under the Tuscan Sun, except there are no plumbing issues, no peeling paint and no leaky roof with which to contend. The scene is only part of my Italian fantasy offered by Insight Vacations, a tour operator cultivating trip itineraries for more than 35 years.

Lovingly restored by the current owners, the 16th-century country estate lies on the outskirts of Vinci, a medieval hamlet in Tuscany near Florence. The rustic borgo, named the Villa Dianella after the Roman goddess of the hunt Diana, was the private hunting lodge of the Medicis as well as the home of the famous Tuscan poet Renato Fucini who lived his final days in this land of poetry.


Now the grand villa is a lavish getaway for culinary and wine lovers in pursuit of cooking classes and winery tours included in the new Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations Rome to Venice itinerary. It’s at this Medici villa where I roll up my sleeves to tuck into the pasta fresca all’uovo (fresh egg pasta) in the ultimate Tuscan cooking class. My chef master is a brigade of local cooks, nonnas (grandmothers) and mammas (mothers), who are fine taskmasters as they whip out commands: “Knead harder,” “flip over,” and, “you’re not done yet,” in endearing instructional notes as we carefully master the fine art of hand-rolled pappardelle noodle-making and create a Mamma-approved meat sauce inspired by big glasses of rosé. 

“Food is very big today. We know guests are looking for that kind of experience in travel and they want to learn and have authentic engaging experiences,” says John Boulding, the CEO of Insight Vacations who is joining us on this taste of Italy.

A few hours later we toast our fine creations over a glass of the vintner’s best and devour a fabulous four-course meal prepared by the guests in my escorted luxury motor coach tour.


When I lived in Tuscany in the ’90s, I had a tiny attic flat in Florence. Fiascos of Chianti and bowls of pasta were my daily dose of la dolce vita (the sweet life). I’d wander through ancient streets once frequented by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Dante Alighieri, and all the other greats of art and literature like Brunelleschi, whose great dome crowns the capital of the Renaissance.

But this past spring I went full-scale luxury for the first time. I returned to the boot-shaped country whose heel dips into the Mediterranean Sea and unlaced the centre, which, at times, seemed like a dance of seduction. With only eight days to spare, my wish list for this Italian quest appeared unattainable. However, the fine attention to detail in my escorted tour itinerary, led by an ace travelling concierge, made it possible to see Rome, Florence, Verona and Venice, with day trips to the medieval towns of Calcata and Perugia.

For lovers of fine dining, luxurious hotels, and those who don’t mind exploring local haunts in search of personal experiences, yet feel the best way to see renowned landmarks is on private tours with local experts, follow me in this bite of Italy. It begins like the old saying, “All roads lead to Rome.”   


Everywhere is within walking distance from my temporary abode in Rome. The luxury landmark Baglioni Hotel Regina lies near the Villa Borghese on the famous Fellini street, Via Veneto, renowned for posh shopping and the rich leafy canopy immortalized by Sophia Loren in La Dolce Vita.

Crowds at the Colosseum and the Vatican can be overwhelming, however we thankfully bypass the queues. Before the daily opening of the Sistine Chapel our local expert takes us on a VIP tour of the exquisite Michelangelo masterpiece and the Vatican Museum, leaving free time in the afternoon, something I welcomed regularly throughout my trip.

Dining in Rome has its own cachet. Behind the Pantheon in a 16th-century vaulted chamber that is part of a palazzo and anchored by a pair of pianos at the entrance, the restaurateur welcomes us to Le Volte. This medieval frescoed restaurant with a warm ambiance is simply furnished in white linen table settings. We sample the family-style platters of grilled and tempura vegetables and enjoy some fresh insalata mista paired with a classic fish piccata on a bed of thinly crusted potatoes, all of which, is accompanied with chubby glasses of Pinot Grigio as an opera duet sings arias from Tosca by Puccini. 

A true Roman holiday indeed, Rome was a fabulous precursor to what lay ahead.


Imagine days filled with wine tastings at a local vinoteca, a cooking class, more wine tastings, and leisurely walks in a romantic park at a revived Medici villa that overlooks the legendary Tuscan hills in the Mugello with an unforgettable visit to the birthplace of the Renaissance.

We take an easy taxi ride to the Palazzo Vecchio by the David statue. And on this visit my long-awaited reunion with an old friend at Florence’s landmark Caffe Giubbe Rosse for lunch has become a cherished memory, thanks to my intuitive travelling concierge Daniele Nannetti who ensures details like this are possible.

In Florence our intimate travelling group slips past more lineups of David fans at the Accademia Museum and the Uffizi Gallery to explore the iconic masterpieces at both venues. We have an exclusive tour of the off-limits Vasari Corridor, a new Signature experience from Luxury Gold Insight Vacations, where priceless portraits flank the Medici’s secret passageway over the Arno River by the gold shop havens along the Ponte Vecchio.

Afterward we return to our historic luxury hotel, the Villa Maschere, hidden in the bucolic Mugello and resume our Tuscan epicurean adventure at a family-run restaurant. Rivasud, a slow-food movement establishment big on the one-kilometre diet, is fuelled by local products and helmed by a chef and his brother. We relax in this rustic farmhouse with its wood-burning oven that bakes pizza to perfection and dine on plates of roasted meats like sublime bistecca alla Fiorentina, homemade pappardelle with tender slivers of duck, and raise our Chianti glasses yet again.

La dolce vita indeed.


In the Ultimate Italy trip from Insight Vacations Luxury Gold guests enjoy wine pairings with Luxury Gold Signature dinners and experience wine tastings in Tuscany with fabulous surprises. We engaged in a new Signature experience consisting of a winery tour-cooking class combination at the Villa Dianella in Vinci led by a third-generation winemaker who escorts personal tours of the Fattoria Dianella, a restored wine cellar producing Chianti wine for over three centuries, and sampled some of his favourite Chiantis.  

On another day we departed our posh historic hotel, the Villa le Maschere, which is a grand late-Renaissance country estate from the 16th century, and conveniently walked next door to a family restaurant, the truffle-rich Ristorante le Maschere Enoteca, which specializes in Tuscan dishes. The Luxury Gold experience was an unforgettable wine-tasting lunch on the patio amid olive groves and ancient oak trees overlooking the Tuscan hills and Lake Bilancino in the heart of the majestic Mugello.

Travel Planner

For Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations trip details, visit insightvacations.com/ca/tours/ultimate-italy-preview-2017. Priced from $6,323 per person, the 13-day Ultimate Italy trip includes luxury accommodation, most meals and drinks including a Michelin-starred dinner on the isle of Capri, a Tuscan cooking class, an exclusive behind-the-scenes visit to the Uffizi Gallery and Vasari Corridor in Florence and access to the Vatican City before it opens to the general public. Guests travel in a spacious Wi-Fi-equipped luxury motorcoach with the services of a professional travelling concierge and receive VIP door-to-door private airport transfers.

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