LOCARNO, Switzerland--If you judged a place simply by its post office, then you might call this paradise.

The post office adjacent to the Hotel Muralto here, on the lovely north shore of Lago Maggiore, is bright, almost cheerful, with a spectacular view of the palm-tree-lined lake and the pastel-colored buildings that give this area a Mediterranean atmosphere.

It took me 10 minutes to mail a large package to the U.S., but eight minutes of that time was entirely my fault: I fumbled with the packing tape and string. The clerk could not have been more courteous. There was no line at the window. The package--sent by regular mail--arrived at my office in San Francisco six days later.

I told Brigitte Naretto, director of the tourist office at Ascona, the charming village next to Locarno in the Swiss-Italian province of Ticino, what I thought as we biked on a path lined with yellow and white roses, pink azaleas and neatly trimmed green shrubbery, all against a backdrop of the deep blue lake and snow-capped mountains.

"Do you ever think you live in paradise?" I asked. She nodded, a little embarrassed by the question but clearly proud.

Over the centuries, others have thought of this area as idyllic, even before the Swiss opened their post offices. Some of those who settled here include actors, writers, performers and artists such as Paulette Goddard, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce, Isadora Duncan and Paul Klee.

On a press trip with Wild Women Adventures, the women's tour specialist, we spent a few days in the area, soaking up the sunshine and warmth for which the area is known and enjoying the Swiss-Italian cuisine, such as fettuccine with an asparagus cream sauce, followed by profiteroles, little cream puffs with chocolate dribbled over and topped with whipped cream.

We also spent an hour or two having drinks and enjoying one of Switzerland's highest-rated hotels, the Giardino in Ascona, a 72-room, Italian country-style wonder that is a member of the Relais & Chateaux group. Its decor is colored entirely in pastels, mostly pink.

Experiencing Locarno and Ascona can be done in a day or two, if you don't linger too long at the lakeside cafes and piazzas and spend too much time shopping along the winding streets of the towns' old quarters, as we did. There are also music festivals in both towns throughout the year.

When our group pedaled into Ascona that morning, we fell upon another of the region's traditions, the annual Risotto Festival, for which the menfolk of Ascona stir cauldrons of rice, broth and parmesan cheese and serve plates of it on tables covered with red-checkered tablecloths underneath the plane trees on the shores of Lago Maggiore.

For lovers of the outdoors, the area has a wealth of mountain scenery and hiking paths to explore. We took one excursion into the nearby Maggia Valley, which tourists can visit by simply hopping on the buses marked "PT." These are the postal service buses that make regular trips up and down the remote valley.

The Maggia Valley is the most popular of several beautiful valleys near Locarno because of its variety of scenery, which includes waterfalls, tiny churches, villages of granite houses and the raging Maggia River, which spills into Lago Maggiore.

The funnel-shaped valley covers a fifth of the entire Ticino Canton and is a major producer of granite, the material used for building nearly everything here. Each village seems to have been preserved perfectly, with old peasant houses clinging to each other and a pot or two of orange geraniums giving the scene color.

Our group was enchanted by the village of Foroglio, with its small church, cafe, stone bridge crossing the Maggia River and waterfall above.

It was there that we met 84-year-old Camilla Zannini, who, like other Foroglio residents, spends weekends in the summer in the hamlet, living in a more modern home near Locarno but happily returning to her childhood home.

She described the Maggia Valley as filled with well-populated small towns in her youth. But poverty drove many people to emigrate to California and Australia, leaving the valley deserted today except for weekend visitors.

Lunch was also charming, providing the opportunity to try one of the valley's grottoes. In Ticino, the word is used to describe a casual restaurant that typically has a cool cellar carved into a rocky mountainside in which to store food and drink.

As rain clouds approached and a chilly wind swept the valley, the polenta with a creamy melted cheese and topped with a hearty veal stew at Grotto Pozzasc on the banks of the Maggia was a welcome treat.

Then, on our return just a few miles down the river valley in Locarno, we found the sun shining again on the shores of Lago Maggiore.

For information on Locarno and the surrounding area, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, or contact the Locarno Tourist Office at (91) 751-03-33.

Locarno's Web site is at www.lagomaggiore.org.

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