Whether lofty, glacier-fed and glittering, or bustling, resort-lined and sporty, Europe’s clean, clear lakes are the ideal alternative to the coast. Most offer beaches perfect for paddling and waterside restaurants for refuelling, and all offer the chance for a swim: often adding stunning mountain backdrops for good measure. Here are our favourite five – with ideas for away-from-the-water fun too.
One of the smaller Italian Lakes, Idro is still an impressive 12km long, and has plenty of wonderful attractions around its perimeter. Hunkered down beneath forest and mountain, on the border between Trentino and Brescia, the lake offers canoeing, fishing, bathing (waters stay warm until September) and simply lazing the day away along its shoreline.
For a trek to remember, try the route to the beautifully situated Bocche Mountain Hut (pictured above) awarded “Most beautiful mountain hut of the Trentino”. Start at the Passo di Lusia pass which can easily be reached by the several ski lifts. It’s a ¾ day-long ramble, but the air is fresh and cool as you climb. And the views are simply stunning.
For more thrills, try rafting. In the Dolomites, the Avisio river rises at the foot of the Marmolada glacier, and offers whirling, bubbling white waters on an adventure that will have you grinning like a big kid.
Parc recommendation: Rio Vantone
At 50km long, and up to 16km wide, Lake Garda is by far the largest of Italy’s northern lakes. And it’s a real beauty. The southern basin of the lake is its widest, and here you’ll find charming towns like Peschiera del Garda, Sermione rising from its little promontory, and elegant Bardolino – home to open air summer evening concerts.
Further north is Malcesine, rising from the waterfront in a pretty jumble of pastel coloured houses and villas. Things get more Alpine as you travel north, to handsome Riva del Garda and Torbole on its northern shores.
A Unesco Natural Heritage site, the saw-toothed peaks of the Dolomites offer a suitably thrilling backdrop to days spent in the great outdoors.
Hiking in the jagged peaks is something you won’t forget in a hurry, and if you’ve the stamina, cycling along those curling mountain roads, or mountain-biking superb off-road trails, is simply heavenly.
Routes on these quiet roads come with with special signs every kilometre indicating degree of difficulty, average gradient, height above sea level and points of interest. Less fit? Don’t worry, there are 400km of easy-riding paved cycle paths, perfect for family adventures in this super-sized landscape.
Parc recommendation: Serenella
Lake Thun is a Swiss gem – with hikes and cycle routes through pretty, pastoral countryside, half-timbered old towns, moraine lakes and hidden valleys. It’s home, too, to cultural cities such as Interlaken and Thun itself – both offering fabulous shopping, museums and programmes of festivals and events all summer long.
The area’s clean, clear air makes for wonderfully starry skies at night too. The Sirius astronomy centre above Sigriswil offers a fascinating glimpse of the Cosmos above the Bernese Oberland – great for budding Brian Coxes. Get your bearings by tackling part of Lake Thun’s 56km long Panoramic Circular Trail, beautifully nestled into the landscape around the lake’s edge, the suspension bridges in Sigriswil and Leissigen provide memorable viewing platforms on the way.
Want to take a dive? In Merligen you can relax in the only heated swimming pool on the banks of the lake. This 25-metre pool is heated, and the Lido also features a children’s pool, a bistro, a sandbox and a table tennis tables. Sounds like a lovely day out to us!
Then again, why not dive into the lake itself? At the Faulensee Lido, the deep blue waters of Lake Thun are waiting for you. A sunbathing platform, trim lawns, showers and a raft to dive off offer all you’ll need for a day splashing around in the water.
Parc recommendation: Manor Farm
Lac de Chalain
France’s Jura region is a land of striking gorges, rushing waterfalls, sleepy villages and delightful spa towns and – of course – dizzyingly beautiful lakes.
At Lac de Chalain, warm waters lap ashore alongside sandy beaches, and the living is easy. Take a pedalo ride around its fringes, and splash about in the clear, clean waters. Or explore waters of a far more dramatic nature at the Cascades d’Hérisson, a rushing, shimmering curtain of 31 waterfalls: you can hike around them all in around three hours.
Another option which comes highly recommended is a horseback hack through the country. There are plenty of paths and routes to take around the lake and surrounding area.
But for us, it’s the pretty villages of the Jura that most impress. Try Château-Chalon, one the prettiest villages in France, at the heart of the Vin Jaune winegrowing region. Dole, a historic town with a beautiful old centre, offers waterway cruises and a selection of excellent restaurants and shops.
For therapy of a more physical nature, the spa town of Lons-le-Saunier should be your first port of call. But then, the Jura as a whole will lift your spirits wherever you roam.
Parc recommendation: Domaine de Chalain
With the gnarled peaks of Dents de Lanfon, Lanfonnet and La Tournette in the background, the pure clean waters of Lake Annecy are a feast for the senses. You can swim, sail, water-ski or pleasure craft your way over its surface.
Annecy’s historic old town is beautiful, and its nickname of ‘the Venice of the Alps’ seems well earned – canals twist and wind their way into the lake from the town. Some have islands on them, where you’ll find 13th century prisons, boutique hotels and bars.
The town of Saint-Jorioz has a popular beach, and there are pretty grass beaches at Talloires, opposite the Château de Duingt, and Marquisats – both with showers, toilets, refreshments and sailing, canoe and kayak and rowing clubs within reach.
Want to get more active? There’s almost no end of activities to try around here – from canyoning to hang gliding, climbing to diving. Or simply put on your boots and take a hike – up beyond Duingt to have a great view of two lakes, well, one – Annecy seemingly split in two, on either side of the rocky promontory.
Parc recommendation: Camping Les Fontaines