Luxury Vacations: Three countries. One lake. Countless experiences.
My dreams never included Lake Constance. In truth, I didn't know of it. Yet, my summer visit to the region changed all that with a verdict that I had hit the trifecta of travel. Here's the scoop. Lake Constance is a fresh water lake - Europe's third largest - and its near-the-Alps placement is premier. The best part is a shoreline that lies in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, creating the effortless opportunity to hop from one country to the next.
Follow me as I biked, boated and boarded trains to experience life . . . Lake Constance-style.
SWITZERLAND Schaffhausen - Arrival: train. With a history dating to the Middle Ages, the city's most noted landmark is the old canton fortress, the Munot. Your reward for a climb to the tower's top is a skyscraper-worthy view. Narrow streets beckon shopping and strolling, and in summer the car-free town center is transformed into a pocket-size Paris. An additional bonus is a train running to the continent's imposing natural spectacle, Rhine Falls, Europe's largest and most powerful waterfall.
Stein Am Rhine - Arrival: boat. This intact medieval town overflows with Kodak moments - ancient houses adorned with flamboyant frescoes, narrow but charming passageways and dragons everywhere (reminders that this is the village of St. George). Tried-and-true tip: Overnight here (it's worthy of a leisurely stay).
Canton of Thurgau - Arrival: bike. Called the land of milk and honey, the region is known for its rich produce, 600 miles of hiking paths and more than 500 miles of cycling paths. My highlight was a pre-arranged farm lunch with the Barth Feierlenhof family in the village of Altnau; the meal's encore was the best ever apple-pear tart. Tried-and-true tip: Rent a motorized bicycle to easily peddle from the Lake's shores into the hills of the farmland.
Castle Arenenberg is a short train ride away. As the boyhood home of Emperor Napoleon III, it houses the Napoleon-Museum, where 98% of the items are original. Tried-and-true tip: Sit at Napoleon's Desk to sign the guest book in pen and ink.
St. Gallen - Arrival: train. The city is named after Irish monk, St. Gallus, who founded a hermitage in the 7th century, which became one of Europe's largest Benedictine abbeys. Today the cathedral of St. Gallen and its environs are a UNESCO world heritage site; the Abbey is known for its magnificent library of 160,000 books (including 2,000 handwritten manuscripts penned before the year 1000). At the entrance, you'll pass beneath a sign in Greek that translates: pharmacy of the soul. There is no artificial lighting, only natural in this Baroque masterpiece. But make no mistake: A visit is worth the price of wearing potholder-like slippers to protect the wooden floors that mirror the ceiling. Tried-and-true tip: Stand in the Abbey courtyard on the hour or half-hour for the tolling of the bells.
AUSTRIA Bregenz - Arrival: train. Here is home to the renowned July-August Bregenz Festival and its annual operatic offering on Europe's largest floating stage (over Lake Constance). This season's performance is Aida. Tried-and-true tip: Take a behind-the-scenes tour. Among my highlights were eavesdropping on rehearsals; learning of divers positioned in the water should an actor fall from the sharply-pitched stage into the Lake (it's happened once) and getting the inside scoop to listen for ducks quacking in accompaniment to the nightly performance.
Pfäender hike - Our three-hour hike to the mountain's top was rewarded by an alpine snack of meats and cheeses, Spezi (a favorite local drink - orange soda and cola combo) and a bonus view. The five-minute cable car ride to the mountain's base was an unexpected, restful surprise.
GERMANY Lindau - Arrival: bike. A leisurely ride along the lake shore from Bregenz escorted us into Lindau's center with a town hall that looks like a backdrop for Hanzel and Gretel. Tried-and-true tip: Stop at Maurer's Kaffeehaus for a not-to-be-missed hot chocolate (accompanied by a side of freshly whipped cream).
Konstanz - Arrival: boat. This university town on Lake Constance is its largest. Dotted with small alleyways, the Medieval center showcases its 2,000-year-old history. When you arrive by boat you'll know it is Konstanz by the welcoming 33-ft. high statue of a beautiful woman named Imperia at the harbor's entrance.
Meersburg - Arrival: boat. This romantic village, with pedestrian-only lower and upper towns, is known for its Old Castle (featured on the 20 Deutsche Mark banknote), which to this day remains inhabited by descendants of the original residents. Tried-and-true tip: Take an English-speaking tour. More than likely it will be conducted by the castle owner's wife, Julia, who shared their children's complaint: "Why don't we live in a normal house?"
Mainau - Arrival: boat. A visit to the Flower Island can be a day excursion from Meersburg. A wonderful retreat, its 210 acres are adorned with 10,000 species of trees and plants, including the annual March debut of 400,000-500,000 tulip bulbs from Holland. Mainau entertains more than one million annual visitors and is closed only ? day a year (Christmas Eve).
Friedrichshafen - Arrival: bike. Another day trip from Meersburg is the Zeppelin Museum. This is where it's possible to tour the life-size 130-ft. replica of the Hindenburg and fly in an actual Zeppelin airship over Lake Constance.
Lake activity was contagious: sailing, biking, rollerblading. My magical moment was a simple one - sitting in a deck chair while cruising from Konstanz to Meersburg. The sun was warm, the breeze refreshing and I contently observed my surroundings - bypassing sail boats, power boats and ferry boats displaying Swiss, Austrian or German flags . . . and the occasional Zeppelin. Ahhhh.
Hikers on Pfäender mountain (Austria)
View from the Barth Feierlenhof family farm (Switzerland)
Apple-pear tart served at the Feierlenhof family farm lunch (Switzerland)
View of Meersburg from the Old Castle (Germany)