A mild climate and plentiful sunshine make Lake Constance (Bodensee in German) a top vacation spot for lovers of sun and sand, as well as for sightseers and spagoers. The hillsides that slope to the water's edge are covered with vineyards and orchards and are dotted with colorful hamlets and busy tourist centers. Cruise ships and ferries link every major center around the lake. Although the lake's 260km (160-mile) shoreline is shared by three nations -- Austria, Germany, and Switzerland -- the area around the lake is united in a common cultural and historical heritage.

Lake Constance is actually divided into three lakes, although the name is frequently applied only to the largest of these, the Obersee. The western end of the Obersee separates into two distinct branches: the Überlingersee is a long fiord, while the Untersee is more irregular, jutting in and out of marshland and low-lying woodland. The two branches are connected by a narrow channel -- which is actually the upper Rhine.

The lake offers a wealth of activities, including swimming, sailing, windsurfing, diving, and rowing. You can swim either in the cold waters of the lake itself, or in one of the heated lakeside pools. The Eichwald Lido at Lindau boasts a 1km-long (1/2-mile) "beach," with plenty of lawns for sunbathing German-style. The other popular place for lakeside swimming at a heated pool is the Jakob Lido at Constance. One of the best ways to see the lake is to cycle around it. You can rent bicycles at or near all the major train stations.

Sailing on Lake Constance is a major attraction. Some boatyards and sailing schools rent boats; you'll be asked to show some proof of proficiency (a certification from a sailing school, for example). Or you can rent rowboats and motorboats at all major hotels along the lake.

From Munich, motorists should take the A96, via Landsberg and Kempten, to reach the lake. Drivers from Frankfurt head south along the A7 Autobahn to Memmingen, transferring to A96. The nearest international airport to Lake Constance is at Zürich, 79km (49 miles) southwest of the town of Konstanz. The Munich airport is about 225km (140 miles) north of the lake.