Too often neglected by North Americans unaware of its charms, Upper Austria contains some of the country's most beautiful scenery. It's a land of mountains, lakes, and picturesque valleys, with Styria and Land Salzburg to its south and Bavaria to the west. To the north it borders the Bohemian forest in the Czech Republic. Its eastern neighbor is Lower Austria. The Austrian name of this province is Bundesland-Ober ├ľsterreiche -- ober, or upper, because it's closer to the source of the Danube than its twin, Lower Austria.

Upper Austria has three different landscapes. In the north are granite- and gneiss-laden hills, separated in the center of the province by the Valley of the Danube. There are also the limestone Alps and the Salzkammergut lake district, about a 30-minute drive from Linz, which crosses into Upper Austria. Here you'll find the area's most idyllic settings. You can center your activities at the Mondsee or Attersee, Austria's largest lake. Other possible bases are the Traunsee, one of the biggest lakes in the Salzkammergut, or the Wolfgangsee, Austria's most romantic lake.

These seen (lakes) are all great for boating, but if you like to swim, know that the see water here is not as warm as you'll find in Carinthia. The lake district is dotted with farms and fruit trees, from which an excellent cider is produced that actually competes with wine for popularity among the locals.

Upper Austria is a choice location for nature lovers. Most of its towns are small, and although there's a lot of industry, it doesn't blight the province with grime. Industrial installations are often discreetly hidden away, much as they are in Switzerland. Linz, the provincial capital, harbors many historic treasures. Near Linz, the former Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen is a tragic reminder of the horrors of World War II. Bad Ischl, once a retreat of the imperial court, is the area's most fashionable spa. Emperor Franz Josef summered here for 60 years. From the beautiful village of Hallstatt, you can tour still-active salt mines at Salt Mountain.

Historic abbeys abound in the province: Abbey of St. Florian, outside Linz, the province's largest abbey and an outstanding example of baroque architecture; Lambach Abbey, outside Wels, a Benedictine abbey founded in 1056; and Kremsm├╝nster Abbey, near Bad Hall, a Benedictine abbey from 777, noted for its famed fish pond and Hall of the Emperors.

You'll find most hotels in the Salzkammergut region, but in every town and village are one or two moderately priced to inexpensive inns. There are few deluxe accommodations here, although several old castles have been turned into romantic lodges. Most hotels around the lakes are open only in the summer. Parking is rarely a problem in these places, and, unless otherwise noted, you park for free.

May is an ideal time to visit. These areas tend to be overrun with visitors, especially Germans, in the peak months of July and August.

Many North Americans aren't familiar with the ski areas of Upper Austria, as they lie for the most part in the southeastern corner. The Dachstein is a major ski area -- and the Dachstein Caves are a spectacular natural attraction. If you like to ski and don't demand massive facilities and a big night scene, you'll find Upper Austria's emerging ski resorts far less expensive than the more popular and frequented resorts in Tyrol and Land Salzburg.