Roaming the Austrian Lakes: A Journey to Carinthia

The lake was completely still, larch trees reflected in the glassy surface, hills merging into each other in the distance. I considered swimming across – a distance of about 1km – but once I was immersed in the cool, calm water, the head-down front-crawling lost its appeal. This was a moment to pause and take in the beauty of my surroundings.

Bordering Italy and Slovenia, Carinthia is the southernmost region of Austria, a sparsely populated country dotted with rolling mountain peaks, the Nockberge. But it’s most famous for its 1,200 lakes, 200 of which are suitable for swimming. Each has its own highlight: Wörthersee, on which the regional capital Klagenfurt is situated, is the largest, at 16 kilometres long, and is famous for its 100-metre-high Pyramidenkogel viewing platform; Klopeiner See is one of the warmest lakes in Europe; and Faaker See is Austria’s answer to the Everglades, with reed beds that visitors can paddle through on Canadian canoes. But they all have one thing in common: clear, clean water that’s pure enough to drink. This alone makes it worth the trip if you live in the UK, a land of polluted rivers, lakes and sea, where even the tap water can make you sick.

Surprisingly, the cult of cold-water swimming that has taken hold in the UK has not taken hold to the same extent in Carinthia.

Most Austrians stick to July and August, when water temperatures can reach 25 degrees Celsius – or they take a quick dip to cool off after a sauna. Thanks to its thermal waters, Carinthia became a hot spot for spas in the late 19th century when the railways brought tourists from Vienna. Today, there are a number of spas in the region, with saunas, steam baths, swimming pools and treatments, and many hotels offer similar facilities.

Sauna master Claudio played rousing music while he threw ice balls onto the coals in a dramatic gesture

Our sauna, the Brennseehof, had three saunas, including the Seekino (lake cinema), so named for its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Brennsee, one of the region’s smaller lakes. The sauna was huge, but for most guests, the highlight of the Seekino was the “infusion” sessions, during which sauna master Claudio would play rousing music while waving a towel to circulate the 90C air, or toss balls of ice onto the coals with a dramatic flourish. During my first session, I had to suppress a giggle as Claudio’s towel-waving became increasingly theatrical. But no one else was laughing; they sat with their eyes closed, lost in the moment. After 12 minutes of intense heat, we headed out onto the terrace and down the steps into the water—only about 18C in late May.

I was worried that my 14-year-old would be too old for the Brennseehof, a special children’s hotel for young families, but within hours of arriving he’d found a few kids his own age to play with every evening. During the day, we were never short of things to do: as well as two swimming pools (five, if you count the kids’) and 12 tennis courts, the on-site sports centre offers e-bikes, mountain bikes, windsurfing and sailing lessons, paddleboards and kayaks. All of which meant that, while I couldn’t completely wean him off the dreaded smartphone, at least there were long gaps between his deep dives into Depop and TikTok.

Outside the hotel, there was a bewildering choice of activities. A ride on the Brunnach cable car took us up into the thick clouds, forcing us to rely on map displays to show us what we were missing. Had it been clear, we would have had views of the highest peak in Carinthia’s Nockberge – Rosennock at 2,440 metres – and its domed sister peaks.

My son looked at the naked men and women relaxing in the spa lounge and said it was his ‘idea of ​​hell’

Instead, we set our sights on the tiny mountain flowers along the Brunnachhöhe trail, an accessible path that opened last year, before seeking shelter at the Nock In, where my son ordered what looked like the world’s largest schnitzel and I tried the “giant donut” – similar to an enormous Yorkshire pudding, topped with salmon and cream cheese.

The next day, our plans to drive the winding Nockalmweg through the Nockberge biosphere reserve were disrupted by rain, so we opted for the Badehaus in Millstatt, the capital on Lake Millstatt. We changed, but my son took one look at the naked men and women relaxing on red velvet couches in the spa lounge and declared it his “idea of ​​hell.” In retrospect, the more family-friendly Therme St Kathrein spa in the nearby town of Bad Kleinkirchheim would have been a better choice.

I traumatized him further by forcing some culture upon him in the form of the beautiful St. Oswald, a medieval hamlet where a church dating from the 14th century stands among a number of wooden buildings that seem frozen in time, including a 500-year-old schoolhouse.

Lunch on the terrace of the bathhouse restored his equilibrium. We ate cash sticksa Carinthian dish of cheesy dumplings, while looking out over the lake and an impressive 10-meter high 1930s diving platform, which he said he would jump off after lunch. Luckily, it was closed.

But I couldn’t completely avoid the adrenaline rush. In Bad Kleinkirchheim I was persuaded to try the Kaiserburg Bob, a roller coaster in the Alps, but regretted it when I screamed all the way down, undermining my earlier claims to be an adventurous mother. Still, my son got his kicks without me holding him back as we cycled up the hill behind the Brennseehof on an e-bike. At 1500 meters we stopped at the Jausenstation Wegerhütte, where we reorganize (cinnamon pastries) and syrup made from mountain herbs and spring water, before we headed back down, my son racing ahead of me as I held the brakes on for a slow descent – ​​just as the rain started again.

Changeable weather is always a risk in the mountains, but I’d much rather take fresh air and the risk of showers than the stifling heat of southern Europe. And with the growing number of holidaymakers seeking alternatives to the Mediterranean in summer, it can’t be long before more Brits take notice of Carinthia, which has so far flown under our radar, overshadowed by its better-known neighbour to the west – the Tyrol.

And we got some sun. When we drove up to the Sternenbalkon (Balcony of the Stars) – a wooden platform above Lake Millstatt – we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the lake and its tree-covered slopes, like a painting in all shades of green and blue. From the balcony you can follow several hiking trails, including the slow path at the foot of the Mirnock. According to legend, this mountain is home to the Mirnock giant who created Lake Brennsee and its equally beautiful sister, Lake Afritzer See, when he threw the top of the mountain down in a rage, turning one lake into two.

In total there are 20 slow routes: signposted paths that are shorter than 10 km and where you do not have to climb more than 300 meters. This way, if you do not want to do too long a walk, you can enjoy the landscape at a leisurely pace.

Standing on the shore of Lake Brennsee on my last day, I considered swimming through again. But after a few strokes, the urge was gone. The sauna was so close; Claudio was about to wave his towel and, well, when you’re in Carinthia…

The trip was organized by Visit Carinthia. Rooms at Hotel Brennseehof from €115 pp, full board (reduced rates apply for children), including access to sports facilities plus free childcare, children’s activities and guided tours. More info: and

Leave a Comment