When summer highs get unbearable, it's time to go jump in a lake. Literally! Our top picks for lake vacations will help you choose which watery oasis to dive into – in both hemispheres – during the dog days of summer. Pick between easy-to-get-to lakes in the United States and Canada, top draws in Europe and Japan, and even a match in far-flung New Zealand (where peak summer season runs from December to March). No matter whether you prefer to rough it at a lakeside campsite or sleep in 300-plus-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets at a top-tier resort, you're bound to find a perfect lake vacation fit on this watery-wonderland list.
Finger Lakes, New York
Nestled snugly between Lake Ontario and the northern border of Pennsylvania, the Finger Lakes district of New York State is a popular summertime playground for kids of all ages, attracting locals from bustling regional cities such as Syracuse or Rochester, as well as in-the-know out-of-towners who are initially lured by the abundance of idyllic lakeside retreats, and end up enthralled by the many historic sites, sloping vineyards, wine trails, and annual festivals that occupy the shores surrounding the unique bodies of water. As you may have guessed, the area takes its name from the 11 slender blue lakes which stretch out, parallel to each other in almost finger-like formations; these are interspersed by pastoral landscapes of quaint waterfront villages and scenic vistas of gushing waterfalls and rocky gorges. Two top destinations for lake vacations are Keuka Lake, a pristine Y-shaped body of water, and Seneca Lake, the deepest and second longest of the group; both are widely regarded as the most beautiful of the Finger Lakes, and are well-equipped for tourists and recreational activities.
Lake Como, Italy
Once described by Stendhal as an "enchanting spot, unequaled on earth in its loveliness,” posh Lake Como (or, Lago di Como, in Italian) arguably offers the finest lakeside creature comforts anywhere in the world. Located about an hour outside of Milan, one of Italy’s most beloved spots for lake vacations is dotted with luxurious villas and resorts that have beckoned the rich and famous since the days of the Roman Empire; its modern-day converts include George Clooney, who made headlines when he bought a villa here. Steep hills frame the palatial villages that line Lake Como’s banks, where villas draped in bougainvillea boast romantic gardens and splendid architecture. Indeed, remnants of the Renaissance are found throughout; nowhere are they more prominent than at the Villa d’Este, an unparalleled hotel that’s famous for its remarkable 16th-century architecture, spectacular fountains, rambling gardens, and fantastic shore front location.
Lake District, England
Immortalized by great writers, like Keats, Tennyson, and Charlotte Brontë, who sought inspiration and solace along its spectacular shores, England’s Lake District is surely one of Great Britain’s most cherished destinations. One of the most favored spots for UK lake vacations, the 885 square mile district, centered mostly in Cumbria county, boasts moody waters, gentle knolls, and scenic hamlets. Lake Windermere, England's largest lake, is the region’s primary focal point, and is renowned for its water sports, cruises, and sun-kissed shores. When you’re not playing on the water, you can also visit the residences of famous writers who have scribed here: William Wordsworth lived most of his life in nearby Grasmere, and his estates draw visitors to this day, while Beatrix Potter wrote several of her children’s books in a local 17th-century house. A little further away looms the Birdoswald Roman Fort , the most significant Roman-built monument in Britain; dating from AD 122, and one of several forts to anchor Hadrian’s Wall, the fort is now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lake Kawaguchi, Japan
As if the dramatic and sweeping vistas of Japan's iconic Mt. Fuji weren’t enough, the region’s beauty is further amplified by the presence of the Fuji Five Lakes (known locally as Fujigoko), a series of five tranquil pools at the base of the famed mountain peak’s surrounding foothills. Lake Kawaguchi enjoys much acclaim for its stunning natural beauty and sheer size; conveniently, it’s also the most accessible of the lot for taking lake vacations, as it’s well-connected to Tokyo by public transport. The lakeside resort serves as a popular base for sightseers and aspiring climbers of Mt. Fuji’s dormant volcanic peak, but water sports like fishing and boating also abound, and nearby hot springs encourage great R&R in the summer months. One of the best times to visit outside of summer, however, is spring, when the lake reflects not only the dramatic Mt. Fuji in its waters, but also the vibrant colors of the cherry blossoms blooming on the lake’s northern shores.
Lake Mead, Nevada
Just 24 miles from the hot spot (literally and figuratively) of Las Vegas, droves of visitors flock to ogle the massive Hoover Dam as it staunches the flow of the mighty Colorado River. What keeps them sticking around for lake vacations, however, is Lake Mead, the massive body of water that winds up dammed in basins on the north and northeastern sides of the engineering marvel. The largest man-made lake in the U.S., the resulting Lake Mead National Recreation Area supplies this hot Southwestern region with a cool water refuge and limitless recreational opportunities, all in the most unlikely, and scenic, desert setting. Whether boating, fishing, swimming, water skiing, or even scuba diving strike your fancy, Lake Mead has it all: Fishermen reel in trout, catfish, and striped bass while water-skiers and windsurfers whirl by kayakers and canoeists. There’s plenty of room for everyone on this large expanse of water, which is circled by some 550 miles of shoreline, several beaches, and picnic areas. There is also a popular paddle-wheeler cruise that will take you for a tour of the lake and dam; fun dinner and dancing sailings allow you to linger on the lake past sunset.
Lake Superior, U.S. & Canada
The mother of all the Great Lakes, and one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, Lake Superior is second to none, so pack up your tent, marshmallows, and bug spray and head to any of its 2,725 miles of sunlit shores, whether in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Ontario. Can’t decide where to go? One nature-lover favorite is the wilderness wonderland of Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park, an archipelago that extends for 46 miles in the heart of Lake Superior, boasts shipwreck-laden waters, scenic hiking trails, campgrounds, historic lighthouses, and ancient copper-mining sites. With no roads, the park is only accessible by boat or float plane, providing a supremely peaceful and utterly pristine sanctuary for lake vacations (no wonder it also serves as a U.S. Biosphere Reserve). Another noteworthy destination is on the Canadian side: Ontario’s Lake Superior Provincial Park is renowned for its rugged rocky coasts and offshore canyons that flank Lake Superior’s deep blue waters. Activities abound with hiking, fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, kayaking, and canoeing all popular – just make sure you paddle the right route so you don’t run into challenging whitewater! Many of the park’s abundant campgrounds have beaches suited for swimming and select campsites come complete with electricity and toilets so you won’t have to completely rough it.
Lake Tahoe, California & Nevada
Nestled in the scenic Sierra Nevada range, on the borders of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe has allured vacationers for decades. While perhaps best known as a winter destination, thanks to its first-rate ski resorts, summer months are equally appealing for lake vacations at this chic town. Once the water warms up on the eponymous lake, boating, water sports, and fishing get top billing, and visitors to its sandy beaches cool off in the brisk, crystal-clear waters, or take a whirl in a pedal boat or canoe; others opt to venture into the surrounding parks and wilderness, where hiking opportunities await. When night falls, neon-lit casinos in Nevada beckon jackpot-winning hopefuls, but evening dinner-and-dancing cruises on Lake Tahoe also make for popular nighttime entertainment.
Lake Taupo, New Zealand
Whether sunbathing on the sandy shore, practicing your swing on one of the area’s golf courses, soaking in a mineral spa, or diving off a towering cliff, Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s ultimate destination for lake vacations. Lying amid daunting volcanoes, verdant mountainsides, and snowcapped peaks, this treasured freshwater lake is the largest in Australasia and boasts such eye-popping scenery that Peter Jackson staged much of his Lord of the Rings film trilogy here (though scenes for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were shot at Lake Pukaki on the South Island). The mountainous terrain is a favorite ski spot for winter enthusiasts, but it’s also a terrific spa destination, as natural bubbling mineral springs abound in the area. What’s more, adrenaline junkies can still get their thrills here come summer, as white-water rafting, jet-skiing, skydiving, parasailing, and bungee jumping are all on the itinerary. Taupo also has its fair share of fine luxury: The nearby Huka Lodge ranks as one of the world’s top lodges, and has catered to the Queen of England on more than one occasion.
North Hatley, Canada
Forming a horseshoe around glittering Lake Massawippi, North Hatley easily outclasses every other destination for lake vacations in Quebec – and most others in Canada, to boot. Originally settled by United Empire Loyalists, who fled the United States in the years following the Declaration of Independence, this scenic spot later became the “it” summer destination for captains of industry from down South, who opted to summer here after the Civil War, rather than visit “Yankeeland” (aka New England). The result is an extremely posh hamlet loaded with large Southern-style mansions, many of which are now first-rate inns; even the restaurants boast award-winning cuisine and fine wines. While we do recommend visiting in summer, if you can afford it, spring and autumn are also quite spectacular – and spring is sometimes less expensive. The thawing of the area’s prolific sugar maples in spring brings celebratory festivals that will satisfy your sweet tooth with fresh maple syrup desserts and sugary taffy. Brilliant fall foliage also blankets the hills come September, and cider mills churn out succulent juices.
Thousand Islands, U.S. & Canada
Straddling the U.S. and Canadian borders between New York and Ontario, lakeside vacation lovers and salad-dressing aficionados alike have made the Thousand Islands a summertime mecca for over a century. While its namesake lettuce topper may have brought the region celebrity, the area more rightfully deserves recognition as a place to kick back, relax, and enjoy Mother Nature in a wonderland setting of hundreds upon hundreds of tiny islands (more than 1,800 in all have been counted!). Speckling the eastern fringes of Lake Ontario where it meets the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Thousand Islands boast varying geological features – from granite cliffs to tall pines to sandy shores – many are privately owned by ardent cottagers who revel in the boating, fishing, and swimming activities that fill the long summer days. That said, with more than 30 state parks, loads of campsites, boat tours, and charming villages in the vicinity, anyone can take lake vacations here, for any length of time.