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Head for the hills (or take the plunge) this summer

Why bake on the beach when Europe's lakes and mountains offer such dramatic holiday alternatives? Sarah Baxter searches high and low for the perfect scenic break

What's the attraction?

It's odd, really, the way we all rush towards the sea at the very first sign of some fine weather. Why head for Europe's fringes when you can bask in crisp sunlight in its spectacular ridged interior?

The Continent's classic lake-and-mountain combination has plenty to offer, whether you want to go hiking, biking or just relax. And it is never better than just about now.

Even after a record season of bumper snowfall, winter is starting to release its grip on the mountains: everything is starting to thaw, the wildflowers will be coming into bloom and the prices are right: lower than the ski-season, and not yet at their summer peak.

Multiple mountains

France is ruptured by two main ranges: the Alps and the Pyrénées. Alastair Sawday's Special Places (01275 395430; sawdays.co.uk) offers boltholes in both. Maison Willert, an old stone lodge in Lescun, comes with sunny lounge and fresh Pyrenean air (weekly rental from €690, sleeps eight). Or opt for the five-bed La Ferme du Nant, in the Haute-Savoie. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out over the valley, plus there's a heated pool (weekly from €1,000, sleeps 10).

Inghams (01483 79 1111; inghams.co.uk) has a new offering in France: stay at the Hotel Le Bourgogne in Evian on Lake Geneva. A week's half-board, including flights, starts at £567; twice-weekly departures 18 May to 22 September.

Blooming marvellous

The mountain meadows of Slovenia support around 3,000 species of flora. Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk) has a new one-week Flowers of the Julian Alps trip departing 20 June; £1,195 full board with flights. It enlists an expert botanist for wildflower walks around Lake Bohinj.

Independent travellers might prefer their own log cabin. The chalets at Pristava Lepena, hidden in Triglav National Park (i-escape.com; doubles from £125 per night, half board), are an ideal base for adventures. Adventure tour operators are based in the nearby town of Bovec (00 386 5 38 86 032; bovec-sc.si/en).

German jaunts

The Bavarian Alps are ideal for family fun. Based in Bad Hindelang, Activities Abroad (01670 789 991; activitiesabroad.com) is selling a Bavarian Alps Activity Week; from £720 half board, without flights; four departures 21 July to 25 August. It packs a lot in: kayaking, high-ropes adventure, canyoning, mini-rafting and more. Or learn more about Bavaria on Utracks' self-guided King Ludwig's Way hike (0845 241 7599; utracks.com; eight days from £690 without flights; daily from 1 May to 31 October). The trail begins near his shrine in Berg, and ends by his fairytale Neuschwanstein castle, 100km away.

Alternative adventures

Sunvil Discovery (020-8758 4722; sunvil.co.uk) offers private houseboats on Lake Alqueva in Portugal's Alentejo; a week from £1,440 per person with flights). Also in Iberia, On Foot Holidays (01722 322652; onfootholidays.co.uk) has a new self-guided one-week trip across the hills of Priorat, southern Catalonia: a tough hike, with prolific vineyards; from £650 without flights; daily departures May to November). Nature Travels (01929 503080; naturetravels.co.uk) has a guided one-week King's Trail trip that follows part of Swedish Lapland's most historic hike, staying at mountain cabins en route. From £763 without flights; departures June, July and September.

Insider Information

"Consider the weather: ideally you want warm days, suitable for walking or cycling in shorts and T-shirts. For activity holidays, gradings are crucial; know what level to expect from the outset. Know what you want, too – there are still traditional chocolate-box villages, but "new" destinations are emerging, such as Croatia and Slovenia, where you experience nature in its rawest form." Catherine Crone, Headwater (0845 564 9078; headwater.com)

Quality assured

In Switzerland the mountains are unmatched, the standards high – and visiting there doesn't have to cost the price of a Patek Philippe. Sherpa Walking Holidays (020-8577 2717; sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk) has a self-guided Panoramas of the Swiss Alps trip departing any day from May to October. Eight days from £670 half board, without flights. It is based in Meiringen, a real hikers' hub at the convergence of three major passes, so there are plenty of walking options. Switzerland Travel Centre (020-7420 4936; stc.co.uk) has departures on Saturdays, June to October, to the Alpine Passes Trail in Graubünden; from £759 with flights. The one-week trip is a hotel-to-hotel hike across the mountainous east.

Alpine classic

Austria is the Alpine idyll. The new guided Austrian Tyrol tour from Explore (0845 291 4541; explore.co.uk) fully indulges this. Its base, Alpbach, was once voted Austria's prettiest village. The trip is a great introduction to mountain walking. Eight days from £963 with flights; three departures 22 June to 7 September.

Alternatively, explore on two wheels. The self-guided one-week bike trip around Salzburg's Lake District with Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) undulates around the lakes on cycle paths. From £698 without flights; depart any day, 11 May to 13 October.

Lake loveliness

Neilson Holidays (0845 070 3460; neilson.co.uk) has a one-week escorted Explore Lake Garda trip. From £575 half board with flights; nine departures 18 May to 21 September. It is all about living la dolce vita, lakeside. Based in Malcesine, it combines hill strolls with daytrips to Venice and Verona. A more hardcore option is offered by Fitscape (020-8968 0501; fitscape.co.uk), whose all-inclusive Italian Dolomites week costs from £1,795 without flights. It includes personal trainers, yoga teachers and nutritionists in the Rosa Alpina hotel in San Cassiano. Four departures 15 June to 8 December.

Who said that?

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees." John Muir

"A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature." Henry David Thoreau

"A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable." William Wordsworth