I was looking forward to a civilised holiday in a civilised country, full of contented cows munching away in green meadows, and villages with chocolate box houses.

Those were my thoughts as I settled down for a week in the Swiss resort of Meiringen, but I had to reflect we were rather mad, too. Why else would we scramble up a mountainside to celebrate the "death" of a fictitious character?

Elementary, my dearWatson. The Reichenbach Falls above Meiringen are where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, bored with his creation, tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes during a tussle with his arch enemy, Professor Moriarty.

But as fans of the sleuth know, it didn't happen. Sir Arthur had to bring Holmes back from the dead by popular demand, but a plaque marks the spot of the tussle on a remote ledge above the falls. Holmes and Watson had set out from a hotel called the Englischer Hof, now the grand Belle Epoque style Park Hotel du Sauvage, and this is where I stayed.

A holiday in the Alps was the height of fashion in the 19th Century, often on doctors' orders. Grand hotels were built along lakesides to attract the gentry, who dined in elegant coffee houses and spent their evenings at the opera or listening to an orchestra. Today it is still possible to soak up this refined atmosphere, at lake resorts such as Interlaken, Montreux and Lucerne in Switzerland.

Switzerland is a particularly good choice if you don't want to spend time in a car or a bus, as the public transport system works so well. Narrow gauge trains take you to the top of even the highest mountains (including the Jungfrau, at 3,454m, or 11,332ft), in a timetable coordinated with main line trains and lake steamers. Cable cars and rack railways glide effortlessly up mountains, making them accessible to all.

Families
Switzerland, Austria and Italy are the big three for lakes and mountains holidays, and scenery is the big attraction. It appeals particularly to empty nesters who like a quiet holiday in beautiful surroundings with maybe a bit of culture thrown in as well - but it's a mistake to think you have to be 50-plus to enjoy it.

This type of holiday is also being chosen by an increasing number of families, who are keen on activities as well as views. Tour operator Inghams has come up with economically-priced family holidays including guided walks, an overnight stay in an Austrian mountain hut, mountain biking and archery, and appeals to keen cyclists with another tour along the German and Swiss banks of Lake Constance.

High-adrenaline sports are also increasingly popular, with tour operators such as Explore offering trekking, mountain biking, rock climbing and optional paragliding, ice climbing and rafting around Mont Blanc. The holiday is based at the French Alpine resort of Chamonix, close to the Italian and Swiss borders.

But most of us prefer our activities to be more sedentary, and we like to enjoy them in increasing comfort, possibly with a spa treatment included to soothe those aching limbs. Crystal Holidays has a selection of hotels it calls The Finest, and some of them are true Alpine gems. Examples in Austria are Hotel Klosterbräu in Seefeld, a former monastery built in 1516 with gourmet dining in four restaurants; and Landhaus zu Appesbach in StWolfgang, a former private country house frequented by Edward VII with a salon full of English newspapers. Not the tabloids, presumably...

Indoor entertainment
You'll find plenty to do even if the weather isn't kind, as most lakes and mountains resorts were developed with skiers in mind and have plenty of bars, restaurants and indoor entertainment from bowling to cinemas. The most popular resorts in Austria include Kitzbuhel, Seefeld and Mayrhofen in the Tyrol, with the city of Innsbruck within reach for a day out.

The Italian lakes tend to be more popular than mountain resorts in summer, especially Garda (close to Verona for Roman ruins and the opera) and Como (near Milan's great fashion shops). When the sun shines and the skies are clear you'll want to be basking by a lake or hiking in the mountains, but as there are usually some wet days on this type of holiday being near a city is an advantage.

Chamonix, in France, will always be very popular because it's close to Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain at 4,810m (15,780ft). Activities here include climbing, horse-riding, 18-hole golf and taking a rack railway to view the Sea of Ice glacier.

The Alps are the most popular choice for lakes and mountains, especially as you can travel by rail or car as an alternative to flying. But Norway also has plenty of followers, and it's no longer significantly more expensive.

Here you can admire the azure blue of the deep sea fjords set against the mountains, at resorts such as Alesund. Nearby Geirangerfjord is one of the most beautiful in Norway, and as Alesund is on the Hurtigruten coastal shipping route, you can easily move on up the coast as far as the Arctic Circle in the north, or Bergen to the south.

I certainly plan to return to Switzerland soon, where I got such a deep suntan that people thought I'd been to the Mediterranean, not Meiringen. Beware those contented cows, however - one mad beast pursued me down a mountain path with bell jangling, but that's another story.


MAIN RESORTS

AUSTRIA

Seefeld One of the most popular Alpine resorts, it is easily reached from Innsbruck. Take a ride in a horsedrawn carriage or on the Rosshutte Mountain Railway.

Obergurgl This is one of the highest villages in Austria at over 1,900m (6,234ft). View Tiefenbach and Rattenbach glaciers using cable cars, chair lifts and mountain paths.

Mayrhofen This is a really lively as well as pretty resort - proof that having a good time isn't just aprèsski! It's on the floor of the Ziller valley, with plenty of walking and adventure sports.

Kitzbuhel A medieval walled town roughly halfway between Salzburg and Innsbruck, it is a major centre for festivals and close to Schwarzsee lake.

Zell am Zee Austria's leading lake resort is right on the shore of the Zeller, overlooked by Schmittenhohe mountain. It is handy for excursions around Austria.

StWolfgang Along with Fuschl and St Gilgen, this is one of the top resorts in Austria's Salzkammergut lakes region, near Salzburg. The Sound of Music was filmed around here, and StWolfgang stages regular concerts. The nearby picture-postcard lakeside village of Hallstatt is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Salzburg The birthplace of Mozart is set along the Salzach river and one of Europe's most beautiful cities. Salzburg also has connections with The Sound of Music, and days out to the mountains and lakes are easily arranged.

Innsbruck The capital of the Tyrol is a great historic and cultural centre.Wandering around the old town is a delight and you're still close to the mountains.

Bad Kleinkirchheim The home ski resort of Austrian legend Franz Klammer, this pretty little Carinthia town is also popular in summer for its hot springs, mountain biking and hiking, plus nearby Millstatter lake.


SWITZERLAND

Davos A haunt of royalty and the annual World Economic Forum, Davos enjoys a beautiful setting and good excursion possibilities. It's easy to get around by train and cable car.

Grindelwald One of the most popular of the Bernese Oberland resorts, it is overlooked by the Eiger and a good base to go up the Jungfrau by train.

Wengen Here you're surrounded by towering peaks, including the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch. Road traffic is not permitted but it's well served by mountain railways.

Interlaken One of Europe's most elegant lake resorts, it's still favoured by Europe's elite. Enjoy cruises on lakes Thun and Brienz.

Montreux At the eastern end of Lake Geneva, Montreux is famous for its jazz and film festivals. Explore the lake on its Swiss and French sides.

Zermatt Overlooked by the Matterhorn, this is one of the best-loved and most dramatically-situated Swiss resorts.


ITALY

Lake Garda The most poplar of the Italian lakes has a wide choice of resorts including Simione, Desenzano, Bardolino and Limone. Historic Verona is less than one hour from resorts around the south of the lake.

Lake Como Less busy than Garda, it has beautiful lakeside towns including Tremezzo, Cadenabbia, Bellagio and Menaggio. Be sure to visit the botanic gardens at Villa Carlotta.

Selva One of Italy's leading mountain resorts, Selva is overlooked by the Dolomites.You're close to the Austrian border with similar architecture on both sides.


FRANCE

Chamonix Overlooked by Mont Blanc, it's a great place for activities as well as scenery. Cable cars and mountain railways will get you up the mountains, and you can also stay in the quieternearby resort of Les Houches.

Talloires This is one of France's most attractive lakeside resorts, a historic town on the shore of Lake Annecy in the Haute-Savoie Department of the Rhone- Alps region. Activities include horse-riding, hiking and boating. Geneva is close by, so you can find Swiss traditions such as alphorns in this area.


GERMANY

Garmisch The best-known resort on the Bavarian side of the Alps, it is overlooked by the country's highest mountain, the Zugspitze (2,962m, or 9,718ft). From the top you can see four countries.

Berchtesgaden Overlooked byWatzmann mountain, it is close to Salzburg in Austria. Hitler's retreat at Eagle's Nest is a scenic and historic spot.


SLOVENIA

Kranjska Gora Just across the borders with Austria and Italy, this is the leading mountain resort in a small country that was formerly part of Yugoslavia. The Julian Alps provide a dramatic backdrop, and Lake Jasna is close by.

Bled This is one of the most attractive lake towns in Europe, and a great base for walking or rides in a horse-drawn carriage. Visit the church on a tiny island in the lake, reached by gondola.


NORWAY

Ulvik This is the main resort on spectacular Hardangerfjord, in a very peaceful setting. Spring wildflowers are spectacular.

Alesund Renowned for its art nouveau architecture, this town on the coastal cruising route is a great base for day trips.

european lakes and mountains facts

Getting there
Resorts in the main destinations are well-served by low-cost airlines with many regional departures,especially to Geneva (Swiss and French resorts), Zurich (Swiss resorts), Milan and Verona (Italian resorts). Budapest and Krakow also have good flight connections.
A disadvantage of flying is that it can then take two or more hours to reach some resorts, by car or coach. Travelling throughout by train is a viable alternative, especially for France and Switzerland, changing stations in Paris after arriving on Eurostar.You can also travel by car, but an overnight stop en route is recommended.

When to go
Any time from Easter to the end of September, but pack some warm clothes in spring (when the wildflowers bloom) and autumn. Resorts can be crowded in July and August, especially if close to cities.Also pack warm clothes if venturing to mountain summits, even in high summer.

Tour operators
Inghams celebrates its 75th anniversary with holidays to 19 countries.A family of four can have a one-week holiday in Obergurgl,Austria in July and August for a total of £1,974 (020 8780 6680, www.inghams.co.uk).
Thomson has a new all-inclusive offer at Lake Garda in Italy from £579 for a week's stay (0871 230 8181, www.thomsonlakes.co.uk). Thomson's sister company, Crystal Holidays, has "The Finest" hotels at prices from £459 for a week at Parc Hotel Germano in Bardolino, Lake Garda (0871 231 5661, www.crystallakes.co.uk). Explore's Mont Blanc ActivityWeek holiday in Chamonix, France, costs from £682 (0845 013 1537, www.explore.co.uk). Great Rail Journey's Jungfrau Express rail holiday to Meiringen, Switzerland, costs from £1,598 for 10 days (01904 521 936, www.greatrail.com). Dertour (020 7290 1104, www.dertour.co.uk) offers a holiday combining Berchtesgaden in Germany with the Oberammergau Passion Play, from £1,089 for seven nights. Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772957, www.festtravel.co.uk) has a 14-night escorted Swiss Lakes and Mountains tour from £1,750.

Tourist information

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before taking a lakes and mountains holiday.


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