For most of us, there are a few place names—Orlando, Las Vegas, Napa Valley—that instantly bring to mind great vacations. For Central Europeans, it's Lake Balaton, Europe's largest body of freshwater. Located in western Hungary halfway between Budapest and the Austrian border, this long, narrow lake has been the holiday spot of choice for generations of Hungarians, Austrians and Germans.
Beaches, swimming and sailing may be the main attraction here, but the two-year-old Balaton bike trail has quickly become another major draw. Running parallel to the main autoroute, this car-free trail circles the lake and is almost completely flat, allowing cyclists to focus on the forested hillsides, a nightingale's call or the sunlight glinting off Balaton's calm waters.
You can rent bikes at a good price in many of the larger towns along the trail, making it a snap to assemble your own multiday cycling tour. And though a hardy rider could make the 130-mile loop in a few days, leisure is the key. After all, Balaton is surrounded by ancient cathedrals, indulgent spas and great wineries that welcome visitors with filled glasses of cserszegi fuszeres, furmint and other local varietals. While many residents speak English, be prepared to hear a Guten Tag or two, as German is the most common second language after Hungarian. After a glorious ride and some wine, you'll probably be feeling fairly fluent as well.
Lake Balaton's eastern end is a leisurely two-hour drive from Budapest. The quieter north shore is where you'll find historic cathedrals, wineries and stately cities like Balatonfüred. The south shore favors a beach-party culture: In Siófok, you can windsurf, take a mineral-rich thermal bath and then hit the nightclubs.
To tour the lake by bike, drive to different starting points and take off for a day's cycling—anywhere from 10 to 25 miles or more. Pick up cycling maps at the Tourinform visitor center in Balatonfüred (1 Kisfaludy St.). You'll need water bottles, but not much else: There are restaurants and cafés in almost every village. Fall weather is mild, but bring a just-in-case rain slicker.
Start your biking tour in Balatonfüred, a city of imposing vacation villas built for Hungarian high society in the Belle Epoque era. Enjoy the faded Austro-Hungarian aristocratic charm, then stroll the tree-lined Tagore promenade, where youthful bon vivants and old-timers with fishing rods and bottles of wine mix at the water's edge.
Pick up rental bikes from Tempo 21 (52 Ady Endre St.; from $12/day) and hop on the lakeside trail. Head west for five miles until you reach the historic village of Tihany, on a hilly peninsula jutting into the lake. The final climb to the top should get your heart pumping, as will the view of the lake. Take time to visit the baroque Tihany Abbey, whose crypt houses the 11th-century tomb of King Andrew the White. Refuel with a traditional lunch of lamb chops at Gulyásudvar, a restaurant behind the post office.
If you're feeling adventurous, you can cross the lake by ferry to Szántód and ride 30 miles on the trail, through Siófok and around the lake's eastern end back to Balatonfüred. For a shorter jaunt, simply follow the trail another five miles west from Tihany until you come to the cemetery at Balatonudvari, with its unusual, heart-shaped tombstones. Then retrace your route.
As a reward, sample some wines at the Balaton Borgaléria wine shop (4 Zákonyi F. St.; $2/glass), which stocks only produce from the Balaton region, like budai zöld and cserszegi fuszeres—dry, elegant whites with complex layers of fruit. Prices range from $6 to $12 per bottle; they'll be happy to ship a case of your favorite home. At Bazsalikom, the restaurant next door, Italian staples get a Hungarian twist: Think ravioli stuffed with meat from the mangalica, a woolly hog.
Pack your bike in the trunk and drive the 25 scenic miles from Balatonfüred west to Badacsony, a cupcake-shaped mountain with interlocking (and similarly named) villages at its base.
The lakeside slopes are covered mostly in grapevines. In part, the region's great vintages inspired József Egry, an Expressionist painter who lived and worked in town. You can see some of his works at the József Egry Memorial Museum (12 Egry József St.). Afterward, sit down to a hearty Hungarian lunch at the Szent Orbán Borház, the restaurant connected to the revered Szeremley Winery.
From here you can leave the official trail and cycle (or drive) eight miles north to Tapolca, a town built over an underground lake. It's possible to tour the lake by boat, but be warned: The route is intensely dark and narrow (011-36-87-555-291; $5). In the surrounding area, known as Balaton Uplands National Park, hiking trails fan out in all directions from convenient parking lots. Pick up a trail map at the Tourinform visitor center in Balatonfüred.
Drive west from Badacsony, past the medieval castle ruins of Szigliget, where a 12th-century church tower still stands. Just past the western corner of the lake you'll find the spa town of Hévíz, where you can rent bikes at the Tourinform office (2 Rákóczi St.; $10/day). From Hévíz, the bike trail heads four miles almost directly south to the larger town of Keszthely. Here you can visit the ornate Festetics Palace (1 Kastély St.; $8), a Baroque chateau that's also home to the Balaton Wine House, a museum-cum-tasting room promoting the area's best vintages.
Back in Hévíz, make time for a dip in the town's thermal lake ($11 for three hours). It's famous for treating all types of ailments—though most visitors today come for relaxation, not rehabilitation. A long soak in the slightly sulfurous, body-temperature water (and perhaps an invigorating 45-minute aromatherapy massage; $18) should be enough to get you back on your bike for a late-afternoon cruise to take in the 19th-century architecture of this historic village. Afterwards, try your best dance moves at Magyar Csárda, a traditional tavern and restaurant in Hévíz where live Romany (Gypsy) music is performed every night but Wednesday.
From Keszthely, it's an hour's drive along the lake's beautiful south shore to Siófok, Balaton's exuberant party capital. In high season, bars and nightclubs set up shop along the beaches and young people dance to DJ sets by Fatboy Slim while looking for Mr. or Ms. Right Now.
Siófok is also one of Central Europe's hot spots for wind and water sports of all kinds. If you need to brush up on your technique, schedule a two-hour private kitesurfing lesson from Surf Beach (about $120), which also rents equipment and gives private and group lessons for windsurfing, sea kayaking and wakeboarding. After several days of gazing at the peaceful waves of Lake Balaton from points along the shore, it's high time you enjoyed the view from the opposite direction.
Typical Hungarian cuisine like lamb
chops and goulash, paired with
great local wines. 2 Posta köz St.,
dinner for two, $30*
Rustic Italian cooking meets local
Hungarian ingredients at this stylish
lakeside restaurant. 4 Zákonyi F. St.,
dinner for two, $40
SZENT ORBÁN BORHÁZ
This vineyard restaurant serves
meat from the woolly hog known as
mangalica, as well as other hearty
regional specialties. 5 Kisfaludy St.,
dinner for two, $40
Live Romany (Gypsy) music and
goulash, roast lamb and other
hearty fare from the Hungarian
countryside. 1 Tavirózsa St.,
dinner for two, $25
A modern, open bar and lounge
serving Asian-inspired noodle
dishes, curries and contemporary
bistro cuisine. 15a Petofi St.,
dinner for two, $50
*Prices are converted into U.S. dollars,
and cover a meal for two without drinks,
tax or tip.
RCI-AFFILIATED RESORTS AROUND
LAKE BALATON INCLUDE:
HOLIDAY CLUB HÉVÍZ, Hévíz
APARTHOTEL KALMA, Hévíz
CLUB ABBÁZIA, Keszthely
CLUB DOBOGÓMAJOR, Cserszegtomaj
For more information, visit RCI.com or call:
A bright, modern 71-room
hotel overlooking the marina.
4 Zákonyi, Balatonfüred;
HOTEL BLAHA LUJZA
The former vacation villa of
Hungarian diva Lujza Blaha is
now a 22-room hotel with an
ornate, Old World atmosphere.
4 Blaha Lujza; Balatonfüred;
doubles from $82
KÁLI ART INN
A 12-room boutique country
hotel near Badacsony. 8 Fó,
kaliartinn.hu; doubles from $120
A small, family-run hotel
that's perfect for a romantic
getaway. 72 Kossuth, Hévíz;
This new 222-room lakefront
hotel has a luxury day spa.
2/C Erkel Ferenc, Siófok;
CITY HOTEL EDEN
This new nine-room hotel
has free WiFi. 11 Kisfaludy,
hoteleden.hu; doubles from $80
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.