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One of Austria's best-loved summer playgrounds is in Carinthia, the country's southernmost pro-vince. Our Doug Linton has just spent a few days in the area scouting good hotels and restaurants.

By Doug Linton

Lake Wörthersee
Lake Wörthersee

Just west of Klagenfurt, in the Austrian province of Carinthia, sits the Wörthersee, a beautiful 17-kilometer-long lake. It's warm waters, surrounding greenery, and views of snow-capped mountains have soothed and inspired European vacationers for decades. Composers, especially, seem attracted to the lake. Brahms wrote his 2nd Symphony while summering here in the 1870s. Gustav Mahler composed five symphonies in just seven summers on the lake, as well as his Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children (OK, so inspiration is not always cheery). Alban Berg, too, owned a cottage nearby, where he worked on his racy opera, Lulu, as well as his twelve-tone violin concerto.

Great composers weren't the only ones to gather around the lake during the autumn of the Habsburg empire. By the end of the 19th century, the Wörthersee blossomed as a summer resort for Austria's rich and powerful, who flocked to the lake to enjoy the summer sun and the warm, swimmable lake water. They snapped up lakeside property and built luxurious villas and manor homes. With the collapse of the empire, most of these grand homes were sold off and converted to hotels, thereby giving the modern-day visitor a wonderful choice of architecturally-attractive lodgings.

Even today, the Wörthersee continues to attract Austria's idle rich and others who spend their summers boating on the lake or soaking up the sun on the docks. In the evening, they make a splash in the lake's casino or at one of the plentiful nightspots. This all gives the Wörthersee a glitzy beach-town quality that has led some travel writers to label it the St. Tropez of Austria.

The three main resort towns on the lake are Maria Wörth, Velden and Pörtschach. Though a small two-lane road rings the lake, the best way to get from town to town is via ferry boat. The best is a converted 1909 steamboat that in summer runs a couple of times a day. The steamer trip from Velden to Pörtschach is about $10, while a trip to Maria Wörth is about $13. Other boats charge approximately $7 for the one-hour trip, which operates hourly from 9am until 5pm. An additional night ferry runs at 8pm and 11pm. If you have a license, there are motorboats and sailboats for rent. If you don't and still have an urge to pilot your own skiff, you can putter around in a little electric boat for about $18 an hour.

Located on a small peninsula, Maria Wörth is the smallest and the most historic of the lake's three prime resort towns. The main attraction is its picturesque church, which dates from the 9th century and is located on a small, meditative rise above the lake. The setting is attractive and tranquil, although less so when overrun by those multifarious tour groups.

At the far west end of the lake is Velden, considered to be the hippest of the three, with its yacht harbor, casino, and an attractive castle. It also has a sweeping harbor promenade, which is particularly pleasant in the evening.

My own favorite is Pörtschach. It has an old beach town atmosphere, a lively main strip, and a large, tree-shaded park with long promenades.

I also spent an evening at a small streetside club listening to the best boogie-woogie, barrelhouse piano player I have ever heard, a young Austrian whose frizzy shock of hair, blissful expression, and fiery playing made him seem like a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Bozo the clown. I can't guarantee he'll be there every night, but if he's not someone else is sure to be. It's just one example of the summer surprises found on the Wörthersee.