If you join some merry campers at a bonfire in Poland's Masurian woods, sooner or later you'll hear them break into a popular sailing tune that celebrates the Masurian Lakes region.
"The song lists the many treasures we cherish here," says Maciej Milosz, who co-owns a boat rental company, "including lots of fish to catch, wild mushrooms to eat, and unimaginably vast forests."
Stretching across northeastern Poland 125 miles north of the capital, Warsaw, the Masurian Lake District claims some 2,000 lakes, many connected by rivers and canals. Always popular with Polish vacationers, the region remains a quintessential example of the simple pleasures of traditional country life.
In summer months Masuria's lakes ripple with sails, while the red-roofed resort towns of Giz?ycko and Mikolajki teem with boaters and bathers. If you prefer solitude, head over to Nidzkie or Luknajno Lakes, nature reserves free of motorboats, where you easily will find a quiet waterside spot. Don't count on being alone, however. The lakes' navy blue waters attract diving cormorants, mute swans, and clamoring storks, while deer, moose, wolves, wild boars, and the elusive lynx roam the Pisz Forest, a remnant of a pristine wilderness that once covered much of northern Poland. It all adds up to even more to sing about.
When to Go: June to August for water sports and festivals; September and October for hiking and fall foliage
How to Get Around: Charter a boat in Gizycko, the district's largest sailing hub, to cruise the lakes at your own pace. Le Boat offers self-driven and captained trips aboard two- and three-cabin cruisers. Itineraries range from three to 14 nights, and no boating license is required.
Where to Stay: Ask for a lake-facing room at the stately Hotel Zamek Ryn, the restored (and supposedly haunted) Teutonic Knights' castle in Ryn. The massive, four-wing fortress, rebuilt following an 1881 fire, sits between Rynskie and Olów Lakes. Walk to the town beach or swim in the guest-only pool, tucked away in the castle's underground vaults.
What to Eat or Drink: Local specialties include sielawa (vendace), a delicate whitefish served smoked or grilled in most restaurants. The culinary pride of Gizycko (located between Kisajno and Niegocin Lakes) is sekacz, a knotted, sweet cake shaped like a spinal column and baked on spit.
What to Buy: The white storks commonly seen roosting in local villages have inspired a variety of souvenirs. Small shops and stands often carry folk-art stork sculptures—some are plump birds that resemble turkeys made out of pinecones, yarn, and bark.
What to Watch Before You Go: Roman Polanski's 1962 directorial debut Knife in the Water (The Criterion Collection) (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2010) is a superb thriller filmed almost entirely on a 35-foot yacht sailing the waters of the Masurian Lake District.
Cultural Tip: When canoeing or sailing on the lakes, greet passing boaters with a friendly "Ahoy."
Fun Fact: During April and May, wild mute swans nest at Lake Luknajno, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The large waterfowl (wingspans can top eight feet wide) and more than 95 other bird species, including white-tailed eagles, can be seen all summer from the reserve's observation towers.