You'll never be bored at Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks, but you might be a bit overwhelmed. The 1,100-mile shore of the lake--actually a reservoir--winds in so many directions that locals liken it to a twisted dragon.
But Lake of the Ozarks' shape and size also explain its broad appeal. However you like to de-stress, the lake tempts all your senses. Roar along in a speedboat or dangle your legs from a dock; hike in a state park or buy fudge on the Strip; admire bluff-top mansions or slip away to a mom-and-pop resort.
Our traveler-tested tips on the following slides show how to enjoy these essential experiences at this hot spot. Just open your eyes, cock your ears, and turn up your taste buds.
In 1904, Kansas City businessman Robert Snyder set out to build a European-style mansion high above the Ozark foothills. Nearly 40 years later, the home caught fire, leaving a stone skeleton behind. Today, that castle (left) anchors Ha Ha Tonka State Park.
On sunny days, the ruins frame patches of bright blue sky, making for striking photographs. The rest of the more than 3,700-acre park showcases the area's natural beauty. Sharp-eyed visitors will spot wild hydrangea clinging to rock faces, yellow coneflowers dotting the hillsides and red-eared slider turtles basking on logs.
When you pull into Randy's Frozen Custard in Osage Beach, ignore the big vanilla soft-serve on the sign. Nothing wrong with a humble swirl cone, but Randy's has so much more to offer. The friendly kids working the windows happily answer questions from newbies ("What's a concrete?") before blending fresh raspberries, candy bars or pie filling into dense custard.
The star here is the Ozark Turtle Sundae (left), a gooey concoction crowned with a generous handful of whole toasted pecans (no flavorless, unidentified chopped nuts at this place). Don't be surprised to find yourself scraping the last streaks of fudge and caramel from the cup.
Randy's Frozen Custard (573/348-0711)
When you slide open the door to your balcony at Garden House Bed and Breakfast (left), orange juice and coffee await. (Owner Lilliana Meyer sets the tables as her guests snooze, entering their decks through a side entrance.)
Early in the morning, a fine mist hovers over the lake. Potted palms sit on every balcony, flowers bloom in the gardens, and within minutes, a Belgian waffle appears, along with a coffee refill. And that feeling you can't quite recognize? It's called being spoiled, and it's just fabulous.
Experienced fishermen say the thrill of a bite never goes away, but surely nothing compares to the first time you feel a tug on the line. The rod bends, the line tightens, and suddenly, a little bluegill (not a whale?) flops over the side of the boat, looking almost as startled as you feel. A guided fishing trip will steer you to the best fishing spots.
Hook'em Guide Service (573/216-2409)
For kitsch appeal, take in the colorful pageantry of Bagnell Dam Boulevard, known as the Strip, in Lake Ozark. Picture a woman serving frozen drinks from a huge steel lemon (left)--not far from a tattoo place and the Strip's iconic, two-story-tall "Indian." Pose for an old-timey photo, score a stuffed animal at Ten-Cent Skee Ball, or just wander and soak it all in.
Ten-year-old Jordan Ihler steps into Grandma's Candy Kitchen on the Strip (left). Eyes wide, she grins and sighs happily. "Smell it!" Surely they sell sweets somewhere in her hometown of St. Louis, but she knows as well as anybody that fudge--especially when it comes in a bazillion flavors--always tastes better on vacation.
On boats big and small all around the lake, families drop anchor, turn up the radio, and let the party start. (Need supplies? You won't believe the cooler selection at the local Wal-Mart.) Choose a designated captain, obviously, and then leave the real world behind to zip across the lake, stop the boat for a couple of hours in the sun, and sip a can of Bud. (This is Anheuser-Busch country, after all!) See slide 20 for details about slips and boat rentals.
Every panini or salad at Osage Beach's On the Rise Bakery and Bistro arrives with a basket of crispy-chewy, peppercorn-Parmesan potato chips, fresh from the kettle (left). It's the kind of upscale touch you might not expect down here. Best of all, it's just the beginning. A sparkling bakery case full of artisan breads, croissants, cinnamon buns and spiral ham-and-cheddar rolls beckons for tomorrow's breakfast. Insider tip: Pastries are half-off after 3 p.m.
Some of the 350 rooms at the Lodge of Four Seasons open onto a lushly landscaped Japanese garden (left), where tidy paths loop under drooping pine boughs. Kids watch through the footbridge railing and point at orange and white koi swimming in rhythmic circles. At the back of the garden, a bright blue cloverleaf pool tempts guests to lie on lounge chairs overlooking the lake's busy main channel.
Four Seasons 
Walk into Spa Shiki (left) at the Lodge of Four Seasons, slip into a cotton robe, and just breathe deeply. Essential oils, fancy creams, potions for every part of the body… Utter relaxation is on the way.
Spa Shiki 
The engineers who led the Bagnell Dam construction lived in and entertained visitors at Willmore Lodge, a North Woods-looking building that feels (and smells) more like Minnesota than Missouri. Hefty 80-year-old log walls and rafters still perfume the air with the tingly, woodsy scent of bonfires and summer camp. Today, Willmore Lodge houses a visitors center (left) and small museum. Play checkers by the soaring windows, or step onto the back porch for a pretty lake view.
Willmore Lodge 
The sound of footsteps bounces between the white walls and wood floors of Sturdevant Gallery (left), hidden on a side road in Osage Beach. Depending on the artist shown, the impressive paintings and sculptures here might not fit a bargain-shopper's budget, but it's perfectly kosher to just come in and browse.
Sturdevant Gallery 
Just a few feet beyond the entrance to Ozark Caverns, the temperature drops a good 30 degrees, from midsummer muggy to long-sleeves chilly. Later, with the entrance a twisty-turny quarter-mile back, the tour guide asks visitors to turn off their lanterns. Everyone gasps. "Darker than any other place on Earth!" guide Jocelyn Korsch jokes later. "You kind of have to see it to understand." Before the smallest spelunkers have a chance to get scared, lanterns flicker on again, illuminating the cave's calcium deposits, which drip off the walls like toothy monster grins.
The Caverns' home, Lake of the Ozarks State Park, also has hiking trails, horseback riding, beaches and boat rentals.
Go out on a dock at Eagle's Nest Resort in Sunrise Beach. Close your eyes, and listen to the sounds of summer. In the morning, birds chirp in the trees. After breakfast, the first motorboats buzz down the coves. (Here on the slower west side of the lake, it's a quiet hum rather than an ever-present roar.) And in the evening, as darkness sets in, laughter rings out from decks up and down the shore as another day at the lake slips away.
Eagle's Nest Resort 
If our our essential experiences have inspired you to visit Lake of the Ozarks, you've probably got some nitty-gritty questions about your vacation. Details on this and the next four slides will help.
First: the best time to go. On summer Fridays, traffic backs up on US-54, and pedestrians clog the Strip (left). During the week, though, crowds thin. You'll have a good time whenever, but for genuine R&R, come midweek, or save weekend getaways for September.
Larger resorts and condos crowd the busier east side, family-owned resorts line the west, and a soaring toll bridge connects the two. Many restaurants and stores, including Osage Beach Premium Outlets, front US-54 in Osage Beach. Some of the little towns around the lake have distinct downtowns, but city limits blur with the development ringing the lake. When you drive to your lodging for the first time, ask for directions.
Pictured: The lake looks peaceful from a bluff at Ha Ha Tonka State Park.
The little museum at Willmore Lodge Visitors Center (left) provides a great intro to the history and ecology of the lake, but more importantly, you can load up on brochures and maps (essential for navigating the lake's twisty roads).
Willmore Lodge 
Some of our favorite lodgings are listed below, but the Lake of the Ozarks' website lists nearly 200 more. Choose from resorts, inns, cabins, condo rentals and even houseboats. Expect to spend an afternoon clicking through websites and making phone calls. If you choose a cabin on the lake's peaceful west side, you'll sacrifice convenience. When you book, ask owners how long it takes to get to the business district (i.e. groceries) in Osage Beach.
Garden House Bed and Breakfast Guests enjoy peaceful breakfasts on private balconies at this modern, spic-and-span B&B in Lake Ozark (left) (573/365-1221).
Bass Point Resort A relaxed vibe and affordable cabins have kept this family-run resort on the lake's quieter west side in business for more than 40 years (573/374-5205).
Eagle's Nest Resort Cottages range from one-bedroom suites to five-bedroom houses. In Sunrise Beach (877/452-5338).
The Lodge of Four Seasons This huge resort offers 350 rooms and suites, a large marina, restaurants, a dance club, a spa and a lush garden. On Horseshoe Bend (888/265-5500).
Tan-Tar-A This retreat, spread over 420 hilly acres, is particularly family-friendly, with an indoor water park, horseback riding and a huge game room (800/826-8272).
Bass Point Resort 
Eagle's Nest Resort 
Most waterfront lodgings allow visitors who bring their own boats to reserve a slip. If you don't have a boat, family-owned Bridgeport Boat Rental offers hourly and daily rentals of speedboats, pontoons, fishing boats and personal watercraft. At the very least, try Tropic Island Cruises for 90-minute narrated tours loaded with silly jokes and tropical hits; or take a guided fishing trip, just to feel the wind in your hair.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® July/August 2009.)
Hook'em Guide Service (fishing) (573/216-2409)