One of China's largest freshwater lakes, the Chinese name for Erhai Lake (Erhǎi, 洱海) literally translates to "Ear Sea," a nod to its vast size (250 sq km or 96 sq mi) and long, narrow crescent shape, said to resemble an ear—though when you're looking at a map, you may need a bit of imagination.
Sitting at 1,972 m (6,470 ft) above sea level, Erhai is an alpine fault lake, and its clear jade waters are bordered by stunning scenery, with the majestic peaks of Cang Shan rising up to the west. The lake shore is easily accessible from from Dali by a one hour walk or a 15-minute bike ride.
Cycling is an excellent way to explore the area and the ride from Dali will take you through pretty villages, countryside and rice fields. On reaching the lake you can put your bike on a ferry and explore one of Erhai's islands, or its far side where a picturesque road skirts close to the water's edge.
Ferries and tour boats ply the waters between the small towns of Caicun (Cái Cūn, 才村) just east of Dali Old Town and Wase (Wāsè Xiāng, 挖色乡), or from Erhai Park (ěrhǎi Gōngyuán, 洱海公园) in Xiaguan (Xiàguān, 下关) at the southern tip of the lake to Longkan (Lóngkān, 龙龛) via Haidong (Hǎidōng Xiāng, 海东乡) on the eastern shore (prices can range from RMB 80-180 up depending on your haggling skills and group size). Note that the water can get pretty choppy in rough weather and you'll need your sea legs.
Erhai Lake's attractions include Guanyin Pavilion (Guānyīn Gé, 观音阁), Nanzhou Fengqing Island (Nánzhāo Fēngqīng Dǎo, 南招风清岛), home to a Buddhist temple and Xiao Putuo (Xiǎo Pǔtuó, 小普陀), a tiny island outcrop just 130 m (142 yd) offshore from Xiaguan on which a very photogenic two-story, 15th century temple dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, sits.
Jinsuo Island (Jīnsuō Dǎo, 金梭岛) or "Golden Shuttle Island" sits 13 km (8 mi) north of Xiaguan and is one of the main attractions on most cruises. 1.5 km (0.9 mi) long and just 500 m (546.8 yd) wide at its widest point, it is said to look like a weaving shuttle, hence the name. Once a retreat for royalty of the Nanzhao Kingdom—a confederation of largely Tibeto-Burmese tribes whose descendents make up many of Yunnan's present-day minority peoples—today the island is home to a small community of Bai fishermen who still employ the ancient method of cormorant fishing. The local village offers some nice examples of Bai architecture with screen walls, courtyards and a lovely view of the lake's expanse. Cang Shan stands beyond, making for a majestic backdrop.
On the southern tip of Erhai Lake, just west of Xiaguan is Erhai Park, a pleasant and green spot offering magnificent lake views from atop a small hill.