From opulent spas favoured by WAGS to unspoilt forests, parks and sustainable guest houses, Germany has everything a low-impact tourist could wish for

DEEP GREEN?

Yes. We know from German folklore (think Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood) that the forest, or wald, was an important part of life in Germany's past. With forest still covering 31 per cent of the country – almost three times as much as the UK – the nation is deeply green.

It is also way ahead in terms of "green" issues. Germany recycles three-fifths of domestic waste compared to about one-fifth here; there are now only 160 landfill sites in Germany, compared with 50,000 in the early Seventies.

If you are choosing the nation at the heart of Europe initially for its environmentally friendly credentials, you are in for a treat in terms of the green and open spaces it offers. Germany has one-third more people than Britain, but the population density is lower and more rural.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

The green traveller will want to take a lower-impact approach rather than fly. There are good deals involving Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) from London St Pancras via Brussels to Cologne and beyond, while Stena Line's Harwich-Hook ferry deposits passengers next to a train – with connections at Rotterdam, Amsterdam or Utrecht to a wide range of German destinations. Deutsche Bahn's UK office (08718 808066; www.bahn.de) can provide information and tickets. A journey from St Pancras to Baden-Baden takes as little as six and a half hours and costs £166.

For more flexibility, an Inter-Rail pass for the whole of Europe, for five days within 10, costs £185 per adult. Rail passes for the whole of Germany start at £139 for three days within a month. If you plan to explore a relatively small area, regional passes for a whole state for one day for up to five people cost £15-20, and can be bought at stations on the day of travel.

Driving is a good option. To reach the northern half of Germany, try the links on Stena Line (08705 70 70 70; www.stenaline.co.uk) from Harwich to Hook of Holland or DFDS Seaways (0871 522 9966; www.dfds.co.uk) from Newcastle to Amsterdam or Hull to Rotterdam. For the south, sail from Dover to Calais on P&O Ferries (08716 645 645; www.poferries.com) or SeaFrance (0871 22 22 500; www.seafrance.com); or to Dunkirk on Norfolkline (0870 870 1020; www.norfolkline.com). The tunnel alternative is Eurotunnel (08705 353535; www.eurotunnel.com).

WHERE TO START?

For a taste of Germany's unspoilt rural landscapes visit a national park. There are 14 of them, each displaying outstanding natural beauty. Together they illustrate the country's immense diversity.

The Harz national park in Germany's interior is centred around the granite massif of Brocken, the highest peak in the north of the country. Until 1989 a large chunk of the region was inaccessible in East Germany. Now all 247sq km are criss-crossed with paths from which you can see wild boar, red deer and birds.

Nearby towns were built by princes after silver deposits were found. Half-timbered houses and castles such as Wernigerode, complete with fairy-tale turrets, abound. From Wernigerode you can take the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen, Europe's largest narrow-gauge steam railway, to the former East German listening post at the summit of the Brocken.

The scenery couldn't be more different on Rügen Island's Jasmund national park in the far north east of Germany. There are walking and cycling trails from which you can see the nature reserve's protected flora, plus the striking chalk bluffs on the fast-eroding Baltic cliffs.

It can get crowded in summer so visit off-season if you want space. The Artepuri MeerSinn (00 49 03 83 93 663; www.meersinn.de) is a contemporary seaside hotel on Rügen, using organic and wholefoods. Price per person from €113 (£94) per day, including breakfast and dinner.

DRIFT DOWNSTREAM?

Yes. Germany has an extensive river and canal network, and an inland cruise provides an excellent and green way of seeing Germany's many landscapes in comfort.

The grandest waterway is the Rhine. Rising in the Swiss Alps, it travels for 1,320km, forming boundaries with Switzerland and France for some stretches, and passing castles and vineyards and more built-up areas.

The Rhine first drew tourists to Germany when cruises began early in the 19th century from Mainz to Cologne. The one-way trip, which can still be done in a day, goes through the "middle Rhine". This is the section that flows through the Rhine gorge, an area with more than 40 medieval castles, and a Unesco world heritage site. Marksburg castle near Braubach is a fairytale place in a spectacular setting. Opening times until 2 October are from 10am to 5pm daily. From 3 October to the beginning March 2009 opening times are from 11am to 4pm daily. Admission is €5 (£4.20) for adults, €3.50 (£2.70) for children, and €13 (£10.80) for a family pass.

A variety of cruises on the Rhine are available. Many of them are run by KD (00 49 221 20 88 318; www.k-d.de). A one-day Rhine pass with KD costs €29 (£24.20), and allows you to sail, for example, from Koblenz to Rudesheim and back, seeing the best of the "middle Rhine" scenery.

Longer itineraries are also available. The British tour operator VFB (01452 716840; www.vfbholidays.co.uk) offers a four-night Rhine cruise, plus travel to Germany by Eurostar and TGV Est high speed rail service for £624.

The Rhine is by no means Germany's only cruise destination. The Danube rises, bizarrely, in a fountain in the gardens of Fürstenburg Palace (00 49 771 86563; www.fuerstenberg-kultur.de). Visits are by appointment only and admission is €10 (£8.30). The town is also on the Donauradweg, one of Europe's most popular cycle routes, which follows the length of the river. There is a festival of contemporary classical music at the palace every October (17 to 19 October this year; www.swr.de/swr2/donaueschingen). The river links many cultural sites u o along its route from Donaueschingen, slicing through the Swabian mountains, alongside palaces and medieval towns to the pretty baroque town of Passau, close to the Austrian border.

Some of the highlights to see along the Danube's banks include the tallest spire in the world at Ulm's minster and the world's oldest monastery brewery at Weltenburg. Short detours from the Danube will take you to the Bavarian forest and to Neuschwanstein castle, which will be familiar to Disneyland enthusiasts.

A two-day trip from Passau to Schlögen and back with hotel accommodation in Schlögen costs €96.50 (£80.40) with tour company Donauschiffahrt Wurm & Köck (00 49 8 51 92 92 92; www.donauschiffahrt.com)

I WANT TO DO MY OWN THING ON WATER

There are many options for chartering motor boats and houseboats, or hiring canoes. The Elbe flows from the Sudeten mountains through areas of wild beauty to the calmer environs of Baroque Dresden, Germany's "Florence". The city's highlights include the Frauenkirche cathedral, built in the 1700s, flattened during the Second World War, and painstakingly reconstructed to dominate, once again, Dresden's skyline. Open Monday to Friday from 10am to 7pm except during services at noon-1pm and 6-7pm. Entrance to the lower areas is free (00 49 351 656 06 100; www.frauenkirche-dresden.de). Nearby is the Royal Palace's Green Vault (00 49 351 491 92285; www.skd-dresden.de), a sumptuous 16th-century treasure chamber of the kings of Saxony. Adult admission is €11.50 (£9.60).

Wittenberg, near the Elbe, is an ideal location to kayak. Feriendorf am Flämingbad (00 49 3 49 035 9260; www.paddelabenteuer.de) offers accompanied canoeing tours with canoe, lifejacket and transport.

The Mecklenburg lake district in the former Prussian north-east offers more than 1,000 lakes connected by rivers and canals and includes Müritz national park. It has extensive pine forests and moors, along with ancient beech woods, intertwined with tranquil, waterways. There are options for hiring canoes in the national park and motor boats and houseboats can be chartered in the extensive Lakeland region outside the park.

In August, a six-berth houseboat from Jabel costs £1,365 per week with the specialist tour company, Hoseasons (01502 502 588; www.hoseasons.co.uk).

SOMETHING MORE ACTIVE?

Germany has more than 150 long-distance cycle routes. From mountain-biking to family-friendly routes, plan your own trip or book a package with accommodation and luggage transfer.

The Tour de Fries is a 250km circuit in Ostfriesland on the North Sea. The flat tracks make it suitable for small children and the circuit travels through the Wattenmeer National Park and Unesco biosphere reserve, with its wetlands and dunes. Five nights' accommodation, a packed lunch, and luggage transfer cost €259 (£216) through Friesland-Touristic (00 49 18 05 93 8320; www.ostfriesland-Meer-erleben.de).

If off-roading is more your thing, the "green rooftop" cycle route has a 450km network of mountain bike paths in the Bavarian Forest. Routes run on unsurfaced tracks through dense forest. Climbs can be tough, but you will be rewarded with spectacular vistas at the top. Four nights with breakfast and maps costs €159 (£133) through Waldmuenchner urlaubsland (00 49 9972 307 24; www.waldmuenchen.de).

If your prefer hiking, then Demeter (a brand associated with organic certification and sustainably produced food) now organises walking holidays, complete with Demeter standard meals. Demeter's Saxon Switzerland package takes you with local guides through the national park south east of Dresden, named because of its forested mountainous Swiss-type landscape. You will visit vineyards and castles, stay in ecological guesthouses and use local transport for transfers. Seven days' half board costs €670 (£558) with Demeter Holidays (00 49 911 200 9955; www.demeter-reisen.de).

ENOUGH ACTIVITY: I NEED TO UNWIND (GREENLY)

There are more than 350 health and spa resorts in Germany, usually with " bad" (bath) in the name. Their healing waters and pure air have long attracted German folk for rest and recuperation.

Baden-Baden, at the western edge of the Black Forest, is one of the Bundesliga of spas, and was considered extravagant enough to be the base for the wives and girlfriends of the England football squad in the 2006 World Cup. The town has a casino, racecourse and designer shops but you will also find elegant 19th-century pump rooms, and bath houses where you can take the famous thermal spring waters. The Caracalla Spa (00 49 7221 275920; www.caracalla.de) is open from 8am to 10pm; admission from €13 (£10.80) for two hours. The Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish baths (00 49 7221 275 920; www.roemisch-irisches-bad.de) are open from 9am to 10pm; admission from €21 (£17.50) for three hours.

Baden-Baden also gets greenie points for having a car-free town centre. Brenner's Park Hotel and Spa (00 49 7221 9000; www.brenners.com) is participating in a "travel green" initiative whereby one euro per night of your booking fee goes to non-profit organisations, which then invest in sustainable and renewable energy resources. A two-night "beauty break" with treatments and use of spa, pool and gym costs €750 (£625) per person.

Bad Pyrmont in Lower Saxony isn't as flamboyant as Baden-Baden, but is still a prestigious spa town. A fashionable resort for royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries, it has medicinal springs, a mud spa, as well as natural carbon dioxide spring gas therapy. Bad Pyrmont's large park, the Kurpark, has baroque avenues and an outdoor palm garden where an annual open-air festival is held at the beginning of September. Green spaces extend beyond the town – Pyrmont's location in the rolling hill country of the River Weser makes it popular with walkers and cyclists.

Three nights' half board at the Steigenberger Hotel (00 49 5281 8502; www.bad-pyrmont.steigenberger.com) in Bad Pyrmont, including excursions to the Weserbergland region and three spa treatments costs €516 (£430).

GET CLOSER TO NATURE

Instead of merely observing the beauty of Germany's rural spaces, you can get stuck in on a farm holiday. You can stay on working farms or in hotels which were previously farms and still retain their rural charm. Hof am Weinberg (00 49 3987 409687; www.hofamweinberg.de), 80km north of Berlin, is in Brandenburg, an area known for the preservation of its natural environment. It is an organic livestock farm and horse breeder where the animals have plenty of pasture space. Guests are served home-produced food, including speciality sausages. Children will enjoy the horseriding and nearby Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere reserve, a forest-meadow-lakeland home to otters, osprey and eagles. Rooms from €40 (£33).

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