Germany's treasure island

Diana Constance succumbs to the romance of Rugen

You know you have crossed the unmarked border into the East by the cleaner air. As the old autobahns of West Germany peter out, green tunnels of linden trees begin. We made for Rugen, Germany's largest island and a haven for environmentalists.

Here we abandoned the car and took to our bicycles, riding under the canopies of tall trees and through cobbled hamlets. Nadelitz made a delightful stopping place for the Baltic speciality of smoked eel and dark beer. Prices here are old-fashioned: b&b costs pounds 10 to 15 and bike hire, pounds 4 per day.

On this rich agricultural land in 1818, Wilhelm Malte, Prince zu Putbus, built the island's grandest folly. It was meant to be an exclusive spa to rival Brighton. Unfortunately, his friends were not as impressed as we are today. The deer park and elegant circus of flaking, stuccoed buildings with an orangery, theatre and bath house remain, although his Schloss succumbed to rot and the GDR economic dogma in 1962. But you can still dine on culled venison in the Jagerhutte restaurant just off the circus.

From here it is an easy walk to the narrow-gauge steam train that connects the island's main bathing resorts. Familiarity has bred contempt among the locals, who can't understand the new popularity of their noisy old transport. The train runs eight times a day from Putbus to Goren, at two-hour intervals, making it possible to stop off and take a swim at Binz - the best beach resort - and pick the train up two hours later to go on to Sellin, Baabe or Goren at the end of the line.

On the second day we made our way to the northern end of the island and one of the great glories of German landscape motifs. Casper David Friedrich was the first of many German Romantic artists to discover Rugen. He trekked to the white, chalk cliffs of the Stubbenkammer, in what is now the Jasmund national park. I had always thought his paintings a romantic exaggeration until I turned a corner in the forest and saw one of his compositions, Kreidefelsen auf Rugen. It took an hour to climb down through drifting mists and pencil-thin pines to the shingle beach below the chalk cliffs.

There is a new ferry from Binz that connects Rugen with the island of Usedom. There, the resorts of Bansin, Heringsdorf and Ahlbeck form one, long, seafront promenade.

A sea fret was rolling over the dunes and sliding across the promenade of Ahlbeck as we arrived, wrapping the hotels in an appropriately romantic mist. This was once the grande dame of the Baltic resorts, scene of the Kaiser's tryst with a certain widow. It suffered more than neglect under the GDR; one suspects a wish to humble it.

The hotels were turned into run-down health spas for the workers, while other ranks, including Honecker, went to Rugen. Now the Germans are rebuilding them in the old style. At Ahlbeck, the promenade and gardens have been restored with old-world charm. The old Ahlbeckerhof, which was the place to stay under the Kaiser, will reopen this year in all its old glory, but with a modern health spa. And all this is in preparation for the expected shower of Deutschmarks which should follow the relocation of the government to Berlin, a two-hour drive away. So go there now.

BALTIC BASICS

Getting there: the best gateway to the region is Berlin. British Airways (0345 222111) flies there, so does Lufthansa (0345 737747), which offers flights from Heathrow for pounds 112 return (pounds 10 weekend surcharge), including tax, available until September.

Getting around: German Rail (0181 390 8833) can advise on schedules and fares.

Getting information: the German National Tourist Office (65 Curzon Street, London W1; tel: 0171 493 0080). The line is open 10am-noon and 2pm-4pm from Monday to Friday.

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