Baltic Coast: Party Politics

The G8 summit comes to Heiligendamm next month. Just what does this traditional seaside resort on the north coast have to offer the leaders of the world's richest countries? Claire Wrathall takes a look

When it comes to demanding guests, they don't get much more exacting than the leaders of the G8 countries and their security chiefs. (And we're not just talking the German Chancellor Angela Merkel's alleged appetite for oysters: 16 downed at the opening party for the new Hotel de Rome in Berlin, or so it was reported). So spare a thought for the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm, which has spent the best part of three years preparing for the three days of talks, from 6 to 8 June.

This included making the small 18th-century seaside resort on eastern Germany's chilly Baltic coast secure by means of two cordons - one a seven-mile steel fence supported by concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire and fitted with movement sensors. Now is not the time to be visiting. Better wait a month or two until Heiligendamm reverts to the sleepy backwater it's almost always been.

"When the end of the world comes, I shall go to Mecklenburg because there everything happens a hundred years later," Bismarck once said of this region. And approaching "the white town by the sea" as it was known in its heyday, it's easy to see what he meant, especially if you arrive on the quaint narrow-gauge steam railway that still links the town with the main Wismar-to-Rostock line. For what confronts you is a cluster of gleaming white, mostly neoclassical buildings strung out along a stretch of pale sand and backed by woods. If you can, ignore the BMWs and Mercedes lined up in the car park and, truly, you might have gone back a century.

However, the illusion is a brief one. Heiligendamm, the oldest seaside resort in northern Europe, may have been founded in 1793 by Friedrich Franz, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, whose doctor had advised him to take up swimming (though the sea temperature rarely rises above 20C), but in 1996 almost the whole place was acquired by Fundus, the property company behind the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. Since then, what was once a rundown settlement of East German sanatoria and holiday flats for party members has been transformed into what is arguably the finest seaside hotel in Germany.

The original Grand Hotel still serves as reception and the main bar. Elsewhere, the former spa, or Kurhaus, now houses the restaurants. It was built in 1816 to resemble a classical temple, with the words Heic te laetitia invitat post balnea sanum (Here happiness awaits you as you emerge healthy after bathing) inscribed on its portico. The bathhouse (1796) has been converted into guest rooms, as has the orangery and, best of all, the Gothic revival castle known as Burg Hohenzollern, with its fairy-tale turrets and battlements. Only the Severin Palais is new, and it contains 3,500 square yards of spa offering a panoply of esoteric as well as conventional massages, treatments and "wellness" regimens, in addition to a superb, largely glass-enclosed swimming pool - not that you'd guess from its elegant white stucco exterior.

As a place to spend a weekend, there is not much to fault Heiligendamm. The hotel's decor fuses period aesthetics (Louis XVI and Empire-style furniture, extravagant silk drapery) with 21st-century comfort and attention to detail (light switches concealed in a bedside-table drawer; heated floors in the shower). Colours are pale and subtle, the better to reflect the glittering Baltic light; floors are gleaming oak parquet. The loveliest rooms are those in Hohenzollern Castle.

The housekeeping is impeccable, and the mostly local staff are friendly and attentive. As we had lunch in the Nelson Bar (named after the English admiral who came here), a party of four arrived with their large black Labrador, whose needs - a bowl of water - the waitress attended to even before she brought the menus. Children, too, are not just welcomed, but imaginatively catered for. If it's wet, there's a range of activities, from sandcastle-building and zoo visits to Harry Potter quizzes, laid on by the Eisbaren Kinderclub, whose polar-bear theme long predates Germany's mania for Berlin Zoo's darling polar-bear cub, Knut, the "Weltstar aus Deutschland", as German Vanity Fair has dubbed him.

And yet, the Grand doesn't feel especially like a family hotel. The other guests tended to be couples of all ages and almost exclusively German; even at Easter it seemed we were the only Ausländer. Breakfasting on succulent smoked butterfisch and nutty black bread in the grand barrel-vaulted dining room, with its hand-painted Chinoiserie-style, eau-de-nil silk walls, I felt like a character in a Thomas Mann novel. And the view on to the lawns of guests taking their morning constitutionals was pure Last Year in Marienbad. There were even lone ladies with lapdogs, come for a cure. Mendelssohn, Proust, Rilke and the Romanovs used to spend summers here (Tsar Nicholas I's villa has been demolished to make way for the G8 press centre), and they might still feel at home amid its fin-de-siècle splendour. Dinner is even more sophisticated, especially if you opt for a meal in Restaurant Friedrich Franz, where the chef, Tillmann Hahn, now has a Michelin star. His cooking is every bit as refined and Italianate as the hand-painted aquamarine silk wallpaper.

But there are earthier dining options too: an Italian restaurant and one named after the Kurhaus, or cure house, where the menu is, happily, altogether heartier than its name suggests, thanks not least to its astonishing array of cakes which the bracing sea air made me hunger for.

But for all its very real sense of luxury and repose, Heiligendamm has a certain poignancy. Perhaps the most beautiful view here is the one back towards the shore from the end of its long pier. Look carefully and you'll see that some of the prime seafront buildings remain empty.

Borrow a bicycle from the hotel and explore the neighbouring birch woods and you'll happen upon gloriously romantic villas, with pagoda-style roofs and other ornamentations, waiting to be restored. For the moment there is little in the "town" except the hotel and a shop aimed at those for whom retail is the best therapy: a branch of the exclusive Berlin department store Quartier 206.

However, Fundus has plans to add a thalassotherapy centre spa, some serviced apartments, a conference centre and a further nine holes on its golf course. All of which will constitute progress, for this is a place - indeed a region - badly in need of investment and regeneration.

However, Heiligendamm will lose something in the process. It will still be beautiful, luxurious and relaxing, but the sense of history, of a world apart, of going back in time, may not survive.

A tour of Mecklenburg and Lower Pomerania

1. Kühlungsborn

Styling itself Germany's Brighton, or Deauville, and the westernmost stop on the Molli railway, this is one of the largest resorts on the Baltic coast, with a decent sweep of sand and a fine collection of Bõderarchitektur (literally, bathing architecture): fanciful, elaborately ornamented early 20th-century white-painted seaside villas that wouldn't look out of place in Portmeirion. For details go to kuehlungsborn.de

2. The Molli railway

Steam-train enthusiasts will probably find the journey on this narrow-gauge railway an outing in itself - it takes 40 minutes each way and runs every two hours from Kühlungsborn to Bad Doberan and back. With its smart black and red livery and plumes of steam issuing from its chimney, the locomotive looks as if it comes straight out of a Hornby Model Railway set. For details go to molli-bahn.de

3. Heiligendamm Station

To visit the main sights hereabouts, you'll need a car. But Heiligendamm has a station with a "Grand-Ducal Waiting Room" (actually a café, all bentwood chairs and kentia palms). This is a pleasant place from which to spot the Molli steam train, which been calling here since 1886.

4. Ostsee Rennbahn

Halfway between Heiligendamm and Bad Doberan, and accessible on the Molli, the Rennbahn dates back to 1823; it's the oldest racecourse on the Continent. While it was dormant during the time of the German Democratic Republic, summer horseracing was re-established here in 1993. The next meeting runs from 25 to 29 July, and, just as at Ascot, the Friday is Ladies Day, so dress up. For details go to ostseerennbahn.de

5. Bad Doberan

Last stop on the Molli, this established spa, three miles from Heiligendamm, grew up around a former Cistercian monastery, whose monumental Gothic minster dominates the landscape. It's a pretty place of Jugendstil villas, with a park where the centrepieces are two fanciful Chinoiserie pavilions, one containing a café, the other a gallery. For details go to bad-doberan.de

6. Warnemünde

Head east along the coast, and you come to this picturesque resort with its wide beach dotted with Strandkörbe, hooded wicker seats with striped awnings to keep the sun off and the wind out. There's a 19th-century lighthouse (it's worth climbing the 135 steps for the views), and rows of narrow gabled fishermen's cottages along the riverfront. For details go to warnemuende.de

7. Rostock

Along the river from Warnemünde lies the region's main city, which was once a queen of the Hanseatic League (of trade-guild towns). But, like its rival Lübeck, it was badly bombed. It has been less meticulously reconstructed than Lübeck, but it has a handsome centre, with a fine 15th-century Gothic town hall and a towering Marienkirche. And its huge student population gives it a buzz. For details go to rostock.de

8. Güstrow

The schloss that dominates the town is home to an eclectic collection of decorative arts. Its highlight is not its Tintoretto, but the 3D depiction of fantastical hunting scenes on the ceiling of the banqueting hall. One contains a figure on horseback in a lounge suit, smoking a cigar - one Rudolf Pilz, clerk of works during its restoration in the 1960s. For details go to schloss-guestrow.de

9. Schwerin

The largest city in the area is a watery place, built around 10 lakes and dominated by a vast 19th-century faux-Renaissance schloss, inspired by the French chateau at Chambord on the Loire. But its real glory is its gardens: the rolling English-park-style Burggarten, which stands in total contrast to the formal parterres of the Schlossgarten. For details go to museum-schwerin.de

10. Wismar

Like Rostock, this was a member of the Hanseatic League, though here the Gothic Altstadt has been meticulously reconstructed so that its major landmarks recall the town's era as a 16th-century seafaring power, making it something of a tourist honeypot. The best place to wander is along the Grube canal and around Heiligen-Geist-Spital, a 15th-century hospital. For details go to wismar.de

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Lubeck, from £20 return. The Kempinski Grand Hotel Heiligendamm (00 49 38203 7400; kempinski-heiligendamm.com) offers double rooms from £166 per night, and this includes breakfast. Carrentals (0845 225 0845; carrentals.co.uk) offers seven days' car hire from Lubeck Airport from £114.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

For more details, check the Lubeck Tourist Office (luebeck-tourism.de).

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