Heiligendamm: Baltic bolthole

30 Sep 2004 by Alex McWhirter

Heiligendamm on Germany's Baltic coast is an unlikely resort spot. Alex McWhirter ventures to the "white city by the sea".

Germany isn't known for its seaside resorts. The country doesn't possess much of a coastline and what it does have is on the Baltic coast. It's no wonder then, that the Germans, like the British, go south at every available opportunity. Heiligendamm is north, very north, in the top right-hand corner of Germany, near the port of Rostock and within striking distance of Poland. It couldn't be much further from the sun-kissed beaches of the Mediterranean.

Yet perhaps Heiligendamm's time has come. Spain has weathered a difficult summer, with tourists seemingly looking for something different after several decades of sun, sea and sand, and Heiligendamm is well placed to take advantage of our perennial obsession with health - it was as a spa resort that it had its first great heyday over 200 years ago.

Its origins date back to 1793, when the English fondness for sea bathing was brought to Germany. Duke Friedrich Franz I of Mecklenburg-Schwerin was advised by his personal physician to bathe in the Baltic Sea for the sake of his health. In so doing he started a trend which saw Heiligendamm become Germany's first sea spa and one of the best addresses for European high society. Rainer Maria Rilke, Marcel Proust, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Field Marshal Blucher, Queen Luise of Russia, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Tsar Nicholas I all spent their summer holidays here.

It remained popular, but as the 19th century became the 20th, the resort gradually went into decline, and after World War II was requisitioned by the Communist authorities. Part of the resort was then used as a workers' sanatorium and holiday flats for Party members. During that period the area remained largely out of bounds to ordinary people, as the government feared this isolated coastline could be used as an escape route to the West.

Big changes are now afoot. In 1996, investment firm Fundus (who developed the famous Adlon Hotel in Berlin) acquired the site. It has already spent 232 million Euros on refurbishing and redeveloping Heiligendamm to modern luxury standards, and like the Adlon, luxury German hotel chain Kempinski has the management contract.

The unrivalled location and direct access to the Baltic Sea make the Kempinski Grand Hotel Heiligendamm one of the most beautiful resorts in Europe. The "white villas" of the Grand Hotel are surrounded by a sandy beach on one side and by beach woods and meadows on the other. There are few disfiguring buildings, and the beautiful ones are being renovated - a real draw, since the resort owes its fame as much to the skill of the architects who planned this "white city by the sea," as to the well-heeled guests of former times. The architects created a string of small, white villas along the promenade which shimmer in different colours depending on the position of the sun, and several large public buildings such as the Kurhaus, the former Grand Hotel, Severin Palais and the Mecklenburg, which are all now back in use.

So what does Heiligendamm offer today? The present Kempinski resort comprises several of these listed buildings. The Severin Palais has spa rooms offering everything from anti-aging to power and fitness checks, along with a 3,000-square-foot wellness area, large pool and various saunas along with fitness, wellbeing and beauty programmes. As you'd expect from the Germans, these are done very well. There's an element of pampering but it comes with a large dose of common sense. The residential houses, including the Mecklenburg, have been renovated to preserve the nostalgic charm of the site while combining it with up-to-date facilities, programmes and services.

Accommodation comprises 222 five-star rooms and suites spread out over four buildings. The "Haus Grand Hotel" has 36 double rooms, 13 suites and one junior suite as well as the Nelson Bar. The Orangery has 19 suites, and nine rooms with a terrace, and, despite its name, was the former telegraph office where guests sent off their holiday greetings. Then there's the Hohenzollern Castle with its 19 rooms and suites beneath the battlement towers. Lastly, there's the "Haus Mecklenburg", which was built in 1795 as a bathhouse and was the first stone-constructed building of the entire ensemble. Throughout, sober, plain or striped fabrics in beige or green give an impression of tranquillity, while fabrics such as velvet and linen for the sofas and curtains create a five-star feel (all rooms and suites in Mecklenburg offer sea views out to Mecklenburg Bay).

Although not primarily a conference hotel, there are meeting facilities for businesses and first-class food in the two restaurants, Kurhaus and Restaurant Friedrich Franz, which serve organic food, some sourced from near the hotel. There is also the "Ostsee Golf Club Wittenbeck", a nine-hole golf course (shortly to be upgraded to 18 holes), walks along the cliff path, jogging trails, or you can practise t'ai chi or qigong on the beach.

As you might expect, the facilities are immaculate, the housekeeping efficient and the mainly local staff friendly and attentive. And the weather isn't as bad as all that. In summer the temperature hovers between 22 and 25 degrees; in winter it fluctuates between 5 and 8 degrees. Contrary to popular belief, you won't find the sea freezing over.

What you do experience is an unspoilt environment, clean air, crystal-clear light and (if you don't like the heat) comfortable temperatures in the height of summer.

Lastly, one of its disadvantages might prove to be its salvation. It's a difficult place to reach. The nearest train station is at the nearby historical town of Bad Doberan and local trains make connections from the intercity services arriving at Rostock from Berlin. The nearest airport is 20km away at Rostock, but Rostock can boast only a limited number of scheduled domestic flights, and so the best and most economical way to get there from the UK or northern Europe is to fly into Lubeck (northeast of Hamburg), to Hamburg itself or to Berlin's Tegel airport, which lies to the north of the capital. Currently, most guests are from Germany itself and they drive to the hotel - mainly from the former western half of the country. But Kempinski hopes to attract more overseas visitors, especially those who want to combine a few days' rest and relaxation with a trip to Berlin or Hamburg, or those who might arrive for a long weekend.

Heiligendamm isn't a flash resort - just a classy one. It might well be about to enjoy another heyday.

Getting there

From the UK the easiest arrival point is Lubeck (100km, or just over an hour's drive away), served by Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) from Stansted and Glasgow (Prestwick) from next March. Return fares are from as little as £30, but £80 for a weekend return is more likely. Ryanair also has special fly-drive rates with Hertz (book through Ryanair). A three-day rental of a VW Golf (the latest Mark 5 version) costs £97 (a Mercedes C class costs £133). All rates include taxes, unlimited mileage, collision damage waiver (CDW) and theft protection. Alternative airports include Hamburg (160 km), served by carriers including BA (www.ba.com) and Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) or Berlin Tegel (220km away) for BA, Lufthansa and Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com) among others.

A final option would be to arrive at Rostock (20km or a 30-minute drive). Although Rostock is mainly served by domestic flights from Munich, you can make connections from there to airports worldwide.
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