Hidden in the long shadows cast by Italy and France, Germany is rarely the American tourist’s first choice for a European vacation. But those who never make a German trip miss some of the continent’s great travel experiences. This is the country of the Brothers Grimm, and when the mist wreaths around the forested hills crowned with crumbling fortresses, the landscape resembles a scene from a fairy tale. It was from this natural splendor that Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich drew inspiration.
Though World War II left deep scars on the urban environment, many towns escaped the bombs, leaving their medieval and Renaissance architecture intact. And those cities that were severely damaged have (in most cases) been thoughtfully restored. Berlin has emerged as a thriving center of contemporary art and architecture; Munich retains its elegant Old World atmosphere; and even devastated Dresden has reclaimed its baroque grandeur, with the graceful dome of the Frauenkirche once again dominating the skyline. Today, American visitors will also find imaginative “New German” cuisine, complemented by a flourishing viticultural tradition.
Germany can be explored with ease on fast and efficient trains, or by well-maintained and well-marked roads. We picked up a rental car at Munich Airport and headed south toward the Bavarian Alps. Just a short drive beyond the city’s southern outskirts, the first rugged mountains appeared on the horizon, providing a backdrop to tidy villages and wildflower-speckled meadows. SCHLOSS ELMAU, a 135-room resort and spa, stands in a particularly scenic tract of pine-forested countryside at the foot of the snow-streaked Wetterstein Mountains. Completed in 1916 as a refuge for artists and intellectuals, the property maintains that heritage to this day, regularly inviting authors, actors and musicians to speak and perform in its airy concert hall. A fire in 2005 virtually destroyed two-thirds of the guest rooms, but after a renovation by the original architectural firm, the resort reopened, along with a new spa facility.
This 32,000-square-foot spa is one of Schloss Elmau’s main draws. In addition to a family area with a rooftop pool, indoor pool and fitness center, an adults-only section contains an outdoor saltwater pool facing the mountains, a steam room, a sauna, a spacious relaxation lounge and an immense hammam, reportedly the largest in Europe west of Istanbul. This atmospheric space, with vaulted ceilings and marble fountains, provides a wonderful setting for treatments, and few remedies are as reviving to the jet-lagged traveler as a hammam ritual. My well-trained therapist gave me an invigorating full-body scrub followed by a relaxing soap massage, in preparation for which I found myself covered by a warm blanket of soap bubbles more than a foot thick.
The property’s gourmet restaurant should theoretically be another attraction, but we were surprised to find ourselves alone the night we dined there. Luce d’Oro’s tasting menu proved to be one of the finest we had on our entire journey, with fascinating wine pairings. A 1994 Grüner Veltliner Spätlese came to vivid life with an exquisite dish of crayfish, and an unusual Sauvignon Blanc from Baden-Württemberg cut right through the savory richness of the “Surprise Egg” course, a slow-cooked egg hidden amid asparagus, pork cheeks and morels. In Fidelio, the resort’s dramatic Italian restaurant, I particularly enjoyed the pappardelle with rabbit ragout and mustard, and perfectly cooked John Dory with tender turnips and creamy black beans.
With the exception of a few lodgings in the wing undamaged by fire, the guest rooms are contemporary in style. Our Junior Suite had red-and-gold Indian-inspired upholstery on the sofa, armchair and headboard; and a limestone and sandstone bath with a soaking tub and separate shower. Attractive views extend in all directions from Schloss Elmau, but accommodations facing south have the most direct panoramas of the Wetterstein Mountains. Rooms in the main building with mountainview balconies are the most desirable; alternatively, consider staying in the adjacent Wetterstein Wing, where lodgings have floor-to-ceiling windows directly facing the mountains (avoid ground-floor rooms, which lack privacy). Our westerly view took in the sunset over the distant Alps, along with a section of the Wetterstein and a swath of the well-kept grounds. Dotted with pairs of loungers, the lawn eventually merges seamlessly with the surrounding forest.
Both couples and families will find Schloss Elmau appealing, because the resort manages to make children feel welcome without alienating adult guests in search of tranquility. The property makes a convenient base for visiting a host of major sights, including Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Linderhof (palaces built by King Ludwig II), the Wieskirche (a rococo church), the Zugspitze (Germany’s highest mountain) and the frescoed houses of Oberammergau.
About two hours to the east is the Chiemsee, a picturesque lake surrounded by low mountains. Because of its location halfway between Munich and Salzburg, we have previously visited the lake and the over-the-top island palace of Herrenchiemsee en route between the two cities. This time, we decided to stop and spend a night at the RESIDENZ HEINZ WINKLER. After a speedy check-in, a young employee led us to our Garden Suite, said “OK — enjoy your stay,” and left. It would have been nice if he had told us a little about the hotel’s amenities, given us a quick tour of our accommodations, and helped us bring our luggage upstairs. The comfortable duplex suite had a color scheme of butter yellow and hunter green, and faced an attractive shared garden courtyard backdropped by verdant mountains. The tile bath was spotless, but some of the upholstery in the living room showed wear, and I didn’t care for the faux-wood laminate flooring.
The cheery, mountainview restaurant served unfussy presentations of well-prepared, top-quality ingredients. Standouts included an arugula salad accompanied by langoustine tails and local saibling (char) roe, and a creamy soup studded with morel tips and crescents of cucumber. Guests can also take advantage of a Roman-themed spa with a small counter-current pool, a sauna, a steam room and two complicated “experience” showers, as well as an adjacent beauty center. The restaurant and spa make the Residenz Heinz Winkler a pleasant overnight stop, which could be truly luxurious with better-trained staff and some room upgrades.
Alas, our fortunes soon took a turn for the worse. Despite the popularity of the so-called “Romantic Road,” a 220-mile string of colorful half-timbered towns between Augsburg and Würzburg, I could not find a property that met my standards. The best available option is the HOTEL EISENHUT in the walled city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which has a central location and terrific views from some of the suites. Regrettably, the extravagantly floral décor in the guest rooms now feels dated, and the restaurant is inconsistent in both food and service.
Well-preserved Heidelberg also lacks a truly distinguished hotel. This picturesque city rises from the Neckar River to a sprawling, half-ruined castle, the venue for a summer festival of theater, opera and classical music performed by the Heidelberg Philharmonic. Its renowned university was founded in 1386 and played a leading role in the era of humanism and reformation. The 20-room HEIDELBERG SUITES looked like an ideal choice, with a riverfront setting across a historic pedestrian bridge from the old quarter, but after an odd welcome — the front desk employee seemed distinctly surprised to see us — we discovered that our Superior Suite suffered from inattentive housekeeping and poor maintenance. Cobwebs decorated the living room’s chandelier, the walls were scuffed, and the wood floor in the bath showed water damage. Our terrace had a table and chairs with stupendous views, but we never went outside without shoes because its floor was filthy. And only at checkout did we learn that the front desk is not staffed 24 hours a day. Guests need a code to open the door after midnight, a code we never received. Had we stayed out late one evening, we would have been stuck.
It was something of a relief, then, to check into the WEINROMANTIKHOTEL RICHTERSHOF, a charming inn at the heart of the Moselle Valley, housed within a converted winery. There, the guest rooms tend to be small, so reserve the largest accommodation available. Our Junior Suite (108) was very pleasant, if not luxurious, with handpainted floral wallpaper, blond-wood furnishings and a compact white-tile bath. Four large windows overlooked a snippet of the Moselle River and the hotel’s garden patio, which abutted the Wintergarten Baldachin restaurant. Enclosed by soaring glass walls appended to one of the original slate-walled buildings, the latter served an excellent breakfast buffet. The main restaurant, Culinarium R, displayed impressive sophistication, presenting creative, seasonal dishes such as a savory spring chicken breast with morels, spring onions and new potatoes; and deliciously tangy beef tartare with pickles, capers and mustard ice cream. We also enjoyed relaxing in the small spa, and indulging in afternoon coffee and cake in the quiet bar.
With its ideal location near the wine-growing center of Bernkastel-Kues, memorable cuisine and unfailingly friendly and helpful staff, the Weinromantikhotel Richtershof is the best base for exploring the extraordinarily scenic Moselle Valley.
We ended our journey near Frankfurt, a major transportation hub that most travelers simply pass through. Although Frankfurt is a high-rise financial capital and home to the European Central Bank, the city has some surprisingly charming quarters, best explored from the tranquil VILLA KENNEDY. But on this itinerary, we opted to stay outside the city in two former mansions. First, we returned to the 58-room SCHLOSSHOTEL KRONBERG, the summer castle-mansion of Empress Friedrich, daughter of Queen Victoria and mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Many of the towering trees shading the immaculate gardens and golf course were planted by visiting dignitaries. As befitting an empress, the property has heroically proportioned public spaces with black-and-white marble floors, stained glass windows, grand fireplaces and wood-beamed ceilings. Some of the empress’s books and antiques remain in the hotel, including Flemish tapestries and immense gilt-framed oil paintings. The formal dining room has been converted into the restaurant, retaining much of the original sumptuous décor.
Those who reserve a suite on the first floor will doubtless be delighted with their accommodations, but we reserved a Deluxe Room, the category most commonly requested by subscribers overnighting before a flight out of Frankfurt. The room was spacious, with a small balcony and beautifully crafted antique desk, but the upholstery on the sofa and armchairs showed wear, and stains marred patches of the gold carpet. Though clean, the beige-tile bath looked hopelessly dated. The food in the restaurant was also hit and miss; a dish of local trout tasted clean and fresh, but the mullet was undistinguished. Most frustrating, many of the most interesting spaces, including the remarkable library, are used for private events rather than guest lounges. Nevertheless, the property’s grandeur and history, and the well-trained staff, provide sufficient compensation for these drawbacks.
Nearby, another elegant mansion offers the Schlosshotel Kronberg some competition. Built at the same time as the Schlosshotel, the 22-room VILLA ROTHSCHILD KEMPINSKI originally belonged to Baron Wilhelm Carl von Rothschild, a wealthy Frankfurt banker tangentially related to the French winemaking family of the same name. The rambling villa, with a façade of red brick, honey-colored stucco and half-timbered gables, remained a private residence until 1938, when the family fled the Nazis. After the war, it became the property of the state of Hessen, and it was here that a parliament convened to found West Germany. Despite its rich history, this much smaller home lacks the imperial bearing of the Schlosshotel, with more modest public spaces and few original works of art. Guests congregate on the terrace overlooking a broad lawn or in the plush Tizian’s Bar, where we enjoyed some delicious flammkuchen (flambéed cheese, onion and bacon tart) and currywurst. Those staying here shouldn’t miss the opportunity to dine in the Restaurant Villa Rothschild, notable for its professional, good-humored service as much as for its food. I particularly relished the amuse bouche of crab and cucumber, and the succulent pork with morels and cauliflower in a sublime Madeira-bacon sauce. The property has no spa or pool, but a complimentary shuttle links the villa with the facilities of the nearby Falkenstein Grand Kempinski.
As in the Schlosshotel, guest rooms on the first floor have the tallest ceilings. But to compare the two properties, we reserved a Deluxe Room on the second floor, which had memorable views from its dormer windows, sweeping down the lawn to Kronberg Castle and the city of Frankfurt beyond. Although smaller than our lodgings at the Schlosshotel, the room came with parquet floors, gold-hued walls and green toile de Jouy fabric on the armchair, bedspread and throw pillows. The shower-only bath had a marble countertop with dual vanities. The cheery accommodations, delightful staff and commendable restaurant make the Villa Rothschild Kempinski an excellent alternative to the Schlosshotel Kronberg.
Whichever hotel you choose, book a long enough stay to enjoy the nearby towns of Kronberg and Königstein, both of which have pedestrianized historic centers with inviting sidewalk cafés, upscale galleries and shops, and hilltop castles. The ruins of Königstein Fortress afford grand panoramas of the rolling Taunus forest, well-kept villages and the distant Frankfurt skyline, providing additional proof that charm and beauty can be found throughout Germany — even in the suburbs of Frankfurt.