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Travel

Rebirth of Germany's "White Town by the Sea"

For many years, Germany's first official bathing resort - a majestic complex of elegant white buildings on the Baltic Sea - was left to decay. This summer a new chapter for both tourists and locals began in Heiligendamm.

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Same view, fresh outlook - Heiligendamm has opened to a new era.

Christina Formell’s favorite room is in the turret. Up here, a sparkling deep blue sea mingles with the sky, seagulls glide past the turret’s open windows and shafts of sunlight throw dancing shadows over pale yellow walls. For many years, thick, dusty curtains barred the sun’s way to this dingy chamber, a room which once housed patients suffering under chronic skin illnesses. Once a place she preferred to avoid, former nurse Formell now likes to linger here. "For me the room is a reminder,“ she said. "It's a reminder of how Heiligendamm has changed.“

Change has become a constant in Heiligendamm, a small seaside resort on Germany’s eastern Baltic Sea Coast. Founded in 1793 as Germany’s first official bathing resort, it soon became one of Europe’s leading destinations to recuperate and relax by the sea. Once frequented by European royalty, who danced long nights away on polished wooden floors and dined to the hush of the sea within its gleaming white walls, Heiligendamm slowly saw its steady decline as a dingy sanatorium for the chronically sick under the communist East German regime. Decay soon followed decline after its 1990 closure, which also led to economic depression in the surrounding region.

Ostseebad Ostsee Kempinski Grand Hotel Heiligendamm

Kempinski Grand Hotel Heiligendamm

This year saw the start of a new chapter in the history of a resort many thought of as long belonging to Germany's past: In June, after three years of extensive rebuilding and restoration, leading hotel chain Kempinski opened a gleaming new five star hotel in six of the existing 26 buildings which form Heiligendamm. "With the hotel, the history of Heiligendamm is being revived,” said Formell, a local who after ten years unemployment now works at Kempinski as a cleaning woman.

Jade from Asia

It is late morning in Heiligendamm. At this time of the day, the ballroom is empty save for a solitary young woman in a well-ironed uniform, folding a pile of light blue napkins. Here, more than three centuries ago, Germany’s upper classes would dance the nights away.

Today, it is silent, except for the soft click of Beatrice Schwarz‘ shoes on the polished floor. “The hotel is a reflection of what Heiligendamm once used to be,“ Kempinski spokeswoman Schwarz told Deutsche Welle. “It is a reminder of its past as a mundane recuperation resort combined with the present-day demands of a modern, international luxury hotel.“

Indeed, past and present come together in all corners of the hotel. Jade friezes from Asia adorn long, elegant corridors: a tribute to the tradition of former dukes who indulged in the collection of exotic treasures from trips to far off Asia. In the bathrooms, Italian marble lines walls and floors. And in the dining room, hand woven Chinese silk, the colour of a sun-spoiled sea, covers high, lofty walls while huge chandeliers, each weighing 210 kilograms, reflect the ocean’s incessant sparkle. “Despite being a hotel, its role as traditional seaside spa-resort remains unforgotten,“ Schwarz said as she led the way through bedrooms in various sea-greens, blues and shades of sandy brown. “The hotel’s interior therefore is a reflection of both its past, and its surroundings.“

Horse racing and snail farm

The most striking reminder of Heiligendamm's past is a huge stone, set in a lush green lawn inscribed with the name of its founder. Founded by the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Franz Ferdinand, as Germany's first bathing resort, Heiligendamm soon came to be known as the “white town on the sea.“ Such was the striking appearance of a row of majestic white buildings along the Baltic seafront, which followed, villa for villa, in the years after Ferdinand’s – medically recommended - first sea bath, that the resort quickly turned a popular destination for the rich and royal to relax.

Not only did Heiligendamm pride in an exceptionally pure air due to its dense surrounding beech forests, clean waters and very own sulphur sources, it soon surpassed other resorts with an array of upper-class friendly pastimes: horse racing in 1804, tennis in 1888, ball dancing, dining, in 1925 a golf course and – a tribute to its acclaimed cuisine - Heiligendamm’s very own gourmet snail farm.

Many of these pastimes, after almost a century of absence, have seen their rebirth with the redevelopment of the former holiday resort. Holidaymakers today can again play golf, go to the horse races, dine and dance and, in the Heiligendamm tradition, revel in the hotel’s wide selection of health and wellness treatments.

The idea of holidaymaking where once kings laid their heads to rest appears to have caught on: Even before the official re-opening in June, the hotel was booked out. During the summer, reservations filled two thirds of the 225 rooms, in particular the more expensive suites. “The name Heiligendamm still rings a nostalgic bell. It is this reputation that we wish to continue,“ Schwarz said.

New hope

But not all things are as glossy as they may seem, up here on the former East German sea coast. Many people in the area resent the opening of a glamorous hotel and wish for a more public and less affected usage. On the other side, guests have been reported to have complained of feeling “like in a zoo“ due to the many people who come from far afield not to stay but simply to take a look.

Some, however, have welcomed the changes in Heiligendamm. Former taxi driver Günther Seiffert had long given up hopes of rosy prospects in his work life before being taken on as doorman in the spring this year. Today, the grandfather comes to work dressed in tails and a top hat and replies guests‘ requests “with pleasure“ instead of merely “okay.“ And Seiffert is not alone: Of the 215 employees, 70 percent are from the region. Fifteen apprentices are due to start this year.

Ostseebad Ostsee Kempinski Grand Hotel Heiligendamm

The turret room.

Of those who have found new hope in the resort, cleaning woman Christina Formell, unemployed for more than ten years, regards herself as particularly lucky. “The hotel is an improvement for the whole region,“ she said.

Indeed, the next of the 26 dilapidated buildings are due to be renovated next year, the hotel and golf course expanded and a new Ayurveda centre added to the already abundant wellness area. Neighboring villages and a historic local train line are already profiting from an increase in both hotel guests and short-term visitors to Heiligendamm.

Brushing the last specks of dust off a huge Asian vase, Formell packs her cleaner’s trolley for her next cleaning job: “Need any help?“ a colleague in passing asks. Formell shakes her head. “The next station is the turret,“ she laughs.

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