It’s no wonder plant lovers flock to Mainau from all over the world; the entire island is one big, spectacular garden. A million visitors make the trek annually to this little jewel of green in Lake Constance. The freshwater alpine lake (also spelled Konstanz) lies on the Rhine River at the foot of the Alps and stretches into three northern European countries: Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. With such close proxim- ity to the Alps and the lake’s heritage as an Ice Age glacier, it would make sense that the island’s growing season——and repertoire of plants—would be limited. But Mainau has long been ambrosia for plant lovers for its miraculous microclimate, which owes much to natural windbreaks and the surrounding waters. These unique conditions nurture plants that normally thrive in warm-weather locations, with something in bloom year-round. Even exotica like orange and lemon trees and palms enjoy a long season here.
The gardens are very much a labor of love, for love is what set in motion the design of the gardens you see today. For centuries, the island was the domain of fervent “gardeners”—Hungarian princes and Baden dukes—from various royal and ducal dynasties, each of whom built upon the botanical construction left by the previous owner. In 1932, the island was a gift to Prince Lennart Bernadotte of Sweden from his father in the wake of the prince’s marriage to a commoner—which effectively ended his claim to the Swedish throne. Bernadotte chose love over the crown, and in the bargain gained an island home.
It was Prince Lennart (thereafter down- sized to Count Lennart) who dedicated himself to reshaping, reorganizing, and modernizing the island. He opened it to the public, and adopted ecofriendly gardening techniques that have earned the garden numerous environmental awards. The Count died in 2004, but the family created a foundation to maintain the island— and his heirs continue to live in the baroque 18th-century Castle of the Teutonic Order, the architectural center- piece of the island.
The 45-hectare (111-acre) island is a pleasure to stroll. Pick up a map and hit the neatly manicured pathways. Among the garden highlights are the Italian Flower and Water Staircase, a cascade of flowers and conifers; the Mediterranean-tinged Arena of Fountains, a terraced garden surrounded by tropical plants; and the 20,000 roses abloom in the Rose Gar- dens. Kids love the whimsical topiary, Germany’s largest Butterfly Gardens, and the farm, where ponies, donkeys, sheep, and rare farm breeds live the good life.
Mainau is easy to get to: You can access the island either by tour boat from the town of Constance or by walking across the small footbridge connecting the island to the mainland. The island has four restaurants but no lodging.