Mainau Island, at Lake Constance, is open all year. Photo: Alamy
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Europe is blessed with beautiful gardens. It has gardens big and small, gardens that explode with a million tulip bulbs in springtime, vast formal French gardens and wanton little English ones. But none is quite like Mainau Island. This garden is a fusion delight, a lake-bound splinter of Germany owned by the Swedish royal family and graced with Mediterranean and tropical plants. Go for an hour and spend a day. You'll feel like you've stumbled on a fallen piece of heaven.

Few non-German speakers know about Mainau Island because it's just that bit off Europe's big tourist trails. Yet it's within sight of the Austrian and Swiss Alps, which drape the skyline in a panorama of snow peaks. You'll find Mainau afloat in Lake Constance, offshore from Konstanz town's suburbs, tucked away in Germany's southwest corner near the Swiss border.

Its setting is magical. You can get there on one of the white ferries that ply between medieval Konstanz and Meersburg across the lake, which rises in pastel-coloured houses towards a sturdy castle and is surrounded by vineyards. The island is also connected to the mainland with an iron bridge. The island is only 45 hectares, so the lake is everywhere in the background. One of Mainau's delights is its lakeshore promenades. When the sun is right, the water is peacock green and blue and clear as gin, making you think of Polynesia.

Mainau Island is only 45 hectares.
Mainau Island is only 45 hectares. Photo: Alamy

The gardens owe much of their brilliance to the European seasons, however. Early in the year, snowdrops and crocuses make a modest appearance. Iceland poppies and forget-me-nots flower in springtime, followed by massed rhododendrons. Chinese trumpet vines are vivid orange in July. In early autumn, 12,000 dahlias provide fireworks displays of colour on hillside terraces.

The garden is open year-round, but the orchid show in the palm house in March opens the floral season. A million flowering bulbs follow, splashed across the lawns outside in an impressionist blur. Yet the most startling colours of all come not from flowers but from the tropical butterfly house, where insects shimmer in green and blue and orange.

Pick any little sliver of Europe and you get quite a history, with a cast that sounds like it comes from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. No exception here. Mainau Island rises to a slight hill crowned with a pink baroque palace and church. The palace is the 1740 creation of a grand master of the Teutonic Knights. Later it was a summer residence of the grand dukes of Baden. Grand Duke Frederick I laid out the gardens and collected exotic plants. Now Mainau is home to a Swedish countess.

The earliest parts of the garden – the arboretum, Italian rose garden and orangery – are all the creations of Frederick I and are now nearly 150 years old. The trees are extraordinary, and include fully grown redwoods, giant sequoias and Lebanon cedars. Glorious magnolias, tulip trees, ornamental cherries, and beeches and sweet chestnuts producing autumn foliage provide year-round palettes of colour.

Rumours that Europe is overwhelmed by tourists are greatly exaggerated. It just depends where you look. This utterly gorgeous place gets few foreign visitors. You're surrounded by German speakers, which gives Mainau a wonderfully local atmosphere. Retired couples stroll the waterfront and sniff the roses, kids screech in the playgrounds. University students from Konstanz spread picnics on the lawns. On a continent of a thousand gorgeous gardens, this one is a winner.

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FLY

Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Hong Kong (nine hours) with onward daily connections to Zurich (11.5 hours), a one-hour drive to Mainau Island. Phone 131 747, see cathaypacific.com.au

STAY

Steinberger Inselhotel in nearby Konstanz is set in a former lakeshore monastery and has a fine wellness centre and restaurant. Rooms from $245 a night. See steigenberger.com

VISIT

Mainau Island is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. It's very child-friendly and has adventure playgrounds, a petting zoo and pony rides. Adult tickets €21.50 ($34) in summer, €10 ($16) in winter. Children under 12 free. See mainau.de

The writer travelled courtesy the Tourist Board of Lake Constance.

from traveller.com.au