Rediscovering The Old East

Getting there is half the fun. My convertible blasts along ancient, tree-lined country lanes, through fields of rye ripening under a Curacao-blue sky. Nothing could be farther away from the metropolitan frazzle of Berlin than the wide-open Pomeranian countryside, three hours north of the capital. Past rolling hills and through dusty medieval villages, the road ends at the dock of a small passenger ferry. Across a narrow channel of the Baltic Sea lies a long, low strip of land, reachable only by boat. No cars allowed. Hiddensee is an island time forgot.

Preserved under the glass bubble of communism until German reunification a decade ago, the place is just as it was in the '20s, when Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein summered in its thatched-roof cottages. No roads, motels, neon signs--nothing but a few simple villages, winding bike paths and sandy walking trails. Even in midsummer, its beaches are deserted.

A decade after the fall of the wall, Germany's old East is drawing visitors looking for an older, slower Europe. For 40 years this swath of countryside was off-limits to Westerners; even today, the lake country of Mecklenburg, a 7,000-square-kilometer expanse of woods and water, remains one of the least populated regions of Europe, uncluttered by urban sprawl. But now there are new roads. Towns and hotels have been spruced up. Growing numbers of Germans--not to mention Swedes, Danes and Dutch--are forsaking the crowded beaches of Spain and southern France and heading east instead. "It's like time stood still here," says Peter Gunzenhauser, a Berlin design consultant on a motorcycle tour of Rugen Island, where the boardwalks are lined with freshly whitewashed Victorian villas.

If untouched nature is good for tourism, so is a bit of old communist aura. On Lake Drewitz, two hours north of Berlin, a West German businessman last year reopened a hunting lodge used by East Germany's last dictator, Erich Honecker. "The 'Honi Suite' is always booked," says receptionist Bettina Germar of the two-bedroom apartment where the communist leader and his wife stayed three times a year--in separate rooms. "Margot snored, you know," she confides. The beechwood and leather furniture--high commie luxe--is original. Honecker's smiling portrait on the green wallpaper is not. Nearby Malchow is one of dozens of towns across the east to have set up a GDR museum, displaying communist toothpaste and People's Police uniforms. Tourists love it.

Across the border, farther to the east, lies Poland's Masuria, land of a thousand lakes. It, too, used to be closed off behind the Iron Curtain. Now it attracts 3 million visitors a year. No longer are they just the budget vacationers who roughed it under communism, happy to stay in cabins with no running water. Wealthy Poles, and no small number of Westerners, now come to revel in its quiet woods and undisturbed waters. More four- and five-star hotels are going up in the region than anywhere else in Poland. These haunted stomping grounds of old East Prussia, and the Berlin of a bygone era, aren't about to become the new Majorca. But for anyone looking for his Hiddensee, that's the way it should be.