Carved balconies like lace, swaggering villas in spacious gardens and an absurdly long pier. Who would have expected “Herring Village” to be so glitzy?

Indeed, who would have imagined such Bäderarchitektur (spa architecture) in a backwater like Usedom, a little-known island in the Baltic Sea?Germany, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state, Usedom island, Bansin town, beach with typical hooded beach chairs (Strandkorb)

Yet during the latter half of the nineteenth century, as German aristocracy went crazy for seawater spa cures, Heringsdorf and adjacent Ahlbeck morphed from fishing villages to become the St-Tropez of the Baltic.

When Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III began holidaying here, earning the villages their collective name Kaiserbäder (Emperor’s spas), the Prussian elite followed. Aristocrats and industrialists set aside six weeks every summer to wet an ankle in Badewanne Berlins (“Berlin’s bathtub”).
Germany, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state, Usedom island, Ahlbeck town, people at outdoors tables at the pier

You can almost smell the moustache wax along Delbrückstrasse in Heringsdorf. A des-res of its day, synonymous with status, the promenade is a glimpse of the Second Empire at the height of its pomp.

Mosaics glitter in the pediment of Neoclassical Villa Oechler at No. 5; it doesn’t stretch the imagination far to visualize the glittering garden balls hosted before the palatial colonnades of Villa Oppenheim, while the Kaiser himself took tea at Villa Staudt located at No. 6.

Beautiful architecture at Berlin's Usedom island, on the Baltic Sea. Only breeze-block architecture bequeathed by the GDR in the centre spoils things here – top apparatchiks built hotel blocks for workers and took the grand villas for themselves. Reunification has returned health cures and gloss to the resorts; Ahlbeck in particular has emerged as a stylish spa retreat for Berlin’s city slickers.

If you sit in a traditional Strandkörbe wicker seat, scrunching sugar-white sand between your toes – imperial villas on one side, Germans promenading continental Europe’s longest pier on the other – you’d be forgiven for thinking the Kaiserbäder are back to normal. Not quite.
Germany, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state, Usedom island, Ahlbeck town, lifeguard's cabin on sand dunes

Usedom has acquired a new reputation of late. In 2008 the world’s first nudist flights landed at its airport and a minor diplomatic spat occurred when Poles strolled across the newly dismantled border to see sizzling sausages of a very unexpected kind.

Sure, Freikörperkultur (literally “Free Body Culture”) is restricted to specified areas, but you can almost hear the Kaiser splutter into his Schnapps.

Make the most of your time on earthUsedom (kaiserbaeder-auf-usedom.de) is 2hr 30min by car or train from Berlin; change at Züssow to reach Heringsdorf and Ahlbeck by rail. Discover more unforgettable places around the world with the new edition of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.