Once, far back in the annals of European history, it must have been quite the thing to buy tiny islands and turn them into private pleasure gardens. Isola Bella in Italy's Lake Maggiore comes to mind, as do the Garinish Island Gardens of southwest Ireland.

But while others may excel in flamboyance and creative exuberance, Insel Mainau in the Uberlingersee of Lake Constance rates on top as a legitimate, working botanical garden with a first rate collection of exotic species tucked in amidst the pansies and the petunias.

The 45 hectare island is a virtual blooming machine during the warmer months beginning with vast sweeps of spring bulbs along walking paths that look straight across the lake to the Swiss Alps. The rhododendrons and azaleas take over next with over 280 varieties planted on a 10,000 sq. ft. slope. Roses come in every variety: standards in the Italian Rose Garden complete with fountain and pergola, 800 varieties of wild roses, and shrub roses on the winding Rose Walk. Add a mere 200 types of fuchsias, 200,000 dahlias of every description, and countless thousands of annuals propagated on the premises and you get the idea. It's a vegetative riot.

Some of the plants - certain of the fuchsias and climbing roses and rhododendrons, in particular - are more than 100 years-old. A remarkable collection of trees in the Arboretum first took root when the present count's great grandfather, the Grand Duke Frederick of Baden, gave in to his passion for rare plants and began what was to become a landmark for the whole area.

Open daily. March 13-October 25 7am-8pm. October 26-March 12 9am-5pm Admission 17 DM ($10.50) Mainau Information Center Mainau GmbH, D-78465 Mainau, tel. +49/07531/303-0, 303-248.

Getting there: Weisse Flotte Bodensee passenger ferries make the trip between Lindau and Mainau 5-7 times daily (depending on the season) with stops at Wasserburg, Friedrichshafen and Meersburg during the three-hour journey. Return either by ferry or a 90-minute scenic train ride along the north side of the lake.

Round trip from Lindau to Konstanz 37 DM/$23 (50% discount with Eurailpass).

Tip: There are restaurants and snack bars on the island but it makes more sense to eat on the ferry and have more time for the flowers. An excellent bowl of Goulaschsuppe (goulash soup) costs 4.80 DM ($2.92), Bockwurst und Kartoffelsalat (sausage and potato salad) is 9.40 DM ($5.73).

October 1998