The lake ends and the Rhine begins just east of Stein am Rhein, but if you visit this old bourg just before lunch or late in the afternoon, and you fancy a meal that is both superb and pricey, consider heading just a few more miles west afterward to Schaffhausen and an extraordinary restaurant called the Fischerzunft. Owned by Swiss chef Andre Jaeger and his Chinese wife, Doreen, the Fischerzunft is a handsomely restored former fisherman's guild house built on the banks of the Rhine in the 14th Century. Jaeger's unique dishes, a sophisticated blend of Asian and nouvelle French cuisine, are hardly representative of regional cooking, but they are an exquisite aberration not to be missed if you are anywhere in the vicinity.
For a more modest and traditional meal, a pleasant choice is the Seehotel Schiff in the town of Mannenbach, between Ermatingen and Stein am Rhein. Modern and pristine, the Schiff, owned by the Union Bank of Switzerland and operated as an extension of its posh management training center in the nearby Castle Wolfsberg, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a blond-wood dining room with water views. The menu offers fresh fish from the lake--perch and whitefish--crisply sauteed, wiener schnitzel and homemade noodles, crisp mixed-greens salads and freshly baked pastries. The Schiff has 18 businesslike, paneled hotel rooms, but a more memorable choice for an overnight would be one of the area's small, antique hostelries.
Among these is the old Hotel Krone in the tiny hamlet of Gottlieben, a community full of pretty houses, two other antique hotels--the Drachenburg and the Waaghus--and virtually no commercial center. The Krone is set just steps from the water. Built at the end of the 17th Century and renovated over the last six years by owners George and Ingeborg Schraner-Michaeli, the 24 cheerful rooms have pastel-hued floral bedspreads and curtains, airy down duvets and modern tiled bathrooms equipped with deep porcelain tubs and powerful hair dryers. In warm weather, lunch and dinner are served outside on the waterside terrace, brightened by tubs of red geraniums. From the Krone you can explore all the towns to the Untersee and the Rhine, moving west, as well as the handsome city of Konstanz, a German enclave almost entirely within Switzerland, to the east (and the town which gave the Bodensee its alternative, English name). Because of its remarkable location, niched next to the Swiss shoreline, Konstanz was spared the devastating Allied bombing that leveled parts of many other German cities at the end of the war. The Old Town of Konstanz is a time capsule of 14th- and 15th-Century houses and buildings dominated by a beautifully frescoed Rathaus, or Town Hall, once the guild house of linen weavers and remodeled in the Florentine Renaissance style at the end of the 16th Century.
In good weather, save time for a stroll over the Rheinbrucke, the Rhine Bridge, and along the broad, mansion-lined Promenade following the curve of the Seestrasse. Set off on its own small island, just before the Rhine Bridge, is the dramatic, luxurious Steigenberger Inselhotel, a large, resort-style establishment that was once a Dominican monastery, founded in 1235. The magnificent central cloisters are worth a visit in themselves. The Insel, with its private swimming club, gracious cocktail terrace and refined Old World rooms is a choice place to stay when you are primed for a "grand hotel" experience.
To the west of Konstanz, in the center of the Untersee, is the small German island of Reichenau, which, during the Middle Ages was one of Europe's most important spiritual centers. Accessible by excursion boat (many departures from Konstanz harbor), the island's main attractions are three of the oldest churches in Germany, including a Romanesque basilica in the village of Niederzell.
Attached to Konstanz on its eastern flank like a Siamese twin is the smaller and less appealing Swiss city of Kreuzlingen. Like Konstanz, Kreuzlingen (named for a piece of the cross brought back to the region from the Crusades in the 10th Century) is a point of embarkation for the lake and river steamers that cruise the waters of the Bodensee and the Rhine. As a destination in itself, Kreuzlingen offers little apart from St. Ulrich's, an impressive baroque basilica. Most of the Bodensee's Swiss coast, in fact, is somewhat of a disappointment after the cultural depth and physical appeal of Konstanz and the shores of the Untersee.
The best plan is to drive southeast along the lake, past the towns of Romanshorn and Arbon, and head directly for historic St. Gallen, about 10 miles inland from the lake but worth the detour. If the hour is appropriate, stop for a light lunch at the Hotel Bad Horn in the little fishing village of Horn, just after Arbon, then head to Rorschach where you will see signs indicating turns for St. Gallen. Fifteen minutes later you will enter one of the least-known, formerly great old cities of Europe.