Welcome to Hel, an unusual beach holiday paradise – in sunny Poland

Welcome to Hel, an unusual beach holiday paradise – in sunny Poland

Hel Strand Poland's Best Beach 2022 - whitelook/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Hel Strand Poland’s Best Beach 2022 – whitelook/Getty Images/iStockphoto

So here I am on Hel, the Polish peninsula that spawned a thousand puns. And you know what? Far from being the abode of the damned, it is beautiful. I’m bobbing around in the Baltic Sea – not the kamikaze mission one imagines, at least in summer – under a bright (albeit cloudy) sky. The temperature hovers in the mid 20’s. Behind me a strip of silvery sand as soft as powdered sugar; ahead, Scandinavia.

Up until this point, I had assumed that Poland attracted three types of British tourists: historical parka jackets, marauding deer and those with family ties to the place. I happen to fall into the third category – on my mother’s side I’m descended from Polish Jews who moved away at the turn of the 20th century – so I was interested, but never really interested enough. Holidays, I thought, are for the finer things: eating, drinking, lounging, with an uplifting hour of culture here and there. Give me Sicily! Give me Mallorca!

Then I read about Hel Beach, recently voted one of the best in Europe. Okay, it doesn’t sound promising. And okay, it doesn’t look promising on the map, as it sits at the end of a claw-like strip of land rippling from the northern tip of Poland, within 150 miles of Russia’s heavily militarized province of Kaliningrad. But I was intrigued. How was a trip to the Baltic Sea? Could brave Poland rival the smug Mediterranean? time to find out. The plan: Up the country’s Pomeranian Riviera, with Hel as the final destination.

By the way, if you are curious about Poland, this is the right time. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Poles, who themselves know something about Russian “peacekeeping”, have taken in more than three million refugees. Many of the individuals leading this effort are in the tourism industry, which has been hit hard during the pandemic. For the British traveler used to being happily ripped off in Sorrento, Nice or Taormina, it may seem almost an insult to hosts to charge two pounds for a pint – or sixty pounds a night for a room in a four-star hotel. Hotel – to pay. But visit Poland now and you will do something good.

The many lives of Gdansk

My journey began in the port city of Gdansk, an ideal base for exploring the coast and one of Europe’s unsung gems. It has seen many lives: Germanic stronghold in the Middle Ages, trading hub in the Renaissance, amber eldorado, German border town (named Danzig), Stakhanov Shipyard during the communist era and birthplace of the Polish Solidarity Movement (commemorated in an excellent museum) .

Gdansk Poland - Sizun Eye/Getty

Gdansk Poland – Sizun Eye/Getty

Today you wouldn’t guess that it went through all that. After the Russians leveled most of the city at the end of World War II, residents rebuilt it as it looked in more opulent days. With its canals and tall, pastel townhouses, the center has something of Amsterdam about it (a legacy of all the trade with the Dutch). The cobbled streets are buzzing with activity – and yes, the bars are incredibly cheap. But I haven’t seen many bachelor parties, apart from a group of high ranking British boys, presumably there before a second or third marriage. Prague – or even Kraków – is not.

From Gdańsk you can reach the beach – Brzezno – in less than 15 minutes by car, train or bus. I spent a lazy morning swimming and chasing cargo ships trotted over the horizon. The air was hot, the sky deep blue, and I shared the place with about five other people.

The main town is Sopot, five miles north (with Gdańsk and Gdynia, a little further up the coast, it forms the so-called Tri-City). It has been attracting crowds with its fine blond sand and pretty summer homes for a century. Originally it was a health resort; now people come for the nightlife – but to keep it from getting too loud, my guide Sebastian tells me the momentous decision was made a couple of years ago to force the bars to close early…at 2am.

Sopot Poland - ewg3D/E+ / Getty Images

Sopot Poland – ewg3D/E+ / Getty Images

The weather was, well, more British than it’s been in Britain lately. I was told to expect a 3:1 sun to rain ratio and that’s what I got. In the evening there was already a hint of autumn. beneficial. I walked the wooden pier (the longest in Europe), past families in shorts and T-shirts, ignoring the drizzle. Windbreaks have been set up on the beach.

We continued north and took a detour away from the coast to the Kashubia region. Culturally, this region differs from the rest of Poland with its own dialect. Geographically, it’s Poland’s answer to the Lake District (there’s even a literary connection: German Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass is identified as Kashubian). It’s spectacular, a land of shimmering beeches, lush fields and pristine lakes. Dive in, hop off, have a beer on the jetty and repeat.

The way to Hel

But now Hel waved. The 22-mile sandbar only became a tourist destination in the 1990’s. Before that it was a military base. It continued to fight the Nazis after the rest of Poland was taken and remained fortified through the communist years. Lookout towers jut out from the pine forests and there is still a maze of underground tunnels of use to party-goers. As I noted elsewhere during my journey, the past and present have agreed on a way of coexisting peacefully.

There are many ways to get there, including by bus (the 666, of course) from Gdansk. But unless you’re lugging a lot of beach gear, I don’t recommend driving (like I did). Even on a Monday, the road to Hel was jammed with cars with roof racks. And once you’ve arrived, all you need is a bike. The peninsula is a paradise for cyclists of all kinds, from smiling families in Breton shirts to lycra-clad speed demons.

The resorts go from top to bottom: Kuznica, Jastarnia, Jurata. The inside, facing Puck Bay, has become a surfing outpost (documented in the Netflix film “Pod wiatr” or “Into the Wind”), with a number of campsites lining the shore. Weathered Scandinavians with salt-crusted dreadlocks strolled around in flip-flops and board shorts. I wanted to try kite surfing but they had been fully booked for weeks. So I watched with mild envy as the adrenaline junkies did their stuff and dragonflies danced across the sky.

Kitesurfing Poland Hel Strand - Jadwiga Figula/Getty / Moment RF

Kitesurfing Poland Hel Strand – Jadwiga Figula/Getty / Moment RF

Finally, at the very tip of the peninsula is the town of Hel itself. It’s a real seaside resort, a noisy jumble of vacation rentals, tat-toting shops and seafood restaurants all leading to the harbour. The air is equal parts salt and waffles. I haven’t met a single Brit, but the secret is certainly out among the Poles (and the Scandis and the Germans). It was full. I got into conversation with Antoni, who has been coming from central Poland with his family for years. He told me the place has only gotten busier during the pandemic.

Escape the crowds

However, I didn’t have to go far to escape the crowds. It’s a 10-minute bike ride along a tree-shaded and wildflower-lined path to Hel Beach – the beach. The clear light, along with the powdery sand (which still shows up in my clothes) and the feeling of being near the end of the world reminded me of nowhere quite like the Isles of Scilly, only with less ground on display.

I climbed over the dunes, set up camp and went for a swim. This is the north side of the peninsula, so the next stop is Sweden. I looked back at the beach. It was almost deserted – just a couple of kids kicking around with a ball and a man who looked like WG Sebald walking very slowly into the sea (he eventually came out). The sun broke through the clouds while a cormorant circled like a wind-up toy. I felt free.

Hel Beach Poland - Patryk_Kosmider/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Hel Beach Poland – Patryk_Kosmider/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I took the boat back to Gdansk, a wonderful trip that shows you the full range of the coast. A few hours before my flight I got messages from the UK. They painted a Bosch picture: burning houses, burnt fields… I discovered that the airstrip at Luton – where my plane was supposed to land – had melted. The flight has been cancelled. I won’t go into detail about my ordeal with Wizz Air as everyone seems to have had it lately. When I finally made it to Luton the next day, I got off the plane and was numb from the heat. None of the trains to London ran. Put me on the 666, I thought, and send me straight back to Hel.

how to get there

Orlando was a guest of the Polish Tourist Organization and was run by Poles by locals who offer tailor-made tours of Pomerania. He stayed at the stylish Puro Hotel in Gdansk (rooms from £65 a night) and the cozy Lebunia Palace in Kashubia (rooms from £64 a night) and flew on Wizz Air.

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