So here I am in Hel, the Polish peninsula that launched 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 you might imagine, at least in the summer – under a bright (if cloudy) sky. The temperature hovers in the mid-20s. Behind me, a silvery stretch of sand, soft as icing sugar; ahead, Scandinavia.
Up until this point I had assumed that Poland attracted three types of British tourists: history anoraks, marauding stags and people with family connections to the place. I happen to fall into the third category – on my mother’s side I am descended from Polish Jews who left at the turn of the 20th century – so I was interested, but never interested enough. Holidays, I thought, were for fun: eating, drinking, relaxing, with an uplifting hour of culture here and there. Give me Sicily! Give me Majorca!
Then I read about Hel Beach, recently named one of the best in Europe. Okay, that doesn’t sound promising. And, well, it looks unpromising on the map, sitting near the end of a claw-like stretch of land curling off Poland’s northern tip, within 150 miles of the heavily militarized Russian province of Kaliningrad. But I was fascinated. How was an excursion at the Baltic Sea? Could brave Poland give the complacent Med a run for its money? Time to find out. The plan: to make my way up the country’s Pomeranian Riviera, with Hel as my final destination.
If you are curious about Poland, by the way, now is the time to go. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Poles – who know a thing or two about Russian “peacekeeping” themselves – have taken in more than three million refugees. Many of the people leading these efforts are involved in the tourist trade, which took a hit during the pandemic. To the British traveller, used to being cheerfully ripped off in Sorrento or Nice or Taormina, paying £2 for a beer – or £60 a night for a room in a four-star hotel – can seem almost insulting to the hosts. But visit Poland now and you will be doing something good.
Gdansk’s many lives
My trip started in the port city of Gdansk, an ideal base for exploring the coast, and one of Europe’s unsung gems. It has had many lives: Teutonic stronghold in the Middle Ages, trade superhub during the Renaissance, amber El Dorado, German border town (named Danzig), Stakhanovite shipyard during the communist era and birthplace of the Polish Solidarity movement (remembered). in an excellent museum).
Today you wouldn’t suspect it had been through all that. After the Russians leveled most of the city at the end of World War II, residents reconstructed it to look as it did in more opulent days. With its canals and tall, pastel-coloured townhouses, the center has something of Amsterdam about it (a legacy of all the trade with the Dutch). The cobbled streets are busy – and, yes, the bars are wildly cheap. But I didn’t see many stag parties, apart from a group of senior British guys, presumably there before a second or third marriage. Prague – or indeed Krakow – is not.
From Gdansk you can be at a beach – Brzezno – in less than 15 minutes by car, train or bus. I spent a lazy morning swimming and tracking cargo ships as they trudged across the horizon. The air was warm, the sky deep blue, and I shared the place with about five other people.
The main resort is Sopot, five miles north (with Gdansk and Gdynia, a little further up the coast, it forms what is known as the Tricity). It has drawn crowds for a century with its fine, blonde sand and beautiful summer houses. Originally it was a spa town; now people come for the nightlife – but to prevent things from getting too rowdy, my guide Sebastian told me, the momentous decision was taken a few years ago to force bars to close early… at 2am.
The weather was, well, more British than it has been in Britain recently. I had been told to expect a 3:1 ratio of sun to rain, and that’s what I got. In the evenings there was a hint of autumn. Comforting. I wandered down the wooden pier (the longest in Europe) past families in shorts and t-shirts, ignoring the heavy drizzle. Windbreaks went up on the beach.
We continued north, detouring away from the coast to the Kashubia region. Culturally, this region is different 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-winning novelist Gunter Grass identified as Kashubian). It is spectacular, a land of sparkling beech trees, lush fields and pristine lakes. Dive in, get out, sip a beer on the pier and repeat.
The road to Hel
But now Hel beckoned. The 22 kilometer long sandbank first became a tourist destination in the nineties. Before that, it was a military base. It continued to fight the Nazis after the rest of Poland had been taken, and remained fortified throughout the communist years. Lookout towers jut out from the pine forests, and there are still plenty of underground tunnels that can be used by party-goers. As I found elsewhere during my journey, the past and present have settled into a kind of peaceful co-existence.
There are many ways to get there, including bus (666 of course) from Gdansk. But unless you use a lot of beach gear, I don’t recommend driving (like I did). Even on a Monday, the road to Hel was full of cars. And once you’ve arrived, all you need is a bike. The peninsula is a haven for cyclists of all stripes, from smiling families in Breton shirts to Lycra-clad speed demons.
The resorts go from top to bottom: Kuznica, Jastarnia, Jurata. The inner side, facing Puckbukta, has become a surfing post (documented in the Netflix film “Pod wiatr” or “Into the Wind”), with a series of campsites along the coast. Weathered Scandinavians with salt-encrusted dreadlocks strolled around in flip-flops and boardshorts. I wanted to try kitesurfing but they had been fully booked for weeks. So I watched, faintly envious, as the adrenaline junkies did their thing, dancing like dragonflies across the sky.
Finally, at the very tip of the peninsula, comes the city of Hel itself. It’s a real place by the sea, a hot jumble of holiday apartments, great shops and fish restaurants, all leading down to the harbour. The air is equal parts salt and waffles. I didn’t meet a single Brit, but the secret is certainly out among the Poles (and Scandinavians, and Germans). It was packed. I got chatting to Antoni, who had been coming with his family from central Poland for years. He told me the place had only gotten busier during the pandemic.
To escape the crowds
I didn’t have to go far to escape the crowds. It’s a 10-minute bike ride, along a path shaded by trees and lined with wildflowers, to Hel Beach. The clear light, along with the powdery sand (which still shows up in my clothes) and the feeling of being close to the edge of the world, didn’t remind me so much of the Isles of Scilly, only with less Boden on display.
I climbed over the dunes, set up camp and went for a swim. This is the northern side of the peninsula, so the next stop is Sweden. I looked back at the beach. It was almost deserted – just a few kids kicking a ball around, and a man who looked like WG Sebald walking very slowly into the lake (he came out eventually). The sun broke through the clouds as a cormorant rolled, like a wind-up toy. I felt free.
I took the boat back to Gdansk, a wonderful journey that shows you the whole coast. A couple of hours before the flight I started getting messages from the UK. They painted a Bosch picture: burning houses, scorched fields… I discovered that the runway at Luton – where my plane was supposed to land – had melted. The flight was cancelled. I won’t continue my Wizz Air ordeal as everyone seems to have had one of those recently. When I finally got 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 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 guided around Poland by local people, who offer tailor-made tours to Pomerania. He stayed at the stylish Puro Hotel in Gdansk (rooms from £65 per night) and the cozy Lebunia Palace in Kashubia (rooms from £64 per night), and flew with Wizz Air.