So here I am in Hel, the Polish peninsula that has launched a thousand puns. And you know what? Far from being the home of the damned, it is beautiful. I wander around the Baltic Sea – not the kamikaze mission you might imagine, at least in the summer – under bright (albeit cloudy) skies. The temperature hovers around the mid-20s. Behind me, an expanse of silvery sand, soft as icing sugar; come on, Scandinavia.
Up until that point I had thought that Poland attracted three types of British tourists: historical anoraks, marauding deer and people with a familiar connection 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 beginning of the 20th century – so I was interested, but never interested enough. Holidays, I thought, were for the fun 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 looks unpromising. And, okay, it looks unpromising on the map, sitting near the end of a claw-like stretch of land that curls off the northern tip of Poland, within 150 miles of Russia’s heavily militarized province of Kaliningrad. But I was intrigued. How was a trip on the Baltic Sea? Could brave Poland give the complacent Med a run for its money? Time to find out. The plan: drive up the Pomeranian Riviera, with Hel as the final destination.
If you are curious about Poland, by the way, this is the time to go. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Poles – who know something about Russian “peacekeeping” – have taken in more than three million refugees. Many of the people leading this effort are involved in the tourism trade, which took a hit during the pandemic. For the British traveler, used to being gleefully robbed in Sorrento, Nice or Taormina, paying £ 2 for a beer – or £ 60 a night for a room in a four-star hotel – might seem almost an insult to the hosts. But now visit Poland and you will do 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 undiscovered gems. It has had many lives: Teutonic stronghold in the Middle Ages, commercial superhub during the Renaissance, Amber El Dorado, German border town (as Danzig), workaholic shipyard during the Communist era and birthplace of the Polish solidarity movement ( commemorated in an excellent museum).
Today, you would not suspect that all this has passed. After the Russians razed most of the city to the ground at the end of World War II, residents rebuilt it to make it look like it was in the most opulent days. With its canals and tall, pastel-colored row houses, the center has something of Amsterdam (a legacy of all that trade with the Dutch). The cobbled streets are busy and, yes, the bars are incredibly cheap. But I haven’t seen many stag parties, aside from a team of older British boys, presumably there before a second or third marriage. Prague – or indeed Krakow – is not.
From Gdansk, you can be on a beach – Brzezno – in less than 15 minutes by car, train or bus. I spent a lazy morning swimming and monitoring the merchant ships advancing on the horizon. The air was warm, the sky deep blue, and I shared the place with about five other people.
The main locality is Sopot, five miles to the north (with Gdansk and Gdynia, a little higher on the coast, it forms what is known as the Tricity). It has attracted crowds for a century with its fine blonde sands and pretty summer houses. It was originally a spa town; now people come for the nightlife, but to keep things from getting too loud, my guide Sebastian told me, the important decision was made a few years ago to force the bars to close early … morning.
The weather was, well, more British than it has recently been in Britain. I was told to expect a 3: 1 ratio of sun to rain, and that’s what I got. In the evening there was a hint of autumn. Comforting. I wandered along the wooden pier (the longest in Europe) passing families in shorts and T-shirts, categorically ignoring the drizzle. The windbreaks have risen on the beach.
We continued north, making a detour from the coast towards the Kashubia region. Culturally, this region is distinct from the rest of Poland, with its own dialect. Geographically, it’s Poland’s answer to the Lake District (there’s also a literary link: Nobel Prize-winning German 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 dock and repeat.
The road to Hel
But now Hel was waving. The 22-mile sandbar only became a tourist destination in the 1990s. It used to be a military base. It continued to fight the Nazis after taking the rest of Poland and remained fortified during the Communist years. Observation towers jut out of the pine forests and there’s still a maze of underground tunnels, which have their uses for party-loving vacationers. As I have discovered elsewhere on my journey, past and present have settled on a way to coexist in peace.
There are many ways to get there, including by bus (the 666, of course) from Gdansk. But unless you’re using a lot of beach gear, I don’t recommend driving (like I did). Even on Mondays, the road to Hel was jammed with roofed cars. And once you get there, all you need is a bicycle. The peninsula is a paradise for cyclists of all kinds, from smiling families in Breton T-shirts to Lycra-clad speed demons.
The resorts run from top to bottom: Kuznica, Jastarnia, Jurata. The inland side, facing Puck Bay, has become a surfing outpost (documented in the Netflix movie “Pod wiatr” or “Into the Wind”), with a number of campgrounds along the coast. Seasoned Scandinavians with salt-encrusted dreadlocks hung around in flip flops and swim shorts. I wanted to try kitesurfing, but they had been full for weeks. So I watched, vaguely envious, as the adrenaline junkies did their thing, dancing like dragonflies in the sky.
Finally, at the very tip of the peninsula, comes the city of Hel itself. It’s a real seaside spot, a noisy jumble of holiday apartments, little shops and seafood restaurants, all leading down to the harbor. The air is in equal parts salt and waffles. I haven’t met a single Englishman, but the secret is certainly between the Poles (and the Scandi and the Germans). It was full. I spoke to Antoni, who had been coming with his family from central Poland for years. He told me the place only got busier during the pandemic.
Escape from the crowd
I didn’t have to go far to escape the crowds, though. It is a 10-minute bike ride along a tree-shaded trail lined with wildflowers to Hel Beach, the beach. The clear light, along with the dusty sand (still in my clothes) and the feeling of being near the edge of the world, reminded me of no place as much as the Isles of Scilly, only with less Boden on display.
I climbed the dunes, camped 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 towards the sea (eventually got out). The sun peeked through the clouds as a cormorant spun, like a wind-up toy. I felt free.
I took the boat back to Gdansk, a wonderful journey that shows you the entire span of the coast. A couple of hours before my flight, I started getting messages from Great Britain. They painted a woodland picture: houses on fire, burnt fields … I discovered that the Luton runway – where my plane was supposed to land – had melted. The flight has been cancelled. I won’t talk about my Wizz Air ordeal, as everyone seems to have had one recently. When I finally arrived in Luton the next day, I got off the plane and was blown away by the heat. None of the trains to London were running. Put me on 666, I thought, and send me back to Hel at once.
How to get there
Orlando was a guest of the Polish Tourism Organization and led from Poland by locals, offering tailor-made tours of Pomerania. He stayed at the elegant 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.