Welcome to Hel
Wednesday, 30th May 2012 by Kyle Kusch
They say hell is a pretty bad place to be, but this Hel is rather pleasant – at least in summertime. Poland’s Hel Peninsula is a 35-km (22-mile) long sand bar peninsula separating the Baltic Sea from the Bay of Puck just north of Gdansk. Formerly used as a military installation due to its strategic location, today the peninsula is one of Central Europe’s most popular beach resort destinations.
Some portions of Hel are a mere 100 to 300 m (330-1000 ft) in width; narrow enough that during World War II Polish forces were able to dynamite the isthmus and temporarily turn Hel into an island to try and keep the Germans at bay. The Hel Peninsula was originally a chain of six sandbar islands until the process of longshore drift gradually joined the islands together during the 17th century. Another sandbar is slowly being formed to the south of the peninsula, posing a great hazard for boats in the region.
The Polish military presence on Hel dates to the 1920s, and Hel was nearly entirely fortified from the 1930s until the mid-1990s. The missile testing area north of Hel village is still readily visible from the air, and concrete shooting bunkers are found in plain sight in numerous places, even right along the tourist walkway to the beach.
In 1999, all remaining military facilities were officially designated as historic monuments, essentially turning much of the peninsula into a giant museum. Here we see the old barracks for soldiers of the Polish Navy. The only shooting heard on Hel these day comes from the shooting gallery set up for tourists along the pathway to the beach.
Hel village is an old medieval town that traces its origins to the 12th century herring trade. The village was returned to civilian status in 1963, and tourists have been flocking to the seaside town at the south end of the peninsula ever since to enjoy its vast beachfront, visit the various museums housed in medieval buildings, and partake in the open-air markets that line Wiejska Street.
The main beach, located south of town at the tip of the peninsula, is just far enough away that many tourists choose to rent carts to drive themselves along the narrow pathway through the forest. Or, if they had been clever on this August 2011 day, they could have hitched a ride with the Street View car, which drove all the way down onto the boardwalk and almost to the ocean.
Even when the weather turns for the worse on Hel the beach still draws patrons, such as these windsurfers looking to catch some waves on the rough sea.
Not only are the shores of the Hel Peninsula lined with high-end tourist resorts and seaside bungalows, but the holiday house of the Polish president lies here as well. The 150 hectare (370 acre) property contains two main houses, recreational facilities, and private moorage and beachfront patrolled by the Polish Border Guard.
From bomb shelters to beachfront tourism, we hope you’ve enjoyed your time in this virtual Hel.