A four-hour northbound train ride took us from urban Berlin through sprawling fields of sunflowers, corn and barley, to the shores of the Baltic Sea, where the small island of Rügen nestles just off the coast.
Our quest for hardy outdoor living had brought us to Sassnitz, a quaint 150-year-old fishing port on the most northerly point of Rügen, an island belonging to the German state of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. It's the gateway to the Jasmund National Park, the smallest park in Germany at just 30 square kilometres.
Jasmund is most famous for its sheer chalk cliffs, which jut 118 metres above the sea - Europe's highest cliff formations in Germany's tiniest national park. The 10-kilometre stretch of crags, crowned with thick beech forests that date from the 13th century, puckers the shoreline north of Sassnitz. Not bad, for such a wee park.
Each summer a hive of German tourists descends on the area in search of one thing – fossils.
We set out walking along the pebbly beach against a brisk sea breeze, stepping between amateur paleontologists diligently sifting through the salty stones for the six-million-year-old fossils of sea urchins and ancient squid for which the park is known. These fossils, along with 'lucky' pebbles and gnarled beech driftwood are German tourists' most-cherished Rügen souvenirs.
The fossil hunters shack up in Sassnitz's quaint wooden villas. Almost every salt-stained abode boasts blooming flower boxes along the cobbled lanes that lead down the hillside to the rocky shore. Many of the guest houses offer self-catering apartments, equipped with kitchens and spacious enclosed balconies or Wintergarten and panoramic views of the sea. The view from our Wintergarten takes in the cluttered tiled rooftops of the old town below, with balconies full of dining families and airing outerwear. The stormy Baltic Sea, dotted with sailing boats and ferries cruising to Sweden, spreads out to the horizon.
One of the best ways to take in Jasmund's beauty is a nine-kilometre walk along the contours of the rocky beach, or the cliff top walkway 100 metres above the shore. We took the high road and hiked along the cliffs with a gang of outdoorsy Germans through the lush beech forests, tramping up and down wooden steps and walkways, across tree roots and past striking views of the silvery beach below.
The hike's reward is the spectacular Königsstuhl, or 'King's Throne,' the highest cliff in the park, which stands at a majestic 118 metres above sea level. Visitors can catch an alternative view of the Königsstuhl at Victoria Ansicht, a lookout point at the park visitor's centre, which charges an entry fee.
On day two we checked out hundreds of brightly painted fishing boats anchored in the quay of Sassnitz harbour. Among the boats lurks the British submarine HMS Otus, sold to a German entrepreneur five years ago, dressed in black camouflage paint and flying the Union Jack. Inside, the submarine is still equipped with all its cogs and dials, radars and sleeping cots - a fascinating way to spend an hour.
Venturing out into the open water is easy in Sassnitz. Boat trips leave daily from the harbour to give tourists a sea-side view of the Jasmund cliffs and the town. For sea hardy travelers a day trip around the whole island costs €40 and explores all the coast’s nooks and crannies. A one hour trip was more suited to our shaky sea legs, and we were treated to breathtaking views, fresh sea air and sunshine reflecting off the choppy waves.
Back in the old town we came across the local art studio and Trödel (rummage) shop called 'der Laden,' where we found ceramics and an eclectic selection of former East German kitsch, including two rooms stuffed with books. Local islander and potter Hartmut Netschas also creates hand-made bowls and over-sized mugs in a traditional Rügen style for the shop.
A turn of a corner in the quirky shop revealed a room bursting with orange-labeled 'Sanddorn' products, ranging from tea, to honey to sweets and jam. Sanddorn is a sour berry native to Rügen.
"Every man must eat Sanddorn," bellowed Netschas in a thick east German accent and a serious grin. Locals have enjoyed the health benefits of Sanddorn for centuries, he explained.
Walking through the old town later that evening, we finally found exemplary specimens of the fossils we'd seen others digging for on the beach. Through a thick shop window we saw the marbled stones of the beach encrusted with chalky white lines marking the skeletons of ancient creatures.
“Maybe next time,” we said, eying the elegant tails of ancient squid preserved amid the stone, but content with our lucky beach stones and Sanddorn tea.