Lying on a fine, white sand on a gloriously sunny afternoon, I was having trouble concentrating on the otherwise engaging novel I had brought with me. The beach wasn’t overly busy that early in the season, yet it seemed that every time I looked up, there was something new and fascinating to pique my curiosity.
First, it was the troupe of pot-bellied ponies and their equally rotund riders thudding slowly up the beach, now and then rearing their tails to cast the odd Pferdeapfel into the sea.
Then, it was the teenage gothic couple, accompanied by one of their mums, stumbling through the sand in their black Doc Marten’s boots, black jeans, black t-shirts, and the guy’s black top hat.
Their attire, however, was in stark contrast to the main source of my distraction, the chap to the right of us who stood for a good portion of the afternoon at the water’s edge sporting nothing more than a middle-aged gut and a humungous moustache.
Eventually, having thoroughly surveyed the beach and the sea beyond, the nude guy retreated to his enclave of fellow naturists, who were nestled between some adjacent dunes, and I was able to return to my book.
Yet all the diversions I beheld on that beach that afternoon stood in contrast to the relative simplicity of the Baltic island of Poel. Lying just off the coast near Wismar, its name is derived from the Slavic for “flat field” – which, come to think of it, probably isn’t the best in tourism marketing.
The island’s also not very big. At 36 square kilometres, it’s positively tiny compared to its much bigger, more famous Baltic cousin further to the east, Rügen. But flat and small has its advantages, and once on Poel there’s not much need for transport other than that propelled by your own two legs.
Unsurprisingly, it’s very difficult to get lost on Poel, especially given that Kirchdorf’s 47-metre-high, 14th century church steeple is visible from almost everywhere on the island.
Our lodgings for the weekend – Seedorf Sieben – was a lovely old farmhouse and stables converted to house four self-contained holiday apartments as well as the home of the owners. Located a stone’s throw down the road from the town of Seedorf, in the middle of the island, it had a multitude of old bikes racked up about the place for guests to use; all that we needed to do was pump up the tyres a bit and we were on our way.
Smooth, concrete roads snake lazily through the fields of rapeseed that blanket Poel in spring and early summer, occasionally branching off towards the pretty, sandy beaches that lie along the west and north coasts of the island. It’s these beaches and their shallow, clear waters that attract the majority of the island’s visitors.
We were also drawn to Poel’s proximity to Hamburg (an hour and a half by car, but also easily accessible by train), the reasonableness of the accommodation (our one bedroom apartment cost us €45 a night), and the fact that most people we talked to had heard little about the island.
Wanting to get away from the masses, we took this to be a good sign: generally the less people know about a place, the less likely they are to visit it. Poel’s 3,000 or so permanent inhabitants are joined by plenty of holidaymakers wanting to spend a day or two at the beach each summer. But you’re unlikely to encounter the hordes of tourists that regularly descend upon German islands such as Sylt in the North Sea or Rügen in the Baltic.
Furthermore, we visited the island early enough in the season when it was warm enough to bare all like the moustachioed guy and his FKK (Freikörperkultur or “bare body culture”) buddies, yet the water was still chilly enough to put most sane people off going for a dip. Consequently, the beaches were relatively quiet and we met few people while cycling the rudimentary bike tracks that run along the coast and through the island’s narrow stands of woods.
We also didn’t spend a great deal of time in the little seaside towns of Timmendorf, Kirchdorf or the wonderfully named Am Schwarzen Busch. A lot of the architecture along the coast seeming to have favoured functionality over form, but we wanted to get away from the usual trappings of the city anyway.
To this end we’d come prepared with a car boot full of food and drinks (there’s also a good-sized supermarket in Kirchdorf if needed), as well as booking an apartment that was both self-contained and had an outside barbeque. The island’s pancake-like geography proved to be a blessing, as we were able to cycle home from the beach, indulge in a leisurely lunch at the apartment, and swan back down to the seaside later in the day.