In whitewashed Strandkorbs, families huddle together, enjoying the last warmth of the failing autumn sun on their upturned faces. These striped beach baskets, some owned, some rented, are dotted along vast stretches of windswept sand that seep into the inky Baltic Sea.
The island of Usedom in Pomerania, surrounded by beech forests, is known by some as the “bathtub of Berlin” and by others, a little more poetically, as “the island of the sun”. Dietrich Gildenhaar, author and local guide, tells me that the island, north of the Szczecin Lagoon in the huge Oder estuary, has been a luxury tourist destination since Gründerzeit (German economic boom of the mid-19th century), having been crowned one of the sunniest places in Germany, with an annual average of over 1,900 hours of sunshine. It’s split into two halves, with the western part belonging to Germany and the eastern part belonging to Poland, and has some of the best beaches in the region, with designated sandstrips for dogs and other sections for nudists only. participating in Freikörperkultur or “free bodily culture”.
However, despite being popular with Germans who flock to its spa resorts or explore inland on bike rides and long hikes, the island remains largely unknown to international visitors. Looking for an alternative winter break, I arrived to sample one of its many spas for some much-needed health and wellness maintenance.
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-October, when temperatures struggle to rise above 12°C, most of the waterfront residents are German families in chunky woolen sweaters, walking along the piers and bustle in cafes to escape the Baltic breeze. The sky is dotted with colorful kites, many of which reach dizzying heights.
We are in Bansin, one of the three seaside resorts on the German side. Gildenhaar, standing in front of a powder blue house built in the Russian style, explains that many buildings on the island were financed by the wealthy German Delbrück family. Among the visitors were Russian poets, the Berlin elite and the King of Prussia, William I; an annual parade in his honor is still held today.
“It was a place where nobility and aristocrats were often seen mingling with artists, and they all came here for the welfare. Some of them were very ill and were ordered by their doctors to take in the good air of Usedom,” he says.
Until the early 19th century, passengers arriving at the station were picked up in wooden carriages and transported to villas set back from the sea in private landscaped gardens. These three coastal towns – Ahlbeck, Heringsdorf and Bansin – remain connected by rail.
The legacy of this aristocratic wealth has seeped into every corner of the architecture, and the island has an air of understated elegance, with many buildings now in private ownership and rented out as vacation homes. There are many tastefully decorated hotels overlooking lawns behind the beach: ours is the Steigenberger Grandhotel and Spa in Heringsdorf, with its heated outdoor pool and saunas.
Another big draw in this area is seafood. There are wood-fired fish-smoking shacks dotted along the coastline, and nautical themes aplenty in restaurants and hotels.
Near the Polish border is the Fischräucherei Kamminke smokehouse, jutting out to sea. Large bay windows on its semi-enclosed veranda offer a sparkling view of the Szczecin Lagoon and create sun traps, shielding us from the bitter breeze. While we drink in the view, waiters deliver huge plates of smoked butterfish fillet and stremel salmon, with steaming hot potatoes and dollops of braised cabbage. Our chunky wooden tables groan with the heavy plates, and the fish has a sweet tang from the smoking process.
Further north there is Koserower Salzhütte, an old fisherman’s hut converted into a restaurant, where only beech wood is used to smoke the fish. His recipes were passed down from a grandfather who, as a fisherman, owned two of these work huts and fished near Koserow.
The owners of the restaurant have created a small museum telling the story of the island and its dependence on fishing. Herring were particularly plentiful off this coast in the decades after 1815, and the Prussian state took steps to support fishermen and supply the general population. Under state supervision, the herrings were salted and stored in large wooden barrels, giving the fish a long shelf life. The salt shacks present on the site, also called herring shacks, date from this period and have been classified as historical monuments.
A small, dark dining room in one of these herring shacks tempts us inside with the smells of sea and wood and the promise of smoked fish in large wooden barrels. There’s the gravlax, smothered to perfection in coarse sea salt, served with a sweet dill cucumber salad that cleanses the palate with every bite; raw smoked herring, a delicacy that melts on your tongue; and large chunks of lightly fried halibut with the necessary cabbage and potato. All washed down with German Schheurebe sweet wine, it’s a feast, an ode to the ocean.
The island has a haunting beauty. In his new film Usedom: A Clear View of the Sea, Heinz Brinkmann says: “When I was a child, the story of the discovery of my hometown of Heringsdorf was like a fairy tale. In the spring of 1863, the brothers Hugo and Adelbert Delbruük, bankers from Berlin, walking through a dense forest, proclaimed at the location of the Baltic Sea: Here we will stay! And it is indeed a fairy tale.
The trip was provided by the German National Tourist Board. Rooms at Steigenberger Grandhotel and Spa in Heringsdorf from €159.75.