April 11, 2009
German seaside resorts come in different shapes and sizes. But there are common ingredients: smart seafront hotels, a promenade for early evening strolls, shops full of expensive clothes and eateries offering coffee and cake.
I see none of these from my hotel window, which has a perfect view of downtown Kloster, the cultural heart of the island of Hiddensee. What I do see is an unpaved road – Kloster’s high street – that would be better described as a dirt track featuring occasional small boulders.
The few slightly decrepit wooden bungalows and one-storey shops I see bear no resemblance to the high-rise hotels and shopping arcades which populate Germany’s Baltic and North Sea coasts.
The islanders have largely resisted commercialisation. Hiddensee’s allure is in its peace and quiet.About 17km long, a couple of kilometres wide and home to a thousand people – and on peak days around 6,000 guests and day-trippers – Hiddensee is not easy to find on a map, sheltering west of Rügen, a larger island near Stralsund on Germany’s north-east coast.
Nor is it easy for holiday-makers to reach – which makes the journey, and arrival, all the more fun. Coming from Berlin (where many visitors start their journey) you drive four hours (the last part through Rügen’s beautiful tree-lined avenues), park your car in a field, ride a boat for an hour, put your luggage in a handcart at the dock, and pull it along bumpy tracks to your hotel or cottage.
Once on the island, walking, cycling and, in summer, lying on the beach are the best ways to spend your time. Locals offer day-trippers tours of the sights, such as they are, in horse-drawn wagons.
My wife and I first visited in the summer of 1990, only months after the opening of the Berlin Wall also brought the opening of Hiddensee, and the rest of former communist East Germany, to the west. Back then, we rented the spare room in an elderly couple’s house in Neuendorf, the scattered settlement in the island’s south, and hired bikes. Our holidays now are much as they were then.
We explore the sandy beaches and the fields and venture on to the port of Vitte in the island’s centre, on past Kloster with its picturesque church, to the white-and-red lighthouse perched on the cliffs in the island’s north.Our days are punctuated by stops for coffee when it starts raining, or to read and sunbathe in better weather.
Our teenage son has stopped coming with us (“too boring”), but we carry on. This visit, we join a literary walking tour. The village may be quiet today, but in the 1920s it was the summer workshop and playground for many of Berlin’s intellectuals. Steamships pulled up in the harbour and Lufthansa’s seaplanes landed nearby.
Weaving our way between houses and hotels clustered around the high street, we pass the places where Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Asta Nielsen, Billy Wilder, Gerhart Hauptmann and others whiled away summer days. In the communist era Hiddensee offered proletarian holidays for relaxing workers and party officials.
But it also provided a summer escape for out-of-favour artists and writers.Some places on the island retain the whiff of this alternative era. The best restaurant, Zum kleinen Inselblick, run by friendly east Germans, is quite unlike the white tablecloth affairs in most resorts. Hidden in a cottage up a dirt track behind Kloster, its guests sit on jumbled furniture in a living room-cum-junkshop stuffed with books and curiosities for sale.
The Hiddensee we see today is little different from the one I first visited almost two decades ago. How will it be in another 20 years? Still no fast food restaurants, golf courses and wellness hotels? Just before we leave the secluded idyll, a local official tells me, smiling, that “thankfully, Hiddensee has a water problem”.
Its own natural springs can only cater for roughly as many visitors that reach the island these days. Hence, building restrictions and a ban on new hotels. The alternative – a water pipeline to the mainland – is too expensive, too extravagant, he says. I hope he doesn’t change his mind.
Hugh Williamson was an FT correspondent in Berlin and is now the paper’s Europe news editor
Getting there: For ferry details: www.reederei-hiddensee.de. There are also crossings from Stralsund.
Hotels: Pension Wieseneck (tel: +49 38300 316) is Kloster’s most modern guesthouse, on the high street. Appartement Haus Dornbusch (tel: +49 38300 60400), also in Kloster, is a writers’ favourite.
Restaurants: Zum kleinen Inselblick (tel: +49 38300 234), popular with locals and tourists. Hiddensee Klause (tel: +49 38300 50400), people-watching café in Vitte next to theatre.
Literary guided tours (summer only): Ute Fritsch +49 17041 25277