Sugar daddies are wolfing caviar blinis. Bottles of Moet are flowing in nightclubs. All perfectly normal in Sopot on the Polish Riviera.
This seaside town has had a South of France feel ever since Frenchman Jean Haffner founded a sauna and beach cabins here in 1823.
The big difference from Cannes or Nice — aside from the temperature — is that everything is remarkably good value. I’m staying at the Sofitel Grand Sopot hotel in the heart of the resort, where former guests include Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
Come August, rooms here cost £200 a night, falling to £80 in low season. You could hardly get lunch in Cannes for that.
Sunbeds line Sopot’s 2.5 mile-long beach, leading to Europe’s longest wooden pier, which acts as a kind of catwalk above the sea. Bikini-clad women clutch chihuahuas while sleek yachts dock alongside. Hipsters in Ray-Bans saunter up and offer jetski rides.
Baltic bliss: Tristan Rutherford reveals that Sopot in Poland has a ‘South of France’ feel, with a 2.5-mile stretch of beach and Europe’s longest wooden pier
Beyond the pier is Mamuszki 15, a restaurant with 200 beach chairs on the golden sand. It has its own sauna and Balinese massage studio, sited where Jean Haffner built his original bathhouse two centuries ago. Lunch is Baltic herrings grilled to perfection, with a dill consomme.
That costs a fiver and you can use the restaurant’s private pool, too. In the 1920s, some swimmers went nude. That’s because Sopot belonged to the Free City of Danzig (nearby Gdansk), which was later incorporated into the German Reich.
During the Roaring Twenties, Deutsche Luft Hansa would deposit moneyed holidaymakers directly on the beach via a seaplane from Berlin. Sopot featured saucy cabaret, but most activities were mass displays of muscular positivity. Period photos show pier-diving contests, group gymnastics, beach archery and Wagnerian opera shows. Sopot was fancy even then.
It’s interesting to promenade past Sopot’s gorgeous Belle Epoque villas, where house prices are among the highest in Poland. The most extravagant villa hosts the Sopot Museum. Here curator Justyna Gibbs uses historic images to explain how, following World War II, Sopot became a socialist St Tropez.
Sopot’s pier ‘acts as a kind of catwalk above the sea’, says Tristan
Tristan stays at The Sofitel Grand Sopot hotel (above) in the heart of the resort
Come August, rooms at The Sofitel Grand Sopot hotel cost £200 a night, falling to £80 in low season
The actress Greta Garbo is among the former guests of The Sofitel Grand Sopot hotel. Above is one of its guest rooms
‘In 1961, Poland’s first rock club, Non-Stop, opened in Sopot,’ says Gibbs.
An elite group of government and military holidaymakers came from socialist nations such as the Soviet Union and Hungary. Fidel Castro jetted in to smoke cigars by the sand.
Polish vacationers took the direct train from Warsaw, then tuned into The Beatles via Radio Luxembourg. During the Sopot International Song Festival, Boney M banged out Rasputin while dressed in sequined pantaloons.
Sopot, like St Tropez, was originally a fishing village. This meant that foreign clothes and illicit books could be landed on the beach. ‘Sopot was a window on the West and probably the most liberal town in Poland,’ says Gibbs.
Tristan travels by train to the Hel Peninsula (above), which contains 20 miles of white-sand beaches
Sopot has previously welcomed legendary visitors such as Marlene Dietrich, pictured above in France in 1933
The nation’s first disco, Musicorama, opened in the Grand Sopot hotel in 1970. The launch poster promised music from Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. They probably didn’t know what had hit them.
Time to visit a far newer nightclub named Tan. Cripes, I feel old. The club is sponsored by Chivas whisky. The drink is sloshed over two dancefloors as a thumping beat propels hands in the air. For dress code read ‘half naked’.
At Tan, the shot of choice is Ostoya Vodka. It’s alarmingly drinkable. Shame that tomorrow I’m riding the railroad to Hel.
The Hel Peninsula contains 20 miles of white sand beaches. The £5 train from Sopot calls at Jurata (an Insta-generation surf beach), Jastarnia (for Riviera-style hotels) and Chałupy (Poland’s first naturist beach). Next you arrive at Hel, a chi-chi seaside escape. Hel is heaven for beachcombers, seafood lovers and swimmers, although the sea rarely exceeds a Baltic 70f (21c).
Back in Sopot for a pick-me-up, head for the Haffner Hotel, which carries on the wellness spirit 200 years after Monsieur Haffer started the first spa. Treatments include a paraffin foot wrap (£31), but I go for a soothing Ayurvedic massage, drifting off and not worrying about lavish South of France prices.