Poland isn’t perhaps somewhere that many people would consider visiting for an adventure or nature holiday. But the country is vast, beautiful and what it has to offer may well surprise you. After spending time in the region of Masuria – also known as The Polish Lake District, Matt Doyle shares his experiences of a surprising adventure and time spent connecting with nature.
I’ll freely admit that I’d never really given much thought to visiting Poland before. This wasn’t for any particular reason; it was just that I had a certain set of ideas in my head about how such a visit might go. Whilst I knew plenty of people who’d taken city breaks in Poland, and I also knew there was plenty of beautiful wild space there, I wondered if the language barrier might prove too difficult to surmount, or if my plant-based diet might lead to a trip fuelled by pasta in plain tomato sauce and lacklustre salads. I knew there was plenty I’d probably like in Poland, but, for whatever reason, I’d never really given much thought to actively planning a trip.
When Polish National Tourist Office approached us with the possibility of taking a press trip to Poland’s Masurian Lake District, we were very keen to accept and we soon had a full itinerary organised for the visit. It turned out this trip would completely reshape my preconceptions of what Poland has to offer those who want time in the outdoors.
We departed on an early flight from London Stansted and after roughly two hours in the air, we arrived at Gdańsk – a large port city, punctuated with seemingly large forested areas and hills that we saw as we came in to land. But, exploring Gdańsk would have to wait for another time. We were met at arrivals and were soon in a car on our way to our first stop: Olsztyn – a small city roughly two hours’ drive from Gdańsk. After checking in at the Dyplomat Boutique Hotel – a lovely hotel in a grand and spectacularly preserved historic building – we met with Anna, our first guide.
Image description: A landscape format image. A view across fields. Bushes in the foreground give way to grass and then a band of bright yellow flowers. The scene is lush and green. In the distance, there’s a bank of trees – a section of which have leaves turning vivid red.
Olsztyn is steeped in history: founded by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century, the city was part of Prussia and later Germany until the Second World War when many of its historical buildings were devastated by the Soviet Army. The renaissance polymath Nicolaus Copernicus – who theorised a model of the universe that put the Sun rather than the Earth at its centre – lived his life here. Walking around, the history is visible: Much older buildings like the castle, churches and town gate, built from red brick sit side by side with later German style buildings and, moving out from the town’s historic centre, we see Communist architecture and more modern buildings. The city centre is compact and you can quickly get around on foot. Our guide was an absolute fountain of local knowledge and by the time our tour was over we’d not only had a crash-course in medieval political history but also a new-found appreciation for the forces and events that shaped modern Poland. The rain stopped as we returned to the hotel and, for a few minutes, we were treated to a spectacular display of golden hues as the Sun set over the old town.
The next day we set off early to reach Ryn – a small town overlooked by a very large castle. This castle is now the luxury Zamek hotel and spa, and it would be our home for the next two nights. Ryn sits in the heart of Masuria – and area described as Poland’s Lake District. Look on a map and you’ll see countless lakes and, what’s more, many of them are linked up by navigable rivers and canals. The area is, of course, popular with those who want to spend time in the water – there’s boating, sailing, swimming, even diving to be experienced here, but the lakes are also surrounded by dense wooded areas – which have protected status – so there’s also plenty of potential for walking, cycling (both off and on road) and even horse riding too.
Image description: A portrait format image. Matt stands in a wooden watch tower looking out over a meadow. The structure is made from golden or honey coloured wood and has a lot of ornate detailing. Matt is wearing a light blue raincoat.
How to describe the landscape? Well, the area is not mountainous at all, but it is also very far from flat. The landscape rolls like a sea of hills and hollows. Much of it is farmland, but then, there are also the forests, canals and, of course, the glacial lakes. It some ways, it reminded me of Cambridgeshire or perhaps the Cotswolds, but such comparisons deny the individual character of the land. There are some things – the look of the buildings and the storks nesting, feeding and flying over and the constant presence of water that make the place very different to anywhere I’ve previously visited.
Our first activity in the lakes was to travel to the town of Giżycko to meet our second guide – Jadwiga – and to head on a boat trip around three of the area’s lakes and their connecting canals. This gave us a great overview of the area. We saw how some parts sport heavily developed marinas whilst others are still very wild. We got a glimpse of just how abundant bird and insect life is around the lakes too. It may have been raining, but the boat trip gave us great context for the area that would be our home for the next three days.
Image description: A landscape format image. A heard of European Bison stand in the dappled shade under the trees. There are five adult animals, all with curly, shaggy brown coats and curved horns. They are looking towards the camera.
After the boat tour and lunch, our guide drove us to what would undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the trip. The Borecka forest is home to Europe’s only free-ranging wild Bison. There’s a station with a viewing tower where the Bison often come to eat, and that was our objective. There was no guarantee we’d see them and, indeed, when we arrived at the car park two separate groups told us they weren’t around that evening. However, we were there so we needed to try for ourselves. We were in luck. A chat with a kiosk attendant sent us up a path where we met a park ranger who offered to take us into an area normally out of bounds to see the Bison. The heard were keeping a low profile as they had a new calf and we got to see them all amongst the trees. Even from several meters back in a 4×4 vehicle the animals were an imposing and majestic sight. What an experience.
We were still laughing is disbelief as we arrived back in Ryn. We’d had a busy day, but there was one more thing to do: Fay and I are both keen on open water swimming and our guide had told us there was a great spot just behind our hotel. So, before heading to dinner, we got in some time in the water. What a way to end a busy day as the colours grow deep in the sky!
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Image description: A landscape format image. A view of a lake framed by the branches and leaves of trees in the foreground. A wooden jetty with a sign at the end stretches out into the water. Behind this, we can see reeds in the water and then, in the far distance across the lake, dense wooded areas on the far shore.
The next day started with an activity that would put both Fay and I well out of our comfort zones: Canoeing. I always liked the idea of this, but my one experience in a canoe, on a school trip aged about fifteen in frozen water with a cramping leg had put me off it. Well, it was time for another go! We had a route somewhere around 5-6km to cover. We started off in the picturesque town of Krutyń where we met staff from a water sports centre. A short drive took us to a beautiful woodland campsite on the shores of lake Mokre. There, we boarded two two-person canoes and set off (I was with our guide and Fay with a staff member from the water sports centre – who later showed us his almost super-human strength by lifting a full canoe, with still Fay sat inside, clean out of the water). First, we had to cross the lake – so we were genuinely straight in at the deep end – and after that we would follow the gently winding Krutynia River back to the water sports centre.
Image description: A portrait format image. Fay stands knee-deep in a lake ready to start swimming. A complex of wood and concrete jetties are visible in the background with lush green trees visible in the far distance. Fay is wearing a black swimsuit and neoprene gloves.
What an experience. Both our guide plus the extra ‘crew member’ from the water sports centre were experienced canoers and, alongside the substantial life vests we were given to wear, I knew straight away that we were in good hands. The lake crossing was a beautiful experience in its own right, but once we were on the river, things notched up in terms of scenery. The river meandered gently through dense forest, often with trees overhanging the river. The water was shallow and absolutely crystal clear. There was an abundance of life everywhere: schools of fish in the water, dragon flies and other iridescent winged insects that would occasionally land for a second or two on the canoe or my arm. Birds too: swans, ducks and many I didn’t recognise. I can’t say for sure if my paddling contributed usefully to our progress, or just slowed us down but it was a stunning experience. As we arrived back at the water sports centre, I wished we could just paddle on and on forever. It left me feeling serene and peaceful in a way I hadn’t felt for a while. I’d never considered this as a way of exploring, but now I can see the appeal.
After a hearty lunch at the water sports centre, we hiked in the woods around Krutyń. It was a scorching hot day, so the canopy of trees offered welcome shade. After a few kilometres on a gently winding path, we emerged on the shore of lake Mokre – almost directly opposite where we’d set off in our canoes a few hours earlier. We found a jetty that struck out amongst the reeds and the three of us: Fay, myself and our guide, cooled off with a swim before heading back to the car and then to Ryn.
Image description: A landscape format image taken from a canoe heading down a stream. The stream is shallow and clear. There is dense forest on both banks of the river and a large branch overhangs the river. We can see the red nose of the canoe the image was taken from near the lower centre of the frame and almost in the dead centre, there’s another red canoe with two people on board.
Our final day had come around too quickly. We knew we had a long drive ahead of us to get back to Gdańsk for our flight home that evening. It was also a public holiday – Corpus Christi – and we could see the villages we passed through were revving for a busy weekend. After an early start for a swim in the lake behind our hotel, we drove to the town of Mikolajki – one of the larger places we’d been through in the lakes before heading into the surrounding countryside to see some more of the lakes (including Śniardwy – the largest lake in Poland) and to visit the swan sanctuary at another lake – Łuknajno. Mikolajki itself is a beautiful historic town, but we only had a short time to explore before we sat down for our final lunch before meeting our driver to return.
Image description: A landscape format image. A dirt path in the centre of the frame winds through a dense forest. Lush green foliage dominates the frame. Matt, wearing a blue t-shirt is small in the centre of the frame walking directly towards the camera.
Let’s take a moment to talk about food. I love food – not just for its flavour, but also for the social act of eating or sharing it with friends. I believe that exploring a place’s cuisine can and should be an integral part of any travel experience. Fay and I have both chosen to have plant-based diets. When I think of Polish food, I think of smoked meats, fish, cheese and cream – none of which are compatible with our diet choice. We were told that everywhere we would eat would be able to provide us with vegan meals, but frankly, I worried that the food on this trip would be a disappointment. I was very wrong! The food we ate was spectacular and the level of service and hospitality at each place we ate was fantastic. In many cases we were served plant-based interpretations of typical Polish dishes and I rapidly realised that the food and experience of eating would be one of my key take-home memories from this trip. In Olsztyn, we had lunch at the Bo No Bo Vegan Café where we ate delicious vegetable pierogi – steamed dumplings – in a white bean sauce followed by dark chocolate torte and carrot cake. That evening, we ate pasta with mixed vegetables and a salad of sliced beetroot like I’d never tasted before and flaked almonds at the restaurant in our hotel (the Olsztynska at the Dyplomat). Moving on to Masuria, the food was equally spectacular. We had hand-pulled pizza straight from the oven and a substantially topped burger at Podkładka in Giżycko – they had vegan items listed on the menu here. For two evenings, we ate in Ryn Gosciniec – the Restaurant in the Mill where Agnieszka Wesołowska, the renowned head chef, prepared us a different three course menu each night. Highlights included chilled beetroot soup, baked cauliflower with long beans, steamed dumplings in cherry sauce and pancakes stuffed with spiced apples. At the PTTK Water Station in Krutyń, we ate nettle soup followed by fried wild mushrooms with long beans, washed down with a crab apple cordial. At Restauracja Na Wodzie in Mikolajki, we ate roasted aubergine in a rich tomato sauce. We were proudly informed more than once that the meals we were eating were made from locally sourced ingredients – in many cases coming straight from the restaurant’s own garden or foraged from local woodland. Outwardly, plant-based food might be a tricky proposition in Poland, but it’s clear that many of the restaurants are more than happy to accommodate vegans. Pre-planning is key here, so book a table in advance and speak with the staff. We were not disappointed by the results!
Image description: A landscape format image. Fay stands knee-deep in a lake, wearing a black swimsuit and ready to start swimming. We can see reeds in the water and then in the far distance across the lake, dense wooded areas on the far shore.
This trip to Poland really opened my eyes to a country that, to be honest, I hadn’t previously known much about. The scenery and the scale of nature there surprised me and beyond this, the hospitality and friendliness we were met with everywhere we went was simply wonderful. It’s easy to get to Poland from the UK and for visitors from the UK it’s a relatively inexpensive place to travel through. Our trip was curated for us by the staff at Visit Poland and we had a jam-packed itinerary, but you could just as easily have a more relaxed or open-ended visit. There’s just so much potential there and our three and a half days just wasn’t enough to do it justice. I already want to go back.