There are many awesome places in Europe, from the historical ones to the naturalistic ones. A few can be considered truly unique. Even fewer can be considered unique AND uniquely placed.
Leba is one of those very few.
Located right on the Baltic Sea on the northern coast of Poland, a country not surely known for beaches, sunny weather and a warm climate, Leba is an immense expanse of sand dunes, exactly like you would find in the middle of the Sahara or Gobi deserts. Very fine sand too. It’s one of the places you would expect the least in being where it is, roughly 100km west of Gdansk, near the coastal town of the same name.
Słowiński National Park
Let’s get this sorted out immediately: the correct name of the place is Słowiński National Park, as the dunes are actually inside a larger forest populated with deers, boars, rare frogs, various species of birds and the occasional seal visiting the beach. It spans more than 18000 hectares and is on the UNESCO Heritage Sites list. Leba is just the easier name of it and how it is commonly addressed. Not in the least because it is where you need to go to access the park and where the various hotels and camping sites are located at.
What makes Leba so unique?
Coastal dunes aren’t uncommon in Europe. There are a few to be found in Uk, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and here and there on the Mediterranean coast. Here I’m counting only dunes that are a few meters tall at least and that are not actually on a beach (because that would make it a beach, of course).
What is then rare is sand dunes that are quite tall and impressive. Namibia, China, Australia, Chile and a few other countries have very tall dunes near the coast but in Europe it is a much rarer phenomenon. Definitely the most famous, and taller, one is the Dune of Pilat, in France.
Leba dunes are smaller but what they lack in height make up in age: they are nearly 3000 years old and they move. Yes, they move all the time due to the northern winds to south/south-east direction at up to 10m/year. Coming back each year at Leba means you will see a slightly different shape of the sandy areas of the park each time. Add to that the uncanny experience of being in the middle of a sea of sand and spotting animals usually to be found in cold/wet climates, like deers, falcons, seals and frogs, makes Leba truly an unique place on this Earth.
I’ve been to the Park twice, 2 years of difference between the two visits, and I found the dunes changed, a lot. At the beginning of the park you are left at the bottom of a dune that you need to climb to access the others and I was aghast to find it at least one third taller than on the previous visit, and slightly steeper too. Slowly the dunes are going south towards an internal to the park lake and I bet the future generations will witness a big array of dunes put amid the sea and the lake.
You can visit the dunes either coming from the east, from Leba, or from the west. The latter is a longer path and less impressive. You will need to walk 50% more to reach the area of the tallest dunes, which is closer to Leba town. So better from the east. That means either following the road signals for the Słowiński National Park or walking all the beach from Leba to the dunes. Not advised unless you have a full day and like to walk (it’s roughly 7km through the sandy beach, one way). The beach walk is spectacular though.
If coming by road, through the main parking of the Słowiński National Park, you will have the choice of either walk through the park to the dunes, which is another pretty long (5km) walk, or take a, paid, electrical car that in a few minutes will leave you right at the bottom of the dunes. The ride is expensive, the equivalent of 7€ per person, but worth if you don’t have a lot of time or don’t really feel like walking for 10km. We surely didn’t feel like that and paid the sum to be quickly taken to the dunes.
From there, you are on your own, can walk all around the dunes, to the beach and back, and stay as much as you want. You won’t get lost even if the dunes are extensive as the limits of the walkable area are marked by plenty of stakes. Mostly you will stay on the eastern half of the dunes, the one closer to Leba, as the tallest ones are all located there. If it’s summer, and the Baltic sea waters aren’t too cold, I’d advise you to take a swim in the sea to refresh yourself. Walking up and down dunes can be tiring.
Accommodation in Leba
If you are looking to stay longer around the park, you may look for accommodation. Leba has a wide array of hotels, bed and breakfast and small apartments. You won’t have an issue finding an hotel in Leba, for sure.
Both on the western and eastern side of Leba there are various camping zones too, if you are interested in camping in Leba. The furthest west from the town are basically located next to the park and it is a great place for camping, among trees and in proximity to the area where wild animals freely roam.
Less choice in restaurants. Most of them are tavern-like ones, hardly to be considered a luxury place. There’s one next to the entrance of the dunes, where you take the electrical car and pay the ticket to the park. It’s is reasonably priced and with generous portions. But don’t expect high cuisine. Kfc and McDonald’s aren’t to be found in Leba either.
Leba is quite an experience
Whether you are coming by road, by the beach or from the west, taking time to visit the dunes in Leba is one of the must do in the area. Everybody in Poland knows them but they are strangely not well known outside it. I had no idea they existed before moving to Poland. Shamefully as they are amazing and quite accessible, without requiring to be extremely fit to climb them as in the tallest dunes in Namibia or Mongolia. The proximity with the Leba town, with its range of hotels, camping and restaurants, make the visit extremely comfortable.
You can see more of the dunes in the gallery below. If you are still not convinced to visit them 🙂