A journey north to the wild island of Sylt; two hotels reviewed.

By Nikki Goth Itoi & Lydia Itoi

Our journey was born when a Hamburg hotel employee told us about his family's vacation home on Sylt, the slender wisp of an island suspended on the wild North Sea from Germany's northernmost border, nearly 200 kilometers and a 50-minute train ride from Hamburg. The island, though tiny, is known for its rich agriculture, spectacular landscape and wildlife preserves, and is accessible only by ferry or by car-train.

In fact, Christoph exclaimed, that very Sunday just happened to be Biikebrennen, an annual festival of ancient and pagan origin in which islanders build huge bonfires of driftwood and old Christmas trees on the beach to bid the ships a cheerful farewell. Few outsiders find themselves on the North Sea in late February, so seeing the festival would be a memorable experience. Could we make it?

When serendipity calls, we listen. Sylt became our mission impossible.

We began our trek across Schleswig Holstein at Travemünde, a popular spa resort town on the Baltic Sea, only 15 minutes drive out of Lübeck, another Hanseatic port on our itinerary. There, we walked past a stone church, half-timbered houses and seaside shops down to the white, sandy beach, which was waiting patiently for the summer sun and holiday visitors in their striped, canopied beach chairs.

Next, we headed northwest on Route 76, which felt more like a country road than the main thoroughfare. As we left the shore, the scenery changed from coastal Fördes to rolling farmland and forests dotted with lakes in the Holsteinische Schweiz district, named for its resemblance to Switzerland's many lakes. Along the way, we stopped at the town of Plön, which nestles around a beautiful lake, and got out to watch the sunlight play on the water. A small brick church spilled its congregation out into the cobblestone market square as we sipped our coffee in a café across the street.

About an hour later, we arrived in the old Viking town of Schleswig, where we would later return to spend the night at the Hotel Waldschlössen (see below). Remnants of the town's marauding past, including a 4th-century ship, are enshrined in the Archologisches Landes-Museum, and ruined Viking fortifications can be seen at various archeological sites around the city. Today, Schleswig is a quaint, picturesque, and thoroughly civilized city on a quiet lagoon, surrounded by fields, trees, sea and sky. We decided, however, to put off exploring the old sailor's quarter and the imposing Dom St. Peter and press on to Sylt.

Another hour of fast, focused driving on Autobahn A-7 brought us to Flensburg, a mere 8 kilometers from the Danish border. And from there, we followed signs west to Niebüll, the terminus for the car-train to the edge of the world. We were disheartened to learn that the last train would leave the island at the absurdly early hour of 7:30pm, just when the bonfires would be getting underway, and that it would cost 139 DM ($76) to spend just three hours in Sylt. Should we do it? After coming so far, we couldn't give up now.

We pulled in line behind a shiny BMW and managed to get our rental car on the top level of the double-decker train. Then for forty thrilling minutes, we swayed and rattled over waterlogged farmland that gradually fell away until we were crawling along a strip of land only inches wider than the train tracks.

When we finally reached the outer North Sea shore, the wind was pummeling the sand dunes, whipping the rain against our elated faces. Never mind, we had made it, and the raw power of the winter wind was absolutely exhilarating.

The weather being what it was, we decided our short time on the island would be best spent eating Grünkohl, the frost-kissed kale with sausages and pork that is a tradition eaten during Biikebrennen. Every restaurant on Sylt has its own version, but all offer stiff shots of Lütten Klaren or rye whisky to "aid digestion" after such a hearty meal. We took refuge in the cheerfully decorated bistro of the Hotel Stadt Hamburg in Westerland (see below). The Grünkohl and veal soup were marvelous, profoundly savory and comforting on a blustery day, but the bland, overcooked seafood pasta with provençal vegetables and tomato pesto deserved a pass. (Hotel Stadt Hamburg Bistro, 25980 Westerland/Sylt, Strandstrasse 2, tel +49/4651/8580, fax 858-220. Dinner for two cost 62 DM/$34 without drinks.)

All too soon, we were back on the car train, trying not to think about the disappointment of missing the main event. The most important thing, we consoled ourselves, was that we had seen the wild beauty of Sylt for ourselves, overcoming every obstacle. We had dipped our feet into two very different seas in a single glorious day, and besides, the bonfires were probably rained out anyway.

At that moment, the miracle happened. As the train slowly pulled away from the island, one by one the fires sprang into view, the high flames leaping through the darkness. We looked back as we continued to move out over the water like a ship leaving a friendly port, and the flickering lights in the distance wished us goodbye and Godspeed.

Hotels

Hotel Stadt Hamburg

Visitors remember this high class hotel in Westerland - Sylt's main town- first by its white façade and matching white picket fence; and second by a striking and colorful decor that tastefully incorporates aristocratic Landhaus accents. "Laura Ashley was never so bold!" the hotel's management proudly proclaims.

Repeat summer guests are the mainstay of the Stadt Hamburg. They return year after year to enjoy the lush garden views, cozy common areas, and the pleasant service it provides. The hotel has 72 rooms and suites, each individually decorated, and it has been run by the Hentzschel family since 1919.

Contact: Hotel Stadt Hamburg, 25980 Westerland/Sylt, Strandstrasse 2, tel +49-4651-8580, fax +49-4651-858-220, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Rates: Singles from 152 to 290 DM ($84-$159), doubles 250 to 410 DM ($137-$225). Breakfast not included, 27 DM ($15). High season runs May to October. Winter rates are significantly lower.

Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 12/20

Hotel Waldschlössen

Travelers looking for an off-the-beaten path overnight in Schleswig Holstein should try the Waldschlössen in Schleswig. This large hotel sits just two kilometers from the town center on a quiet, forested hillside. The current owners have run the place since 1955, and rooms in both the older and newer parts have been designed with a modern touch.

All guestrooms have a shower or bath, direct dial phone, minibar, color TV and safe. There is also an indoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi for house guests. The standard doubles were roomy and many offered views of the countryside.

Room Number 174 on the ground floor has its own terrace and more space than some of the other doubles we saw. For a special occasion, suite Number 333 in the east building has a king-size bed, teal colored carpet, two large windows, and an enormous bath including a white marble tile whirlpool tub and a private sauna.

Contact: Hotel Waldschloesschen Kolonnenweg 152, 24837 Schleswig, tel. + 49/4621/38 30, fax 38 31 05. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Rates: Singles 105 to 155 DM ($58-$85), Doubles 145 to 195 DM ($80-$107).

Rating: Quality 16/20, Value, 16/20

May 1999