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Elegant Hotel Stadt Hamburg
Elegant Hotel Stadt Hamburg

Germany's version of the Hamptons on the North Sea attracts an elite clientèle and is a perfect place to escape fellow American tourists

January 2006 - When it comes to destinations, many travelers (this one included) have to fight the urge to return time after time to the familiar and the tried-and-true. It's a safe but dull strategy and readers unable to break out of the not-so-vicious southern Bavaria Black Forest cycle will never know the many, often unique, charms of the island of Sylt, Deutschland's version of the Hamptons.

This slender, flat island in the North Sea lies as much off Denmark's coast as Germany's and attracts up-market Germans like no other domestic destination. One of its dozen villages, Kampen (pop. 650), seems at first merely an unassuming collection of cottages scattered among meandering lanes, until you begin to notice the discreet Bvlgari, Prada, and Louis Vuitton signs and a local whispers that this is Germany's most coveted and expensive residential real estate.

Visitors arrive via long, double-decked car trains (€42 per car each way) over vast tide flats on the seven-mile Hindenburg embankment, or by car ferry (€37) from Denmark.

This is not the Germany of cuckoo clocks and dirndls, forests and rolling farmland, sauerkraut and Rostbraten; it is Nordfriesland, a place of thatched roofs, fresh sea air, weather-beaten Monterey-style pines, heather-covered dunes, and, of course, seafood. (Friesland, a geographic, not political region, encompasses the area from the Zuider Zee to Denmark. Some of it has been reclaimed from the sea prompting its resolute inhabitants to note that: "God made the sea, Frieslanders made the shore.")

A largely elite clientèle of both old and new rich come to stroll and loll on beaches pounded by the North Atlantic, whack their Titleists around the Scottish links-style golf course, and explore an island that is essentially a 24-mile long sand spit, virtually every inch of which is accessible by bike or on foot via flat, mostly-paved trails. Adventure travel, it is not.

The quality in accommodations and cuisine that awaits them is remarkable. In all Germany, there is no greater concentration of stars, toques, and other various guidebook symbols that signify excellence. Michelin gives its "Red" designation to nine hotels, and awards its coveted stars for culinary achievement to four restaurants and its red Bib Gourmand (good food at moderate prices) to three others.

Prominent German families come to their favorite Sylt hotels year after year, expecting and getting the same room or suite, the same table in the dining room, and the same newspaper at breakfast. Harald Hentzschel, the personable owner of the elegant Stadt Hamburg, for decades an old-guard favorite, confesses to maintaining a meticulous, generations-old file on regular guests that catalogs likes and dislikes that range from chamber maids and waiters to food and drink to specially-requested bed linens.

On Sylt's west side are miles of imposing, pure sand Atlantic beaches. Summer is the time to rent a Strandkorb, the ubiquitous, bonnet-like two-person wicker beach chairs that can be quickly turned to protect occupants from wind and sun. They are a Sylt export, selling outside of Germany for $2,500 to $10,000. Bathing here, even in August, will probably appeal only to the hardiest. Winter, on the other hand, is a time to bundle up and face down the great storms that roll in off the Atlantic.

Capricious weather patterns are part of Sylt's charm. Some years ago, we wore sweaters and jackets throughout an August visit. Thatched-roof beach houses, positioned to provide the narrowest exposure to the prevailing east-west winds, are often surrounded by a protective berm of sand and heather that give testimony to the frequent gales. Interestingly, most of the native reed stalks used to thatch the island's roofs grow in what are now conservation areas and thus must be imported from places such as Turkey and Hungary. Required by building codes of several island villages, including Kampen, the reed roofs are expensive and only last about 15 to 20 years.

A main feature of the calmer east side of the island is its Waddensee, where low tides expose thousands of acres of what appears to be a gray expanse of mud, but is, in fact, a fascinating ecosystem.

For a mere €3.50 per person one can, as we did, sign on to a two-hour guided Waddensee tour. Thus, one overcast morning last July we left our shoes and socks next to a tuft of sea grass behind a low sand dune, and with about a dozen others, set out barefoot onto the tidal flats. Leading the all-German-except-us group was Herr Storm, a shovel-packing, ruddy-faced, 65-ish Sylt marine biologist, who has been showing visitors the wonders of the Waddensee for more than 40 years.

Sylt Tide Flats

Ultimately, he would take us about a quarter of a mile from the shore (because things happen quickly when the tide returns, walking unsupervised on the Waddensee is not recommended). Despite being unable to understand much of Herr Storm's presentation, we found it to be an absorbing two hours. His practiced eye caught subtle signals of what was beneath the surface, and his quick shovel unearthed an amazing variety of mud dwellers: not only clams, mussels, and crabs, but also giant black worms and near-microscopic beings, including a star-shaped, button-size creature that slithered across our palms.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the second mussel. The first, Herr Storm eased open with a pocket knife and, fully aware of the "Oooo, how gross" facial expressions of most of his audience, brought the she'll to his lips and let its contents slide down his throat. After plucking a second from a shovel full of mud, he rinsed it in a shallow tide pool, popped the she'll and offered it around. With no immediate takers, his gaze swung to the Amerikanischer and a canny little smile spread across his face. It was an offer that could not be refused. For his country, the Amerikanischer ate the mussel and smiled back.

In addition to having a sense of humor, Frisians are good-hearted. A few months after 9/11, the citizenry invited 50 New York City firefighters and their families to Sylt, picking up the tab for air, hotel, meals, and sightseeing.

Most of the island's visitors are Germans, mostly from the north, especially Hamburg. Americans are seldom seen. Travelers who seek traditional European culture-museums, great churches, the arts-won't find it here. Still there are things to see. The Altfriesisches Haus, once the home of a whaling captain, preserves Frisian lifestyle as it was in 1740. Alte Landvogtei, the Old Governor's Residence, dates to 1649 and is one of the island's oldest buildings. An odd attraction is the bird traps, Vogelkogen, which in the 18th and 19th centuries were used to lure tens of thousands of wild ducks to the island. They were killed and then exported to the mainland. The practice ended more than 100 years ago, but you can still visit the traps.

Of perhaps greater interest is Whisystrasse, the nickname given to Strönwai in Kampen, a road lined with bars and clubs that in summer attracts the beautiful people and their flashy cars.

For most readers, however, the rewards of Sylt will be long walks and bicycle rides, quiet country lanes, the extraordinary beauty of its landscape, first-rate accommodations, and fine food.

Though American visitors will find Sylt more expensive than most German destinations, it is not as financially exclusive as perhaps we have made it appear. There are many affordable places to eat, such as the great seafood restaurant Gosch. See "Vacation Rentals on Sylt," for a list of some inexpensive bed-and-breakfast options, vacation rental apartments, and ways of finding other accommodations.

On the other hand, if you're looking to splurge a bit in a place the Germans themselves regard as special, you'll probably find a few days in Sylt unlike any other Germany vacation experience you've ever had.