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.