A week on Germany's island of Sylt

A week on Germany's island of Sylt

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Upon arrival to the German isle of Sylt, the scene that stretched out before me made the heart of this native-New Englander sing. Soft white sand dunes the size of houses, topped with golden-green beach grass. Hedges of cheeky pink beach roses and bright red rose hips the size of Christmas tree ornaments. Weathered gray wooden stairways leading to endless beaches licked by a deep blue, crashing surf. Cape Cod, what are you doing here in the middle of the North Sea?


Sylt's beautiful shoreline. | Photo by Karen Bradbury. 

Having resided in southern Germany for some years already, I never quite understood why so many of my German friends, instead of choosing a Mediterranean getaway, would instead opt for vacations by the North Sea. Uncertain weather and temperatures shy of comfortable swimming weather have made me a long-term skeptic of heading north, not south. But when friends invited me to join them on their annual vacation to Sylt, it was the perfect chance to discover what it is that’s been drawing them back there for decades.

Sylt is the largest and northernmost of Germany’s Frisian Islands, an archipelago of barrier islands stretching from the Netherlands to Denmark. Some 24 miles long and just a third of a mile wide at its narrowest, the sandy beach that makes up the entirety of Sylt’s west coast is pounded by the wild North Sea, while the more placid mudflats of the Wadden Sea blanket much of the island’s eastern coastline. While only about 18,000 people make their home on the island year-round, the number of visitors who roll in annually hovers around 900,000 and grows steadily year on year. While summer is high season, vacationers come here throughout the year, particularly around the Christmas and New Year holidays. And they’re overwhelmingly German. During my weeklong stay on the island, only once did I overhear a couple conversing in a tongue other than German.


The thatched roof houses in Sylt. | Photo by Karen Bradbury. 

Although the island’s pristine, unspoiled nature is the jewel in its crown, other sides of its character sparkle as well. Architecturally speaking, it’s a Demark in miniature, all snug brick and whitewashed houses topped with thatch roofs. Between the heath-capped dunes, sheep nibble the grass to a short clip and within their white-fenced paddocks, majestic pedigreed horses proudly trot.

While a weeklong stay was hardly enough to make me any sort of a destination expert, my friend’s husband, a lifelong Sylt fan, introduced me to a wealth of experiences I’ll treasure forever. Here are some must do’s for your own visit to this unforgettable island:

Roam free along the Ellenbogen:  The “elbow” is the nickname for the island’s northern tip, a natural paradise that’s perfect for unhurried barefoot walks in the surf. You’ll pass dunes, a lighthouse, heathland and grazing sheep. If you walk along the entirety of the outermost circular route, there’s a point at which you can hold the honor of being the northernmost person in all Germany.

See and be seen on Westerland: Half of Sylt’s year-round residents reside in the island’s biggest city. A must is a walk along Friedrichstrasse, a busy pedestrian-only street lined with tea houses, designer shops, boutiques and restaurants of all descriptions. A stroll along the promenade running parallel to the beach can be pleasantly punctuated by stops for a crêpe or a cocktail.

Gorge yourself on fish: With a kitchen at our disposal, we made the drive to List, a busy harbor with shops and a bit of a Hyannis vibe, where we picked up freshly caught fish to prepare at home: Cod, red perch and sea wolf, along with freshly marinated herring, made for numerous tasty dinners. Gosch, a famous chain restaurant for fish, served us memorable meals of the catch of the day and shrimp, as well as a trio of tapas, the Danish style “Smørrebrød” open-faced sandwiches, alongside glasses of sparkling rosè sekt.

Step back in time in Keitum: This village is perfect for strolling past adorable thatch-roofed Frisian houses, a mix of private properties with blooming gardens, designer shops, artists’ studios and cafes. The town’s number of historically significant, perfectly preserved properties earns this amiable upscale town the nickname “the captain’s village.”

Hike through geological history: The Rotes Kliff, or “red cliff,” provides a glimpse of millions of years of the earth’s geological history as you pass alongside rose bushes, blackberry brambles and cattails. Out in the mudflats, hundreds of birds circle the skies and stalk their next meal.

Things I would have done with more time: With more time and better weather, I would have loved to have rented a bicycle, and given the strong winds that blow with regularity, there would have been no shame in having rented an E-bike. My biggest regret, however, was not having indulged in one of the so-called “strand saunas,” beachside saunas that allow guests to warm up before taking a bracing plunge in the sea and repeating the process to their heart’s content. Sadly, these places were all either fully booked or running under restricted conditions due to ongoing Coronavirus concerns. But the missed opportunity gives me just one more good reason to dream of my next trip to Sylt.

Getting there: Sylt can be reached by commercial flights or a ferry ride via the neighboring Danish island of Rømø, which is connected to mainland Denmark by bridge. We drove to the German town of Niebüll, where the German Rail auto train loads up cars with their drivers and passengers remaining inside onto double-decker carriers and transfers them by rail across the mudflats via the Hindenburgdamm, a marvel of engineering and an adventure in and of itself.

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