Just as America’s wealthiest summer vacationers have chilled their overworked bodies and psyches for decades in sunny coastal havens like Martha’s Vineyard, the Hamptons, Palm Beach and Santa Catalina, Germany has a sunny summer playground of its own. This place is Sylt, the Danish word for herring, an island where European and some American celebrities mingle with artists, socialites, financiers and politicians to live the good life with their well-heeled kindred spirits.
It is located on the North Sea at the border of Germany and Denmark, which owned Sylt until after World War I when its citizens voted in 1920 to become part of Germany. Sylt is connected by a manmade causeway that crosses the marshlands of the Ostsee Canal connecting the North Sea on the west to the Baltic Sea on the east. A year-round Sylt population of 22,000 residents swells to many times that number in summer season to accommodate an annual arrival of 850,00 visitors, including Scandinavians, Dutch and British. The affluent majority of German domestic visitors arrive mainly from Hamburg, Munich, and Berlin.
Sylt in the past was a summer vacation choice for, among other greats, the actress Marlene Dietrich and the Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Thomas Mann, author of “Death in Venice.” Two vacation homeowners on the island are American film actor Kevin Costner and the retired German tennis champion Boris Becker.
|Marine Golf Club|
Health Spas and Links Golf
Americans asking why they might consider a 26-mile long, 50-square-mile island three hours north of Hamburg for a visit are likely unaware of the luxury ingredients of this tiny getaway destination.
• A house in Sylt can sell for up to 8 million Euros ($10.7 million) and the island contributes 430 million Euros ($575 million) to Germany in taxes each year.
• The island has 8,000 hotel beds, plus many island guest cottages and apartment rentals. There are 12 full-service hotels on the island.
• Sylt is a mecca for golfers with four courses including seaside links golf on the Marine Golf Club and Budersand Sylt Golf Club, named by http://www.top100golfcourses.co.uk/ of the UK as one of the world’s best layouts.
• Sylt is home to at least a half-dozen luxury health spas. One is the Quiara Spa at the Hotel Stadt Hamburg (www.hotelstadthamburg.com) a Relais & Chateux property that hosted our American group in the town of Westerland.
• Other health spas on Sylt include the public Syltness Wellness Center (www.syltnesscenter.de), the spa at the ARosa Hotel (http://resort.a-rosa.de/english/sylt/welcome) and the spa at the same new Budersand Hotel with the acclaimed links golf course (http://www.budersand.de/index.php/en)
• The 43-room Romantik Hotel Benen-Diken-Hof opens its new spa this summer in Keitum, one of the nicest Sylt seaside villages. (http://www.romantikhotels.com/de/hotels/romantik-hotel-benen-diken-hof-sylt-keitum)
Fine dining is a special occasion on Sylt, which has legitimate claim to being a culinary capital despite its petite geography. Six of the island’s restaurants have a combined nine Michelin stars, including three with two stars each. Additionally there are 10 restaurants from the Gault Millau dining guide, including five that have earned three caps combined with 17 or 18 points out of the maximum of 20 awarded by Gault Millau.
|The spa at the Romantik Hotel Benen-Diken-Hof|
Fine dining experiences
Our small group had two fine dining experiences at Sylt restaurants not included in the honorable mentions above, but each excelled in memorable food and wine nontheless. At La Grande Plage (www.grande-plage.de) situated in a spectacular position on a sandy seafront beach in Kampen, Sylt, the island’s famous oysters ($4.50 each) were plump and succulent on the half shell. This diner’s lunch included the white fish “kabeljauw,” a Dutch-German word for cod, along with the unlikely lip-smacking accompaniment of champagne sauerkraut and mashed potatoes for 21 Euros ($28).
Our farewell dinner in Sylt was at the Alte Friesenstube, an old seaman’s house converted into a restaurant in Westerland by owners Harald and Moni Hentzchel. The food presentations, along with the homey ambiance here, were uniformly fine. One meal included pork medallions with fresh vegetables and a light cream sauce that included small pieces of shrimp.
Another selection was a surf and turf combination of a small filet of beef combined with large prawns. Seasonal white asparagus dishes were served, along with made-to-order salads for vegetarian diners. A highlight of the Alte Friesenstube was a dark wood-paneled bar decorated with Dutch tiles that originally served as ship ballast and then were converted by seamen to home decorations.
The Hotel Stadt Hamburg (www.hotelstadthamburg.com), a Relais & Chateaux property in Westerland, featured comfortable rooms that looked like guest bedrooms in a private German home, but were supplemented by oversized private baths with walk-in showers. The full breakfast was made-to-order and served with speedy efficiency by an attentive staff. One mild disappointment in the hotel was the Wi-Fi connection, which was only available in the lobby at a considerable walk from some guestrooms. Another was that our busy one-day island travel schedule did not enable us to visit the highly-recommended Quiara Spa in the property. We would opt for more time on Sylt in a second visit.
|Private spa suite in the ARosa Hotel |
Two special Sylt personalities
Two prime reasons for visiting Sylt are two of the island residents we met on our tour. The first is the personable visitor guide Sylke Marie Nielsen ([email protected]), who is a native of Sylt, and proud of it. Nielsen regales her guests with wonderful stories of her upbringing on Sylt, and memories of visiting her relatives in the U.S. She was the most engaging guide we met in Europe during our recent journey, and a walking, laughing encyclopedia of Sylt information.
Gregory Baber, an American native of Hartford, CT, has managed the Kampen, Sylt beach operations for many years. A graduate of the University of Washington, Baber became a marine biologist in northern Europe, but moved here for his Sylt girlfriend and the island she lived on. He also found beach management a more exciting career than marine research.
Baber oversees 25 employees and is in charge of a beach reclamation project that includes 175 million Euros ($235 million) spent in recent years to rebuild Sylt as a barrier island protecting the mainland, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done on U.S. beaches. Visitors who seek out Baber might be treated to a tractor ride along his spectacular Kampen beach to view Sylt’s endangered red cliff sand dunes, among the highest in northern Europe, that are part of the island’s beach protection efforts.
|The view from the Bundersand Hotel spa room|