I’m glued to the window as our train journeys across the Hindenburgdamm, a narrow rail causeway between mainland Germany and the tiny island of Sylt. Reachable by air and ferry from Denmark, this train is the only other lifeline to the island. Each day, it carries passengers, cars and cargo across miles of marshland to Sylt.
Out my window is a side of Germany that few foreign visitors see. At first glance, the island of Sylt doesn’t look like typical Germany at all. Located in the North Sea, Sylt’s wind-swept beaches and wild dunes remind me more of the English coastline.
There’s a salty tang in the ever-present breeze, and as my sister, Debbie, and I drive our rental car along Sylt’s quiet roads, we pass grazing sheep, thatched roof houses and miles and miles of coastal dunes.
Hiking the dunes and walking the beach are popular pastimes on Sylt. Others come for golf, horseback riding and biking. The island’s North Sea location makes it the perfect destination for kite surfing and sailing.
Just 38 square miles, Sylt is sometimes called the “Hamptons” of Germany. German celebrities are often seen here, and the island’s luxury resorts and spas draw the wealthy Hamburg crowd.
The island is home to 21,000 people, many who have lived here for generations. Some still speak Söl’ring, the island’s unique German dialect, which has elements of Danish, Dutch and English.
Sylt: The North Sea
My sister and I drop our suitcases at Hotel Rungholt, a lovely family-owned spa hotel in the village of Kampen, and then we set out to explore. We hike up Uwe Dune, the highest point on the island, for a panoramic view of Sylt’s 26-miles of beaches.
Then we walk down to the beach, which is lined with stunning red cliffs. It’s chilly today, but that doesn’t stop beachgoers. Some relax in tidy strandkörbe, hooded wicker chairs that serve as good windbreaks, while others walk along the shore.
Sylt’s shoreline is under constant threat from erosion, and coastal management is an ongoing task. Later that afternoon, we meet Greg Baber, an American who came to Sylt in 1972 and never left. Today, he manages the beaches for Kampen, an ongoing task that includes beach replenishing to fight the erosion.
That effort must be paying off, because Sylt’s beaches are wide and beautiful. We stop by Buhne 16, a beach bar with a California vibe that draws the surfer crowd. Later that evening, we head to La Gran Plage, a beach restaurant with amazing views of the North Sea. As the wind pick up, we watch the waves grow tall and wild.
Dining on Sylt
Dining on Sylt is a highlight. There are more than 200 restaurants, many with Michelin stars, and local products like Sylt oysters and goat cheese are often on the menu. Our favorite stop, though, is the Kupferkanne. This unique coffee shop was once a war bunker, then became an artist’s studio and finally a popular bar in the 1950s.
Today, the Kupferkanne, which is surrounded by pine trees, has more unique rooms than you can explore. It’s known for huge slices of cake and large cups of coffee. My sister’s cup looks like a soup bowl!
With Sylt’s reputation for high-end resorts and world-class dining, you might be tempted to think of it as “highbrow” – but that’s not the case at all. Everyone we meet is laid back and welcoming. Later, our island guide, Sylke Marie Nielsen, tells us a story that confirms that even more.
When the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City took place, it touched many around the world. Though tiny Sylt was far removed from the tragedy in New York, they wanted to do something to help. In 2002, a Sylt community group invited 36 New York City firefighters and their families to come to the island to relax and heal.
The firefighters and their families didn’t have to pay a thing. Most of them had never been to Germany before, but the 14 days they spent on Sylt were a time they would always remember. Even now, all these years later, many of them still keep in touch.
Walking on the beach on our last day in Sylt, I can understand why this island was so healing to those hurting New York firemen. There’s a salty tinge to the fresh air, and I hear birds cry overhead as we walk the deep sand along the red cliffs.
The horizon holds nothing but the sea, as far as the eye can see. Mother Nature has a way of healing and revitalizing. Perhaps that’s why so many find their way to Sylt.
Rügen: The Baltic Sea
The next morning, we take an eight-hour train journey to a very different German island. Rügen is in the much quieter Baltic Sea, and was once part of East Germany. The largest of Germany’s island, Rügen is unpretentious and popular with Berliners. Farming and tourism are its two biggest industries.
During East German times, only the approved elite vacationed here. That past gives Rügen a unique advantage. During East German times, no one could afford to change the island’s historic spas and buildings.
This means Rügen has some of the best preserved “resort architecture” in the world. Popular on the Baltic Coast, this style includes free-standing mansions (often white) with large balconies.
Much of that architecture can be found in the seaside village of Binz. Its beach promenade and wide sand beach draws those seeking sand, sun and sea. Excellent cuisine is also a part of our stay here, and we savor fresh local dishes at Canteen and then Strandhalle, not far from the sea.
Jasmund National Park
Rügen is rich in other forms of nature. We hike through the forest to Jasmund National Park, which is famous for its chalk cliffs. The Visitor Center exhibition on the region’s ancient beach forests is educational and very well done.
Another afternoon, we hike another forest trail to the Granitz Hunting Lodge, a castle built in 1846 by Prince Wilhelm Malte I of Putbus. Once a playground for royals, today it has been beautifully restored as a museum. We climb to the top of its tower and find a 360 view of the island.
The island’s history can still be seen in another historic structure – Prora. The 2.8-mile behemoth structure was built by Adolf Hitler for his vacationing forces. Never truly finished, it was used in the 1950s for soldiers of East Germany, and then sat empty for many years.
After reunification, people didn’t know what to do with this structure with such a difficult past. Today, the massive line of buildings have been reclaimed and turned into apartments, a hotel, and several restaurants. Behind it is one of the island’s beautiful white sand beaches, so property is selling fast.
Before it’s time to leave, I try one more experience on the island – a relaxing chalk scrub at the Meer Spa at Hotel Am Meer. I’ve covered from head to toe in paste made from local chalk. Then I’m wrapped in cellophane, and tucked into a warm, narrow water bed. With the lights dim, I’m snooze. When I awaken, the paste has hardened.
I’m sent to a hot shower to wash it off, and come out refreshed and looking younger (a few days younger, at least). It’s the perfect end to my vacation in the German islands.
Hamburg: Good Base for Island Hopping
Located on the coast of Northern Germany, Hamburg is the perfect base for island hopping in Germany. This Hanseatic city has built its livelihood on the sea – and its ports have made the city an important commercial hub.
Hamburg’s international airport offers easy air access to this region. From Hamburg, you can drive or take the train to Sylt in the North Sea or Rügen in the Baltic Sea.
After our time in Rügen, my sister and I spend a few days in Hamburg. Hamburg is a city centered on the water. We see that first-hand during an evening harbor tour which takes us through the canals of the historic Speicherstadt warehouses and past the new developments at Hafencity Hamburg. My favorite part, though, is seeing the beautiful Elbphilharmonie Hamburg concert house all lit up in lights.
We choose Le Méridien Hamburg as our base in Hamburg. This beautiful hotel has an enviable location overlooking Alster Lake, and we watch rowing and sailing right from our room. In the evening, we walk the circular trail around the lake, along with many locals who seem to be enjoying the same thing.
On our last morning in Germany, we have a large breakfast buffet at HERITAGE Restaurant & Bar, the hotel’s renowned restaurant with excellent views of Alster Lake. Looking over the water, I realize how unique this trip to Germany has been.
There’s so much I love about travel in Germany, from the small villages of Bavaria to the hip neighborhoods of Berlin, but this trip has shown me a new side of Germany – and I’ve enjoyed every minute.
If You Go
For more information on Germany’s islands, see Germany.Travel
Author Bio: Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 40 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine (www.goworldtravel.com).