The Martha’s Vineyard of Germany Is Vanishing Into the Sea

The island of Sylt.
Photo: Getty Images

High up in the north of Germany, right on the border with Denmark, lies the North Sea island of Sylt. Unless you are flying into Sylt Airport, you will likely be taking the train up from the old port city of Hamburg. I was told to expect a tranquil, three-hour journey traversing a beautiful, low-lying landscape straight out of a Ruisdael painting, windmills and all. When I got to the train, however, so did at least six or seven classes of middle school students. It was the last week of the school year and high season on Sylt. Vastly outnumbered, I put my earphones in and was soon rewarded by the sight of the spectacular, narrow dam that one crosses to get from the mainland to the island. It is the final approach before you dive into island life, the open sea to the immediate left, the tidal flats, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site Wadden Sea, to the right and the country’s premier vacation spot up ahead.

Traditional architecture on the island.
Photo: Getty Images

When you first arrive on the island, you are likely going to be struck by its gorgeous, pastoral scenery: meadows with grazing cows and the ubiquitous thatched roofs. Strict building codes limit the size of new houses in most places. Thus, you might find that a cute, little thatched cottage sits atop up to four basement floors to make room for pools and other amenities, a phenomenon otherwise more familiar from places like Chelsea or Kensington. With Sylt boasting by far the highest prices per square meter in Germany, it is perhaps unsurprising that the newest edition of Lanserhof, the renowned health retreat based on the FX Mayr cure, currently being built at the northern end of the island, is said to be the most expensive European hotel project after the Ritz in Paris. Set to open in 2020, it will feature its own jet bringing guests to the island and the clinic.

Good health was also what put Sylt on the map in the first place. In the mid-19th century, or so the story goes, a doctor from Hamburg began touting the island’s exquisite air and the first well-to-do vacationers arrived, gradually transforming Sylt’s ancient whaling villages into seaside resorts. The nation’s artists arrived in the 1920s, attracted quite possibly as much by the free-wheeling parties as by the fresh air. Marlene Dietrich came, Emil Nolde, and, perhaps most famously, Thomas Mann, who wrote into the guest book at hotel Haus Kliffende (which you can still find in the town of Kampen, though it’s now a private residence) that he “had lived deeply” here.

These canopied striped chairs top the beaches of Sylt. / Photo: Alamy

Haus Kliffende lies right on the famous Rote Kliff, a steep cliff on the ocean side of the island, one of Sylt’s landmarks that should make your list as the place to watch the sunset. Just below the cliff you will find what is arguably Sylt’s main attraction, the island’s pristine, sandy beach, that stretches for 25 miles and is almost completely untouched by development; the beach at Buhne 16 is a must-see. By far the best way to enjoy it, is to rent one of the hundreds of picturesque Strandkorb, an exceedingly comfortable, canopied beach chair made of hardwood and wicker, and lined with blue and white striped cloth. Once you have settled in, you might discover the built-in foldout tray table perfect for takeout from the famous bistro hidden between the dunes (also called Buhne 16), that can only be reached on foot, and go for some freshly caught mackerel, served exclusively around noon. The menu also serves up a variety of other beach appropriate food items and, of course, champagne.

A few miles further down the same beach, and just as well known, is the restaurant Sansibar, which features an extensive selection of wines, the largest on the island, and is another favorite location to celebrate the setting sun.

Locals frequent Dittmeyer’s; a traditional, snug oyster restaurant serving the famous ‘Sylter Royal.’
Photo: Alamy

A great way of getting around Sylt is by bicycle, with an extensive network of bicycle paths spanning the entire island. Head up to List, Sylt’s northernmost town, and pay a visit to Dittmeyer’s, a traditional, snug little oyster restaurant serving the famous ‘Sylter Royal’, from Germany’s only oyster farm before setting off to explore the gorgeous Ellenbogen nature reserve. Its slightly otherworldly landscape has actually been used as a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard in the 2010 film The Ghost Writer. On the way back, stop by Mylin, a quaint antiques store, that sells the beautiful, hand-painted Dutch tiles, which, having been brought to Sylt by 19th-century captains, often as ballast, adorn the older houses on the island. Prices range from around a hundred into the thousands, depending on the motive and level of craftsmanship.

If you fancy a night out on the town, Kampen is your first choice. Start at the recently reopened Dorfkrug’s wood paneled bar, a sleek interior that effortlessly blends rustic and modern elements into a mix that feels contemporary without betraying its origins. Then head over to Strönwai street, better known as Whiskey Mile (although its barely 300 meters in length), where the bars are open until the early morning hours.

Located right on the Wadden Sea, this picturesque Sylt 5-star hotel is a must see.
Photo: Courtesy of Severin’s Resort and Spa

For a place to spend the night, go to Keitum, the most idyllic of the island’s towns with plenty of thatched roofs and historic buildings as well as luxury boutiques. Right by the water, you will find Severin’s Resort and Spa, an enchanting hotel, kept in the traditional architectural style that deftly encapsulates the austere beauty of Sylt. Nonetheless, it offers a modern spa that leaves nothing to be desired. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel is rumored to have stayed here.

The Sylt Rose, or Rosa rugosa, grows on the coast of Sylt.
Photo: Getty Images

When the summer on Sylt draws to an end and it is time to return home, generations of children have been admonished to shake the sand out of their shoes, so as to not take any off the island – because Sylt is shrinking in size from year to year. The wind and the sea carry the sand away, erosion is constantly gnawing on the red cliffs. The older islanders look at ancient maps showing a much larger Sylt (it did not always have the peculiar shape of a sommelier knife) and fully expect their beloved island to break apart with the next major storm surge. There is a rose growing all over the island, its pink and white blossoms glowing in front yards, on the dunes and between the old Viking graves, most of which have long been swallowed by the sea. It is called the Sylt Rose or Rosa rugosa and it is as tough and undemanding as roses come. Along with the rest of Sylt’s unique flora, its roots keep the delicate island from floating away. When I finally arrive back in Berlin, I notice sand in my shoes and I realize that I will have to return.