Discovering Sylt

Wittenburg Germany
Wittenburg Germany // Photo by LiliGraphie/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images


Budersand Hotel Spa
Budersand Hotel Spa, with its various saunas, a steam room, swimming pool and a fresh-air terrace, is an ideal health spa.


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. 

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Sylt is on the North Sea at the border of Germany and Denmark, which owned the island until after World War I when its citizens voted for its nationality in 1920 favoring Germany over Denmark. 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 85,000 visitors, including Scandinavians, Dutch and British. The affluent majority of German domestic visitors arrive mainly from Hamburg, Munich, and Berlin.

Quiara Spa
Quiara Spa at the Hotel Stadt Hamburg has an indoor pool and sauna and promises an absolute wellness and relaxation experience.

In the past, Sylt was a summer vacation choice for, among other greats, the actress Marlene Dietrich and the Nobel Prize winning German novelist Thomas Mann of “Death in Venice” fame. Two vacation homeowners on the island are American film actor Kevin Costner and the retired German tennis champion Boris Becker

Americans questioning why they should consider this 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 ($10.7 million) and the island contributes €430 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 BudersandSylt Golf Club, named by 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, 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, the spa at the A-Rosa Hotel and the spa at the new Budersand Hotel, the same one with the acclaimed links golf course 

* The 43- room Romantik Hotel Benen-Diken-Hof opens its new spa this summer in Keitum, one of the nicest Syltseaside villages.  

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.

Romantik Hotel Benen-Diken-Hof
Romantik Hotel Benen-Diken-Hof spa takes ‘wellness’ at its word—a reconciliation of the body, mind and soul—and strives to deliver exactly that.

Our small group had two fine dining experiences at Sylt restaurants not included in the honorable mentions above, but each nonetheless excelled in memorable food and wine. At La Grande Plage, set spectacularly on a sandy seafront beach in Kampen, Sylt, the island’s famous oysters (€3.42 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.

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 MoniHentzchel. 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 were then converted by seamen to home decorations. 

The Hotel Stadt Hamburg, a Relais & Chateaux hotel in Westerland, had 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—a considerable walk from some of the guest rooms. Another dampener was that our busy one-day island travel schedule did not allow us to visit the highly recommended Quiara Spa in the property. We would opt for more time on Sylt on a second visit.

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 here, and proud of it. Nielsen regales her guests with wonderful stories of  her upbringing on the island, 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 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, which are among the highest in northern Europe, and are part of the island’s beach protection efforts.

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