The shiki-miki gather to shop, eat, and gossip in Kampen, a village with adorable thatched-roof cottages and trendy boutiques, celeb-chef restaurants, and a rowdy “Whiskey Mile” of bars and clubs. One of the coolest cafés is Die Kupferkanne (“the copper pot”), tucked inside a World War II bunker. Everyone looks up when I amble in, checking to see if I’m anyone of importance. Deciding that I’m not, they return to their chatter. I find a seat in the garden, where I can look out across the broad lagoon that separates Sylt from the mainland.
Down along the shore I spot a group of birders with their binoculars trained on something feathery in the distance. People-watching and bird-watching all in the same location —you don’t find that everyday. But then, Sylt is no ordinary island: it sits at the top of the Wadden Sea, a World Heritage–listed stretch of coastal wetlands whose marshes and mudflats are home to more than 10,000 species of plants and animals, including millions of migratory waterbirds.
The island is a playground of all sorts, really. It serves as Germany’s ground zero for all varieties of surfing—board, wind, kite— and is also a prime spot for polo, with matches played on the beach in the spring. On the east coast, metalsmiths, ceramists, glassblowers, and painters continue age-old artistic traditions in the 13th-century village of Keitum. Theater-lovers come for the summer opera on the beach, while duffers make their way to the four seaside golf courses.
Sylt also boasts more posh dining spots per capita than anywhere else I can think of, with no fewer than nine Michelin stars among them. Standouts include south-shore institution Sansibar and chef Jörg Müller’s eponymous restaurant at his hotel in Westerland, the island’s main town.
For all of Sylt’s glamour, ultimately, the main attractions here are the beaches, which rank among Europe’s most stunning. Vast expanses of golden sand are framed by russet- and ocher-colored cliffs, and in summer, the rolling dunes behind the beach are smothered in pink and lavender flowers. Remnants of old piers poke their petrified-wood heads out of the surf while lighthouses tower above, warning ships to keep their distance.
Preserving this beauty has long been a priority for the island’s administrators. Measures to protect the coast from erosion were instated more than 150 years ago, including the planting of marram grass to stabilize dunes and oak groves to keep sediment from eroding into the ocean. Since the 1970s, the government has provided about US$238 million to replenish beach sand along the western shore, importing one million cubic meters of sand annually. Half of the island is off-limits for development, including the beaches, mudflats, and heather areas, and continuing additions to the network of walking paths help visitors enjoy the fruits of all these efforts.
I ride up and down the windward shoreline in a tractor piloted by Greg Baber, an American transplant who is now the manager of Kampen Beach. His job includes various tasks such as overseeing the beach concessions, looking after the ubiquitous white-and-blue wicker basket chairs, and organizing the lifeguards. But his paramount responsibility is beach conservation and ensuring that development, weather, or anything else doesn’t destroy Sylt’s most important asset.
He first landed on Sylt in the heady ’70s, chasing a lady and looking for a good time. “I fell in love twice,” he tells me as we rumble down the strand. “The first time, it was with a woman, and the second time, with this island. For me, it’s something like the Grand Canyon, something that is worth saving.” And perhaps worth getting naked for, too.
More than a dozen trains depart daily for the island from Hamburg.
Where to stay
Set in the dunes on Sylt’s narrow southern peninsula, the Dorint Söl’ring Hof (49-4651/836-200; doubles from US$540) occupies a gabled country house with just 15 smart guest rooms.
Where to eat
A must-stop on Sylt’s fine-dining circuit is Restaurant Jörg Müller (49-4651/ 27788). Part of the hotel run by Jörg and Barbara Müller, it serves haute pan-European cuisine with a Frisian twist. Farther south, Sansibar (49-4651/ 964-646) is equal parts beach club, wine bar, and dining room.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Frisian Fling”).