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food / travel

The German Hamptons? Along The Wind-Swept Shores Of Sylt

Germany’s jet set loves this island and yet we have it almost all to ourselves. What makes Sylt so special?

On the beach at Westerland, Sylt
On the beach at Westerland, Sylt
Inga Griese

SYLT — Everyone says that this is a very German island. Well, that's not all there is to it.

The people of Sylt don't just speak a dialect; they have their own language called Söl'ring. And they are proud of it.

The word "car" is wain in Söl'ring and it should not be confused with the German word for "wine." And you should definitely not mix the two on this island. It's worth noting that both those words are integral to the myths associated with the island of Sylt.

The reason why cars are important on this island is self-explanatory. After all, cars are important in the German psyche. It's been a display of status on this island ever since the ‘50s, when you drove the best car you were able to afford.

A view on Sylt — Photo: Christian Thiessen

In high season, it seems that Sylt has more SUVs than cows and the entirety of the island becomes one big showroom of luxury cars. But don't mix alcohol and cars. It is not the ‘70s, when you could DUI in a car down the dunes with a bunch of bare-breasted girls and sleep the hangover off on the beach while deepening your tan.

But maybe it was just a thing the jet set did. Back then, little Karl, the intellectual among the legendary restaurant owners of Kampen, Sylt's most stylish spot, said that the "jet set is like the northern lights, it flickers brightly and then simply vanishes. It is an illusion."

And yet it is an integral part of it. German newspaper Spiegel wrote in 1966: "Nowhere else is the German middle class able to get closer to the upper strata of society and study their way of life and nowhere is the upper class closer in their lifestyle to the middle classes than here."

Sylt is German, yes. But that is not intentional. But it should not be surprising either that the locals in Sylt sometimes don't want people who don't belong to the island.

Why is Sylt a German hot spot? The island has played host to many an international movie star, American ambassadors, even to Roman Polanski who shot a blockbuster film here. He wanted the atmosphere of the Hampton's in New York but was not allowed to enter the U.S.

Most foreigners have never heard of Sylt with the exception of the marketing staff of international luxury brands. But in the summer, the island's airport is choked with private jets and not all of them sport a German registration.

If you want to explain to Anglophone foreigners where you are spending your summer you would say: "You know, an island in the North Sea. The German Hamptons. Just smaller. Same vegetation. Most expensive place in the country." Or to Italians, you might say, "the German Capri." And so on.

Maybe it's the fact that the ceilings are too low in holiday homes here, the building regulations too strict for a certain clientele. Maybe the winds are too strong for perfectly-styled hair, the weather too fluid, the ambience wrong for tiny summer dresses and high-heeled sandals. You can't even pose properly on a yacht because all of a sudden, the tides change and the yacht is stuck in the silt. Lopsidedly.

But how else do you explain what not even every German understands? Sure the fresh air is probably really healthy, but the high winds! And who, I ask you, drives to places like the Italian village of Portofino just for the air?

Most people who set foot on the island for the first time are immediately infected with the virus and there is no cure for it. The mixture of fresh air, light, nature, shopping, fine-dining, partying, being a part of something or just simply getting away from it all, spending money without feeling ashamed, walking along the 40 kilometer-long beach for hours on end with the children, the dogs or just by yourself. This is what the sea does to you. That is what Sylt does to you.

And where else can you be as safe as here? The first tourists to visit the island were mostly artists, the rest just followed in their wake. Societal freedom is not the same it once was but it's still present here.

So grab your cashmere sweater or your matching Adidas tracksuits, zip up and get out. Sylt is only a bit of a jet set destination. It embraces all strata of society on its little luxury cruise ship of an island with stunning views. There's no need to understand it, just feel it. That's enough.

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