Scattered in the North Sea 6km off Schleswig-Holstein are the North Frisian islands. For centuries these storm-battered, separate worlds eked out a living from farming and fishing, their thatched villages hunkered down behind sand dunes in defence against waves that occasionally washed away whole communities. Tourism replaced agriculture as the premier source of income decades ago, yet even on Sylt the scenery is overwhelmingly bucolic-seaside. There are the same dune seas of marrum grass and vast skies – blue and brooding by turns – that captivated artists in the early 1900s; the same thatched villages, even if many house boutiques and restaurants rather than fisherfolk; and there are the same colonies of sea birds and seals in the coastal Nationalpark Schleswig-Holsteinisches Wattenmeer (literally “shallow sea”), added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 2009. This may be Germany’s coastal playground, but it is more Martha’s Vineyard than St Tropez. Sylt is the most popular and developed of the islands, centred on main town Westerland and chic village-resort Kampen. Föhr and especially Amrum are peaceful rural islands of homespun charm with little to do except stroll or cycle – not just good options to get around but sometimes your only ones.
Just bear in mind the weather. The islands are on the same latitude as Newcastle in northeast England or the southern tip of Alaska. Statistics tell their own story of changeable conditions as weather fronts barrel across the North Sea: although only fifteen days a year are free of prevailing westerly winds that can blow gale-force even in summer, the islands bask in 1750 hours of sunshine a year.
No surprise on an island fringed by 35km of sand that the focus of all activity is the beach. The finest, whitest sands run the entire length of the west coast, access to which costs €3–4 and is payable as the Kurtax included in accommodation or as a Tageskarte as you enter for day-trippers. Hooded Strandkörbe (beach seats), which come into their own in these breezy conditions, are available for rent by the day or hour on all beaches except those north of List on the Ellenbogen. Prevailing winds mean waves break on the west coast while sheltered (though often muddy) strips of beach line the east – Königshafen lagoon northwest of List, or the peninsula south of Hörnum are safe for young children in rough conditions.
Walking aside, watersports are the main alternative to loafing on the beach. Windsurfing is excellent thanks to waves and smooth water on either side of the island – Sylt hosts the Windsurf World Cup in the last week of September. Other aquatic activities include kitesurfing, and, waves permitting, surfing. The principal surf break is at Westerland – a mid-tide A-frame known as Brandenburg is the most popular spot in Germany. Inland are riding centres, many of which provide beach rides; a leaflet from tourist information centres lists eight.
Like Sylt, Föhr and Amrum are split between fine beach and the shallow Wattenmeer, a nutrient-rich soup of blues, browns and silvery light on the east coast. In other ways the southern islands couldn’t be more different. Tranquil and cheaper, these small family-friendly islands are sleepy and rural. The hubbub disappears and bedtime storytelling in the bandstand – a nod to former holidaymaker Hans Christian Andersen – replaces the DJs in Föhr’s largest village, Wyk. By 9pm the whole place is asleep. Charming and uncomplicated, the islands have the innocent vibe of childhood holidays past, their main activities walking, cycling and sand castles on the beach.
For a hit of maritime air, take a cruise on the Wattenmeer sea, a World Heritage-listed maritime national park between the mainland and North Frisian islands. The destination for most tours are the Halligen: glorified sandbanks whose 1–2m elevation above the high-water mark permits minor agriculture in between storm surges. Small wonder villages on the largest island, Pellworm, are ringed by defences like prehistoric earthworks. Ferry operator NPDG (04844 753, faehre-pellworm.de; €19.50 return from Husum, €10.50 from Nordstrand) operates several ferries a day to Pellworm from Nordstrand harbour 15km northwest of Husum. Departures are coordinated with the timetable of bus lines #1047 and #1091 from Husum; tourist information in Husum has ferry timetables. Alternatively, from mid-April to October, Adler Schiffe (01805 12 33 44, adler-schiffe.de; €20.50) runs two tourist cruises daily to pretty, rural Hallig Hooge, the so-called King of the Halligen due to its huge size – seven square kilometres; embarkation is at Nordstrand. It also runs appealing trips to Arum and Sylt to approach the North Frisian islands by the back door.
New Yorkers weekend in the Hamptons. North Germans escape to SYLT. They’ve come en masse since the nation went crazy for seawater bathing in the mid-1800s, and today around 600,000 people a year swell a year-round population of 23,000, thankfully only 50,000 at a time. In recent decades Sylt has carefully cultivated its reputation as a playground of the moneyed elite. Every minor celebrity for decades has been caught in flagrante delicto by the paparazzi, fuelling the gossip press each summer and adding to the prestige of Kampen village.
Cross under grey North Sea skies to disembark in main resort, Westerland, and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. The answer is a broad beach of pale quartz sand that fringes the entire west side of an elongated island tethered to the mainland by its railway. The sheltered east coast looks over the mud-soup of the Wattenmeer, while the north arm around the port of List is a restless sea of sand dunes. Flashy restaurants and boutiques aside, Sylt is an island of simple holiday pleasures: dozing in one of 11,000 Strandkörbe, the cute wicker beach-seats for two; dawdling through lanes of postcard-pretty Keiten; nature walks among Germany’s largest sand-dunes at List; sea cruises from Hölm or any number of watersports. And, of course, people-watching at Kampen.