Our expert guide to the best restaurants, bars and cafes in Sylt, a secret island off Germany. Expect influences of Scandinavian food, nature reserves, oyster farms and vineyard tours.
Imagine a drop of hot oil on tarmac as the sun blazes down – then breathe in. Or the air let out of a blow-up beach ball at the end of a summer’s day. Remember the chalkiness of dusters slapped together after you’ve wiped the blackboard? That’s German riesling.”
Nils Lackner’s lyricism is inspired by his passion for an often overlooked wine. But the bottles in front of us aren’t riesling. The two tiny vineyards on Sylt, a slender island off the coast of Germany with supermodel looks and a playboy history, are planted with solaris vines.
Nils Lackner is one of only 35 champagne sommeliers in the world. He spends two-thirds of the year jetting around the globe, but his home is here, and one of the companies he’s set up offers quirky vineyard tours and tastings. The sheep-nibbled – and fertilised – vineyards were only planted in 2009. The first wines were produced in 2013; 2014 was a good year, he tells me, but in 2015 wind and rain affected the harvest.
That’s evident as we swirl, nose and taste a Solviin Solaris 2015. It has lemon and apricot notes but is ‘thin’. Last year was better and he eagerly opens a label-less bottle for a blind tasting. “At first there’s a dustiness, then dates and a sweetness come through,” says Nils. “It’s more like a chenin blanc or viognier from South Africa. No one would guess this is a solaris from Sylt.” It’s a surprise – like the island itself.
Sylt is no secret in Germany. This island of 20,000 inhabitants attracts nearly 900,000 visitors each year. But it’s one they’ve largely kept to themselves. It’s been compared to the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard. Some say St Tropez. Not bad for a slither of dunes and dykes on the same latitude as Newcastle-upon-Tyne – and the southern tip of Alaska.
Germany’s coastline is split in two by Denmark. To the east is the balmier Baltic, to the west the North Sea with its wild waves. Sylt is here, the largest island in the North Frisian archipelago. It’s 24 miles long and, at its widest, eight miles but in places only 320 metres (there, you can see the sea on both sides of the road).
It’s famous for its beaches – or rather beach; the west coast is one endless sweep of wild, white sand, a continuous stretch fringed with towering grass- and wildflower-sown dunes. The sand is lined not with loungers, though, but strandkorb–striped wicker basket chairs for two – and saunas. There are four Finnish-style beach saunas in List, Kampen, Rantum and Hörnum (strandsauna-sylt.de).
So far, so Scandi. Sylt’s east coast is edged with the tidal mudflats of the Wadden Sea, a nature reserve since 1935, part of the Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea National Park and, since 2009, a Unesco World Heritage Site. This is also where you’ll find Germany’s only oyster farm. The island’s shifting sand dunes are protectedso you can only walk on set paths.
In fact, one-third of this island is a nature reserve. The rest is farmland, flat and green,a mixture of arable and pasture (think fields of billowing rape, sturdy Galloway cattle grazing rich meadows and sheep munching the salt marshes). And then there are the picture-perfect villages.
Across the island, 11 hygge-style hamlets and one small town (thecapital, Westerland) are threaded together by 124 miles of cycle trails.The gingerbread houses with their thatched roofs have a slightly surreal Surrey meets Grimms’ Fairy Tales feel. Even the bus stops are thatched.
You half expect to see James Corden and Emily Blunt skipping along the road singing Stephen Sondheim à la Into the Woods, although not in flashy Kampen. This celebrity hangout, its main drag dubbed Whisky Mile and flagpoles outside every designer boutique, is more Moreton-in-Marsh meets Malibu.
Since 1927 the island has been connected to the mainland by the Hindenburg Dam causeway and a rail connection – but no road bridge. For the jet set flip-flopping to the island’s luxury hideaways and spa hotels, such as gracious 19th-century gem Fährhaus or ultra-modern Budersand, there’s an airport for their private planes. For the rest of us, trains trundle over the mudflats and fertile salt marsh with their cargo of cars and tourists.
Clambering out of my carriage, it’s a short taxi ride to leafy Tinnum where I’m staying. The Landhaus Stricker is a quaint and cosy Relais & Chateaux hotel in the island’s distinctive cottage style, with a Michelin-starred restaurant and bucolic gardens. It’s also central and a good base for exploring both ends of the island.
Sylt is topped and tailed by List, on the northern tip, with its redeveloped harbour (think a mini San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf) and Hörnum, on Sylt’s southerly point with its candy striped lighthouse, boat trips and the most expensive real estate on the island.
I follow my nose south on my first day to the end of the road, snacking on a tub of plump fresh mussels from the harbour. Other kiosks sell the island’s famous fish sandwich, a crunchy roll filled with matjes – marinated herring with onion.
Leaving room for lunch I snake back through the heather-strewn heathland, a blaze of purple in August, to the island’s coolest hangout, Sansibar. This now legendary beachside bistro is a sprawling wooden shack with rustic tables and a huge covered deck. It’s a prime sunset spot for a cocktail or cold beer.
Nils Lackner was once the sommelier here. Wandering up from the car park, the sandy track is lined with blowsy dog roses. I tuck into a local seafood platter of matjes, sweet beetroot, salmon with sour cream and dill, and brown shrimp, before wandering down onto the sand to walk beside the crashing surf.
There’s a real Scandinavian influence visible in the island’s cuisine, and a natural focus on fish. In Rantum, just a little further on at the narrowest point of the island, I find Markus Kampe, a local fisherman and owner of Hafenkiosk 24, a tiny makeshift café and smokery.
As he opens the metal door, smoke swirls out. Inside are trays of butterfish, salmon and eels hanging from hooks. On the marina there’s also a whisky distillery Sylter Trading and, around the harbour, a Fairtrade coffee roaster, Kaffeerösterei Sylt, with a contemporary café. Here, sacks of beans sit in one corner while piles of cakes line the counter (including Frisian torte, made from puff pastry, cream and plum jam). It’s easy to graze your way around the island.
Cradled by Rantum’s dunes is another of the island’s must-visit gastronomic pit stops, the Söl’ring Hof hotel. Just a pebble’s throw from the sand, Scandi-chic interiors and a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s a dreamy beachside bolthole. Its chef,Johannes King also has a deli and café in nearby Keitum, where I bump into him. Keitum is classier than Kampen, with its 13th-century church and tangle of lanes lined with 18th-century houses. Infectiously enthusiastic, Johannes beckons me into the herb garden at the back, plucking leaves for me to taste.
“Aniseed. I use this with mussels,” says Johannes. “This kale flower goes perfectly with the island’s venison. For three months of the year I pick seven herbs in the salt marsh, then they’re over for another year.”
He makes most of the products sold in the shop, such as the vibrant-green leek oil. Others are his personal favourites. “Celery schnapps,” he says as he pours me a shot. “Perfect with matjes.” He also offers cookery classes at the hotel – or for those who want a shortcut, a take-away service for dinner parties: the cheat’s guide to two-Michelin-starred dinners – ingenious.
Back at the Landhaus Stricker hotel I settle in for the seven-course tasting menu at Holger Bodendorf’s Michelin-starred restaurant. Stuffed saddle of rabbit with squid, artichokes, dried tomatoes and thyme mayonnaise is an earthy surf ’n’ turf. The loup de mer with fried fennel, clams and bergamot is fruity and fragrant. But it’s the lukewarm gorgonzola foam that makes me scrape my plate, served with sweet beetroot, fig confit, wild herbs and sauternes vinaigrette.
Originally from the Baltic coast, Bodendorf first washed up here in 1989, and liked it so much he came back a couple of years later. He loves beach living. “This isn’t a job, it’s a life!” He’s a regular TV chef in Germany and is involved with the island’s culinary festival next January.
The following morning I drive north to List and squelch across the sand to the oyster beds on the Wattenmeer mudflats to meet Christoffer Bohlig as he turns the cages of crustaceans at low tide. They harvest two to three million molluscs a year. The cages on trestles are tied down so that the current doesn’t wash them away. “The seawater is so pure that there’s no need to clean the oysters of microbes,” says Bohlig.
Back at the warehouse attached to a rustic restaurant (sylter-royal.de) I watch the oysters being sorted by hand. There’s no shortage of seafood joints on the island and, on the revamped harbour, there’s one of many branches of Gosch, a maritime-themed restaurant chain that’s now nationwide, along with a fish market selling anything from matjes rolls to fish soup.
List is also where you’ll find the latest venture from another of the island’s top chefs. Alexandro Pape had a Michelin star. Now he’s gone back to basics, producing sea salt (sylter-meersalz.de). In August 2016 he opened a microbrewery in the same building. You can take a tour and stock up on artisan jars of salt and beer in the sleek shop, before heading to Keitum to his new low-key eateryBrot & Bier.
Perched on a stool I order a beer, an easy-drinking, fruity blonde.
The open sandwiches – shrimp and egg on rye – are good, too. Piled artistically high, the teetering creations are what happens when a Michelin-starred chef turns his attention to the humble snack.
How to do it
Return flights from a range of UK airports to Hamburg start from £69 (eurowings.com).
Tickets for the three-hour journey by train from Hamburg to Sylt start at €28 each way (bahn.com).