Holidays at Sylt Island in the North Sea

January 1, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015
FULL OF SURPRISES: Sylt Island in the North Sea attracts tourists in winter as well as summer.  (courtesy of Elke Backert)
FULL OF SURPRISES: Sylt Island in the North Sea attracts tourists in winter as well as summer. (courtesy of Elke Backert)

Sylt is an island in the northern part of Germany, surrounded by the North Sea and  part of the Nordfriesland District and the State of Schleswig-Holstein. It is connected by the Hindenburgdamm causeway with the mainland. Well-known for its long sandy beaches, it is one of Germany's favorite tourist locations even in winter.

But winters at Sylt Island are cold. The uninitiated might wonder what tourists would do there during the inhospitable months of winter. The water is icy, and tourist spas can be found in many other places. Ten horses would not drag me into these North Sea waters at this time of year.

The fans of Sylt Island, however, see it differently. And it is not only those who own a reed-covered Frisian house or a cozy apartment that are drawn northward

The big "to-do" begins the day after Christmas, on the 26th of December. The "Great Holiday Swim," is the defining  event for nearly 100 hardy souls who plunge right into the icy-cold North Sea. When they emerge, hosts greet them hot grog to thaw them out.

There is plenty of hot grog for the onlookers as well! Even watching this ritual leaves one chilled and sends cold shivers up and down the spine.

Since its inception in 1985, this affair has become a folk festival of sorts. The week culminates in an open-air party on New Year's Eve. Fireworks, though, are banned, for safety reasons, as the  island houses have reed-covered roofs. Many a party brings friends and acquaintances together, and hotels will cater to all those who are new to the island festivities.

There are also those who wish to spend the final days of the old year more serenely. They are welcomed in the churches in Westerland and Keitum. Others might want to participate in several fun runs for charity. According to tradition, particularly in the villages on the east side, children wearing costumes and masks knock on doors, recite a poem, and are rewarded with a few coins or sweets.

Tourists speak of how the healthy, harsh, salt air revitalizes them, especially after  a night of overindulgence. A healthy climate—or “Heilbringer” indeed!  The air crackles like champagne. Health experts have known for a while that the winter air at the North Sea  is quite beneficial. Moreover, the island itself, with its long sandy beaches and  dunes, works its magic on those who are fortunate enough to visit.