When you think about Germany you don’t think beach vacation. A Ross and Rachel quote from Season 1 of Friends is oddly fitting to encourage a re-appraisal. Rachel tells Ross she “didn’t look at him that way”, to which Ross responds, “well start looking.” The same goes with German beaches– “well start looking” or you may miss out on something wonderful.
This vacation, or as us pseudo sophisticates call it – our holiday – has taken my family to the town of Wyk on the island of Föhr (best phonetic translation is a drawn out FUURR) in the North Sea of Germany. Not an easy place to get to, Föhr is only accessible by ferry with the closest major airport 3 hours away in Hamburg, or Copenhagen in the other direction. Regardless, the port town of Dagebüll is your entry point to a string of islands that dot the North Sea and your launching pad for a 45-minute ferry ride to the Friesen village of Wyk on the island of Föhr, known as Wyk auf Föhr.
As an American, a beach vacation conjures up images of hot sand, inevitable sunburns, and crashing waves. But here you are forced to forgo your bias on what makes for a good beach holiday for here is the land of sweater weather, unused tubes of SPF lotion, and water that frankly isn’t there half the time.
While the North Sea is the vista all seek upon arriving, it can be an arresting sight to the unindoctrinated. On my first visit years ago, after arriving late at night and waking the next morning, I greedily went to the balcony for my view of the sea only to find miles and miles of wet dirt. I quickly learned that the tide is unique and goes out for miles leaving behind the moist sea floor which the Germans use for Wattwandern – literally – sea hiking. The exposed sea floor, or, Wattenmeer, is unique in the world and is protected as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Eventually the tide comes in and provides for great water play for young and old. It is shallow enough for little ones to safely flop around in, and for the real swimmers, there is endless sea to enjoy. While the water temperature is no rival to Key West, it is not polar bear water either. Arguably the water temperature is more appealing that the chilled Atlantic waters I have experienced on Cape Cod. (Dare I say.)
Resting on the white sand are Strandkörbe (beach chairs), built for two, where beachgoers wile their day away. These clunky contraptions that are must haves for all Germans, protect you from the windy days at the beach that are frequent, from the sun when it does shine down powerfully. They are kept under lock and key and outfitted with a stockade fence so you can keep all the kids toys, towels, boogie boards and other beach accouterments. Not only does this reduce the parental schlep of stuff to and from the beach on a daily basis, but the Strandkorb is much safer when you consider the number of American beach umbrellas that blow away on a hourly basis and nearly impale people.
The island has its own microclimate, or Reizklima, and the minerals from the open sea floor have medicinal qualities. Thanks to their health care system, Germans – especially children – with severe lung disease and respiratory conditions are sent here by their doctors to clinics on Föhr to help remedy their condition.
Traditional regional influences are still strong on the island. The ethnic group, North Friesens, dominate the cultural mileu including a German dialect that is only spoken here and is unintellible to even Hochdeutsch visitors. Typical for the larger region, people greet each other with a hearty “Moin Moin”, literally “Morning Morning” all day long. Many houses date from the 1700s and maintain thatched roofs and as my husband proudly pointed out do not require gutters. This strikes a nerve in us both as we think of the money we recently spent repairing our gutters back home.
His family has only stayed in one of the handful of apartments that are directly on the beach and catty corner to a small airport landing strip. Those who have earned their pilot wings at the airport are memorialized with their ties cut in half mounted on the wall on graduation day. Dr. Johansen’s tie is still proudly displayed.
The best thing though about Wyk is how my German born and naturalized American husband melts into the environment. His exhale is deepest here. No humidity, no blistering heat, and of course no work. But more than that. Wyk is the scene of family vacations since his boyhood when his uncle was the full time island doctor and his dad was his substitute during his time off. He has absorbed this atmosphere his entire life, and it – the world of Wyk auf Föhr – is immediately available to him. The translation is instantaneous. For me, I go searching for a few days, enjoying what I can understand and growing to appreciate that which remains unfamiliar such as the fascination with vacationing somewhere where the water is gone half the time.
But it doesn’t take but a day or two to delight in the fresh brotchen available just outside our apartment each morning, or the lessening of the bags under my and my husband’s eyes from great seaside sleeps, or not having to run after the kids with bug spray and sun screen. If you heed Ross’ advice and “start looking” it hopefully won’t take you 10 seasons to find that you love Föhr.
* The One Where Rachel Finds Out.