Saturday, April 15, 2006

Postcard from Sylt

It started off a quarter of a century ago as an unofficial kiosk in the sand dunes, selling ice creams and soft drinks.

Today, the Sansibar restaurant on the island of Sylt in northern Germany is one of the trendiest places in the region, with some 35,000 bottles of wine for sale on the premises, and around 1,400 different names.

If you want to book a table, it doesn't matter whether you're a film star or a cabinet minister, or just a plain ordinary person, you'll have to make your reservation three months in advance in the season.

That said, there are outside tables around the place where it is first come, first served, and the food you get is the same inside or out.

"We serve up to 3,000 guests a day in the season," says Michael Hamann, one of the partners who own the business. "We'll sell maybe 700 bottles of wine, and we have 30 cooks amongst our 100 employees."

Sansibar isn't cheap, but neither is it overly expensive, despite the fact that it is located on the most expensive part of Germany. Sylt is where you go to live when you've made real money ... and that's just for a summer home.

"The business developed from the kiosk because people wanted more," says Michael, who wasn't there originally but was asked to get involved by Herbert Seckler, to whom he used to sell wine. "Twenty-five years ago there weren't a lot of rules on the island, you couldn't develop anything like this here starting today."

The attraction of the island of Sylt is mainly the environment, and since it started to become fashionable in the 60s when husband of Brigitte Bardot Gunther Sachs began to bring friends there, it is now the celebrity place to be in summer.

It has some of the most expensive real estate in Germany, with houses in its more desireable spots going for anything between €4m-€10m.

And we travelled across to it on a train that carries cars and vans, built on a causeway across the sound separating the island from the mainland.

"The normal population is 25,000, but in summer we have an additional 125,000," Michael Hamann says. "Nature is the most important reason people come on the island, and it is very important that we keep it so."

And as for Sansibar itself, though it is a haunt of the rich and famous, it is equally a place where those rich and famous can rub shoulders together, because the proprietors and their staff treat all customers equally.

That's probably a throwback to its roots as a simple kiosk in the dunes.

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