Over 200,000 vacationers converge on the North Sea coast's fine holiday resorts annually. In autumn, they have a special charm.
The sun smiles down from on high, and a gentle breeze comes up. Holiday makers sit among locals on the lofty heights of the terrace of the Arche Noah, a restaurant on stilts. The patrons soak up the sun or take in the panoramic view along the seemingly endless beach, in reality a sandbank.
Recollections of summer hang in the air, even if the bathers are long gone. The beach is empty, too - it's quite simply too cold to swim. This is off-season in St. Peter-Ording, on Germany's North Sea coast.
Recollections of summer
The bathing season is over. All the major parties have been thrown. The tourist crowds, which never quite manage to pack the 12-kilometer-long and two-kilometer-wide beach, have migrated down to the Canary Islands or up the ski slopes. The wicker beach chairs have been packed away in winter storage. Drivers are no longer allowed to park on the beach. During summer, it's jammed with countless vehicles.
The tourist season highlights are now memories: the Whitsun Sand Yacht Regatta, the half marathon, the triathlon, the beach volleyball tournament, the kite festival and of course, the 10-day Kitesurf World Cup in late August, the world's largest kite-surfing event, which drew over 200,000 people this year.
Now, the off-season tranquility has settled over St. Peter-Ording. Each excursionist has plenty of space on a beach the size of 2000 soccer pitches. A wide choice of tables at the restaurants on stilts and other establishments is available.
The atmosphere in town has changed noticeably. Sankt Peter-Ording seems more like any other small town, as the some 4,000 local residents once again make up the majority. Now even a visitor can hear an occasional "Moin" on the streets - a regional greeting.
Hot beverages for cold days
The cooler days afford day-trippers here an opportunity to concentrate on the fundamentals: The sea, the flats, ebb and flow, the beach, dunes, wind and sun - when it happens to be out. Offering broad views of all this nature are the five restaurants on stilts, planted firmly about five meters into the ground.
The gift shops, as they're known, are over a century old, but these are not gift shops in the usual sense. The gifts were originally alcoholic drinks served to their patrons. Now their menus have been greatly expanded. Such northern Frisian specialties as the Pharisee (coffee and rum with whipped cream on top) and the Dead Aunt (the same with cocoa instead of coffee) are fixtures.
Only two of the gift shops remain open during the off-season: The Arche Noah at the end of a pier reaching out a good kilometer from the St. Peter-Bad quarter, and the Strandhüttein the south bathing area of the St. Peter-Dorf quarter. The exposed locations of the other three gift shops make them more vulnerable to storm tides, and autumn and winter are storm season here. Quite often, the buildings are left standing knee-deep in water, even on their stilts. So they're kept closed during the off-season.
Winding down to the rhythm of the tides
The Strandhütte at the southern bathing area presents an excellent reason to put off the leisurely stroll along the beach till later. It's just more interesting to gaze off into the horizon with a piping hot beverage in hand - even if the sea isn't even there.
Twice a day, at ebb tide, the North Sea retreats, almost as if it had to take a break from the tourists. In its place are the mudflats, now a part of the Wadden Sea National Park and a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. And the Strandhütte is a perfect spot to look across the flats. It's a contemplative experience and an ideal way for a holiday maker to wind down.
Hiking through the lugworms
An interesting way to wind back up again briefly is to join one of the guided hikes across the mudflats. They're organized by the Wadden Sea Conservation Station and start right from the Strandhütte.
Among the national park's many denizens that hikers may run into or over are what the Conservation Station calls the Small Five: Lugworms, cockles, shore crabs, mud snails and brown shrimp. With a bit of close scrutiny, they can be almost as interesting as the Big Five known from Africa's National Parks: Elephants, rhinoceroses, buffalo, lions and leopards. So the hike offered by the Conservation Station is in fact a kind of mudflat safari.
"Our mudflat hikes are a big favorite during the off-season. People are very interested in the Wadden Sea and the Small Five. And we go into the nature conservation aspect very thoroughly," says Matthew Keir, who came to work for the Wadden Sea Conservation Station through the Federal Volunteer Service.
Space for body, mind and soul
The rising tide brings the North Sea back across the mudflats, and people spring into action near the Strandhütte. Some kitesurfers are busy pumping up the inflatable parts of their kites, and others are already out on the water.
For a brief time, the hustle and bustle revives the feeling of the wild summer just past. But the next gift shop to the north is just as quiet as on any of the cooler days.
The guests on the Arche Noah's terrace take in the view and the sun's rays. Now, almost all the tables are occupied. The hot beverages give off wisps of steam in the cold air. Soon the panorama will include the sunset. And that is every bit as spectacular in the off-season as at the height of summer.