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Hamburg, With Extra Cheese

Hamburg, Germany

Continue your beach-club hopping by catching a city ferry (Line 62) from Landungsbrucken, a five-minute walk from Strand Pauli. Cruise seven minutes west to the Docklands stop, where a futuristic office building resembling a cruise liner hints at the more monied scene that awaits.

Well, that and the line of shiny new Beemers and Audis pouring into the parking lot.

The three clubs here sit next to a former ferry building that was once the departure point for passengers bound for Harwich, England. In 2009, the area will be developed as a wharf for a German cruise line, but until then it's South Beach in the house -- albeit with a lower dose of silicon.

Implants notwithstanding, the crowds at all three clubs here are a far cry from the alternative types who frequent Strand Pauli.

At Lago Bay, buff bouncers with body art galore give your bag a serious if cursory going-through for alcohol contraband before ushering you into the party. Low, throbbing club beats pulsate under the command of a DJ clad in all-white linen who looks as if he stumbled straight out of "Miami Vice." Muscled men far too bronzed for early summer make a show of arranging their towels in the sand. And bikini-clad 20-somethings, faces largely hidden behind oversize Dior sunglasses, slither out of a circular pool hardly larger than the standard American backyard version.

For patrons prone to cover up more, sundresses, white linen and stilettos (teetering precariously on the boardwalk or tossed with abandon in the sand) are the rule. Man jewelry abounds. It's a wine- and champagne-swilling scene, with pinkies extended. Even the sand at Lago Bay is image-conscious.

"It is not like the North Sea sand at the other clubs," a bartender explains, with no attempt at masking his sand snobbery. "This is Maldive-touch sand." That apparently means purified sand (most likely from the North Sea's Helgoland island). "It's been filtered many times, and that's why it looks so nice."

Running a handful of gravelly grains through my fingers, I confirm that Lago Bay's sand is indeed more bleached than Strand Pauli's.

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Two other beach clubs flank Lago Bay, and both are decidedly more chill.

Hamburg del Mar is akin to a clubby waterfront park -- parents come with strollers in tow and let their kids play in sailboat props that double as sandboxes, and windsurfing sails leaning against fences complete the castaway theme. Couples canoodle in strandkorbs (literally "beach baskets," those old-school wicker love seats), and groups of friends splay out in the sand or kick back with beers in sling chairs and at picnic tables. Again, there's no direct river access, but views abound, and watching the nonstop offloading of containers across the river at Tollerort Terminal is a busy contrast to the beach club vibe.

"It's very practical, very German," observed Hamudi Hlihel, 32, from Bielefeld. "It's different from the parks in the city: People can drive here, there are toilets, the kids can play, you can lay in the sun and order drinks from the bar. And, look at all the girls in bikinis. I think it's psychological; it looks like a beach, so they feel they can act like it's a beach, too. You wouldn't see that as much in the city parks."

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