Hamburg, With Extra Cheese
Germans Flock to Ersatz Beaches Along the Elbe

By Terry Ward
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Few people are as adept as the Germans at making the most of a sunny day. And when the sky over Hamburg, often overcast, opens up and provides some elusive summer warmth, few cities shine like Germany's second largest.

For many, this means a trip to the beach. Upscale suburbs west of the city center have their share of sandy stretches along the Elbe River, but the water is lager brown and far from inviting (though some do venture into the murk). For those who don't want to brave the river, there are Hamburg's beach clubs.

Perched beside the Elbe and generally covered in sand trucked in from North Sea locales, the clubs overlook the main shipping route. It's a surreal experience to sit with your toes in the sand and the hint of freshly sliced limes in the air as tugboats guide enormous ships into port.

Hamburg's clubs -- which open as soon as temperatures allow and linger as late in the season as pos sible (usually May to September) -- are not unique. Complete with imported palm trees and sand, beach clubs abound in cities across Germany, including Berlin, Cologne and Leipzig. It's the setting -- and vibe -- of Hamburg's that makes them stand out.

The fact that there aren't any cover charges and you don't have to pay for a beach chair rental is refreshing, too. Try that in Ibiza.

* * *

Start your beach club tour at Strand Pauli, on the edge of a seedy quarter in the St. Pauli neighborhood. It's easily accessed, within 15 minutes of the Hauptbahnhof, Hamburg's central train station, via subway and a short walk.

Each summer, piles of sand are spread across a parking lot to create a summer escape. But were it not for a beach-umbrella logo on an unassuming wooden sign, you'd nary notice the club.

The crowd at Strand Pauli, equally keen to stay under the radar, is a left-leaning, beer-drinking bunch that sinks into camouflage-print cushions atop heavy wooden and wrought-iron furniture arranged haphazardly in the sand. DJs spin laid-back lounge tunes from tiki huts, fish nets drape the fencing and vintage-style brown-and-orange-striped oversize lamps make the outdoor space seem somehow cozy. There's no water access, but port views abound.

"Strand Pauli is really local; probably 90 percent of the people hanging out here just walk over from home," said Benjamin Wadewitz, who lives a few blocks away and comes to kick back and study Spanish or grab an Alsterwasser (beer mixed with Sprite) with friends.

Packed on sunny days, Strand Pauli is also a top summertime spot for an evening opener. Bonus: The neighborhood sits on a higher elevation than any other spot in the city. Thanks to the beach's orientation, the sun sets slightly later at Strand Pauli than at other beach clubs, with daylight lingering till 10:30 in the peak summer months. That makes it a perfect place to kick off the evening before stumbling over to the Reeperbahn's late-night bar and club scene.

* * *

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.

* * *

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."

At Hamburg City Beach Club, things are mellower still. German '90s hip-hop bumps through the speakers and a father and son play foosball near the thatched bar. A smoothie stand is doing brisk business, and massages are offered at tables overlooking the river.

* * *

Final stop: the granddaddy of Hamburg's beach club scene, the legendary Strandperle. Take the same ferry (Line 62) one stop west (four minutes) to the upscale maritime hamlet of Oevelgoenne.

The Strandperle's origins date to the 19th century, when a milk bar offering bathers healthy refreshments operated in the same spot. People still swim in this stretch of the Elbe, while the cafe itself sits right on the beach.

From the ferry dock, walk west along the sidewalk dividing the beach and river and look for a knot of chairs in the sand. A sunny day means a perpetual line outside the Strandperle's wooden shack, where patrons flock for the salted herring tucked into a bun and beer. Fortunately, there's nobody to rifle through your bag if you choose to BYOB.

"Everyone has a story about the Strandperle; it's an institution," said Joern Loeding, who leads guided tours of Hamburg. "Even back in 1975, the Strandperle was in the tourist brochures."

"It's the kind of place you go for one beer on a sunny afternoon and end up having a few more because the weather and atmosphere are so nice," said Loeding, "so you stay longer than you planned to, miss the last ferry home and end up barbecuing with some friends on the beach. Then the sun is coming up, and her name was Katharina and she was blond . . ." he trails off with a laugh.

Chances are, such a serendipitous encounter would have a lot to do with a treasured sunny day in Hamburg.

For general information on Hamburg, check the Web site of Hamburg Tourism (http://www.hamburg-tourism.de/ene). Some beach clubs -- including Strand Pauli (http://www.strandpauli.de), Hamburg del Mar (http://www.hamburg-del-mar.de), the Hamburg City Beach Club (http://www.hamburgcitybeachclub.de) and Lago Bay (http://www.lago.cc) -- have their own sites.

Terry Ward last wrote for Travel about Palm Beach, Fla.

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