Sunlight shines on the waves at the shore while at a pool nearby, it looks as though a swimmer is heading out into the ocean. A waiter places a drink alongside the deck chair, while in the restaurant downstairs, a cook prepares a gourmet meal.
No, it’s not the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes – it’s the Seesteg Hotel on the island of Norderney in the North Sea.
It was built by two brothers, determined to bring luxury to this chilly outpost of Germany.
Jens and Marc run Brune & Company, which also operates the Milk Bar on the island, located in the East Frisian Islands chain off Germany’s northwest coast. From its fireside, visitors can look over the stormy seas.
They also run a range of other properties such as a two-story apartment on the island, complete with a free standing bathtub next to a floor-to-ceiling window so bathers can look out across the beach promenade.
This rural residence with cosmopolitan charm is a sign of change for the island of Norderney.
Was this island from yesteryear the suitable site for two widely traveled young men hungry for new undertakings?
Until recently, people who had heard of the island at all thought of sturdy men in rain jackets the color of liver sausage leaning against the wind or of vacationing families digging for rock worms on the beach until they returned half-frozen to their holiday boarding houses.
That image is out of date.
Norderney, the oldest seaside resort in Germany, founded in 1797, was once the summer residence of the King of Hanover. But the island is on the way to becoming what it once was: Chic.
The Brune brothers are playing their part. For four generations, the family has been active on the island. Back in 1880, family members offered rental vacation apartments for the first time, on a side street without an ocean view. They opened their hotel on the “first row” in 1933. The Haus am Meer hotel now consists of two buildings.
The Brunes are celebrating a decade as the vanguards of the change.
They remember the day it all started.
“It was in 2004, when I was sitting with my brother Jens in my mother’s hotel and gazing at the ocean,” Marc Brune said. “We were thinking about what the future could hold for us here. Mother still had lots to do, but on more and more boarding houses signs hung: Room for Rent.”
The two men, widely traveled and hungry for change, put their energy into the forgotten island in the North Sea.
Marc Brune, born in 1968, studied architecture in New York.
His brother Jens, two years younger, studied the hotel trade then spent years in Japan and came to admire a style quite different to the functionality of the Frisian island.
The brothers decided to work on a project together – transforming the island.
Norderney, the brothers believed, had great potential for development. It is a strip of land with 14 kilometers – or 8.6 miles – of sandy beaches, a primitive dune landscape with windswept sea air.
The island also had a unique seaside architecture, magnificent neo-classicist villas, a spa theater, a casino and a Bauhaus-style bathhouse with an indoor seawater pool and artificial waves.
It also has concrete blocks of high rises and an entertainment hall, and a bathhouse left to rot after tourists began to take advantage of low-cost air fares to the sunnier Mediterranean.
Times got tough for the vacation locale, which was not used to reinventing itself.
Now, though, the bathhouse has been restored to a magnificent condition and is the center of the island’s tourism. It is replete with saunas, steam rooms and ceiling showers whose water rushes from a height of six meters, mimicking the effect of standing underneath a tropical waterfall.
Marc Brune is responsible for this rebirth. Shortly after the brothers’ conversation, the young architect got his big chance. The new spa director, Wilhelm Loth, wanted to renovate the island whatever the cost. No one had dared to make an investment of this size for some time, but they got started with the bathhouse.
Mr. Brune won the bid and for €8 million, the two newcomers provided Norderney with a showcase project that aimed to make the island the leading thalasso therapy spa in Europe by 2020.
Mr. Brune now has a reputation as a spa specialist, but as a trained urban planner he has made other contributions to Norderney. Another of his ideas helped turn the central square of the spa into a lively, bustling site. Together with partners, he turned the elongated Conversation House that the King of Hanover once had built for his festivities into a sort of hotel lobby for the entire island.
“I even lick the glasses to try out whether they convey the right feeling.”
The Brune brothers’ aim was to create beautiful products that first of all had to please their creators, Jens Brune said. If his older brother is the analytical master builder in the family enterprise, then Jens is the emotional designer of inner life.
The younger Brune’s hospitality career began at the revolving door of the luxury hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg. What he learned there still shapes his vision today: What are the guests doing, how can wishes be fulfilled that they haven’t yet even expressed?
Then there are his own experiences as a traveler and the question how to make an attractive hotel room into an unforgettable one? Mr. Brune tries to provide answers with his own creations.
Jens Brune is now a dedicated interior architect in his search for an answer. He said his obsession with detail is about more than just money. Dark cushions are practical because they aren’t so sensitive to spots? No: bright-colored ones provide a better light.
“I even lick the glasses to try out whether they convey the right feeling,” he said.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: email@example.com