Islands fascinate me. Especially offshore islands that are a just a short ferry hop away from the mainland. The Frisian or Wadden Islands or even West Frisian Islands hover over the top of the Netherlands like a string of pearls just waiting to be explored. Add in that they are a UNESCO listed heritage site. When we were planning our Dutch holiday, visiting the Frisian Islands was at the top of the list.
WHICH FRISIAN ISLAND TO VISIT?
First of all, let me make it clear that we are talking about the West Frisian Islands (but you knew that, as the East Frisian Islands are German), there are fourteen of them all together but only five are big enough to visit.
Texel, pronounced Tessel, is the most westerly of the islands. Unlike the other four it can only be reached either from one of the other islands or from North Holland. You can catch car and passenger ferries from Den Helder, a few miles to the west of the Afsluitdijk, the ferries depart hourly on the half hour and the journey takes 20 minutes. Texel is 25 km long and 9 km wide, a perfect size for cycling round, bike hire is available as you step off the ferry. If you fancy a spot of island hopping then from May to September you can catch the ferry to Vlieland, the next island along, from the northern tip of Texel at De Cocksdorp. The ferries run twice a day and take about an hour.
Vlieland is the Frisian Island furthest away from the coast. Cycling is the way to go on Vlieland as cars are not allowed. The island may be tiny but it has the most enormous sandy beach stretching for 12 km. The tide goes out a long way too, perfect for shrimping. Three ferries serve Vlieland in the summer and you can island hop from Texel and Terschelling but in the winter your only option is to sail from Harlingen. The crossing from Harlingen takes 1hr 45mins although for a little extra you can take the fast hydrofoil that knocks an hour off the journey.
Terschelling is the biggest of the islands. Whether you catch the ferry from tiny Vlieland or from the Harlingen on the mainland, you arrive at the bustling port of West Terschelling where you will find many cycle hire shops and lots of rather smart cafes. Head away from the port and you are soon in pine woods that back vast dunes and huge beaches. All the Frisian Islands have wide sandy beaches facing the North Sea and seemingly endless mudflats on the Wadden Sea side. Those mudflats are home to thousands of seabirds perfect for bird watchers. The ferry from Harlingen takes about 1hr 45mins and there is also a fast hydrofoil that knocks an hour off the journey.
Ameland is tiny but very, very popular. In the winter the island is home to 3,000 people but on a summer weekend 35,000 people may visit. Thankfully it has the most enormous beach for all those people to play on; head to the eastern end of the island for the least crowds. In the summer, up to fourteen ferries a day run between Ameland and Holwerd on the mainland, the journey takes about three quarters of an hour.
Most easterly and tiniest of the accessible islands. This is island to visit if you want wild and remote, cars are not allowed so its hiking or cycling to get around. Ferries leave from Dokkum and take about an hour and a half.
DAY TRIP TO TERSCHELLING
Before our visit we studied the maps and timetables and decided that a day trip to Vlieland would be perfect for us: small, remote and accessible from Harlingen which was the nearest port. Unfortunately we got caught up in roadworks and missed the morning ferry. After a brief period of teeth gnashing, we changed plans and bought tickets to Terschelling instead. We opted (well we took what was available) for a slow boat out and fast catamaran back as foot passengers. The car spent the day in the car park right next door to the ferry terminal. It was a lovely day and so we spent the crossing sat on deck soaking up the sun as the ferry made its way across the Wadden Sea.
Once we arrived at West Terschelling the first decision was which cycle hire company, of the many lining the port, to use. We chose Fietsverhurr Zeelen, for no better reason than they had a bright yellow sign and yellow is my favourite colour; the bikes were fine. Mr CW and I had taken a decision that we would not take cycle helmets with us on the ferry. We cycled quite a lot whilst we were in the Netherlands and were always the only ones wearing helmets, we reckoned that the chances of leaving the helmets on a beach was high and the fact that we would be on cycle paths lowered the risk. As we set off the teens asked for the helmets and were shocked that we had left them behind. It was only then that it dawned on us that they have never been on a bike without a helmet and view them as I view seatbelts in cars!
Off we pedalled along a cycle path that meandered through pine woods at the back of huge dunes. Once every so often there was a gap for access onto the most enormous perfectly sandy beach. Every beach that we visited in the Netherlands, no matter how remote, had a beach cafe that was shielded from any possible winds by big glazed panels meaning that either a full lunch or a quick cup of coffee was always on offer. After a leisurely lunch we made our way back to West Terschelling to return the bikes and have an ice-cream before catching the catamaran back. As we watched the island retreat I wished that we had factored in a longer stay …. maybe next time.
The Wadden Sea is not just any old stretch of water it is the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mudflats in the world. So important is it that it is a UNESCO world heritage site. I grew up in East Anglia that has its fair share of mudflats and I confess that I find them very beautiful. The sea is very shallow meaning that at low tide glistening mudflats stretch as far as the eye can see. Salt marshes fringe the coast and are home to plants that don’t object to being inundated by saltwater twice a day. Birds skim over the water or wade in the mud. The colours of the sky are reflected in the glistening mud at low tide, glowering on a dark day and sparkling a sunny one. Sailing across the Wadden Sea to visit the Frisian or Wadden Islands is a treat.
Ferry not good enough for you? Then how about a spot of Wadlopen? What is Wadlopen? Roughly translated it means mudflat walking. At low tide it is possible to wade across the mudflats to either Ameland or Scheimonikoog. This should not be attempted without a proper guide, the right course needs to be taken to avoid being trapped by the mud or caught by the returning tide. Timing of Wadlopen is dependent on the tides but is usually between 6am and 10am.
What to wear for Wadlopen? Shorts or a swim suit, a fleece, windproof jacket, knee-high socks and high top trainers (that will be very very very muddy at the end of the trip) and don’t forget to pack a complete change of clothes in a light rucksack. One thing that you should definitely not wear is jeans. We left it to late to book Wadlopen but it sounds like a brilliant thing to do, but maybe that’s what comes of having spent many happy childhood hours playing on mudflats.
Our exploration of the Netherlands took us to many delightful places. Leeuwarden makes a good place to stay if you are just visiting the Frisian Islands for one day. Our journey to Friesland took us across the Afsluitdijk, we stayed in a castle complete with moat and ended our journey in Amsterdam without our hotel breaking the bank.
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