The Frisian Islands
The Frisian Islands, also known as the Wadden Islands, stretch along the coast of North Holland, into Germany and then on up to Denmark.
The islands lie between the mudflat regions of the Wadden Sea and the wider North Sea.
Many of these islands are protected nature reserves, popular with birdwatchers.
The Netherlands lays claim to five islands — Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog — as well as a handful of uninhabited sandbanks, which are perfect breeding grounds for birds.
The islands can be reached either from Friesland or from North Holland. In the summer, boats link up all the islands and it is possible to hop from one to another. But, out of season, travel is restricted and you will have to choose whether to depart from Friesland or North Holland, depending on whether you want to see the southern or the northern islands. Many tourist and accommodation facilities are closed in the winter.
The islands can become very busy during summer school holidays, so it is worth booking accommodation in advance.
With the German border only three hours’ drive away, it should come as no surprise to learn that the vast majority of visitors to the islands are German holidaymakers. Consequently, many people there speak better German than English, and many of the tourist leaflets will only be available in German or Dutch.
Texel (pronounced ‘Tessel’) is the largest and most populated of all the Wadden Islands. It is the only island to be part of the province of North Holland rather than Friesland.
Don’t think of Texel as just a single destination to explore, but as a series of intriguing little towns, each with their own set of characteristics, knitted together by a series of picturesque little routes and paths that criss-cross the island.
The island is an idyllic place to get away from it all, with some truly splendid beaches and countryside to explore. In the summer, the main towns offer a surprisingly vibrant nightlife, and there are many activities to occupy your time here, such as go-karting, golf and a wide range of watersports.
Texel is also home to the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, which promotes sustainable use of the seas and oceans through scientific research and education.
For those travellers that want a quieter getaway than Texel offers, its smaller neighbour Vlieland is a good option.
The island is mostly car free. The only vehicles there are those owned by residents, a handful of taxis and the occasional bus.
The island consists of a single town — Oost-Vlieland — and wide expanses of natural beauty. There used to be a second village on the island — West-Vlieland — but that was lost to the sea during severe floods around 1736.
A scattering of houses and hotels lie outside the main town, mostly in the north of the island.
Like the other Wadden Islands, much of Vlieland’s landscape is made up of sandy dunes. However, there are some areas of woodland as well — the trees were planted to stop the sand from blowing away.
On the west of the island lies the Vliehors, a large open sandy plain that is a great breeding ground for birds. It is also a good area in which to spot seals.
The Dutch air force have a base here, where they conduct military exercises, and so it is not always possible to visit this area. The area is usually only accessible at weekends or with an organised tour.
In August, look out for the “Into the Great Wide Open” festival — a family-friendly event devoted to film, visual arts, music and nature. Most of the bands that turn up are from the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.
In the centre of Oost-Vlieland is the oldest building on the island. It used to house the post office, but now contains the Tromp’s Huys Museum.
The easiest way of getting to Vlieland is from the West Friesian town of Harlingen. Rederij Doeksen operates the ferries. Because you cannot take your car over to the island, a car park is available just in front of the ferry terminal on the mainland.
Between May to September, a ferry service also runs from Texel to Vlieland. It is operated by Rederij De Vriendschap.
Terschelling is the second-largest Wadden Island after Texel. As with the other islands, most of the land is taken up with national park and wonderful cycling trails. Terschelling also has the longest beach of all the islands, stretching 30 kilometres along the northern coast. Most of the urban settlements are along the southern coast of the island, where a single main road weaves its way through picturesque villages and towns. The mainstay of the island is tourism, but there are also a number of farms on the island where you can buy a great range of local agricultural produce.
For a rather impressive collection of jetsam gathered from the sea, visit Wrackenmuseum. The museum is privately owned by a diving enthusiast and you’re certain to get a warm welcome there.
Rederij Doeksen operates regular ferries to the island from the West Frisian town of Harlingen. You can take your own car over to the island but, should you wisely choose to leave it behind, there are plenty of bike hire places and buses to get you around.
For such a small island, Ameland can get insanely busy during the summer months, particularly at weekends.
Most of the island is made up of sand dunes. There are four villages on the island. Nes is the second-largest and most touristy. It is where the ferry from Holwerd on the mainland will deposit you. Hollum, located on the west coast, is the largest village and home to the island’s lighthouse. Ballum is the smallest village, and houses the island’s airfield. The eastern-most village of the island is Buren, where there is a particularly nice, though windswept, beach.
The island is not terribly big and the nicest way to see it is to jump on a bike and go where the country lanes might take you.
There are a number of hotels on the island. For example: Nobel in Ballum and Dolores in Nes.
Measuring just 16 km long and 4 km wide, Schiermonnikoog is the smallest of all inhabitable Wadden islands. Just under 1000 people live on the island.
The island is virtually car free. You are not allowed to take your own vehicle, and only a small number of residents have applied for a permit to own a car on the island.
This is probably one of the best places to come to experience something of the Dutch wilderness.
The best way to get around the island is to walk or cycle. There is a single bus line, but buses are not particularly frequent.
There are a handful of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts offering accommodation on the island, although the great majority of visitors are day-trippers.
The only public transport to Schiermonnikoog is a ferry from the harbour complex of Lauwersoog in northern Friesland.