The crescent of islands over Friesland – Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog – form a unique natural entity and a distinct Dutch region. A natural barrier between the Frisian coast and the North Sea, they hem in the mudflats of the Waddenzee, a Unesco World Heritage site since 2009 and a hot spot for wadlopen (mudflat walking) with professional guides. Villages, polders and salt marshes fringe the islands along their Waddenzee shores, while swaths of beach and dunes lace the seaward side. Inland, expect ample forest and heath crisscrossed with hiking and cycling trails.
Populated for at least a thousand years, the remote islands have frequently fallen victim to the whims of nature as the sea washed towns off the map and shifting sands altered the terrain. Challenging as it was to live off the land, inhabitants turned to fishing and whaling for their livelihoods. Since WWII, tourism has been the mainstay.