Big blazing skies, slivers of secluded white sand and little more noise than the faint melody of bird song, the Frisian Islands offer everything you could want from a paradisiacal archipelago — and it’s floating just 5km off the northern coast of The Netherlands.
With Friesland and its capital Leeuwarden taking on dual European Capital of Culture duties with Malta’s Valletta in 2018, there’s never been a better time to catch a ferry across the largest inter-tidal sand and mud flats in the world, the Wadden Sea, to go full Robinson Crusoe on the Frisian Islands. With five possible islands to get shipwrecked on, here’s how to pick the right atoll for you.
The iconic Ameland Lighthouse is one of the most iconic sights on the island © Jurrien Veenstra / Lonely Planet
For a two-wheeled foodie tour… aim for Ameland
On Ameland, do as the locals do and traverse the island by bicycle. Rent your wheels from Fietsverhuur Kiewiet, right next to where the ferry docks, and head out to explore the island’s 90km of cycle paths through its flat fields and shaded pine woods. Near the harbour, the picturesque village of Nes is a labyrinth of paved lanes, 17th-century whaling captain houses, shops, and restaurants. Fuel up on kibbeling (bite-sized fried whitefish) at Metz or sink your teeth into a raw herring (be warned – it’s an acquired taste).
About 6km west of Nes, in the village Ballum, seek out the beautifully preserved bruin café (brown café) Nobel and try its infamous Nobeltje – a sweet liquor cocktail created by accident over 100 years ago. During a cold winter night, when owner Willem Barend Nobel didn’t have enough alcohol left to serve the thirsty contestants of a sledding competition, he hastily threw some leftover drinks together and Nobeltje was born. The recipe remains a family secret to this day.
Pedalling west from Ballum, point your wheels towards the red-and-white banded Ameland Lighthouse. Built in 1888 but since decommissioned, visitors can climb the 236 steps for sweeping views of the rippling grass dunes and waving trees below. On clear days, the island of Terschelling is visible across the steel-blue water of the North Sea.
From the lighthouse it’s a last uphill climb to the westernmost stretch of beach on the island. Beachclub the Sunset is the perfect spot to re-fuel. Sit on the terrace and enjoy fresh oysters or bitterballen (meat-filled croquettes) as the sun’s golden rays sink beneath the waves.
Getting there Ferries to Ameland depart from the Frisian village of Holwerd.
Vlieland is blessed with a ring of golden sands, most notably the vast beach that covers its west coast © Sara van Geloven / Lonely Planet
For never-ending beaches… visit Vlieland
There is only a single village on Vlieland, the westernmost of the Frisian Islands. Its main street is lined with boutiques, cosy hotels and gabled houses dating as far back as the 16th century. Head past the harbour though and you’ll find 12km of powdery white sand, bookmarked by Oost, a modernist beach pavilion made of wood.
Pick a spot to lay down your beach towel and brave the bracing white-capped waves that whoosh into the shore. The island of Terschelling is visible across the Stortemelk, a particularly wild stretch of water where the North Sea and Wadden Sea meet. Stay overnight at campsite Stortemelk where you can pitch a tent in the dunes (rentals available) for unobstructed views of the glittering Milky Way.
Getting there Vlieland is accessible by ferry from the small Frisian city of Harlingen.
A sunset party on Terschelling as part of the annual Oerol Festival © Sara van Geloven / Lonely Planet
For a cultural escape… try Terschelling
For 10 days in June each year, the entire island of Terschelling becomes a stage. Sand dunes host theatre performances, stretches of beach become land art, and music echoes out from the island’s remotest farms. Originally organised by local bar owner Joop Mulder, the Oerol Festival is now one of the most innovative festivals in the country.
Arguably the most interesting element of the festival is the cultural landscape project Sense of Place, which transforms the island’s bucolic bounties into oversized works of art. Previous installations have used willow branches to turn salt marshes into a Mondrian painting or had newly-planted marram grass grow into M.C. Escher-inspired sand dunes. In 2018, the project will expand beyond Terschelling with artist Nienke Brokke set to create a 20m-high earth-and-grass sculpture of a reclining female nude on a dyke near Holwerd.
Getting there Ferries to Terschelling depart from Harlingen.
A seal relaxes on the smooth sands of Schiermonnikoog © emka74 / Shutterstock
For wild nature… select Schiermonnikoog
The smallest of the Frisian Islands, Schiermonnikoog, brims with nature. To the north lies the widest beach in Europe, fringed by marram grass, and to the vast salt marshes of the south and east are teeming cordgrass, sea-lavender and edible samphire.
Much of the island is a dedicated national park and it remains almost car-free, allowing its diverse habitats to attract a multitude of animals, including over 300 species of bird and seals that gather on the sandbanks. The birdwatching hut at Westerplas freshwater pool is the best place to spot waterfowl in the wild (guides available).
The tourist office also organises several nature expeditions. Try your hand at jutten (searching for treasures on the beach) or attempt wadlopen, recreational mud flat walking across the Wadden Sea floor at low tide. It’s a messy undertaking, but it is a unique way to explore this extraordinary ecosystem.