Article Words : Anthony Lambert | 09 October

West Frisian Islands: sculpted by the sea

The Dutch West Frisian Islands are ruled by mighty tides, which shape everything from their sandy shores to their maritime history. Explore by ferry and bike for a bargain offbeat adventure

It could have been a set from Pirates of the Caribbean. The ramshackle stockade and its single stilted hut were the only features visible as the tractor-wheeled bus carried passengers from the ferry to terra firma across the sandy expanse. It seemed entirely in keeping with the quirky character of the island that this beachcombers’ structure turned out to be one of only four places on Vlieland licensed to stage a wedding.

I was travelling between the islands of Texel and Vlieland, the two most westerly inhabited isles in the chain of 14 that make up the Dutch West Frisians. The islands – five inhabited – form a barrier between the mainland and the North Sea, enclosing the Wadden Sea to the south. The largest nature reserve in western Europe, the Wadden Sea was made a World Heritage site in 2009: it’s the largest area on earth constantly sculpted by the tides. Twice a day, thousands of square kilometres of sand are revealed, providing food for millions of migrating birds.

However, it isn’t just birds who flock to the West Frisians. The islands have become popular with mainland Dutch, who come for an inexpensive break, either to relax or enjoy a host of outdoor activities – from windsurfing and surf-kayaking to horse-riding and blokarting.

I felt it was about time outsiders discovered this unusual archipelago, too. With its unconventional-lifestyle vibe and outdoorsy focus, it bears some similarity to, say, Canada’s west coast Gulf Islands. But with a distinctly European feel – and being only a few hours away from the UK – the West Frisians provide a cheaper and more accessible alternative.

Better by bike

My journey started on Texel, the largest island and the most easily reached from Amsterdam. From the moment I stepped off the ferry, it was obvious that the islands’ reputation as a paradise for cyclists was justified; the first of many cycle-hire firms offered an astonishing variety of machines, including electric bikes. I would have assumed these were only for wimps had I not heard about another characteristic of the islands – the wind. For reasons best known to meteorologists, it blows long and hard, and battling into a head wind when dinner or a ferry calls is made simpler by switching on the motor for a surge of power.

Exploring the islands by bike is made an even greater pleasure thanks to over 300km of segregated, well-built cycle routes. The network on Texel is so extensive that junctions are numbered; routes can be devised by following arrows on the posts at each intersection. Using a combination of low-cost ferry crossings and my own pedal power, exploring the West Frisians was definitely going to be wallet-friendly.

From my hotel in the coastal resort of De Koog, I headed north to the tip of the island, cycling in the lea of the dunes that line the 24km-long beach. As I pedalled, I passed polder ditches brightened by spring daffodils, where spoonbills searched for small fish. To the east lay the grasslands of the Polder Eijerland, an area reclaimed from the sea in 1835 and characterised by straight roads and large rectangular fields. Over the dunes was De Slufter, a curious ‘green beach’ of sea lavender and other saltwater-resistant plants that is covered by high tides through a tiny inlet; it’s one of the best places to see grey plovers, avocets, curlews and dunlins.

Beneath the 45m-high crimson lighthouse at the northern point of the island lies a broad beach, ideal for blokarting (essentially land sailing). This New Zealand-born thrill has become more high-tech since I first tried it, but the sensation of tearing across the sand at what feels like a hundred miles an hour when you’re inches off the ground is just as exhilarating. The skill lies in tacking and turning to avoid having to rotate the wheels by hand.

After my exertions, I spent the evening with a dune-filtered Texels beer and a spectacular sunset at Restaurant Noordzee in De Koog. Overlooking the beach, the place had a suitably nautical atmosphere; even its lamps were made from beachcombed objects. Outside, beyond the marram grass, was a scene transposed from The Kite Runner, as boys fought aerial battles over the sands.

A model town

It was to escape the west-coast air currents that are so good for wind sports that Texel’s main harbour was dug by hand in 1780 on the sheltered east coast at Oudeschild. From here, trawlers compete with around 8,000 Wadden Sea seals for plaice, sole and herring; I joined one of several boats offering visitors an insight into their work. The crew described the setting of nets, the catch and the ecology of North Sea fishing while curious seals watched on.

However, Oudeschild’s highlight – besides the Texels’ Brewery tours – was the Kaap Skil Museum. Created around a working windmill of 1902, its main building was erected to encase what is claimed to be the world’s largest maritime model, a re-creation of the Texel roads (sea-lanes) as they would have looked in the late 1660s. “The Rotterdam of its day,” was how the Texel roads were described by the museum’s education officer Gilles van Mil. The model illustrates this point, encompassing over 200 accurately detailed miniature ships known to have been based there at that time.

The 18m by 4m model of Oudeschild and the coastline was created by an Amsterdam architect and a model-builder to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602. They employed five people for seven years to create it, one of them a Polish lady who somehow managed to paint all 3,500 1-in-87-scale figures without going mad.

Outside is a row of three re-erected fishermen’s cottages (each furnished to a different era), a working forge and ropery, the first submarine simulator, and a large shed containing a staggering variety of things that have been found in fishing nets or washed up on Texel’s shores – at the rate of 2,000kg a day. The barrel that contained a solid mass of rusted nails had long perished, but its contents were so heavy that a forklift truck trying to move it ended up in the harbour. 

Slow cheese, please

To reach a very different maritime attraction, I cycled south from De Koog through pine woods filled with birdsong. Cleverly sunk among the dunes are the buildings and open-air pools of Ecomare, where ill or orphaned seals and porpoises are cared for until they can be safely returned to the sea.

Over 265,000 visitors a year come to watch the feeding sessions and learn something from numerous viewing screens, interactives and dioramas about every aspect of nature on Texel and the North and Wadden seas. Beyond the tanks is a 2km route through the dune nature reserve, which can be accessed only through Ecomare.

The sea has provided much of Texel’s food but the island is also famous for the breed of Texel sheep, found all over the world. To visit one of the producers using raw sheep milk to keep alive the 500-year-old tradition of making Texelse schapenkaas cheese, I cycled along paths through the distinctive pasture. Field boundaries are sometimes grassed earthen banks rather than hedges, and the sheep sheds look as though a giant has chopped a barn in two, and taken one half away. The sloping roofs of these asymmetrical thatched huts always face west into the wind, the doors in the vertical east wall.

At the Wezenspyk cheese farm, I met owner Anton Witte. He’s been farming here since 1981, and talked with passion about the cultural heritage of his produce, which is now part of the Slow Food Foundation.

The Sahara of the North

The ferry from Texel to tiny Vlieland was a revelation. The small boat links two narrow wooden jetties, with a tiny hut on a dune comprising the Texel office. Foot passengers helped those with heavily panniered bikes up the gangplanks. Refreshments of tea or Schylger Jutters-Bitter liqueur – made from cranberries on the island of Terschelling – were served on board.

In this manner, we weaved our way through the channels to western Vlieland – so-called ‘Sahara of the North’. This expanse of sand is used during the week for military training, but a converted army truck known as the Vliehors Expres meets the ferry to whisk passengers through the dunes to the Posthuys, a former mail staging post. From here a bus runs through pine woods to the island’s only village, Oost-Vlieland; West-Vlieland was lost to the sea by the mid-18th century and now lies 27m below.

The tree-lined main street of Oost-Vlieland is an architectural delight. Even recent buildings have respected the predominant style: 1.5-storey houses with gables to the street, long favoured by the local seamen. Only residents are allowed to drive on the island; nearly everyone travels by bike to explore the pine woods and 20km of beaches.

At one with the water

The ferry on to Terschelling could not have been a greater contrast. A modern catamaran, it emphasises – by its sinuous course – the reason why these waters are considered some of the most treacherous in the world. The fascinating ’t Behouden Huys museum near the ferry terminal at West Terschelling charts the numerous wrecks around the coastline. One of them was HMS Lutine, the bell of which still hangs in Lloyd’s of London; when the ship was lost in 1799 – carrying the equivalent of £90 million in gold and silver bars – the insurers paid in full. All but one of the crew died; most were buried in an unmarked mass grave near the island’s tallest building, the Brandaris lighthouse of 1594, which soars above the narrow streets of West Terschelling.

On a recommendation, I made for a beachfront restaurant at West aan Zee on the north coast, cycling their along dedicated paths past a Commonwealth war cemetery and through woods of pine, birch and spruce. The Strandpaviljoen stood alone on the sands; its large glass-sheltered veranda overlooked the beach, where blokarts flustered the gulls. Inside, chunky wooden tables stood on bare boards, and easy chairs and a sofa huddled round a stove. Some of the dishes on the menu utilised the island’s cranberry crop – the fruit has been grown on the island since a barrel of them washed ashore in the 19th century.

Intent on burning off the signature cranberry cheesecake, I crossed the high dunes towards Formerum, centre of cranberry growing and home of the bizarre Wrakkenmuseum. Doubling as a café/bar, the museum contains thousands of objects that its proprietor has collected on wreck dives. It’s rammed to the rafters with all sorts of bounty, including tin, copper and brass ballast bars, guns off a torpedo boat and a porthole from HMS Queen Mary, sunk at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

Heading back to West Terschelling, I passed a statue of a stooped woman pointing a stick into the distance. It commemorated Stryper Wyfke, an old woman who, by her quick thinking, saved the island from further sacking by a British force under Admiral Robert Holmes in 1666; she convinced the invaders that they faced a large army, prompting them to retreat. As it was, Holmes had destroyed all but 30 houses in West Terschelling and actually burned 150 Dutch merchant ships offshore.

Everything, it seemed, came back to the sea. As I waited for the ferry to take me back to the mainland, watching a sturdy sailing ship head out into deeper waters, it occurred to me that every facet of life on the West Frisian Islands is bound up with the water to an exceptional degree. Indeed, in this small Dutch archipelago, the conclusions of poet Samuel Rogers about Holland as a whole seemed multiplied: ‘no country exhibits such a succession of water, trees and shipping so agreeably mixed up together’.

Author of the Lambert's Railway Miscellany (Ebury, £14.99), Anthony Lambert wrote a guide to Australia's great rail journeys earlier in the year.