The four Frisian islands preserve an unexpected sense of wilderness in so populated a country, low-lying sandbanks with mile upon mile of hourglass-fine sandy beaches and well-developed networks of cycleways. A tourist magnet in summertime, busy and developed Terschelling is large enough to swallow the holiday crowds, while car-free Vlieland resembles a grass-covered dunescape and is popular with young families. Both can be reached from Harlingen, while the access point for busy Ameland is the port of Holwerd. The smallest of the four islands is Schiermonnikoog; this can be reached from Leeuwarden and Dokkum, but the shorter route there is from neighbouring Groningen. One way of reaching the islands is by indulging in wadlopen, a hearty walk at low tide across – and often knee-deep in – the mud flats that lie between the islands and the mainland. See here for ways to do this, but don’t attempt it without a qualified guide. The islands have a wide range of accommodation, particularly Terschelling and Ameland, but prices rise dramatically in summer, when vacant rooms can be thin on the ground, and you should also always reserve ahead if you’re visiting in July or August, or indeed at anytime during the summer.
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Wadlopen, or mud-flat walking, is a popular and strenuous Dutch pastime, and the stretch of coast on the northern edge of the provinces of Friesland and Groningen is one of the best places to do it: twice daily, the receding tide uncovers vast expanses of mud flat beneath the Waddenzee. It is, however, a sport to be taken seriously, and far too dangerous to do without an experienced guide: the depth of the mud is variable and the tides inconsistent. In any case, channels of deep water are left even when the tide has receded, and the currents can be perilous. The timing of treks depends on weather and tidal conditions, but most start between 6am and 10am. It’s important to be properly equipped; recommended gear includes shorts or a bathing suit, a sweater, wind jacket, knee-high socks, high-top trainers and a complete change of clothes stashed in a watertight pack. In recent years, wadlopen has become extremely popular, and as excursions are infrequent, between May and August it’s advisable to book a place at least a month in advance. The VVVs in Leeuwarden, Dokkum and Groningen can provide details, or you could contact one of the wadlopen organizations direct.
Prices and trips vary according to location, and how long (and far) you choose to go. You can do a full trip crossing to one of the islands – Ameland or Schiemonnikoog – and coming back by ferry, or just do a circular trip across the mud flats and back again. Pieterburen is a popular place to start: a circular trip from there costs €16.50 per person, and takes three and a half hours; while a full trip to Schiermonnikoog and back by ferry costs €75 a head.
The Oerol Festival
The Oerol Festival
Every year around the middle of June, Terschelling celebrates the beginning of the warmer season with the Oerol Festival (w oerol.nl). Oerol – meaning “everywhere” in the Terschelling dialect – is the name of a rural tradition in which the island’s cattle were released from their winter stables to frolic and graze in the open fields, an event that marked the changing of the seasons. Today, over 50,000 people head out to the island for the Oerol, transforming Terschelling into a big festival area, with the island serving as both inspiration and stage for theatre producers, musicians and graphic artists. Finding accommodation is almost impossible during the ten-day festival, so book ahead.