Before you think about sunbathing, scuba diving, and sipping cocktails on Dutch islands in the Caribbean, let us draw your attention to the Wadden Islands. 🏝
They make a belt off the bight of mainland Germany and the Netherlands, in an area known as the Wadden Sea — and you don’t want to miss them.
Never heard of the Wadden Islands before? Well, they’re actually old news. The first inhabitants were recorded as early as 800 AD! The Roman author, Gaius Plinius Secundus, pitifully wrote about them: “There, this miserable race inhabits raised pieces of ground or platforms, which they have moored by hand.”
So, what do these islands look like today, and what more can we learn about their history?
Texel: the largest Wadden Island
The beautiful island (the Frisian word is phonetically pronounced “Tessel”) has nearly 14,000 inhabitants.
One-third of this large island is a protected nature reserve, which attracts the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit the island each year. Tessel is wonderful for long bike tours and its stunning beaches.
Vlieland: an island with military history
The next island in line is Vlieland, with little more than a thousand inhabitants. During World War II, Nazi Germany utilised the island as part of the German Atlantic Wall project. At one point, there were more soldiers than locals occupying the island!
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Make sure to check out Vlieland’s lighthouse for some great views. After that, catch a free open-air film screening at Podium Vlieland or go horseback riding before settling into some beach yoga.
Terschelling: tourism and agriculture centre
Between Vlieland and Ameland sits Terschelling. This particular Dutch island has a bloody past that goes well beyond WWII.
In 1666, the Brits were hellbent on disrupting Dutch trade routes and narrowing the competition in European trade. So, how did they go about ridding the Dutch of their global trade dominance?
By bombarding them at Terschelling, annihilating 150 Dutch ships, and raiding and burning the island.
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The island was consumed in such a blaze that it would be known as “Holmes’ Bonfire” after the British general Sir Robert Holmes. One year later, the Dutch retaliated and defeated the Brits in the ‘The Battle of Chatham’, ending their disputes.
Today, Terschelling survives on tourism and a bit of agriculture. There is much to do and see — you can learn about the Netherlands’ history with the British, drive a Land Rover on the beach, or visit the shipwreck museum.
Ameland: a quiet beach getaway
Just 3,500 people live in Ameland, fondly referred to as Amelanders. Hollum, Ballum, Nes, and Buren are the largest villages left on Ameland. There were others, but sadly the ocean has reclaimed them over time.
This island too has a rich history. (Seems to be a theme!) In 1813, the Dutch Royal Family wrote Ameland into its constitution as a part of Friesland and Ameland is since recognised as an official part of the Netherlands.
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More than a century later, in 1940, the German military shipped troops out to Ameland, where they took control of the island.
The Allies never engaged in combat with the German troops on Ameland. This may be why these stranded Nazi troops surrendered only a full month after Nazi Germany fell — they were hard to contact.
Today, Ameland has an airport and a bus route which makes it easy to take in all the unique flora and fauna. It’s also a great place for thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies — ever tried kite surfing?
Schiermonnikoog: biodiversity at its finest
Getting out to Schiermonnikoog is always a great idea. The largest spanning beach in Europe is right here, and so are opportunities for mudflat walking because most of the sandbank is covered in shallow (walkable) waters.
Situated between Rottumerplaat and Ameland, Schiermonnikoog is commonly seen as a Dutch national park. Sometime around 1640, the aristocratic Stachouwer family bought Schiermonnikoog and used it as their private property for centuries.
But what do you get when you mix native islanders with wealthy aristocrats? It rhymes with “shmuprising.”
That’s right, in the 18th century before the Napoleonic war, the people of Schiermonnikoog revolted against Maria Stachouwer. The Friesland states had to send troops to quell the uprising.
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From 1858 to 1893 the private owner of Schiermonnikoog was Dutch poet, John Eric Banck. Weird, right — poets made money back then? A poet owning an island?
After the uprising, the Stachouwer family didn’t want the island anymore. Banck improved the agriculture of the island, planting a hardy species of grass that would last well into the future.
What happened next? At the end of his run, Banck sold the island to a German count, Hartwig Arthur von Bernstorff-Wehningen.
When Bernstorff-Wehningen died in 1940, his son inherited the island. He became the only person standing between the Nazis that occupied the island and its inhabitants.
At the end of World War II, Schiermonnikoog was confiscated by the Dutch State under Article III of the Decree on Enemy Assets.
Mudflats behind the Dutch Islands
Behind the Dutch islands is a large stretch of semi-solid ground known as the mudflats. They stretch between the Wadden Islands and the mainland of Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands.
You’ll look just like Jesus walking on water.
How many Dutch islands have you been to? Tell us in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in June 2019, and was fully updated in June 2023 for your reading pleasure.
I have been to Schirmonikoog only. In 1972 ging ik wadlopen naar Schirmonikoog met 14 andere Amerikanen en een groep Nederlanse jongens ook.
I am reminded of a TV drama series about the islands. Sil de Strandjutter. If you can find it, it’s an entertaining view into old times.