Monday 21 September 2020

Dutch destinations: get away from it all on the island of Schiermonnikoog

The beaches are endless. Photo: DutchNews.nl

If you are looking for a last-minute getaway for the Whitsun weekend, the Wadden Sea island of Schiermonnikoog is the perfect place – as long as you like the great outdoors.

Earlier in May, broadcaster NOS reported that the island of Schiermonnikoog was crying out for visitors. The island is largely dependent on tourism and has been hit hard by the coronavirus lockdown.

Having last been many years ago, we decided to take the plunge and head north. The weather forecast was for lots of sunshine and who cares if the cafes are shut? What could be more perfect than a picnic in the dunes instead?

Monks

Schiermonnikoog takes its name from the colour of the habit of the Cistercian monks who cultivated the island in the 15th century – the schier, or grey, monks. It is one of the six Dutch Wadden Islands and packs a lot of landscapes – beach, dunes, woods, salt marsh, tidal flats – into its 5,400 hectares.

The island’s population is around 900 and this quadruples in the summer, so if you really want to get away from it all, spring – when it is full of flowers – and autumn can be quite magical.

The giant blue whale jaw in the centre of the village. Photo: DutchNews.nl

Things to do

Rent a bike
There are several bike rental places on the island offering standard and electric bikes, tandems, bikes for kids and all sorts of options in between. You will pay around €7.50 for a normal bike per day. There are several formal routes you can follow but if you just get on a bike and go, you can’t go far wrong. Just remember you may have to cycle back into the wind.

Enjoy the beach
The island’s western coast is one long beach of fine white sand, which is dazzling on sunny days and perfect for a blustery walk. The island is also popular with kite surfers and there are two locations where you can have lessons or try out other water sports. In high season there are life guards at popular parts of the beach, but beware of strong undertows. If you do swim, swim along the coast rather than out to sea.

Visit a bunker
Schiermonnikoog was occupied by some 700 German soldiers during World War II and the hill top Wassermann bunker which you can explore with a torch offers the best views of the island. The tiny bunker museum – just a couple of rooms with some photographs – is close to the Marlijn beach pavillion.

Seek peace and quiet in a cemetery
There is something very moving about the Vredenhof cemetery, in the shadow of the Wassermann bunker, where the bodies of French, Canadian, British and German soldiers who washed up on the beaches lie side by side.

Go birdwatching
Schiermonnikoog is home to over 300 kinds of bird, hundreds of different plant species, including nine types of orchid – so it is a paradise for nature lovers. We spotted several marsh harriers swooping over the wetlands and a spoonbill, which seemed very incongruous working its way up the mud on the edge of a tidal river. There is a hide at the Westerplaas lake where you can spot birds to your heart’s content.

Where to eat
The island has two large beach bar complexes which offer your standard burger and fish beach bar fare and fabulous views, plus a sprinkling of other restaurants scattered throughout the village.

No customers at this beach bar on the island of Schiermonnikoog. Photo: DutchNews.nl

All the cafes and restaurants were closed when we were there, but several were doing take-out, to varying success. We can recommend the very nice staff at Ambrosijn, which boasts it is number on on the island on Tripadvisor. We enjoyed a fairly decent takeaway salad and hotdog from the Marlijn beach pavilion, complete with mini bottle of rose, in the sun.

The island’s only supermarket – which operates a very strict one person per group policy – has absolutely everything you could want to buy – including a wide variety of organic products. The baker has the best roggebrood (rye bread) in the Netherlands and a pretty decent Frisian suikerbrood, delicious when spread with a thick layer of butter, as well. The fried fish from the island’s fishmongers is also highly recommended.

Where to stay:
The place to stay on the island is the Van der Werff hotel: faded grandeur – although being slowly renovated – but with log fires in winter and you might spot the odd royal or celeb.

We stayed in a three-room apartment in the Graaff Bernsdorp on the other side of the road because we wanted to self-cater – given that cafes and restaurants were closed until June 1. Not cheap but comfortable and with plenty of room.

Popular cottages get booked up years in advance. Photo: DutchNews.nl

The island has several smaller hotels, a couple of holiday parks, b&bs and lots of private houses to rent. Book through the local tourist board to make sure your money stays on the island, rather than going to American multinationals.

And remember, if you are booking a Dutch holiday house, you may find the kitchen completely empty of all supplies, including salt and washing up liquid, and be asked to pay extra for sheets.

How to get there:
The ferry leaves from Lauwersoog, almost due north from Leeuwarden, and is a good two hours drive from Amsterdam. Otherwise take the train to Groningen and then a bus. Only the locals are allowed cars on the island, so either rent a bike or walk, or take the bus from the ferry which is four kilometres from the main town.

The ferry crossing involves circumventing treacherous tidal flats. Photo: DutchNews.nl

Anything else
The island is not the place to be with small children if it is raining because apart from the beach and a swimming lake, there is not much to keep little ones occupied. Your dog, however, will have a great time.

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