Texel was chosen as one of the top places to visit in 2016, but they got it wrong, my Dutch friend said. Apparently, Schiermonnikoog, which is also one of the West Frisian islands, is way better and also her favourite place in the Netherlands. The rest of the Dutch population agree; it was voted their best loved nature spot. I was sold. However, she warned me that we should also be prepared for an adventure, as when she has missed the last boat before she slept on the floor of the ladies room of an empty ferry and at the foot of a desolate sea dyke. I wondered, how remote is this place?
Schiermonnikoog (say skier-monni-cog-ch) is a back to basics, old fashioned lifestyle experience and it’s brilliant. It is a car free, abundant with wildlife, quaint, friendly and quiet. Situated in the Wadden Sea to the north of the Netherlands it is also tiny, only ten miles long by two and a half miles wide. The first Dutch National Park is a major part of the island and allows visitors to fully press the reset button, escape modern complications and connect with the countryside.
My friend, being a Schiermonnikoog expert, had booked us into a working dairy farm complete with iconic Friesian cows. All the wonderful smells of the animals and their feeds greeted us, along with chickens and cats. We were lucky and managed to get one of the self-catering cottages. As a bonus, we bought some eggs and milk directly from the farmer for our breakfasts over the weekend.
We headed into town for dinner at the infamous Hotel van der Werff. Just over a hundred years ago, Sake van der Werff took over a former court house that also served as a small inn and post office hotel in the village. The shrewd businessman realised the potential of the new phenomenon of holiday makers and expanded the building into a full hotel with formal dining room. He even began a special bus service to bring guests from the ferry to the hotel. It was a great success and business boomed.
He lured the Dutch Prince Bernhard over as a guest and essentially became the unappointed mayor of the island. Everything happened at the hotel, the municipal office basically didn’t exist. Even under the German occupation, van der Werff insisted that every member of the armed forces that died in or around the island was given a full military burial, whichever side they fought for. A bit of a legend.
When Sake died in 1955 he was called a ‘distinctive personality and a pioneer of tourism in the press. The hotel has been passed to a couple of managers since then, but it still retains its quirky charm. The dining room is rather splendid with wooden panelling, chandeliers and an air of decadence. We were in for a treat. As if someone had called ahead and given the chef a clue of my favourite foods, the seasonal menu was all white asparagus based. YUM! We chose a lovely Malbec, a starter to share and one of the specials.
After a short while we were served our entree, toast with smoked salmon, smoked local eel and the very tiny Schiermonnikoog prawns. I found a new food heaven with the palling, aka the smoked eel. I have subsequently found out it is now making a revival in all the top notch restaurants. The minute prawns were quite sweet, delicate and delightful. Superb!
We were duly impressed once more with our main dish of locally grown lamb, new potatoes, samphire, white asparagus accompanied by thyme gravy. It was almost as if the chef could cater exactly to his style of guests, traditional with a modern outlook, letting the quality speak for itself. The meal was executed to the highest standard; the lamb was an out of this world, melt-in-the mouth moment of pure joy. I had one of the nicest meals of my life. The bottle of red was very complimentary and gently massaged the taste buds. Great! We walked home and my eyes were closed before my head hit the pillow, I was content.
The next morning we headed into town to take a look at some of the artisan shops as everywhere is closed on Sundays. I particularly enjoyed the gallery with some nice old framed maps of Schiermonnikoog and a pottery shop exhibiting lovely locally made ceramics. There were a couple of nice boutiques, home furnishing shops and the little bakery had a great selection of local breads, pastries, and cakes. Even the local supermarket was bursting with Wadden island products, from honey to jams and sauces. It’s a mystery why the shops don’t close on Mondays instead, especially in the summer months, as the majority of visitors are day trippers and weekenders.
Our main activity of the day was a restorative walk via the main attractions and to relish in the natural beauty of the island. We headed out towards the German bunker, on the highest dune around the middle of the island, which was part of a defensive line during the Second World War, named the Atlantic Wall. A railway line was constructed to bring the concrete and build the structure, which was also meant to support a large radar, called a Wasserman. Cleverly, the dune was excavated and the bunker was made, then the dune was rebuilt around it, to help with camouflage. It is now a great viewing point and you can take a look at some of the creepy underground rooms, which looked pretty grim. As we arrived there was a couple having their wedding photos taken which of course was the cue for a huge rainstorm.
It was quite a deluge, so we decided to forge onwards and to take shelter at the next cafe over by the northern shores, Strandpaviljoen De Marlijn. Unfortunately, so did most of the rest of the island and it was pretty packed. However, we did manage to find a little spot to hang out and I was delighted to find a local beer on the menu; such a fortunate treat! The staff was so super kind that they even volunteered to tumble dry our wet socks! If that is not exceptional customer service then I’m not sure what is? A truly friendly and welcoming establishment.
Once the heavens had restored sunshine and we were fairly dried out off we were able to continue and took a particularly beautiful hike along the long, long sandy beach. At almost a kilometre wide and around eighteen kilometres in length it is pretty immense.
The soundtrack was the washing waves as we roamed the giant expanse of nothingness, a space for contemplations, meditations and to just be. We were able to turn inland and head behind the dunes to appreciate the wonderful birdlife in the salt marshes. There were plenty of spoonbills as well as some frogs, butterflies, and hares, as well as the Sayaguesa cattle. These rare Spanish cows were recently introduced to help with the natural management of the long grasses.
Rounding off our ramble was a visit to the Vredenhof war cemetery. Here military personnel from both sides of the war, including fatalities of the British, German, French and Canadian armed forces are buried, on infamous hotel owner Sake van der Werff’s insistence. My friend was able to tell me a bit of the back story, where local people are working to trace the existing family of those buried at Vredenhof to make them aware of their final resting place. It is a touching tribute to the Dutch, remembering everyone who lost their lives, irrespective of their nationality.
After all that wilderness we needed some fuelling up. We squeezed into the local pizzeria de Ware Jakob just before they closed at 9 pm, had some tasty dough based dinner and then hit up the one and only dance spot, the legendary Tox bar. The name is not a reference to the alcohol it serves, it is in fact named after a local fisherman. However, it is also apt for its intoxicating qualities in a romantic way, as both my friend and her old Geography teacher met the love of their lives and now partners, on the dancefloor of the Tox bar. It was just starting to fill up around eleven and had a very lively crowd. I enjoyed that small village atmosphere, everyone heading to the same spot, locals and tourists alike. Walking home in amongst the polders the moon popped out to light our path, spectacular.
After another splendid night of utter silence and a farm fresh breakfast, we popped over to the yacht club for an al fresco coffee. There was just enough time for another excursion, this time over to the west side of the village towards the lighthouses. We popped into the bird hide that looks out onto the freshwater pond, carried on to venture up and down some huge dunes, and looked for orchids in the grassland. I love a botanical hunt.
Then it was time for us to say goodbye to Schiermonnikoog. I enjoyed the simple solace of this unspoiled, nostalgically charming part of the world. It was a pleasure to be given a personal tour of this little natural treasure and experience the beauty of the place, despite not finding my future life partner and thankfully, not missing the boat.
How to get there: I was luckily on a girl’s trip with my friend so we drove to the ferry terminal at Lauwersoog. If you want to get there by public transport it’s easy to get a train to the student town of Groningen and take a bus to the ferry. We had to park up at Lauwersoog, as only islanders can take vehicles across. It was a modern comfortable ferry with a hot and cold food outlet on board, bathrooms, and little booths to sit in for the 45 minute journey.
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