I received an early holiday after three weeks of work! This past weekend was a UN long weekend, which I only found out last week. I didn’t have much time to plan anything, but wanted to use the extra day to travel somewhere, so my initial plan was to go to Brussels. I wasn’t totally sold on that plan, as it is fairly easy to get to Brussels from Den Haag, and I feel like I can use a random weekend to do a trip there, so when Cécile suggested going to one of the Wadden islands, I jumped onboard.
The Wadden Sea is a UNESCO protected heritage site. It is the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world, which makes it very important from a biodiversity standpoint (more than 10,000 species live in this habitat). The islands are a huge stopping point for birds in migration, are home to a wide range of plant life, and Schiermonnikoog, the eastern-most Dutch Wadden Island, and the one Cécile and I visited, is home to wild seals!
The entire island has been a national park since 1989, and the village of Schiermonnikoog is the smallest community in the Netherlands. The island only allows residents to bring cars, so everything is very clean and quiet. Cécile and I picked this island because we wanted to have a weekend away from the energy of cities, and Schiermonnikoog delivered, though it was actually busier than we expected it to be!
The name of the island can actually be directly translated to ‘Grey Monk Island’ – schier means gray, monnik is monk, and oog is island. The original inhabitants of the island were the monks of Klaarkamp Abbey, a Cistercian monastery. During the Reformation, the monasteries in the northern Netherlands were dissolved, and in the late 1500s, the island became a property of the States of Friesland. The island was then bought privately, and was owned by private owners until the end of the Second World War – and, randomly, Canadians had a role to play in the island’s liberation. But more on that in a bit.
Friday morning, Cécile picked me up from my house at 6:00 to make the nearly 3 hour drive to Lauwersoog, on the north coast of Holland. From there, we took the ferry 45 minutes to Schiermonnikoog, arriving just before 10:30.
Once we arrived on the island, we dropped our belongings off at our bed and breakfast, and set off to rent bikes (also, I forgot to mention in my last post, I now have a bike and am blending in even more as a Dutch person. People ask me for directions. I let them down with my Canadian accent). We had joked about getting a tandem bike before arriving at the rental shop… and then the only bike they had left was a tandem. C’est fait exprès!
So we headed out to explore the island. An aside – as a generalization, service in the Netherlands is terrible. More than half the time when you go to a restaurant, you have no idea if the people are ignoring you on purpose or if they just haven’t noticed you. For some reason, we thought the tourism information office would be different, since they cater to, you know, tourists. We had booked our lodging through the VVV (tourism bureau) website, so decided we would go there to get the address. The woman at the desk was so rude, and told me they didn’t do the bookings. I LITERALLY HAVE A CONFIRMATION EMAIL FROM THEIR OFFICE. She did agree to give us the address of our B&B, but of course, when we asked for a map, she told us they cost two euros. Remember, this island is entirely a national park, and is the smallest community in the Netherlands. Their economy is driven by one thing – TOURISM. How do you get away with not giving out free maps???
Since I’m the cheapest mix around (half-Scot, half-Pole, the fact that I pay for anything is shocking, in all honesty), we did not pay for her map, so our island exploration lacked direction. And honestly, once you get on the trails of the island, you lose whatever sense of direction you had (for Cécile, that is not a lot at all).
The child’s poem is great. Roughly translated, again, via Google, it says:
“It’s feast, we are liberated, bring our Canadian food and drink, we make party.”
As a bit more history, on May 5, when the Dutch celebrated their freedom, Schiermonnikoog remained occupied. It took the Canadians until May 25 to reach Schiermonnikoog. Further, they wanted to avoid any more bloodshed, so entered into negotiations rather than attacking the remaining Nazis. Not only was the island the last part of Holland to be freed, it was the last part of Europe to be liberated from Axis occupation by the Allies.
The lost sense of direction wasn’t helped by the fact that the island is covered in dunes and hills, and that the lighthouses were magic and kept changing places on us. But after exploring, we were ready for a nap, and went back to our B&B for a mid-afternoon nap.
As soon as we woke up, it was sunny out again, so we decided to take our bike out again to see more of the island. We saw some local wildlife – the island is full of rabbits, the only predators being a few birds of prey, cats, and dogs (this island was made for dogs. There’s so much open space for them to run. Seeing all the happy puppies made me miss my Varta).
We also discovered that the island has its own beer, Schiere Monnik, which is excellent. If you’re in Hamilton, please check to see if it’s at Chesty’s, and if so, I will consider coming back to visit you.
We biked for most of the day, but wanted to go to bed early enough to be up at 8:00 to go for a run (Cécile competes in triathalons, and I’m more than happy to have someone willing to join me for a casual 10k), so we stayed up for the sunset, and then passed out as soon as our heads hit the pillow.
After our run, we headed to a small lake on the island to sleep on the beach, picnic, and do some standup paddleboarding (we had only been working our legs, so had to get an upperbody workout in there too, obviously, bro).
We had booked a tour for Saturday afternoon as well, to go out to the eastern side of the island to see the seals. Again, we had tried doing this at the VVV, but were told that we had to go to the Visitor’s Centre to book the tour. WHY IS THERE A TOURISM BUREAU AND A VISITOR CENTRE? WHY ARE THEY SEPERATE? IS THAT REALLY NECESSARY? Regardless of the logic behind this all, the tour was booked by a guy who seemed very focused on how fast the vehicle taking us to the east side of the island was, rather than the actual aspects of the tour.
But there were seals! And endless beach! It was beautiful.
We had found a concert listed online on the island that evening. Most of the info was in Dutch, but we saw that it looked like some kind of jazz music chill show. It started at 20:30, so we figured we would go for about an hour, see what we thought, and then head back to the dunes with a beer to watch the sun set.
I cannot describe to you what this concert was. It was the most bizarre thing. First, we tried to enter at 20:45, fifteen minutes after it had started, but all the doors were locked. Some woman let us in to this cultural centre where everyone was seated. Then the doors were locked again. We tried sitting on the side, but she told us we needed a better view for the “live drawing.” So we had to walk down the main aisle, across the back, and take a seat. As soon as we sat down, we knew we had made a huge mistake. We really should have known earlier. It was a “spoken beat night,” which entailed Dutch beat poetry combined with a bass clarinet. Think Ned Flanders’ parents. Following that was men drawing live to more poetry, and just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder, a man took out a vacuum cleaner hose, blew it into a fish bowl of water, turned it around to suck on it and make another noise, and then pulled tin foil out of its box before crumpling it into balls and throwing it in the fish bowl. I couldn’t look at Cécile because I was going to burst out laughing. She’s much more polite than me – I was ready to run out of there after the first woman started whispering her poetry – but shortly after the tin foil fish bowl man started slapping the floor, we got up and asked a photographer to let us out.
They were charging 16 euro for this event. We didn’t pay. And after laughing our way to the dunes on our tandem bike, we got to enjoy the quiet we wanted when we came to the island.
We had another early night though, because we had managed to successfully book something through the VVV!!!!! One thing we had originally planned on doing when we visited the island was a wadlopen. It’s a walk done during low tide from the main land to the island, and sounds like an amazing experience. Unfortunately, the only tour that had room for us was Friday morning at 4:00, and with us working until 5:30 Thursday evening and wanting to buy food and other supplies for the trip, we thought we would be too rushed to get there in time. So, Sunday morning we did the next best thing, which was a mud flat tour just off the island.
We ended up being the only people signed up for the 7:00 tour, so our guide spoke English to us the whole time (no French), and answered all our questions. He was so nice, and explained more about life on the island to us, as well as the biodiversity of the mudflats. The island has school up until the age of 16, after which point you have to move to the mainland for your education. There is a doctor and dentist on the island twice weekly, and in case of emergency, there is a lifeboat to take you to shore in 8 minutes, or a helipad in the village to fly you out. He actually grew up on the island, went to school on the mainland, and returned with his family until his children had to go to school. Both of his sons are currently on the mainland – one in Amsterdam, and one, coincidentally, in Den Haag. He’s retired, but guides these tours because he enjoys sharing his knowledge of the island.
He knew so much about the different plants and animals in the flats – it was really cool learning about them all. He let us try some of the plants that are actually sold in the grocery store and have a salty flavor due to their environment. Plus, he let us try to catch some animals.
We hadn’t quite had enough of the seals, so after getting back on the mainland, Cécile and I visited the town of Pietersburn, 25 minutes away from Lauwersoog, to see the Zeehondencrèche. Literally translated, zeehonden is sea dog, or, seals. The Zeehondencrèche is a research facility and seal rescue centre. It takes in seals with the goal of releasing them back to the wild. The centre itself is really well done and informative. Plus, adorable baby seals, I would be happy with that no matter what.
After our seal stop, we made the drive back to Den Haag. I’m super exhausted now and want to sleep, but I just moved my belongings to one of the Appeals Prosecutor’s house for my three-week cat-sitting stint. In reality, I’m moving there tomorrow, leaving Tuesday for Norway, and coming back Sunday evening. So I’ll be staying for two weeks in an actual home, before moving into my new apartment (yes, I found one, and not only is the kitchen more than a metre square, but I have room and at least one extra mattress for visitors! So Lambo, Jackie, Aralee, Caroline, Hannah, Julia, and everyone else I have told to come visit me, you have a place to stay with me as of August 12!).
As for work, it has been pretty crazy, but things slowed down for me a bit just before the long weekend, and with me only being at work for a day and a half this week, I’m hoping I get some manageable short tasks to take care of so nothing is hanging over my head for Jonathan and Lise’s wedding so I can have a solid UCT reunion and family time visit!
Tot ziens, party people.