Best place to see the stars in the Netherlands and how to photograph them
The moon and the stars once were once our guiding compass. People would look up into the dark sky to orientate themselves, for entertainment (hey back in the day there was no TV or internet remember) and even in search of answers to life’s many curveballs. People could recite the constellations and they formed an integral part of people’s lives, you could say it helped people feel connected with mother earth.
With the rise of electricity, the cities became illuminated with a flood of white light. People are longer dependant on the moon to illuminate their path and the only stars we watch are those dancing on our TV-screen or in the gossip magazines. The concept of the stargazing has slowly faded into the background, and the dark is nothing to fear because a quick flick of a switch chases all the dreaded shadows away. Constellations are no longer taught in schools and even considered a little “nerdy”, because who in the world has time to sit and study dots in the sky.
Yet I can’t help but ponder – Have we lost our connection to mother earth due to all these technological advances? A few years back, I was lucky enough to witness an incredible starry night in the mountains of Patagonia. I remember sitting down, nursing a cup of hot soup and looking up. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, more and more stars started “popping up” until it felt like there was no more room left in the sky. There was a kind of white fog covering certain parts of the stars, not something I had seen before. Turned out it was the milky way!
Something deep inside me stirred, and a deep sense of peace overcame me. Far away from home, in the middle of the mountains all of a sudden I felt like I belonged. It was the oddest experience. Later I realised it was less about the mountains and all about the stars. Somehow they made me feel like part of something bigger.
A true 21st century girl, the first thing I did was google this experience. Turns out, it’s not just me! There are over 100 search results talking about the merits of experience true darkness and how it can help you feel connected. It has moved people to start an organisation against light pollution – The Dark-Sky Association (IDA) (https://www.darksky.org/).
So far the IDA has accredited 120 locations as “Dark Sky Places”. These spots actively work to reduce light pollution and educate people about the dark. And two of these spots happen to be located in the Netherlands. So to answer your questions, where can I see the best stars in the Netherlands? Well that would be firstly, the Lauwersmeer in Friesland and secondly a little island called Terschellingen in de Wadden Sea.
On a dark and cold autumn weekend end of September, myself and 3 other bloggers set sail for Terschellingen in search of darkness, the best location to spot stars and a glimpse of the milky way.
Before I launch into the story perhaps a little side note for those of you who do not know the islands in the Wadden Sea. The Frisian Islands, or Wadden islands are located in the most northern part of the Netherlands, Germany and to the West of Denmark. This string of islands was classified by Unesco in 2009 for being the largest unbroken system of mudflats with a wide variety of fauna and flora. Terschellingen is a smaller island with roughly 5000 permanent inhabitants.
Back to the weekend chasing the dark. We hop on a large boat, the sea is rough and rocks the boat from left to right. It’s a big boat though, so even I – who gets sick on a swing – am not seasick! Sadly, the clouds begin to gather and the sky turns 50 shades of black. Doubt about the visibility for this evenings stargazing hangs thickly in the air. The general idea was to see stars, outside. The gang and I were going to be very disappointed if it turned out to be a wild goose chase.
Worries for naught though! By the time we reach the island, the wind has blown away the mean looking clouds and the sun nudges its way out and we are greeted with a glorious golden hour.
After dinner and unpacking, we head out in search of the dark spot and the stargazing locations. We are hauled onto a covered wagon (add link: https://puur-terschelling.nl/uk-covered-wagon-trips-horse-back-rides) pulled by three mighty fine looking horses, decorated in Christmas lights to illuminate their path. Did I mention that by this time it was pitch black? You could not see your own feet, it was that dark. This has got to be the darkest spot in all of the Netherlands, perhaps even the world!
We are on our way to the emergency shelter for shipwreck victims, built on the beach in the nature reserve de Boschplaat. The local name for the little house is “Huuske op e Hoek” or little house on the corner. The Boschplaat is a nature reserve on the East side of the island, is stretches for about 10 kilometers and is the darkest place on the island and reported to be the best place to spot stars! Exactely what we are looking for
As we bump along in the wagon, the spirits are high and laughter streams out of the cart. Our driver regales us with tales from the island. We learn about the concept “jutten”. It is not uncommon for ships to lose cargo, and for it to wash up on the beaches of Terschellingen. Once news hits that cargo is washed up on the shores, the hunt for treasures is on. People flock to the beaches to see what spoils they can find. This tradition is very much ingrained in the DNA of the locals who were dependant on farming to provide an income before tourism took off. In those days, the spoils from ship wrecks would be used to help build houses. These days it’s a fun activity with a strong heritage. Now mind you, the regaling is done in the local Frisian dialect which even for a native from the Netherlands is incomprehensible, good thing we have a local guide who can provide the translation.
We reach our first stop, a few kilometres from het “Huuske op e Hoek” and march up a sanddune. All I can tell you is it’s one of the darkest places I have set foot in. The photographer in me takes over and I start setting up my tripod in an attempt to catch those illustrious stars on camera. I fiddle and tweak, curse and sigh and uncharacteristically give up. “To hell with it”, I will just sit back and enjoy. I sit in the sand and look up. The longer I look, the more stars start colouring the sky. And all of a sudden, the milky way graces us with its presence. I smile, forever grateful my camera decided to play up and I get to enjoy this spectacular sight.
Once we hit de famous “Huuske”, the clouds have come in and the stars have taken their leave for the night. It is well and truly dark as we get out of the wagon. This place has got to be on another level, if and when you stargaze without clouds. Sadly the weather is not something we have control over (what a bummer), and the stars will have to be for another day. But one thing is sure, this place is dark!
- How to get there?
– Terschellingen is an island, so you will need to take the boat. The boars run frequently from the port of Harlingen. There are two types of boats – the fast one (50 minutes) and the slow one (2h). The harbour has a big parking space for your car which is a 5-minute walk from the docking bay.
Find out about the fares and the timetable here
- What to do?
The island has a variety of activities to do both in the summer and winter. Find more information here.
- What do I bring to take pictures of the stars?
This might seem self-explanatory, but you cannot take pictures of stars with the camera in automatic. You will need to shoot manual.
Second, you will be shooting at a low shutterspeed (I chose 30”) so you will need a tripod, otherwise your images will be blurry
Third, make sure to turn of autofocus on your camera. Otherwise your camera will tell you “the image is too dark”. This was where I screwed up (oops).
Next, you will need to crank up the ISO. The actual ISO-value is different for each camera so do not be afraid to play around.
Last but not least, if your camera is having difficulty focussing try and illuminate the object you want to shoot briefly. Just enough time for your camera to focus. Make sure to turn off the light afterwards to ensure you capture the stars, otherwise you will have light pollution which will interfere with your camera settings.