At the very top of the Netherlands lies an archipelago. Gale force winds sweep across the islands, angry waves unleash themselves upon white sandy beaches and clusters of picturebook cottages are thinly spread across the land. These are the Dutch Frisian islands. An unexpected treasure trove of experiences awaits the adventurous travelers who venture out here.
As I stand under the lashing rain in the carpark waiting for my fellow travelers to emerge, I can’t help but wonder why in the world I agreed to 4 days of “outdoor adventure” on the Frisian islands. Known to dabble in the occasional hike, in my heart of hearts I am a true city girl who hates nothing more than having wet feet. The weather forecast predicts 4 days of torrential rain, this should be fun…
We are heading to the Terschelling, the second largest of the West Frisian islands in the Netherlands. Surprisingly enough the island has a wealth of activities on offer including surfing, sea kayaking and Europe’s best stargazing.
Armed with a suitcase containing swimsuits, thermal underwear, and a million pairs of extra socks, I wave my comfort zone goodbye and step on the ferry direction of Frisian islands.
Caroline Muller is an award-winning travel blogger. She writes and photographs full-time while oscillating between Sicily and Brussels as a home base. She has documented over 60 countries across six continents and does not plan to stop any time soon. A staunch vegetarian for over 25 years, she loves exploring local cuisine in search of that perfect (plant-based) mouthful.
With this blog, she hopes to help you travel slower, more sustainably and a hella lot more meaningfully. Pack your bags!
Where Are the Dutch Frisian Islands?
It stands to reason that if you are reading this article, the Frisian islands piqued your curiosity. That being said, like many people, you probably haven’t the foggiest where this obscure group of Dutch islands can in fact be found.
The Frisian Islands (Waddeneilanden) are an archipelago of islands dotted between the northwestern Netherlands, Germany, and even the west of Denmark. The groups of islands are split between West Frisian Islands (14 islands pertaining to the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands), East Frisian Islands (12 islands pertaining to Germany), and North Frisian Islands (13 islands pertaining to Germany and Denmark).
The red dot on the above map is the island of Terschelling, where I kicked off my “outdoor-adventure” escape described below.
10 Things to Do In Terschelling & the Other Frisian Islands of the Netherlands
While I spent my time in Terschelling and the experiences described pertaining to that specific island, the vast majority of these activities can also be found on the other Frisian islands.
Good to know: It is noteworthy to mention that the cachet of remoteness that inspired many travelers to seek out to Frisian islands has been dispelled by the 2020 pandemic. Since then the islands have seen a surge in (national) tourism with holiday homes for the summer season booking out many months in advance.
1. Rent a bike a explore the island
Whizzing around on a bicycle is part and parcel of a true Dutch experience. The country has an extraordinarily well-laid-out network of bicycle paths and an astonishing 1.3 bikes per capita. With the West Frisian islands being the size of a pocket square, it therefore will come as no surprise that the preferred mode of transport is not a car, but a bicycle.
The terrain across the islands tends to be flat and easy to navigate thanks to the abundance of signposts. Getting lost is virtually impossible as the sea is never far away. We opted to take electric bikes which in hindsight was a real blessing when the gale-force winds came sweeping in.
Practical: We rented bikes at Zeelen Rijwielverhuur. Prices for regular bikes start at €/$8 a day electric bikes start at €/$20 a day. Free baggage service is available to transport your bags to your hotel.
2. Go deer spotting on an eco safari
A safari tends to be closely associated with roaming planes filled with grazing gazelles, fierce lions and elusive leopards. While these exotic animals haven’t quite made it to the shores of the Frisian islands yet, the concept of a safari has.
We book the early morning safari and head out in a glorified electrical golf cart around sunrise. Wrapped up snugly in my thermal underwear and blankets (provided) I peer through binoculars out into the wilderness. Turns out sunrise is the best time of day to spot wild deer and we do not have to wait long for our first glimpse.
The rest of the tour is dedicated to bird watching & learning about the various fauna and flora. Our tour guide is gregarious and brimming with passion, which makes what could have been a very (very) dull experience into a surprisingly fun morning.
Practical: Daily eco-safaris are run twice daily on Terschelling by Ecosafari Terschelling. Prices start at €/$37, the safari takes 2.5 hours
3. Spot the Milky Way with your naked eye – unique to do on Terschelling
As populations across Europe grow, so do the infrastructure to support them and in its wake light pollution. Spotting the Milky Way in the night sky was once as easy as stepping out of one’s front door, these days it requires finding a dark sky park.
A fun thing to do in Terschelling is to head over to de Boschplaat (either on your own or with a guide) and go stargazing. De Boschplaat is located in a nature reserve and is known to be one of the darkest places in all of Europe. If ever you were going to see the Milky Way or the Northern Lights this is it!
When we went the sky was fully covered so no magical Milky Way for us (bummer!).
Good to know: The best way to see the stars is by giving your eyes time to adjust to the darkness. That means putting away the phone and any other light source for at least 15-minutes.
Practical: There are various options available to watch the stars. Simply head out yourself (type in Boschplaat on Google Maps) or check out DarkSky Terschelling for tours
4. Find your sea legs in a kayak
The beauty of the sea is best experienced from the water, or so they say. Terschelling offers a kayaking experience in the surf. Strong winds and mild water temperatures make the Frisian islands one of the best places in northern Europe for sea kayaking.
After a brief safety instruction, my travel companions suit up and head off into the sea to brave the crashing waves. The simple act of staying in the kayak and not getting pulled back to shore proves quite the challenge.
Last time I set foot in a sea kayak I spent more time hanging over the side feeling utterly green so I wisely sit this activity out.
Practical: We booked via Mooi Weer. Participants must be at least 15 years old and know how to swim.
When to go: Summer season (May to October). For the latest dates & pricing consult the website.
5. Try your hand (or your feet) at surfing
Surfing has always been on my list of things to do. I figured it would involve a plane ticket to somewhere warm and a dazzling, somewhat scruffy, surfing instructor who struts around half-naked. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision learning how to surf in the North Sea.
We start learning the theory safely on land – push, jump, stand. What seemed relatively easy on land takes on a whole new level of difficulty in the water. An epic battle between the waves and my sense of balance, or lack thereof, ensues.
I managed to stand up a whole two times in the time span of an hour. A veritable miracle the credit for which lies entirely with our patient instructor.
Practical: We surfed with Go Surfing Terschelling. Surf classes start at €/$30; surf materials and wetsuits can be rented from €/$10
When to go: Open from May 1st to October 31st.
6. Hunt down picture-perfect little villages
A visit to the islands of the Netherlands does not only have to be filled exclusively with outdoor adventure. The picture-postcard prettiness of the little towns makes them a wonderful place to stroll around, grab a drink or try some of the delicious local cuisine.
7. Walk on water between the islands of the Netherlands
A unique activity to the islands of the Netherlands is wadlopen (mudflat walking). As the sea pulls back, large sandy banks emerge around the islands (the so-called mudflats). You are essentially walking at the bottom of the UNESCO-classified Wadden Sea.
I went mudflat walking a few years ago, my glutes still remember the experience vividly. Wading through mud is surprisingly taxing. If you are an avid birdwatcher mudflat walking is an unmissable activity.
Personally, I have no strong passion for our winged friends. One hour of mudflat walking was more than enough to satisfy my curiosity.
Did you know: On some days of the year it is possible to walk from certain islands to the mainland. Essentially walking on water (a large number of politically incorrect Jesus jokes spring to mind here).
Practical: Mudflat walking is only possible with a guide. Check guides (website is in Dutch)
What to wear: Rainboots (or hiking boots) that come up at least over your ankles and a windbreaker
8. Ride off into the sunset on Frisian horses
Friesland is known for its beautiful Frisian horses. Large, gentle animals that once were the preferred form of transport for many a knight in shining armor. I am a far cry away from a knight (or a princess for that matter) and broke a shoulder horseback riding 20 years ago.
The thought of getting on one of these giants was utterly unnerving. Yet as the town gave way to open planes my fear slowly started to subside. Invigorated by a fresh sense of courage, or the icy cold sea wind, your guess is as good as mine, I held on for dear life and nudged my horse into a canter. The very first in nearly 20 years. Fear 0, Caroline I.
Where we went: The family farm Puur Terschelling organizes horseriding or trips in a covered wagon along the beach in Terschelling. Length of ride: 2-5 hours
Animal Welfare: I tend to shy away from any activities involving animals (riding, pulling laden carts,…) as animal welfare is oftentimes pushed aside for profit. After firing a salvo of questions at our guide I am happy to report the welfare of the horses comes first at Puur Terschelling.
9. Explore the immaculate beaches
Islands are usually synonymous with beaches, it tends to go with the territory. The great news is that these little islands of the Netherlands all have immaculate, white sandy beaches. The bad news is the North Sea is decidedly not as warm as the Caribbean Sea. It reaches a respectable 18°C/ 65°F in summer which for me personally is a smidge on the cold side.
There are a host of other ways to enjoy the beach, without the risk of catching pneumonia. Head out on a long walk, grab a drink at one of the very cool beach bars, go surfing (with a wetsuit) or partake in jutten.
Jutten is the age-old tradition of hunting for treasures on the beach. These treasures can either be goods the sea dragged in from ships that met an untimely end deep in the ocean (yay!) or trash left behind by humans (boo!). De Milieujutter organizes regular beach cleanups in Terschelling.
10. Grab a drink at the hippest beach bars
After spending hours in the water on a surfboard and a sea kayak I would have been happy to sip a warm cup of tea in just about any old run-down shack. I was not expecting full-blown retro interiors replete with kissing booths or cozy Moroccan-themed beach bars. The Dutch Frisian islands completely redefine the concept of a beach bar.
It is noteworthy that not all beach bars are open yearlong. Some of the beach bars get taken down for the winter and completely rebuilt once spring comes along. Best to check with the local tourism office if you do happen to head there out of season.
Where we went: Heartbreak Hotel Strandpaviljoen, Zandzeebar Formerum aan Zee, Strandpaviljoen West-aan-Zee
Getting to the Frisian Islands
Getting to the West Frisian Islands requires taking a ferry. Each of the islands is serviced by a different ferry, departing from various locations in Friesland (the northernmost province of the Netherlands).
Two types of ferries exist, those that carry only passengers and those that transport both passengers and cars. If you decide to leave the car behind, ample parking is available at the docking station for the various ferries.
How to get to Texel
Departure: The ferry leaves from the crossing at Den Helder
Duration: 20 minutes.
Ticket Price: €/$5 (one way, pp, price for car crossing between €/$50 and €/$74
Book Tickets: Online via Teso Ferry Company
How to get to Ameland
Departure: The ferry leaves from Holwerd
Duration: 50-minutes (slow service); 20-minutes (fast service)
Ticket Price: €/$17,5 (one way, pp); fast ferry surcharge €/$7.5, price for car crossing €/$110
Book Tickets: Online via Wagenborg Ferry Company
How to get to Terschelling
Departure: Ferry departs from Harlingen or from the island of Vlieland
Duration: 120-minutes (slow service); 50-min (fast service)
Ticket Price: €/$32 (one way, pp); fast ferry price €/$50; price for car crossing €/$100
Book Tickets: Online via Rederij Doeksen
How to get to Schiermonnikoog ( Car-free Frisian island)
Departure: Ferry departs from the Port of Lauwersoog
Duration: 45-minutes (slow service); 20-minutes (fast service)
Ticket Price: €/$17,5 (one way, pp); fast ferry surcharge €/$7.5
Book Tickets: Online via Wagenborg Ferry Company
How to get to Vlieland – Car-free Frisian Island
Responsible & Sustainable Travel Tips for the Frisian Islands
DO A BEACH CLEANUP: When I visited Terschelling last time, I participated in a beach cleanup. Find out when the beach cleanup takes places this year.
GET AROUND BY BICYCLE: Many of the island have a total ban on cars. Rent a bicycle from one of the many rental services conveniently located next to the harbor.
DO NOT WALK ON THE WAD WITHOUT A GUIDE: The ecosystem on the wadden or sandbank is very fragile. Various species of birds come here to feed on the creatures rutting in the highly fertile muddy seabed. Walking around unsupervised will disturb their feeding sessions and cause irreparable damage to the muddy banks. Not to mention, it can be very dangerous as the tide can come in all of a sudden.
Why a Visit to the Frisian Islands in the Netherlands is a Must
Despite my initial trepidation, I was slightly sad to leave the island behind. Spending time in nature under every which weather condition (pouring rain, sun, ice cold winds) and getting far out of my comfort zone was surprisingly invigorating.
If a tropical vacation is what you are after, the Dutch Frisian islands might not be your best option. However, if the thoughts of slow travel, outdoor adventure, pristine beaches and honest, plain-spoken locals are what you are after this little archipelago is worth investigating after all.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING NETHERLANDS
Netherlands: 15 prettiest castles in the Netherlands
Amsterdam: Weekend trips from Amsterdam
Amsterdam: Places to visit around Amsterdam
Amsterdam: Practical guide to public transportation in Amsterdam
Leiden: Spend an unforgettable weekend in Leiden
Friesland: A guide to Friesland with an overview of the West Frisian islands
Flevoland: Things to do in the youngest province of the Netherlands