Escaping to Vlieland

by Sean Williams

When people think of the Netherlands, grand, canal-strewn cities like Amsterdam and The Hague often come to mind. But for one traveler, a certain kind of solace was found in Vlieland, one of the West Frisian islands in the country’s northernmost fringe.

Still sleepy, I swigged strong coffee from my thermos flask before biting off a hunk of soft, sugary Frisian bread in an effort to wake up. Sure enough, I felt a sudden jolt of energy. Although my bleary-eyed gaze had been drawn to the calming, still waters beyond Harlingen’s docks, the nearby lines of vehicles that waited for the ferry seemed impatient. Feet danced over pedals, people raring to board – on bicycles, because this was the Netherlands, and you cannot drive cars on the island of Vlieland. I was surrounded by the sounds of domestic and regional tourism as I overheard mainly Dutch and a few German family conversations, joined by some excited gutturals from, I think, Scandinavian children. I was about to embark on a couple of days holiday that I could even call work: researching a short documentary about the Wadden Sea.

The waves of the Wadden rise along the Dutch, German, and Danish coasts and are soon broken by archipelagos that face onto the North Sea on the other side. As a result, these waters that are pent up and pushed through natural mazes can be choppy. The region begins with the Dutch islands of Texel and Vlieland to the West and extends up to Sylt – Germany’s stylish Hamptons – and Denmark’s Fanø in the East. It is characterized by mudflats and created by moving sandbanks. Land comes and goes. Last year, international newspapers claimed that the historical yet somehow mythical settlement of Rungholt was found by archaeologists, having been lost to storm floods hundreds of years ago. Vlieland, for its part, was made in the wake of a seaway, the Vlie, that spilled over during a tempest in the thirteenth century. To my ear, the island sounded like a quiet, fictional hideaway that you’d flee to in frustration with hectic modern life. And that’s what I was hoping for. Though I was supposed to be “working,” I was intent on some escapism. From pictures, the island’s dunes and beaches appeared almost like Europe’s wild, desolate, if readily accessible edge.

Liminal and sedimentary, there’s nothing obviously quintessential about Vlieland, so time and again, the cultural imaginary has claimed it for clearer, bigger, less bity narratives. Ships pass by in a maritime canvas by the painter Jan Porcellis from the Golden Age – depicting the high tide of the Dutch Republic’s global might. In the early modern period, vessels arrived and unloaded the world’s cargo here; today, classic tall ships sail into Vlieland’s harbor on heritage tours. At the turn of the twentieth century, meanwhile, Erskine Childers charted the Wadden in a sailing and spy story that projected hard-and-fast nationalism and militarism onto the sea’s shifting sands. And after the First World War, democratic politics decided, by referendum, which islands were German and Danish. The dividing line between them might seem obvious now, but differences are granular.

Since 2009, the changing waters of the Wadden Sea have been contained within a transnational, primarily environmental perspective. The area was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and written into a timely narrative: its natural features are threatened by climate change. This ecological demarcation, as an “intertidal zone,” is complemented by an idea of regional culture. There’s said to be a common Frisian identity and language, even if the various dialects are not mutually intelligible – and on Vlieland, the locals actually speak Dutch.

The rain hurtled toward us as the ferry navigated the shallow straight into port. From the deck, it looked as if the boat might run aground any minute – and felt as if we’d sink from above. The heavy shower let up briefly, as if politely, while I checked the map for the hotel on my phone, only to double-down once I’d decided to risk walking the width of the island. A fishmonger was hardly bothered by the crowd that now gathered under the canopy of his trailer: none of us hungry customers, and all of us smiling and nodding awkwardly as we bolted off again as soon as the rain eased. I promised myself I’d return for the mackerel, as if reassuring him.

Rain would continue to fall from the bright sky at whim, but I quickly began to welcome it. On long, aimless walks, I was soaked and dried off in a joyously unpredictable rhythm. There was little else to do besides wander and seek shelter. Digging myself into the dunes amid an intermittent shower became a fun distraction, albeit not the escapism I’d envisaged. My hotel was large and characterless, its corridors faintly echoey: the sounds of guests’ chatter were dampened by seawater dripping from swimming costumes passing through. Grains of sand were left by pattering feet that served as gritters, preventing others from slipping on the carpet-less floors. My room’s balcony looked straight onto the sand and sea. In the morning I stood, clutching a coffee in hand, and sized up the weather before gambling on an opportune swim before breakfast.

I stopped thinking about my documentary specifically, or musing much at all. Though my reading was grounded in the wet mud between my toes, I sunk myself into books about the Wadden Sea. The Danish author Dorthe Nors lived in the middle of it for a year. In A Line In The World – translated into English in 2022 – she writes of those who move to islands such as Vlieland to escape the stress of the city, or in the misplaced pursuit of authenticity. She cautions that “a vacuum is always waiting to be filled with something,” and “the contents of a supposedly authentic life can be terrifying.” So, for her, the ringing of glass bottles knocking against each other in a carrier bag also became a “local” chime.

But to me, playing at island life for a couple of days, Vlieland felt pleasantly emptying. It wasn’t a negative place in either sense: I now felt at peace, and yet very present – alert to my immediate surroundings. As I returned to the ferry, bound for the mainland and the resumption of everyday life, I stopped by the fishmonger to honor my word. Sitting underneath a parasol – which was now fending off the sun – I savored a slab of fresh, fleshy mackerel that lay on fluffy bread, with a thick smearing of salty butter. In a moment of karma, I in turn was carnally devoured by a swarm of mosquitoes, whose bites would be my only souvenirs.

But I didn’t much care. After all, soon I’d be back at work. And before that, on the night ferry home to England, sailing past the West-Frisian islands across the North Sea from Rotterdam to Hull, I’d be afflicted by earworms from the evening entertainment. For those disco tunes, gin would be the only tonic. Though in fairness, Liv – the lead singer of Livin’ It Large – would turn out to be far more lively than The Dynamics, the band on the way over (who’d been anything but). My escapist holiday on Vlieland may have been a washout, but it had rinsed the mind and reset the soul – which was soon cluttered with clichés once again.

Photos by Marcello Cattaneo

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