Quest to the German North Sea - where ultra light aircraft, horse drawn carriage and an oversized tandem bicycle are the only ways to claim ones birthday weekend surprise
16.09.2011 - 18.09.2011 13 °C
It’s Friday, tomorrow is my birthday and all M has told me so far is to get home from work early. Rumour has it, we shall be heading out on a birthday weekend road trip, but when prompted about specifics, M is remaining silent. Having packed in the morning for a 2 day trip in mixed weather (see what I mean about the specifics!?), I got home just in time to try once more to find out where the surprise was taking me. It was, however, only when we hit the motorway, that M revealed the destination.
She booked a night in Emden and one in Norden, both towns in East Frisia close to the German East Frisia Islands. She did also hand me a stack of papers with transport schedules for the weekend to Borkum, Juist and Norderney – three of the islands – and a small pocket guide on Ostfriesland (German for East Frisia). After a careful study of the provided materials, we decided that the perfect plan would be to spend Saturday on Borkum, travelling by Ferry from Emden and Sunday on Juist, travelling by a light airplane from Nordhaven. I then spent the next half hour on the phone securing all the bookings, so by the time we hit Emden, we were all set for the weekend.
After arrival we quickly checked in, dropped our stuff in the hotel room and set straight off on foot to town in search of somewhere to eat. The closer we got to the town centre, the more I was wondering if M organised a local gathering in the old harbour, complete with fanfares, band and hundreds of spectators just for me.When I say I was wondering, I mean that M was determined to convince me that the spectacle unveiling in front of our eyes was all her idea in honour of my birthday. As it turned out, we were lucky to time our visit during the town’s annual Schützenfest celebration. (You want to know what a German Schützenfest is? Well, glad you asked - just follow the link.)
As soon as we turned towards the main square, we were welcomed by fanfares from the town hall tower and large crowds – which it turned out, were blissfully unaware of my upcoming birthday – observing the happenings and soaking up the festive atmosphere.We noticed a big band seated at the end of the Delft, so we decided to postpone dinner a little and wait with the crowds for the concert to start. Whilst waiting, we took our time exploring the ships anchored on the Delft river, in particular a Seenotrettungskreutzer (=rescue ship responding to SOS distress calls) turned museum and a fireship (=floating lighthouse) turned restaurant. The latter was of special interest as it offered a promise of warm dinner combined with an unspoiled view of the band, but as we were to find out, it was closed for a private party and it was not mine.
With immaculate timing, it was only 15 minutes or so before the music started. The short concert was followed by a nice firework manned by a local tractor driver. By the time it finished, we were happy but freezing and rushed to the Grand Café overlooking the square to enjoy some great local nibbles, a cup of tea to warm up and a bottle of champagne.After a couple of hours of fun it was time to head back to the hotel. Unfortunately, our escape coincided with a display of local rain. But as we were already out of the door, we kept going and made a dash across the street to the Otto Hus, which houses a museum of the famous German comedian - Otto Walkes. Of particular interest was the featuring Ottifand, underneath which we took cover until the rain subsided and we were able to make a run for the hotel. Not being the easiest thing to explain, check-out Ottifand on the pic – it is really too hard to explain.
There was no time for a lie in on my birthday as we had a ferry to Borkum to catch. Further to drive then we thought, we arrived just in time to park up – for a bargain fee of 2.50 Euro / day – and board the ferry. The Catamaran MS Nordlicht took about an hour to arrive at the island harbour and from there the Inselbahn (an old narrow gauge railway) took a further 15 minutes to town.
Exploring the island on foot, we headed straight down the main street Bismarkstrasse, lined with small shops and restaurants, to the beach front. It was sometime between low and high tide and the beach extended hundreds of meters out into the sea, with a colony of sea lions on the connected sandbank clearly visible in the left corner. We spent the next couple of hours wandering out and across the open space, enjoying the fantastically alien landscape.It was a sunny, but cold and somewhat windy September day. Despite a lot of people being out and about, the space was so vast that solitude was easy to find. A couple of brave souls tried kite surfing in the cold water but plenty more took the warmer option of driving kite-buggies.
When we eventually reached the northern edge of the beach, we were surprised by the heights of the waves, which was in stark contrast to the flat expanse of the beach. Marvelling at the varied hardness of the sand and the canny way grasses were hanging on to tiny sand dunes on square kilometres of flatness, we slowly made our way back to the built-up part of the island, not without making a small detour via the old lighthouse that is.Eventually we stopped for lunch in one of the many tourist restaurants back on Bismarkstrasse to sample dishes with local North Sea shrimps and watch the world go by – which in Borkum is mainly pensioners and families with small children. But before you get the wrong idea, there is also a different kind of tourist there - quite a few groups of leather clad bikers were roaming the high street in search of food and drinks and by the looks of it (and the roaring laughter) they were having a great day out. Nicely rested, content and blissfully full, we set off on another walk.
Whilst we were having our lunch, the high tide had reduced the size of the beach by hundreds of meters, but the Strandkörbe (see pics and check out their history here) on the edge of the island were still far from the the water and windsurfing and kite-buggy enthusiast continued to pursue their hobbies. We headed east into the sand dunes, then inland past the ‘Grosses Kaap’– an artificial landmark to aid ships navigating the local seas in long gone times before the GPS and radar - and finally back to the town centre passing nature, historical sites and some quiet local residential streets along the way. When it started to drizzle, it was time to rush into a small, packed café and treat ourselves to some Caffee Late and ice-cream.
Warmed up and with the rain receding, we took the opportunity to do some last exploring of the town sights including a huge wooden Seahorse, before we headed to the train station to catch a train back to the harbour. Obviously, our research before the journey was somewhat sketchy, e.g. none on my part as it was a birthday present, so we met a couple of little surprises. Firstly, we were way too early, as it turned out the published “ship departure” time is actually the departure time of the train. Secondly, after queuing for tickets, I was told the train ride was free and part of the ship fare. With weather getting once again worse, we bought ourselves a magazine, found a window seat on the train and waited for the departure. Our final surprise was at the harbour where we almost boarded the wrong ship, which was at the last minute prevented by an attentive ticket checker who saved us from an unplanned trip to Holland. Instead, we had an uneventful cruise back to Emden, where we picked up our car and drove on to our next hotel.
By the time we reached Norden it was pitch black and raining heavily. Running in from the car park, we managed to be only moderately soaked when we finally found the hotel entrance. The hotel restaurant was fully booked, but the staff recommended a place nearby and it turned out to be a good move. We ordered a bottle of Sekt – not on the menu, but a nice stuff with an own restaurant label! – accompanied by a couple of delicious dishes to celebrate the end of my birthday. The presence of bubbly enticed the natural curiosity of our table neighbours, who used the opportunity to engage in a happy banter with us. It was a great evening and after an eventful day on our feet, we made sure we were the last guests to leave. It was way past midnight when we found ourselves running back through the rain to retire for an early start on Sunday - we had a plane to catch.
Getting up early, we enjoyed breakfast at the hotel before we decided to drive to the airport, not quite knowing how far it was, or having a map or an address our SatNav could make sense off. The idea was to head off in the general direction and rely on classic “spot the sign” navigation – which surprisingly got us to the airport with ample time – some 20 minutes before departure. This was enough to ask where the car park was, park, walk to the check-in hall, buy ticket, explore the various posters in the waiting room (ie the check-in hall) and wait for the boarding call. With the flight being fully book, all 8 passengers made a run for the plane as soon as the boarding call broke the silence, to secure a window seat. Little did we know about one of the perks of the island hoppers – all seats are window seats.
The flight was great, but too short. By the time we were up in the air, stopped excitedly bouncing in our seats and started to look at the Wattenmeer (I would translate it as ‘tidal flats’, but the correct translation is Wadden Sea. Puzzled? Thought so, time for another helpful link) below wondering if it was low tide, the plane went down to land again. It felt more like a 5 minutes funfair ride on a Ferris wheel then a passenger flight experience.
Juist was very different to Borkum – lots of sand dunes and no cars. The only means of transport was on foot, on bike or by a horse drawn carriage – the Juist equivalent of the London double decker buses. Not knowing how far the airport was from civilisation, we decided to catch a ride in one of the horse carts. Half an hour later and glad we didn’t try to save the fare and walk, we arrived in Juist town and started to explore this picturesque place. From an extensive beach decorated with hundreds of Strandkörbe, we spotted an observatory on top of the nearby Strandhotel. Sneaking in through the reception area, we made our way up the staircase and managed to get through to the glass cupola, from where we enjoyed great 360 degrees views over the entire island – 17km long but only 500m wide.
Next, we returned for a brief look at the beach in front of the hotel and then headed to the harbour on the other side of the island, i.e. 10min leisurely walk away. After some self-shots in a great little, or rather large, kiddy boat on metal springs, we headed on along the beach. There we came across a pile of shoes and took that as a hint to step a bit onto the Watt (the mud making up the Wadden Sea). After scanning the horizon we spotted a group of barefoot people wandering half a mile away through the Wattenmeer - no doubt the owners of the shoes.
Whilst tempted to head in their direction, somewhat untypically for us, we heeded the warning signs not to head out without a guide and continued along the island border walk. Half an hour leisurely walk later, we came across a bicycle rental place and decided to rent some human power transport to extend the reach of our explorations. Leaving our umbrella as a deposit, we talked to store owner into retrieving a tandem bike for us out of the cellar, making this our first tandem ride ever.
Despite the saddle in front being a tiny bit too high for M to be able to reach the ground, it turned out to be fantastic fun. It took me a few minutes to relax, sitting on the back of a bicycle without any ability to influence where we were going, but at least I could see over M’s head at the obstacles getting in our way.
As the town was roughly in the middle of the island, we decided head in the opposite direction of the airport, hoping to make a loop around that half of the island. This involved cycling on a narrow path with a constant view of the sea and extensive mud flats, until the cycle path suddenly stopped close to the western edge. What we thought was a circular track round the island, turned out to be a straight line track without a chance to cross over the bushy sand dunes keeping us from the other side. Glad to have packed our rain coats, we braved a couple of showers on our way back and also took time to explore some footpaths leading off the road, which led us to the discovery of a little lake in the middle of the island.
By the time we hit the town again, the sun came out and we even spotted some swimmers on the main beach enjoying the 15 °C North Sea. Soaking up this glorious spell of sunshine, we peddled back to return the bike. As soon as we swapped the tandem for our umbrella again, the heavens opened and we took shelter in some doorway to let the torrential rains pass. Having failed to make ourselves familiar with the horse cart bus/taxi system we though we had plenty of time and once the sun was out again, treated ourselves to some ice cream and enjoyed watching the world go by.
When we finally hit the horse taxi stop and went into a nearby shop to inquire about timetables etc, we were shocked to learn that there is only one journey an hour and we unfortunately missed the last one that would make our flight on time by 10 minutes.Fortunately Juist is a small island where things work in curious ways – the horse cart company lady on the phone called around and eventually instructed us to wait at an alternative pickup point in 45 minutes, whilst she would let the driver know that time was tight and call the airport to let them know that we were on our way but the plane might need to wait a bit. Needless to say that on an island of that size, by the time we made our way to another little café to claim some lunch, the news flash of two tourists delaying the departure of the island hopper spread like a wild fire.
Undeterred by our scheduling hiccup, we ordered a couple of sandwiches and tea. M had a relaxing meal, whilst I slightly nervously checked the time on my mobile every 5 minutes, until I convinced M to head to the pick up point. The wagon came perfectly on time and all looked good – but then the other passengers booked on this trip took their time. Being seasoned Juist travellers, everyone else had plenty of time before their flight and were in no hurry.The worse was a group of passengers to be picked up on the way, who took an eternity to round everybody up and say their good bye’s. Surely this was going to be very tight. The driver did her best to make up time and the horses were noticeably running a lot faster now then on their way from the airport in the morning. With less then 5 minutes to the departure time, the airport came in sight and it started to rain (again). A couple of minutes later we arrived at the drop of point, jumped off the wagon and started to sprint towards the check in booth on the side of the runway through the now pouring rain.
We made it just on time – well, actually, we were late but then the little planes don’t take off when it’s raining heavily and the pilot was also in the airport terminal (that is the tiny check-in booth for you, half the size of a funfair chip shop) waiting for the shower to pass. 10 minutes later M and I boarded the plane to claim our window seats and a further 10 minutes later we landed safely back in Nordhaven.
All that was left to do now was pick up the car and set off leisurely driving back to Düsseldorf, where we would phase out my birthday weekend with a bottle of wine.