In the middle of the North Sea, 55 kilometres away from the German coast, you will find the tiny rocky island of Helgoland. Hardly visible on the map, but despite its size, the island has a rich history and nature forms special roads.
Helgoland came on our radar when we searched Google Maps for crazy places in the world out of boredom. We had a quick bite. Not on the other side of the world, but in our own North Sea we found a place that few people know: the German Heligoland.
An island that is only one square kilometre in size, consists of 300 million years old rock (Trias fur-sandstone) and rises above sea level up to 47 meters. A seven minute boat ride from the main island lies another smaller island (0.7 square kilometers), built up of dunes and popular with tourists because of the seals floating around the island. Once the two islands were one, but by a storm in 1720, the two were separated from each other.
How is life on such an island, far from civilization? Only a visit can make that clear. From Haarlem we drove to the northern German port town of Cuxhaven within 4.5 hours. Every day at half past 11 in the morning the huge catamaran ‘Halunder Jet’ leaves for the island.
There are several ways to get to Helgoland, but apart from flying (the island has a miniscule airport where propeller planes can land) this is the fastest option by distance.
The catamaran brings you to the cliff in the North Sea at more than sixty kilometers per hour and within 75 minutes. Before you know it, you‘ll see the red boulder looming from the sea.
of this natural wonder dates back to 4000 years BC. Heligoland was still part of the mainland until then, but due to the rising sea level after the last ice age, this piece of land was surrounded by water.
It was the Frisians who still owned part of the Netherlands and Germany at that time, who put their flag first in the red rock ground. Saillant detail: some of the current inhabitants of the island still speak with a North Frisian dialect, the Helgolands or Halunder Freesk.
After the Vikings conquered the island, it was enlisted by Denmark. Pirates saw their chance to make it a base until the British owned the island in 1807. More than eighty years later, the Germans got their hands on the island. They turned it into a naval support point, which meant that the island could not be inhabited during both World Wars (except for the Marines).
At the end of World War II, Helgoland was severely battered during a heavy bombing by the British Air Force. Two years later, another 6700 tons of hidden German ammunition were blown up by the English, beating a huge crater. It was not until 1952 that a group of original residents returned to the island. First only men, then a handful of women.
It can be seen everywhere that Helgoland has been destroyed. The hole hit by the blown ammunition is, well… still a big hole. The upper part (Oberland) also has a bumpy landscape in many places, while before the war it was completely flat. Bunkers are still present and here and there you will find leftover remains of the Nazis, such as the sprayed east coast where ‘the largest port in Europe‘ was supposed to arrive or the stalled submarine of which a small point protrudes above the water.
However, when we reach the island from the catamaran, we first encounter a small industrial area and a long line of coloured wooden houses like Scandinavia. A tourist attraction, but, according to islander and guide Volker: “No part of the original Helgoland, because that no longer exists. Everything you see was built after 1952.”
What we see in the first instance of the island is not a fascinating architecture inspired by the Scandinavian architectural style (lots of earthy colours) and the necessary signs showing off with large letters ‘duty free‘. The island is loved by tourists who want to store cigarettes and alcohol duty-free. The large flow of visitors in the low part of the island (Unterland) reveals that the shops are still doing good business. Not necessarily what we expected on this natural wonder, but fortunately it does not hinder to appreciate the rest of the island.
It is the flora and fauna that, in addition to its rich history, appeal to the imagination most. At the back of the Oberland, on the steep cliffs, you find the Big Five of Helgoland. No lions and giraffes, but five special seabirds: the gan-of-gent, guillemot, petrel, gull and the alk.
The jan-of-gent with its distinctive white beak is present with hundreds ofon the cliffs and form a beautiful and noisy spectacle. The breeding season is in full swing, so wherever we look, we see new jan-van-gents in their down feather jacket. Meanwhile, the parents protect their territory with loud screams and swordfighting with the beak.
Not interested in birds? The high cliffs that might as well have stood in Ireland form a breathtaking backdrop. Highlight for many is the detached rock pillar Lange Anna who has gained a mythical status among the 1400 islanders.
Those residents, mainly the elderly, have settled mainly on the upper part of the island where they live in mini-districts. These are accessible from the lower part (where the tourist shops are located) by — yes — a lift in the rock. In the Oberland it feels like walking in a normal German quarter, only the view of the North Sea around reveals that we are on an island.
Also very impressive is the dune island which is accessible by a small boat (costs a few euros). From the boat you can see how high the rock formation rises above sea level. However, our focus is on the dune area where we get a tour of Ranger Patrick.
A belligerent thirties who have previously worked for protected natural areas in Africa and America, but who now hopes to make a difference on this tiny island where the longest hiking trail shows only 3.2 kilometres. That route takes us along the beautiful public beaches where tourists enjoy the white sand and blue sea. Yes, blue water in the North Sea.
We’re not walking on the beach for a minute when we see the first grey seal float. “Swimming is only allowed in a deposited area and people must keep at least 30 meters away from the animals,” warns Patrick. “Seals have a cute appearance, but they can bite and carry many diseases with them. They like to play, but a playing seal can quickly injure a child.”
Further down there is a group of regular seals sunbathing. They are smaller and have a black-brown coat. Sun worshippers also spotted the animals and come to take pictures. “In winter, seals come to the island in large numbers to give birth and raise their offspring. Of course, that also attracts many visitors.”
A nice scene, but people do have an influence on the arrival of the seals. “When the island was in lockdown for two months and no tourist was allowed to come, the number of seals increased significantly.” So enjoy at a distance.
After three days it is clear: for nature lovers and beach goers there is plenty to see and experience on this pinhead on the map, but Helgoland has not been really closed from civilization anymore for a while.
This way you get there
From the German Cuxhaven a daily catamaran that takes you to the island in 75 minutes; flying is also possible. In both cases, a mouthcap is mandatory. The pier, boulevard, shopping street and all public areas are also subject to a mudcap duty. In restaurants, a mouthcap is needed only when walking.
Helgoland comes from the Frisians who named the island after the Frisian god Fosite. This god lived on the island according to the stories and thus the Fositesland was baptized, which supposedly means ‘holy land’. In 1800 the British hailed it to Heligoland and after the island exchange with the Germans it received a German sound: Helgoland.
On Helgoland, cars and bicycles are not welcome. There‘s only a number of electric transport cars running around. The only public means of transport is the elevator between the low rn the high country. Some residents use a small steppet, that’s all right.
On the island there is plenty of choice of hotels and restaurants. We stayed at the Seehotel which, thanks to the spacious room and the generous breakfast, made a pleasant stay. With beautiful views from the balcony.
More info via helgoland.de and germany.travel