Published: 17/08/2012 10:26 - Updated: 12/10/2012 12:42

Island gem waiting to be discovered

Written byBy Ron Smith

AMRUM is an island off the north-west coast of Germany, in the North Sea. Just 20.5 square kilometres, it lies straggled on a north-south line with one of Europe’s largest sand beaches continually extending outwards along the west coast. Then there are dunes, trees and the three main villages on the island’s east side.

The whole region, the Wattenmeer, is a protected zone, famous for its mud flats and bird life. The main industry is tourism, and around 200,000 tourists arrive every year, 95% of them Germans. It is a well-kept secret that this is an area to visit.

This coastal area is in the German region of Schleswig Holstein but used to be Danish, which maybe influences the special dialect. They also fly their own flag, the horizontal stripes of blue, white red, rather than the German flag.

On the mainland the land is flat. Houses, even the railway stations, are thatched and are fairly low lying with deep roofs, probably because of the prevailing wind.

Farm houses tend to sit on raised earthworks to protect them from flooding should the sea break through the coastal dykes. There are vast fields, with the horizon being the dyke, and pretty, small villages, usually with a squat square church. It is easy for us to get the Amrum.

There are direct flights from Aberdeen to Esbjerg in Denmark, from where hourly trains run to Niebull. Here you cross to the local trains to the port of Niebull from where the trains run through a doorway in the dyke onto the pier station.

When the tide is too high, the gates are shut and there is a small station on the landward side, with a short walk to the ferry alongside the station. The ferry, which carries cars and lorries, are flat bottomed and shallow draught, as there is not much depth of water at any tide.

The channels are marked with day-glo buoys and birch trees stuck into the sand. The water flows in strange patterns over sand banks, and the channel is so narrow that ferries have to take it in turns to and from Dagebull.

The ferry journey is part of the holiday experience. It is fascinating to see the islands (Halligen in their dialect) and the raised earthworks of each house or farm.

Seals bask on sandbanks impossibly close to the ferry, and it takes skilled seamanship to navigate the waters, which are a murky brown colour with large streams of shredded white froth running along.

The direct ferry takes 90 minutes to reach the main Amrum harbour of Wittdun, in the south of the island, and the terminal is a hive of activity with traffic heading off and coming in along the one main road of the island

One of the top three German writers, Theodor Storm, wrote of the space, big sky and centuries of battling with the sea. His words come alive.

The villages are all pretty, with the impeccable houses having prominent wires across the roof apexes and down to earth, to stop the storks from building nests there. The main church has a thatched roof and wires.

There are not so many cars to be seen, but lots of bicycles. You can hire bicycles and carties with two or three axles, for loading your children in.

All the west coast of the island is the vast beach, which has developed over 100 years and is still growing and spreading. The beaches are studded with large wicker beach chairs/shelters, which can be hired by the hour, day or even year.

Since June, 2009 the whole area has been a UNESCO protected nature site, like the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon – that is how important Amrum is. In the north, by the beach, is the Carl Zeiss Naturzentrum (www.naturzentrum-amrum.de) which highlights the flora and fauna of the island and the whole Wattenmeer.

Although the island lives off tourism now, you do not have a feeling of commercialisation or crowding anywhere. Strolling through the dunes you hear only the birds, and along the head of the beach are conveniences. Many people come here for bird watching, to see the seals and enjoy the peace.

The island has one resident policeman. In the summer, he has three more bobbies from the mainland to help. I bet that is a popular posting.

To cope for tourists, there are tours with a "train" of a small tractor and a line of small coaches, or an oldtimer bus. There is a cinema on the island and many events throughout the summer. While I was there an Irish band were performing.

At low tide you can even walk from the north across the mud flats to the neighbouring island of Fohr. I am told that this takes about three hours and you must have a local guide for your own safety. I didn’t fancy it. I prefer to go island hopping by ferries, which go to most of the other islands so you can explore them and return in one day.

I saw a slogan "Wind Water and Wellness" which I thought summed up Amrum. The wind and water are covered by many water sports, including a windsurfing school and yachts, and boats of all sorts are available. The wellness is covered by the swimming pool at Wittdun, which also does thalassic therapy.

The highest structures in Schleswig Holstein seemed to be wind turbines, which are everywhere, a bit like our part of Scotland. The other high structure is the lighthouse. Every island has one, but only one as the flat islands do not obstruct the 360 degree sweep of the beam.

Amrum’s one is at Grossdun, to the south. It is a remarkable structure, with all the materials brought from the mainland. It is open to tourists and from the lamp windows you can see for miles out across the dunes. You can also view the windmills dotted around the island, although they are not used these days.

There are many offers to tempt you. The Inselticket for 14.90 Euros gives discounts and 2 for 1 offers at many places, various deals for boat trips, and the Gastkarte Amrum card which your hotel will give you. There are three 4-star hotels and a spring deal for 398 Euros covers per person for 4 nights DB+B including bicycle hire.

I stayed at one of these, the Romantik Hotel Huttmann (www.hotel-huettmann.de) at Norddorf. It really is a superb hotel, modern, clean, quiet and super food. Of course, fish dominates the menus, including shrimps which abound in the shallow waters.

Confusingly, they call them crabs (Krabben) and I never did find out what they call crabs. An excellent pot of tea with cold milk is a rare luxury for the Continent. Just across the road from the hotel is the island bank, and I’m sure it will not have got into the mess that our banks have.

Amrum is a very interesting place to visit. It is peaceful but has plenty of activities to suit all tastes. The three main villages are quaint with their impeccably clean streets, randomly placed thatch roofed houses, and the thatched roof supermarket is a gem, really blending in, unlike most steel and glass monstrosities that you see.

The clean fresh air is invigorating, and there are clinics here for children with respiratory problems.

It is totally different world to anywhere here in Scotland, but is only just across the water on the other side of the North Sea. Amrum has its distinct character and the way of small places in everyone knowing everyone and having time to take an interest in you. It is a special place, to find out more you can go to www.amrum.de

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