Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Insel Neuwerk

My friend cast a wide net when researching the places she wanted to visit in the north, the ancestral home of several braches of her family tree. She started with Ostfriesland, found in her family records, and discovered the Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea). Intrigued by that, she found a site saying that you can find amber on the beach in the state of Hamburg's little corner of the Wattenmeer! It's not in Ostfriesland, but she liked the amber idea, so I started looking around for more information about it. I managed to figure out that the amber is found in a place called the Kleiner Vogelsand on an island called Neuwerk. And that was the extent of the information.

Insel Neuwerk's main industry must be tourism, but it got surprisingly little attention in all the sources I checked, which mostly focused on the islands west and north of there. I decided we could just figure it out when we got there, and my friend booked rooms in one of the five hotels on the island, Nige Hus.

You can reach Insel Neuwerk by ferry from Cuxhaven when the tide is in, or by foot or horse-drawn carriage from Sahlenburg when the tide is out.  Each method only offers one opportunity per day to go to or from the island, and the times vary according to the tides.  Based on the schedule, we decided to take the ferry, which would give us the most time on the island.  Lucky us, the ferry happened to be departing at its earliest on the day we wanted to go - 9am. We made it easy on ourselves by staying the previous night at a hotel right across from the ferry dock in Cuxhaven.  Classily, it was also right across the street from a brothel.

The ferry's route to Neuwerk is not a straight shot, but what feels like a long detour all over the place before reaching the island.  It takes well over an hour to get there.  From the ferry there's a great view of Cuxhaven harbor, a huge wind farm to the east, and a constant stream of enormous container ships on the Elbe River going to or coming from Hamburg.  As we neared the island, we noticed that the boat was closely following a line of what appeared to be besom brooms stuck upside-down in the water! 

Upon arrival, we were greeted by tractors - the island is car-free - pulling trailers onto which our luggage was loaded so we could walk to our hotel without the extra burden.  So we did.  The inner part of the island, where all the buildings are, is surrounded by a dike with a sidewalk on top, so there's definitely no way to get lost.  Outside the dike are swampy areas and grazing fields for cows and horses, and beyond that there's either water or seafloor, depending on the time of day!

It was late morning, so after check-in we wandered toward the small town-like section of the island looking for some food that was a little cheaper than the restaurant at Nige Hus. (Note: turns out prices for everything are pretty much the same all over the island.)  After a small lunch inside the island's 700-year-old lighthouse, we paid a small fee to climb up to the top for a great view.  Then we headed over to the National Park building to get some info on how to find amber. 

First, they chastized us for not letting them know in advance that we wanted to do it.  Normally, a guide would accompany you on this sort of trip.  Why?  Well, turns out the amber's not really found on a beach.  It's out on the seafloor near the Elbe! This means leaving the island at low tide and crossing the sea floor, then getting back to land before the tide comes in. The tides are incredibly dangerous, rushing in at 1.8 meters per second in some places!  Also, the water isn't just knee-deep when it's in.  The tidal range near Cuxhaven is nearly 3 meters! (In some spots there are landmarks which double as rescue cages in case you can't get back to shore in time!)  But, they said we could do it alone and it was a great day to do it based on the tides and winds, so they told us how to get where we needed to go.  The only problem was the possibility of rain. We were instructed to begin crossing the seafloor toward the Elbe, keeping a Neuwerk landmark called the Ostbake (first photo on this post) and a drilling platform beyond the Elbe both in sight.  On the line between these two landmarks, on the bank of the Elbe (where the water stays all day - much deeper), you can find amber if you're lucky and know what to look for.  We struck out across the fields beyond the dikes, past the Ostbake, through a swamp, and onto the sand.

It had been misting this whole time, but the oil platform was still in sight.  We spent a couple of minutes admiring all the shells crunching under our feet and the view back to the island, then looked up to find that the oil platform was gone.  The drizzle and mist had gotten too thick, and now we could barely make out the ships passing on the Elbe.  (The photo at right was taken while it was still a bit clearer.)  Without the landmarks, they told us we shouldn't go out there. It's too easy to get disoriented on the mudflats and not get back to the island in time.  We  hung around for a while longer getting hit with drizzle that felt like bullets in the cold wind, hoping it would clear a bit, but no such luck.  Instead it started to rain more earnestly.  So, we sheepishly returned to the hotel - we'd had to tell them where we were going so they could sound the alarm if we weren't back by a certain time, so they knew of our failure - and sat down by the restaurant fireplace for a nice long evening of hot drinks with shots in them.  The North Sea does this genre of beverages very, very well. 

The wind was unbelievable, and this is coming from Iowa, where we get such great wind they farm it extensively now.  At one point I stepped out of the cozy confines of the restaurant to try to get a photo of the green light in the lighthouse and the contrast was astounding.  It made it all the more wonderful to be indoors by the fire.  Honestly, I don't think we could have asked for better weather - this seemed to be the ideal way to enjoy Insel Neuwerk.

The bad weather continued and we got up for a late-ish breakfast only to discover that the ferry was going to leave 2 hours earlier than planned on account of it.  Thus, our time on the island was cut a bit short.  This time we got to ride in a covered trailer along with our luggage back to the dock.  When the ferry pulled in, there was a massive exchange of mail and goods - water, eggs, all kinds of stuff.   Then we had an uneventful return to Cuxhaven.

Insel Neuwerk is inhabited by 30-something people.  There's only one school-aged child.  There's no grocery store and no doctor. The Wadden Sea is an incredible feature - one that you don't find often. In many places, like Boston, areas like this were filled in with more land so they could be used. It's pretty fascinating and I definitely recommend a trip there - especially in the cold, windy offseason. :)  All the photos above were taken by my friend, but the photos in the Picasa album below are mine.  Enjoy!
Insel Neuwerk Okt 11


  1. Interesting. During one of our trips north we visited the Wadden Sea and thanks to a very helpful TI person we walked on the mud flats when the tide was out without a guide in a "forbidden" area. It was a memorable experience.

  2. I lived with a friend in Cuxhaven for 5 weeks a couple of summers ago. We walked to Neuwerk, and my legs got really sunburned because I forgot sunscreen! (P.S. I'm from Iowa too! :))


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