Biking, birding, beachcombing and bunkers

Tiny Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog was last part of Europe to be liberated

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Published in The Hamilton Spectator in April 2016

It's a tiny Dutch island with a very big name - Schiermonnikoog - and a whole lot of history.

The smallest of the five inhabited Frisian Islands in the Wadden Sea at the northwest tip of The Netherlands, Schiermonnikoog - Schier for short - literally translates to "Grey Monk Island" and is named after a 14 th century order of monks, its first known residents.

Amsterdam may be the most popular destination for visitors to The Netherlands, attracting some eight million tourists a year, but the quirky out-of-the-way island of Schiermonnikoog, which draws just 300,000 visitors annually, offers something completely different from the big city experience.

It's a nature lover's paradise with such a unique ecology that the entire island has been named a national park and a UNESCO world heritage site.

Known as the "Sahara of the north," it's home to rippling sand dunes ringed with stalky marram grass, kilometre-wide beaches that are the largest in Europe and teeming masses of animal life, especially harbour and grey seals and rare, exotically named birds, from the spoonbill to the bearded tit, all attracted by the nutrient-rich environment around the Wadden Sea.

No wonder the Dutch themselves have named Schier "the prettiest place" in all of The Netherlands.

It's also the least commercial - less than 1,000 people live on the 16 km long by 4 km wide island (making it the most sparsely populated area in the country) and no vehicles are allowed except for those owned by 200 permit holders.

Despite its small size, there's plenty of lodging here, including several hotels in the single quaint village - also named Schiermonnikoog - as well as numerous holiday homes to rent since tourism is the main industry.

To get here, you can take a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland or opt for a 15-minute wild and bouncy rescue boat ride that will have you barrelling at a high speed toward the island's distinctive red lighthouse.

(During low tide from April to October, you can cover this distance by foot on a guided five-hour mud walk or "wadlopen," and slog through soft muck and over tiny shells on the floor of the sea).

After disembarking, hop on one of the many bikes available for rent and follow the 30 km of cycling trails, where you are likely to cross paths with pheasants and rabbits on your way to the beach.

There's little nightlife to be found here, except for maybe a glass of Dutch gin and some warm bitterballen, a popular savoury meat-based snack, at the historic Hotel van der Werff.

But no matter - Dutch day trippers and international tourists alike come to this nature reserve to experience a different kind of wildlife, one that offers glimpses of rare migratory birds, a varied landscape of dunes, salt marshes, mud flats and polders as well as beaches that go on forever.

Mostly, they come here to be at peace.

It's ironic then, that this tranquil isle has such a notorious past. Its isolated location made it the last place in Europe to be liberated by the Canadian Armed Forces after World War 2 - on June 11, 1945 - almost 40 days after the rest of the country was officially freed on May 5.

Before the war, the island was the private property of the family of a German count and throughout the war, it was occupied by 600 German troops (equal to the island's population) who built bunkers in the dunes as part of the Atlantic Wall, a coastal defence line.

At the end of the war they were joined by 125 rogue SS and SD commanders, including the notorious Robert Lehnhoff, known as the Executioner of Groningen, who refused to accept surrender and fled to the island in the hopes of escaping by boat back to Germany.

Even the German soldiers encamped on the island lived in fear of this menacing contingent. The war had been over for weeks, but the Canadians were reluctant to invade the island and thus put the residents at risk of a bloody slaughter.

Instead, they bided their time and eventually negotiated the peaceeful surrender of the Germans.

Today the island still bears evidence of the war, notably in the massive Wassermann bunker built on the top of its highest dune. It's there too in the tiny Vredenhof Cemetery, where there are 94 graves of sailors and soldiers whose bodies were washed ashore in the past century.

The soldiers' graves represent a total of 10 nationalities, including several Canadians, all of whom were buried with full military honours, their final resting places covered with masses of tiny shells collected from the beach by local residents.

At days' end, our group heads back to the mainland on our racing rescue boat at sunset. In the fading light we peer through binoculars to catch sight of seals posing on rocks and then lower them to regretfully watch the red lighthouse of this fascinating narrow slice of land fade into the distance.

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