I get a mixture of reactions from my German friends when I mention the island of Wangerooge.
‘Sounds very Australian to me-are you sure this is in Germany? ’ was the puzzled reaction from one of my well travelled German friends.
Some nod their heads vaguely.
‘ Is it part of the East Frisian Islands?”
They can only name the more popular neighbouring islands like Nordeney or Juist.
With a population of just 985 people, the island of Wangerooge goes under the radar of most foreign tourists and even the heartiest German holidaymaker.
Part of chain of 7 islands called the East Frisian Islands, its unfamiliarity maybe due to its inaccessibility. There is one ferry crossing per day, that too during high tide. Getting to the ferry departure point from Berlin takes us three train journeys and not the cheapest bus ride.
However when you do finally reach there. It is beautiful.
First thing I realises when I get off the ferry is the blanket of thick silence, a science only broken by the murmur of swallows swooping past us onto the steep dyke. You then look up and your eye rests on an empty horizon which is broken by the surreal sight of this magnificent tower with three towering gothic spires.
A long winding road snakes all the way from the harbour. We follow it, a slow walk of around 20 minutes before we arrive at this magnificent 50 metre high redbrick tower with three pointed Gothic spires.
The tower dominates the horizon for miles. It has an alluring yet sinister Hogwartian quality. It feels like you have entered into a Harry Potter novel.
The tower is however home to one of Germany’s most iconic and original youth hostels- DJH Youth Hostel Wangerooge. The hostel has two parts- the tower itself and a new build 2 storey extension that contains the reception, a dining area and a choice of privates ideal for couples, young families or small groups.
I’m pretty excited that we were sleeping IN THE TOWER! Yup. My heart is racing like a kid to get to my room. Except. We’re on the seventh floor of the tower just for the views. No lift. My heart is pounding, groaning by the time I reach the 7th floor. I’m never coming down from my room. However, moment I do reach our room on our first evening, the sun is about to set. We have a breathtaking panoramic view of the sun setting from one window and spot the sandy fringes of a beach nearby. From the other window, we can see the path we walked all the way from the ferry terminal. I see in the distance, the ferry we had arrived on from Harlesiel, pushing out into the golden shimmering sea. I probably spend a good hour just soaking in the views before I sit down on the bed. I was grateful we got the tower room. At least for the exercise which would be needed after all the delicious food and drinks we were going to savour over the next few days.
‘We’re happy with the organic growth of tourism and more people discovering the island’s charms. Families who came to the island when they were kids return and introduce their kids to the island-the island is passed on through generations and in this way remains a secret to only a few people.’
Katja Garbe, Manager DJH Youth Hostel Wangerooge
I don’t know about you but I’ve always been an beach-on-island person or to narrow it down, beach-on-distant-island person. It could be due to the fact that I grew up on a pretty big island that you may know called Great Britain. There’s a wonderful nostalgic quality about a holidaying in Britain. My favourites stretches of beach are the isolated craggy western isles of Scotland- Arran, Bute and Mull. I guess it may have to do with a certain timelessness that holidays by the sea have- the view out to the sea doesn’t change for centuries. Wangerooge enjoys a very rich ecosystem-the surrounding mudflats plus the undulating sand dunes that adorn the fringes serve as a hotbed for all kinds of wildlife,-over 200 species of bird for example pass through the island on an annual basis. To preserve this delicate ecosystem that include their distinctive sanddunes, large swathes of the island have protected status which doesn’t allow visitor access or any form of development. Which partially explains the timeless appeal and hold the island exerts upon multiple generations.
“God created time, but he never mentioned haste.”
The island’s slogan, visible on a sign at the harbour.
It is all about taking it slow and enjoying nature in Wangerooge. The island does not allow cars and has well marked bike paths which makes travelling from one part of the island to the other a breeze.
While there’s that not many events taking place there’s also a need to develop new ways of attracting tourism through festivals. There’s a music festival at the end of the month we visited and in the summer the hostel hosts bands in the courtyard which pulls in locals and tourists alike. Life on the island can sometimes be monotonous so they’re looking at ways of putting on a regular programme of events and socials which are fun for locals too.
With the village being quite busy and hectic in the summer months, the hostel is a peaceful antidote to the masses. Guests love the peaceful tranquility of the hostel’s location on the west coast where few tourists pass through.
The main hub of tourists is the village. One of the iconic landmarks of the village that catches your eye on a casual stroll through the town is the red lighthouse which has been in existence since 1855. Other highlights of the village include its very own train station which facilitates journeys on a unique single track railway that transports people and their luggage from the ferry. Another iconic landmark you should checkout is the rotund Cafe Pudding -a former bunker that was converted by local bakers into the island’s most popular cafe and bar. The cafe with its panoramic bay windows offers dreamy views of the beach and the surrounding coastline. Plus they have a great selection of delciious cakes that are guarantee to boost your mood and waistline levels.
‘It looks like you’ve arrived in a desert.’
9 kms long, the island as I mentioned can easily navigated by bikes which can be hired from the hostel. The best bike ride is east from the village all the way down to the Jever viewing platform on the western half of the island. The platform is popular with birdwatching enthusiasts. The platform also is a good entry point onto the towering sand dunes which mark the entry to possibly one of the most beautiful beaches you will ever see.
The beach must be a few kilometres long. As mentioned by the hostel receptionist, the beach has a ethereal unworldly quality about it- the finest white sand you’ll see anywhere. If there wasn’t a deep blue sea next to it, the beach could have easily been mistaken for a desert, like the Sahara or the Namib. The other strange thing was the complete lack of tourists. We visited in early June and there was hardly a soul in sight. We spend an hour walking slowly along the beach. I find all kinds of colourful stones and exotic looking shells sunk into the sand like traces from a forgotten civilisation. As the sun sinks slowly behind the horizon we reluctantly trace our steps back to the viewing platform.
On the last morning of our stay, after tucking into the hostel’s very filling buffet breakfast we finally get some time to feed the hostel’s pet rabbits and guinea pigs. We’re competing with the kids for the attention of the animals with the help of scraps of freshly cut grass. Most of the time we were at the hostel, we found the kids, doe eyed milling around the enclosure. A basketball hoop attached to the base of the tower is also popular with the big kids and the small kids. During the whole time we are there at the hostel the TV room is strangely empty.
Our holiday in Wangerooge and the hostel feels like a throwback to holidays from a different era. When life was possibly a little more less complicated and innocent. We appreciate the slow walk back up the path from the hostel to the jetty. My footsteps are deliberately laboured. I strain for every sinew of silence until we reach the ferry terminal. Suddenly, a very loud, thick cackling sound makes us pause for a moment. From the dense cover of a nearby bush we see a common pheasant pop its head out with its characteristic copper red and green head. We’ve seen it nesting a few hundred yards from the hostel. Just as we would sit down to have dinner every evening around sunset we would see it proudly jut its neck out and crow. It was great to have the chance to see it at close quarters. It looked a little startled by our presence and then bursted forward with great speed, flying into the empty wetlands beyond.
Often these memorable small moments are what you remember when you look back at a trip. Trips to Wangerooge were a reminder of the importance of slowing down in order to find these precious little memories, a memory of a time less travelled but more appreciated.
Where to stay in Wangerooge: DJH Wangerooge Youth Hostel
Book your stay at the DJH Wangerooge Youth Hostel. With 168 beds and mixture of private, family and 4-6 bed dorms, the hostel can easily cater to families and groups of all sizes. The hostel can be booked on a bed and breakfast or full board basis. Morning buffet breakfast is filling and a great way to start the day. Included in the full board is a daily lunch packet which includes a sandwich, fruits, sweets and one bottle of juice/mineral water plus a three course dinner from their bistro in the evening. The hostel has a small onsite bar within the reception area which gets popular in the evenings with guests. There’s a children’s playground onsite plus a games room. The hostel offers bikes for hire. Room rates for a family of 4 ( 2 adults and 2 children) start from €100 a night on a Full Board basis while a double room ensuite starts from €80 a night. Prices vary according to season. Minimum of 2 nights required.
Please note that my stay was covered by the Jugendherberge aka German Youth Hostel Association as part of a storytelling project I am working on called #DJHExtraordinary where we were seeking to discover some of Germany’s most unusual hostels. There are three more articles & videos coming up in this series, so stay tuned. Plus you can see more pictures and short videos from the trip on Instagram or Twitter- search for the #DJHExtraordinary. Plus if you are looking for more hostel inspiration from Germany, do checkout our last year’s guide to Castle Hostels across Germany.