It was nearing 10:30 at night on Terschelling, but still not dark as my wife and I cycled through rippling sand dunes, their colors gradually muted by the fading light. Wild rabbits, a frequent sight on this largely undeveloped island in the Wadden Sea, hopped here and there, sometimes darting across our trail. A steady wind pushed us forward, blessedly, payback for earlier head winds — what bicyclists call “Dutch hills.” Atop the highest dune, a few hundred yards in the distance, we saw the silhouettes of a person and a dog. Only as we neared town and signs of civilization did we have to finally click on our bike lights, giving warning to the few people passing in the other direction.
We’d been nearly alone until we reached a main road.
I’d visited Terschelling, part of a barrierisland chain north of Amsterdam, before, and been captivated by its vast, windswept beaches, empty dunes and more than 170 crisscrossing miles of nearly empty cycling and walking trails, which seems an impossible tally for one of Europe’s most densely populated countries. But this time was different.
Selina and I had signed up for five days of performances at the 10-day arts gathering called Oerol. (Say “OO-ral” and you’re close enough.) Every June, some 50,000 visitors of all ages arrive by the boatload, literally, to view theater, dance, performance art, live music, installations or simply partake in the communal vibe. Oerol, the word meaning “all over” in the local Frisian dialect, stages professional performances throughout the island — on the street, in barns and, most memorably, in woods, fields, dunes and on the beach. The festival exemplifies site-specific theater, where art and environment meld, each illuminating the other.
I had been concerned about the crowds on an island measuring 18 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and with a year-round population of 4,800. Would the Oerol faithful overrun the place, ruining my fond memories? As it turned out, not at all. Save for the main thoroughfares and gathering spots, not only did Terschelling retain its sense of otherworldliness, the arts events took me to pockets of the island I probably wouldn’t have explored on my own.
We had pre-ordered tickets for a handful of performances, because many sell out. I had the advantage of a Dutch spouse who could research the offerings, but the program also includes summaries in English and handily notes the best options for non-Dutch speakers.
By happenstance, we had chosen to stay in a rental cabin strategically situated just outside Midsland, the charming historic village in the middle of the island where Oerol got its start. In 1982, Joop Mulder, then-owner of the still-hopping Cafe de Stoep and now the festival’s artistic director, held the first event on a much smaller scale. During Oerol and the regular tourist season, from late spring to mid-fall, both Midsland and the harbor town of West Terschelling, about four miles west, are lively, their streets filled with visitors who pour into the many shops, restaurants and cafes. During the festival, both locations also house rollicking gated-off areas where wristband-wearers can eat, drink, view art, watch bands, buy tickets and compare notes.
Our second day on the island began with a scenic 30-minute wake-up ride to see “Dead End” by the Amsterdam theater troupe Via Berlin. (The official Oerol map gives cycling times, with the longest ride being 80 minutes, so it’s best to plan events strategically.) The production was held on a stage erected on the beach, the sea unfolding behind it. As we watched from bleachers, a man dressed as a border guard hammered out an eerie melody on an electric xylophone. When the sound was interrupted by heavy breathing, the source was at first unclear.
“Look, there,” Selina whispered, pointing toward the sea. Not far from an actual fisherman, an actor, playing a fresh-off-the-boat refugee, zigzagged from the shore toward the audience. What followed was a haunting, percussion-fueled duel between the panting immigrant and the guard, who banged on drums lining the stage. As the wind picked up and it began to drizzle, the man’s despair became all the more palpable. In the end, he fled into the dunes, not even returning for a rousing standing ovation.
A woman at my side, a 10-year Oerol veteran, told me she always buys tickets for the shows on the beach, regardless of content. “Those are always the most special” she said, advising me to bring a seat cushion next time, like the one she and many others carried. “You’re either sitting at a performance or sitting on your bike all day, so your rear hurts.”
As we left, we checked out the improbably named “Heartbreak Hotel,” a restaurant, not a hotel, that specializes in Elvis paraphernalia as well as sandwiches and burgers. Sitting atop stilts on the beach, its view is unparalleled and it’s enough of an island destination to remain open year-round.
Later in the week, on a very welcome warm and sunny day (most were cool and cloudy, with intermittent drizzles), we headed out past the Elvis shrine and cycled as far as the trail would take us. The bike paths that cut through the island range from dirt tracks to wide paved paths, all easily navigable. At the end of the path, we walked into the sugary white dunes for a rest, counting only a handful of people. Terschelling’s beaches are said to be the widest in Europe, measuring about 500 yards from dunes to shore, so it’s a hike to the water’s edge, especially if you’re carrying beach gear.
The remainder of the island’s eastern side is taken up by the 11,000-acre national nature reserve Boschplaat, where a network of walking trails lead visitors around high dunes, sand planes, swamps and marshes, and the island’s only natural forest. Not only do thousands of waterfowl regularly reside here, the area is a stopover for migrating birds.
Here and many times throughout the week, the scenery reminded me of Cape Cod, in southeastern Massachusetts, with the more windswept areas feeling like Wellfleet and Truro and the Cape Cod National Seashore, and the villages recalling Eastham and Chatham, with less car traffic. Other things in common with the Cape: stands with homemade ice cream and even cranberry production.
On this day of exploring, we cycled back toward West Terschelling on a wide paved path flanking the dike that runs along the island’s south side. Our pace was slow enough to enjoy watching flocks of gulls, plovers, spoonbills and more birds feed on the vast mud flats. Along the way, we stopped to view a few installations erected for Oerol, most with nature at their core, including kiosks set up in fields for viewing and listening to birds and insects and giant mirrors reflecting images on the other side of the dike.
On the island’s western end, a favorite gathering spot for visitors, especially on the terrace of the popular bar and restaurant Paviljoen De Walvis, we found even larger installations. “Zeven Streken,” by Marc van Vliet, was a wooden structure with seating for dozens, reached by walking a 100-meter pier built over mud flats. When the tide came in, water surrounded the piece, its parts moving with the rushing tidal current. On land, artist Arjen Boerstra erected “Camera Batavia” in the top of a wooden tower on a high dune. With the help of lenses and a rounded mirror, visitors could view a large swath of the island in all directions at the same time.
Some of the installations are part of an ongoing arts initiative called Sense of Place, a collective term for numerous efforts carried out in and around the Wadden Sea that marry public art with landscape. Headed up by Oerol’s founder, the project will also play a significant role in 2018, when the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden takes the spotlight as a European Capital of Culture.
On our final day on the island, we attended the play we’d chosen expressly for Selina, because it was in her native Dutch. I figured I’d go for the tunes and the scenery, but “Lutine,” by the Amsterdam musical theater troupe Orkater, captivated me. The production explored the wreck of the Lutine, a Royal Navy frigate that sunk in 1799 after hitting a sandbank between Terschelling and the neighboring island of Vlieland, with 269 lives lost. The ship is said to have carried a treasure trove of gold, which so far nobody has managed to salvage, although plenty have tried.
From our perch only a couple miles from where the disaster took place 216 years earlier, we could hear the pounding waves and survey the vast sea while the actors shared tragic and comic stories of cockamamie schemes devised to unbury the bounty of Terschelling. Thankfully, the island has plenty of other riches, much easier to access.
Diane Daniel is a writer in Veldhoven, the Netherlands. Her Web site is www.bydianedaniel.com.
More from Travel:
Ferries leave from Harlingen, 72 miles north of Amsterdam, which can be reached by bus or train. Information and reservations at www.rederij-doeksen.nl/home?locale=en. During Oerol, special festival buses leave from Utrecht and Amsterdam (see www.festivalbussen.nl.) The fast ferry takes an hour 15 minutes, $25; the regular ferry takes two hours 35 minutes, $18.
WestCord Hotel Schylge
Burgemeester van Heusdenweg 37
Large, modern hotel with waterfront views near the harbor. Rooms from about $135.
Bed & Breakfast De Postoari
Artfully decorated upscale B&B in historic former parsonage on east side of island. Rooms from about $140.
Restaurant De Zee
Mediterranean-inspired menu with fresh, local dishes, many cooked in a wood-fired oven. Pizza from $12.50, entrees from $21.
Paviljoen De Walvis
Groene Strand 1
The unofficial town watering hole, with a stellar view of the water and mud flats. Entrees from $13.
Einde van de Badweg
Elvis is king at this 1950s-Americana themed beach joint featuring juicy burgers and killer views. Burgers from $9.
The yearly arts festival, next held June 10-19, features dozens of performances in theater, dance, performance art, live music, and installations, most held outdoors. Lodging can be very difficult to find, so start early and consider camping (you can rent the equipment). Wristbands for general activities: in advance $23, at the door $28. For kids, wristbands: in advance about $5, at the door about $7. Ticketed performances from $10 to $15.
Most visitors explore the island by bicycle and on foot. Bike rental companies are all over the island and many will deliver bikes to you; rates vary with bike type and rental duration. See www.vvvterschelling