Germany Holidays: Wattwandern, otherwise known as mud-flat hiking

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Wattwandern is serious recreation along the low coasts of northern Germany.

Once you’ve got used to the ooze of North Sea goo between your toes, it can be both exhilarating and health-enhancing. After all, in other parts of Europe beautiful people pay through the nose to have mud of this quality painted all over them by highly trained personnel. So why not wandern out into the Watt towards the Frisian islands and get the same effect, for free?

The heartland of Wattwandern is the Wadden Sea (Wattenmeer), an inter-tidal zone that runs all the way along the coast from Denmark through to the Netherlands. It’s a shallow belt of mudflats and islands (including the Frisians), and its biological diversity – particularly birdlife – has put it on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Seals lie on the sand-banks and there are sea-horses in the shallows. At low tide, the waters almost completely retreat past the barrier islands leaving a 5-15 km wide strip.

If you’re going to head out on a serious walk here, there are hikes to be made across to the East Frisian islands, Neuwerk, Norderney, Juist, Baltrum, Langeoog and Spiekeroog, but these should only be attempted with a guide and at the right time of the tide. The Watt conditions change quickly from knee-deep slimey mud/marsh fluff to fairly solid sand to waist-deep water channels called Priele, which fill up quickly on the returning tide.

An exploration of the sort of pristine environment yet to be spoiled by human beings

To make your own little sorties out, Cuxhaven is a reasonable place to start, heading for the island of Neuwerk, but take a phone and study the tide tables first. In general, barefoot is a pleasure – the sand humps do natural foot massage as you walk, and the mud is good for your skin – but some crabs might demonstrate their lack of sense of humour, given the opportunity. Various operators offer horse-drawn carriage crossings, and there are several small hotels on the island which can arrange transfers. Plus a ferry company Cassen Eils which operates on high tide.

If the weather is good this is one of those rare experiences, an exploration of the sort of pristine environment yet to be spoiled by human beings. People rave about the exhilaration of setting foot in the polar regions, and yet this walking across the sea bed is far more accessible, far less expensive, and produces a similar effect.

Finally, should you ever get confused over the order of the East Frisian islands from East to West, Germans use a fun mnemonic “Welcher Seeman liegt bei Nelly imBett?” to represent Wangerooge, Spiekeroog, Langeoog, Baltrum, Norderney, Juist and Borkum.  It translates as: which seaman lies with Nelly in bed?

Getting There: International airports at Hamburg and Bremen.  International rail connections to Hamburg are via Cologne from Brussels (Thalys), which connect with the Eurostar from London. See our Travel page for airlines, rail and tour operators.

Staying There: our recommended hotels are here for Niedersachsen, here for Bremen, and here for Hamburg.

Information on the Wadden Sea

Information on Wattwandern (site in German only)

Tourist information East Frisian islands

Looking for more? See other destinations in Northern Germany

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