The five beautiful and highly individual Wadden Islands, low-lying, dune-laden, windswept barrier islands, are connected by ferry across the Waddenzee (Wadden Sea) from adjacent mainland harbors. This shallow sea's depth ranges from about 1 to 3m (3-10 ft.), and at low tide it virtually disappears. The Dutch treasure these small islands as romantic getaways. On a line curving north and east, they are: Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland, and Schiermonnikoog. Texel belongs to Noord-Holland and is covered separately. The remaining four islands belong to Friesland.

These havens of wild natural beauty encompass miles of white sand on wide beaches along the North Sea coasts, marshes, and wetlands that are sanctuaries for thousands of migratory seabirds, seals sunning on sandbanks, rare plants, old villages, and museums connected with the sea and seafarers. Most vacationers visit between the spring and fall; only a hardy few brave the winter gales.

The best way to get around is by bicycle. You can rent bikes on the islands, though they get scarce during the busiest periods. The island VVV offices have information on bungalows, campsites, bed-and-breakfasts, and hotels.

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Vlieland (Flylân)

A thin strip of beach and dunes, 19km (12 miles) long and a maximum of 3km (2 miles) wide, Vlieland (pop. 1,200) is an ideal hide-out. Carefree and almost car-free, Vlieland is virtually deserted, except in summer. The only disturbance here is the plangent cry of seabirds -- and an occasional howling fly past by Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon jets on training sorties.

Getting There -- Rederij Doeksen (tel. 0900/363-5736; www.rederij-doeksen.nl) operates ferry and jet-catamaran service from Harlingen . An Arriva bus shuttles between Harlingen rail station and the harbor, connecting with the ferries to Vlieland and Terschelling . The ferry trip to Vlieland takes 1 3/4 hours one-way. A round-trip ticket is 22€ ($35) for adults, 20€ ($32) for seniors, 12€ ($19) for children ages 4 to 11, and free for children 3 and under. Private cars are not transported on the Vlieland ferry. The jet-cat crosses over in 45 minutes, for an additional 5.60€ ($8.95) one-way for passengers of all ages. In addition, there is jet-cat service from Terschelling (25 min.) and a passenger boat from Texel (25 min.).

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Visitor Information -- VVV Vlieland, Hafenweg 10, 8899 BB Vlieland (tel. 0562/451-111; fax 0562/451-361; www.vlieland.net), is next to the ferry dock.

What to See & Do -- There's not a lot to see and do; that's the main attraction here. Sunbathing -- the island has what's said to be Europe's longest naturist beach -- bird-watching (at least they're supposed to be watching birds through those binoculars), biking, and hiking among the dunes and forests are the key activities. An important bird sanctuary is the Natuurgebied De Kroon's Polders; look out for De Posthuys, a cafe from 1837, on the edge of the reserve.

In the old-time whaling port of Oost-Vlieland (East-Flylân), the island's only village (its one-time sister village West-Vlieland vanished beneath the waves in 1736), the 16th-century Trompshuys, Dorpstraat 99 (tel. 0562/451-600; www.trompshuys.nl), named for the 17th-century admiral Cornelis Tromp (though the house never belonged to him), hosts a local history museum, with a collection of antique clocks and other items. The museum is open May to September Tuesday to Friday from 11am to 5pm, and October to April Tuesday to Saturday from 2 to 5pm. Admission is 2.75€ ($4.40) for adults, 2.50€ ($4) for seniors, 2€ ($3.20) for children ages 6 to 16, and free for children 5 and under.

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The Informatiecentrum De Noordwester, Dorpstraat 150 (tel. 0562/451-700; www.denoordwester.nl), has displays on the island's flora and fauna, and can give advice on the best places for observing the hundred or so species of birds that show up here. The information center is open on a complex monthly schedule that ranges from 10am to 5pm in high summer to 2 to 5pm in winter; it's closed from early January to mid-February. Admission is 3€ ($4.80) for adults, 2.75€ ($4.40) for seniors, 2€ ($3.20) for children ages 4 to 12, and free for children 3 and under.

The VVV office organizes guided tours on an observation vehicle, the Vliehorsexpres.

Terschelling (Skylge)

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The most accessible of Friesland's four Wadden Islands, Terschelling (pop. 5,000) is a strip of beach, dunes, nature reserves, and pine forest. It's 29km (18 miles) long and a maximum of 4km (2 1/2 miles) wide. Large and popular enough to have some things for visitors to do besides soak up the sun and admire the natural beauty, the island can be quite busy, though not crowded, in summer.

Getting There -- Rederij Doeksen (tel. 0900/363-5736; www.rederij-doeksen.nl) operates car-ferry and jet-catamaran service from Harlingen . An Arriva bus shuttles between Harlingen rail station and the harbor, connecting with the ferries to Terschelling and Vlieland . The ferry trip to Terschelling takes 2 hours one-way. A round-trip ticket is 22€ ($35) for adults, 20€ ($32) for seniors, 12€ ($19) for children ages 4 to 11, and free for children 3 and under. Taking a car is possible but not encouraged -- the fare for an ordinary car alone begins at 74€ ($118) round-trip, and goes up in stages to 275€ ($440) for a large auto and trailer, plus charges for above-average height and width; reservations are essential. The jet-cat crosses over in 45 minutes, for an additional 5.60€ ($8.95) one-way for passengers of all ages. In addition, there is jet-cat service from Vlieland (25 min.), and a passenger boat from Ameland (3 hr.).

Visitor Information -- VVV Terschelling, Willem Barentszkade 19A, 8881 BC West-Terschelling (tel. 0562/443-000; fax 0562/442-875; www.vvvterschelling.nl), overlooks the harbor.

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What to See & Do -- West-Terschelling (West-Skylge), the island's main village, a former whaling center set in a sheltered bay on the coast facing the mainland, is dominated by the square, yellowish-colored Brandaris Lighthouse, 54m (177 ft.) high and constructed in 1594. A look into the lives of the islanders of yesteryear is available at 't Behouden Huys Museum, Commandeurstraat 30-32 (tel. 0562/442-389; www.behouden-huys.nl), in the gabled houses constructed in 1668 for two sea captains. You'll find period rooms and displays about whaling and other local traditions. The museum is open April to September Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5pm; and in October Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm, and Saturday from 1 to 5pm. Admission is 3€ ($4.80) for adults, 2€ ($3.20) for seniors and children ages 5 to 13, and free for children 4 and under.

To learn more about local geography, wildlife, and plants, visit the Centrum voor Natuur en Landschap, Burgemeester Reedekkerstraat 11 (tel. 0562/442-390; www.natuurmuseumterschelling.nl). A small aquarium recreates North Sea and Wadden Sea environments. The center is open April to October Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, and weekends from 2 to 5pm. Admission is 5€ ($8) for adults, 3.50€ ($5.60) for children ages 4 to 12, and free for children 3 and under. An important nature reserve and bird sanctuary, De Boschplaat Nature Reserve ★, occupies the eastern half of the island (access is restricted during the breeding season, mid-Mar to mid-Aug).

More thrilling is sand-sailing on the North Sea beaches, aboard a wheeled sand-yacht that can sail along at an impressive clip when the wind is strong, as it often is. Rent one from Strandzeilschool Beausi (tel. 0562/448-055; www.strandzeilschool.nl).

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Ameland (It Amelân)

Ameland (pop. 3,500), 24km (15 miles) long and a maximum of 4km (3 miles) wide, can be thought of as the "median" Wadden Island -- not as busy nor as varied as Texel and Terschelling; not as quiet and remote as Vlieland and Schiermonnikoog, but every bit as scenic as the other four. For many visitors, it's the ideal compromise.

Getting There -- Wagenborg Passagiersdiensten (tel. 0900/455-4455 information, 0519/546-111 reservations; www.wpd.nl) operates car-ferry service from a dock 4km (2 1/2 miles) north of Holwerd (Holwert), which is itself 22km (14 miles) north of Leeuwarden. The ferry trip takes 45 minutes one-way. April to September, the round-trip fare is 13€ ($21) for adults, 12€ ($19) for seniors, 7.55€ ($12) for children ages 4 to 11, and free for children 3 and under; fares from October to March are around 10% cheaper. Taking a car is possible but not encouraged; the summer fare for an ordinary car begins at 79€ ($126); reservations are required. In addition, passenger boats sail from both Terschelling and Schiermonnikoog (3 hr. in each case).

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Buses connect both Groningen and Leeuwarden rail stations with the ferry dock. Going by car from Leeuwarden, take N357 north.

Visitor Information -- Ameland, Bureweg 2, 9163 KE Nes (tel. 0519/546-546; fax 0519/546-547; www.vvvameland.nl), is close to the ferry terminal.

What to See & Do -- The main village and ferry port, Nes, in the middle of the south coast, has 17th- to 18th-century sea captains' houses. In Nes, the Natuurcentrum, Strandweg 38 (tel. 0519/542-737; www.amelandermusea.nl), takes you close to the island's natural history. It has a weather station and an aquarium containing denizens of the North Sea and Wadden Sea. The center is open April to October and Christmas/New Year school vacation, Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5pm; and November to December (outside of Christmas/New Year school vacation), Wednesday to Saturday from 1 to 5pm. Admission is 3.75€ ($6) for adults, 3€ ($4.80) for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under.

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In Hollum, on the west coast, the Cultuur-Historisch Museum Sorgdrager, Herenweg 1 (tel. 0519/554-477; www.amelandermusea.nl) is in a sea captain's house from 1751. It employs cultural history as a cover for what's essentially a museum of whaling, an industry that once was the island's bread and butter. The museum is open mid-February to October Monday to Friday from 10am to noon and 1 to 5pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 1:30 to 5pm (closed weekends Jul-Aug); and November to mid-February Wednesday to Saturday from 1:30 to 5pm. Admission is 3€ ($4.80) for adults, 2.50€ ($4) for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under. Check out the cemetery of the village's old church for gravestones decorated with images of whaling ships.

Nearby, the Reddingsmuseum Abraham Fock, Oranjeweg 18 (tel. 0519/542-737; www.amelandermusea.nl), takes as its theme the sometimes grim, sometimes buoyant, but always uplifting history of the local lifeboats and the crews who risked -- and often enough, lost -- their lives. The museum is open mid-February to October Monday to Friday from 10am to noon and 1 to 5pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 1:30 to 5pm (closed weekends Jul-Aug); and November to mid-February Wednesday to Saturday from 1:30 to 5pm. Admission is 2€ ($3.20) for adults, 1€ ($1.60) for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under.

Birds do their avian thing in the Oerduinen and Het Hon nature reserves on the east coast. Get your own bird's-eye view aboard a light aircraft from Ameland Rondvluchten (tel. 0519/554-644; www.ameland-rondvluchten.nl) just north of Ballum, a village between Nes and Hollum. The cost of a flight for up to three adults, or two adults and two children, ranges from 95€ ($152) for 15 minutes, to 270€ ($432) for 60 minutes.

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Schiermonnikoog (Skiermûntseach)

Wild, scenic, remote, and invariably all but deserted, the easternmost and smallest of the Wadden Islands, Schiermonnikoog (pop. 1,000), 17km (11 miles) long and a maximum of 6km (4 miles) wide, was declared a national park in 1988.

Getting There -- Wagenborg Passagiersdiensten (tel. 0900/455-4455 information, 0519/546-111 reservations; www.wpd.nl) operates ferry service from Lauwersoog, 36km (22km) northeast of Leeuwarden. Buses connect both Leeuwarden and Groningen rail stations with Lauwersoog. The ferry trip takes 45 minutes one-way. April to September, the round-trip fare is 14€ ($22) for adults, 13€ ($21) for seniors, 8.15€ ($13) for children ages 4 to 11, and free for children 3 and under; fares from October to March are around 10% cheaper. A bus meets the ferry and takes passengers to the island's only village, also called Schiermonnikoog. If you're driving, you'll have to leave your car at Lauwersoog (only residents are permitted to ship their cars across). In addition, a passenger boat sails from Ameland (3 hr.).

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Visitor Information -- VVV Schiermonnikoog, Reeweg 5, 9166 PW Schiermonikoog (tel. 0519/531-233; fax 0529/531-325; www.vvvschiermonnikoog.nl), is on the village's main street.

What to See & Do -- On the sheltered Wadden Sea coast, Schiermonnikoog village dates from the early 18th century, and life here doesn't seem to have speeded up much since then. A statue known as the Schiere Monnik (Gray Monk) recalls the island's early history as a refuge of Cistercian monks, and two nearby complete whale jawbones, its 18th-century heyday as a whaling center.

Schiermonnikoog was made a national park partly because of its isolation, wild scenery, and migratory birds, and partly because of its flora -- half of all native Dutch plant species can be found here. Housed in an old lighthouse, a short walk or bike ride from the village, Schiermonnikoog National Park's Bezoekerscentrum (Visitor Center), Torenstreek 20 (tel. 0519/531-641), can provide information about wildlife on the island and offer guided tours. The center is open April to October Monday to Saturday from 10am to noon and 1:30 to 5:30pm; November to March hours are reduced to Saturday from 1:30 to 5:30pm. Admission is 1€ ($1.60) for adults, and free for children 11 and under.

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A great way to get around the island's dunes, beaches, woodlands, and polders is aboard the Balgexpress, a tractor-drawn observation trailer, which departs from the Visitor Center.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.