Destination Heligoland by Charter Expedition Yacht

Angela Dansby

Imagine being able to travel to little-known islands, little-explored parts of countries and other remote destinations only accessible by water. You could walk in the footsteps of the world’s great explorers but sleep in the comforts of a modern expedition ship and eat like a gourmand.

Change “could” to “can:” Exploratory travel is here and it’s here to stay as the ultimate ecotourism. Artica, Antarctica and the South Pacific, for example, are no longer pipe dreams of the adventurous. That’s a result of pioneering companies like Lindblad Expeditions (with which I traveled to Antarctica in 2010) and EYOS Expeditions, which can literally take clients everywhere.

Last week I was introduced to a charter yacht in the EYOS fleet called the Hanse Explorer, beautifully retrofitted to explore in style and comfort. Its fine interior contrasts to its tough exterior, which has the highest available ice classification to circumnavigate the globe. Built to handle the most challenging tropical and polar waters, “she” is described as a “go-anywhere” yacht. (In a strange use of English grammar, ships are traditionally referred to in the maritime industry as “she/her.” This tradition relates to the idea of a female figure like a mother or goddess guiding and protecting a ship and its crew. Old school humor also explains it.)

A handful of other journalists and I boarded the Hanse Explorer in Bremerhaven port on the North Sea coast of Germany. We sailed overnight north about 70 kilometers (44 miles), anchoring near Heligoland, a two-island archipelago owned by Germany that includes the country’s smallest conservation area (a cliffside bird sanctuary named Lummenfelsen) and a grey seal birthing beach (called “Bade-Düne” meaning bathing dune). Retractable stabilizers kept the ship and us steady while anchored.

The next morning, we took the ship’s two Zodiacs to the shore of Heligoland’s mainland, an unusual spa site that’s car-free and care-free with no pollution and little pollen. We were surprised to see stunning red cliffs, including a 47-meter-high spire called Lange Anna, sandy beaches, cows with curly fur (as if cross-bred with sheep), rare birds and birdwatchers.

Heligoland was formed over 3,500 years ago by rising sea levels that caused land to break off from mainland Europe. Over time, the island shrunk due to large pieces of chalk cliffs falling into the sea. Frisians from northern Netherlands first occupied Heligoland, leaving a legacy of Heligolandic language, a dialect of North Frisian, that is spoken to this day by some 500 of the island’s 1,650 inhabitants. It’s also taught in schools.

Heligoland was taken over by the dukes of Schleswig-Holstein in 1402 in whose hands it remained until 1714 when it became a Danish possession. In 1807, the British conquered it to use it to “unblock” the Continental Blockade (trade war) imposed by Napoleon against British goods. It was a hub for smugglers until Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.        

In 1826, smugglers turned into tourists, spa seekers and artists. The British enjoyed Heligoland until 1890, when it was ceded to Germany in exchange for territories in southwest Africa under the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty.

The Germans used Heligoland (they spell it Helgoland) as a naval base during both World Wars and as a tourism spot in between. In World War II, they built bunkers and tunnels on the island and put warships and submarines in the harbor. In 1945, resistance fighters tried to surrender to the British, but they were betrayed; later that day, the British bombed the hell out of the island. “Operation Big Bang,” which detonated 6,700 tons of explosives, left a trail of pockmarks. In 1947, the British set off the largest non-nuclear explosion in history by remote detonation – a crater from it remains as the greatest of war wound. Bunkers also remain under the island’s surface. (Guided tours through underground tunnels offer a walk backwards time and can be booked at Museum Helgoland.)

In 1950, German students occupied Heligoland to call for its return to Germany, which happened two years later. Islanders returned and Heligoland was rebuilt as “a matter of the heart of the entire German people,” according to then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Shortly thereafter, Heligoland once again became a place of peace. It has been a tourist destination ever since, primarily for spa goers, birdwatchers and seal lovers.

About one kilometer next to the main island lies the 1,000-meter-long Bade-Düne. It’s home to numerous grey seals, which give birth there between November and January on white sand beaches. Guided tours allow you to watch nature in action at a respectful 30-meter distance. Tourists compete for beach space in summer. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Heligoland has a mild climate. (Supposedly palm and fig trees and orchids grow there but we did not see any.)

Heligoland is also important for navigation, wind-energy production and scientific research, namely orinthology. It attracts birdwatchers, particularly in June for a “guillemot jump” at Lummenfelsen, a 1.1-hectare area named after rare guillemot birds – the only place in Germany where they breed. The chicks of thousands of guillemots jump from a cliff into the North Sea every year.

When we were there, sea buckthorn and wild rosehips were in bloom, attracting other rare birds and therefore, birdwatchers. The bright orange berries of sea buckthorn bushes and red rosehip berries stood out against a largely green landscape.

Other splashes of color on Heligoland come from former lobster shacks and fisherman’s houses at the harbor. Today they are home to galleries, pubs, cafés and even marriage ceremonies. Locally caught lobster remains a delicacy.

The high-salinity environment also attracts people seeking wellness and spa treatments with sea silt, seawater and more. There are even outpatient treatments for respiratory ailments, cardiovascular diseases and problems of the joints, muscles and bones.

Due to Heligoland’s location, it is considered independent from Germany under customs law and therefore duty- and VAT-free. So it sells spirits, cigarettes, perfume, cosmetics, jewelry, brand-name clothing and more at discount prices. (Shops are open from 15 December to 31 October, even on Sundays and most public holidays.)

But it’s really nature that makes this island outstanding. In fact, Heligoland has inspired writers and artists, such as poet Heinrich Heine and August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who wrote the German National Anthem there in 1841. The island is also proud of its own James Krüss, a famous children’s book writer.

Curiously, the electronica band Massive Attack named an album after Heligoland. Presumably, the group took a ferry* there at least once and found it inspiring. As our discovery expedition proved, Heligoland is indeed a destination to inspire songs or at least write home about.

* Regular ferries arrive from Büsum, Hamburg, Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven.

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).