Posts Tagged ‘Wattwagenfahrt’

Neuwerk Worth a Staycation

Monday, August 7th, 2017


Neuwerk is a small, inhabited island in the North Sea, about 9 miles northwest of Cuxhaven and 75 miles northwest of Hamburg. It is only about 1.5 square miles in size. As of spring 2017, 33 residents plus 2 children and their teacher make their permanent home there. However, over the course of the summer more than 120,000 guests visit Neuwerk and up to 2,000 may do so on a given day. Still, peace and tranquility abound.

Politically, the island belongs to the city-state of Hamburg. In 1990, it became part of the Nationalpark Hamburgisches Wattenmeer, (Hamburg Wadden Sea National Park), and in 2011 the entire area was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Neuwerk is a captivating spot for nature lovers as well as those who relish off-the-beaten-path experiences.

How to get to Neuwerk

There are a number of ways to reach the island. A fun way is to cross the wetlands on foot (called wattwandern in German) or on horseback. In either case, the tide must be low. Departure points are Cuxhaven-Duhnen and Cuxhaven-Sahlenburg. A marked path guides the hiker through the Wadden Sea on this 3 to 3.5-hour trek one-way. Wetland hiking is best during the summer months because during other times of the year, icy winds and water can turn such outings into Kneipp expeditions, and those are best left to the extremely hardy.


Wattwandern (wetland hiking) along a marked route from Neuwerk to Cuxhaven-Duhnen. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

Wattwandern (wetland hiking) along a marked route from Neuwerk to Cuxhaven-Duhnen. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.


An alternative to wetland hiking is a Wattwagenfahrt (horse-drawn carriage ride). Also only available during low tide, the rides use same marked route through the Wadden Sea. A Wattwagenfahrt takes 1 to 1.25 hours each way and is probably the most scenic way of reaching the island.

The least cumbersome way to visit Neuwerk is by ferry. Between April and October, the MS Flipper transports passengers almost daily to and from the island. Unlike crossing the wetlands on foot, horseback or Wattwagen, a ferry ride requires high tide. Check the tidetable. Ferry boat excursions take 1.5 to 2 hours each way.

To allow for sufficient time to explore the island, visitors often decide to walk one way and return by ferry or Wattwagen.

Neuwerk is an important habitat for birds

Neuwerk and the surrounding wetlands are an important habitat for breeding and resting birds. For millions of migratory birds, the Wadden Sea provides the sustenance for the flight north in spring and for the flight south in fall. The island is an ideal nursery for many bird species. Starting in May, various species breed in the vegetated interior of the island and in the salt marches surrounding it. The nearby, uninhabited islands of Scharhoern and Nigehoern, are bird sanctuaries. While Scharhoern can be visited as part of a tour or by prior arrangement with the warden, Nigehoern is off limits to visitors.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Wattwagenfahrt – endless discovery

Monday, July 31st, 2017


A Wattwagenfahrt (horse-drawn carriage ride in the Wadden Sea) is an eerily romantic and definitely unforgettable experience! Along the 280-mile stretch of German coastline, the seawater recedes for an incredible nine miles during ebb tide and exposes vast tidal flats in the process. We wanted to see this rare vestige of unspoiled nature and signed up for a Wattwagenfahrt. We started in Cuxhaven-Duhnen and headed for the tiny island of Neuwerk, about 7.5 miles into the North Sea.

What a Wattwagen looks like

A Wattwagen is a horse-drawn carriage that has been outfitted with leaf springs so that the body of the coach perches high above the vehicle’s wheels. The reason for the raised suspension is that the expedition will take us through tidal gullies, called Priele. Contrary to popular belief, the Wadden Sea Read: Allure of the Wadden Sea does not recede and refill evenly during low and high tides. A vein-like network of gullies cuts through the surface of the wetland. These tidal creeks can be just a few inches deep at low tide and grow into rivers as the tide returns, which can happen within minutes. Negotiating the gullies, the horses frequently end up in the water up to their bellies. That means the floor of the coach also gets wet. To minimize this problem, the leaf springs raise the coach and hopefully keep it from becoming immersed in water.

A Wattwagen with leaf springs to elevate the coach floor. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

A Wattwagen with leaf springs to elevate the coach floor. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

Our fascinating Wattwagenfahrt

We signed up with the Wattwagenfahrt operator, the “Wattenpost,” operated by Jan Bruett. This family business has been in continuous operation since 1880 when the German Emperor Wilhelm I charged Christian Bruett with the task of delivering the mail to the island of Neuwerk. To this day, the Bruett family continues to deliver the mail on a weekly basis. You might say we felt in good hands.

Each Wattwagen has the capacity of loading nine people (8 passengers and the coachman). Our coachman was actually a woman, Claudia, who possessed a keen sense of humor. The expedition began with ladders being readied for the boarding process since the seating area is so high off the ground. After everyone was seated and wrapped in warm blankets, our convoy of about 10 Wattwagen slowly crossed the dike, the dunes and the beach and then entered the mudflats of the Wadden Sea. Tufts of birch tree twigs stuck in the ocean floor marked the route. The tide was low and the sun was shining. The horses broke into a trot. Soon, we were joined by another expedition coming from nearby Cuxhaven-Sahlenburg. Together we made the 1.5-hour trek to Neuwerk.  Read: Neuwerk Worth a Staycation Although it was early May, the temperatures were outright frosty. A robust wind blew from the east, and some of the gusts managed to penetrate our carefully layered clothing. We looked and felt a bit like early pioneers making our way to the New World.

Wattwagenfahrt from Duhnen to Neuwerk. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

Wattwagenfahrt from Duhnen to Neuwerk. Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2017.

The island of Neuwerk beckoned in the distance. Before us lay the great expanse of wetland, serrated here and there by small and large priels. Sea birds above the ground, small sea life below the ground. Every once in a while we passed a safety cage propped on a giant pole. These cages serve as safe havens for people who misjudged the speed of the incoming tide while crossing the mud flats on foot. Looking to our right, the superstructures of giant container ships slowly moved down the nearby Elbe River towards Hamburg. In this fast-paced life, a Wattwagenfahrt is a truly peaceful and bewitching experience. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat and recommend it to anyone for their bucket list.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, “Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of