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Articles Blog

Helgoland, Germany

Karyn Planett

One Island or Two?

Helgoland, as it’s known in correct German, is Heligoland in an Anglicized parlance. It’s a pair of islands*, or not, in the North Sea just west of the Jutland Peninsula, and smack in the middle of the Helgoland Bight. Did you find it, them? No? Well, we all know where the North Sea is, right? The Jutland Peninsula is that finger of land that sticks out from Germany, and is home to most of Denmark’s geography. It was also the site of a couple of historic naval battles between the British and German navies. Just know that the Helgoland Bight is that corner of the North Sea where the Jutland Peninsula meets mainland Germany. Now, all this should be … Crystal clear.

But what is not so clear is how Helgoland, inhabited since prehistoric times and boasting a current population of just above one thousand souls, came to be associated with a brand new “land” only a few hundred kilometers to the northeast, established as recently as 1968, and hosting a seasonal population in excess of two million. Can it be that Helgoland and Legoland are connected only by linguistic coincidence?  Something to ponder as you read on.

The Frisians

The Frisians were a pagan society occupying the north coast of what is now Germany. They were eventually dominated then subjugated by the Franks who moved up from the south bringing Christianity with them. Radbod, the last Frisian king not some steamy Grammy-winning rapper, fled to the island of Helgoland at the end of the seventh century. The Frisians held out long enough (probably because few others cared about a rock less than one square mile in size) that today this could be the only place on earth with a majority of ethnic Frisians. So if you ever wanted to meet one, this is your chance. Oh, BTW, Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes is an ethnic Frisian. Now you know. 


The Danes

In the 13th Century, Helgoland became part of the Danish kingdom and gradually the island took on greater strategic and economic importance. The fishing industry began to thrive. Then as commercial shipping grew with industrialization, the islanders became adept at the sport of “wrecking”, or salvaging shipwrecks. In fact, they have been accused of actually causing shipwrecks using an oft-frowned-upon technique called “false lights” where fake navigation lights were used to lure ships onto the rocks. Helgoland was also a station for pilots who guided ships safely into the ports of the Hanseatic League and even today it provide pilots for ships entering the Elbe River bound for the port of Hamburg. Denmark turned over control of the island to the British in 1814. 

The Brits And The Germans

During the Napoleonic Wars, England used Helgoland as a transit point for espionage conducted against the little general, then as a forward base to keep an eye on the French fleet. With the building of the Kiel Canal, Germany claimed the island to protect its western end. The British and Germans came to blows in the area twice during World War I. The Battle of Helgoland Bight was the very first engagement of the war and a British victory succeeded in keeping the capital ships of the German fleet in port for most of the remainder of the war. After that, only minor engagements were fought in that part of the North Sea. 


What does one do on a typical day on a small rocky island with no motor vehicles? The people of Helgoland have turned primarily to duty-free shopping, or selling as the case may be, as a base for the island’s economy. Located only a short ferry ride from several European countries sporting whopping taxes on spirits and cigarettes, enterprising islanders have established an array of shops offering these “essential” commodities. 

Visitors not intent on stocking up on these items can choose from a variety of pass-the-day activities. Among them, strolling out to a promontory known as “Tall Anna”, a 150-foot sea stack at the north end of the island. Germany’s smallest nature reserve is on the island and hosts a variety of nesting seabirds. A trolley service is also available for touring the landscape. Seafood lovers can cross by boat to a small nearby sand island called Düne to enjoy lobster and crab claws. If you do go independently, remember to be back aboard your ship before sailing.

Oh, Yes! Legoland 

Legoland was established in 1968 near the town of Billund, Denmark site of the original Lego factory that was founded in 1949 by Ole Kirk Christiansen. This theme-park celebration of the popular little building blocks is apparently connected to Helgoland only by linguistic coincidence. Sorry.

*Though called “an island”, it’s really two islands now after a storm broke off an uninhabited chunk of land from the main mass.