An easy cruise from our own south coast, an enticing network of sheltered waterways and picturesque harbours awaits those making the passage to Holland

Boating is a way of life in the Netherlands, where water occupies a significant proportion of the country’s surface area. Behind Holland’s North Sea flood defences lies an extraordinary network of canals, sounds, lakes, grand estuaries and rivers alive with ships and barges on an impressive scale.

Since the notorious storm surge disaster of 1953, the Dutch have worked tirelessly to protect their low lands from the sea, and their long-term planning has always included an integrated waterway system not just for commercial traffic but also pleasure boating.

As a result, Holland offers visitors a feast of unique and amazingly varied cruising surprisingly close to our own south and east coasts. If you haven’t yet savoured its many attractions, I recommend going there without delay.

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Zeeland Bridge is the longest in Holland measuring over 5km from end to end

It is of course delightful to visit old Flemish harbours lined with traditional brick buildings and cobbled quays, or meander along rural canals past picturesque villages and grazing cows. But it’s also fascinating to see the massive sea walls, enclosing dykes and huge shipping locks so painstakingly constructed over 60 years – incredible projects reflecting the determined spirit of this small but successful nation.

With this in mind, I have chosen my four favourite boating areas, each providing different facets of the Netherlands experience. You could potter in Holland for a lifetime of summers and still find new routes to explore, but for me the cruising grounds of Zeeland, IJsselmeer, the Waddenzee and Friesland are the places to start, whether you are aboard your own boat or chartering for a week or two.

Holland has countless harbours and marinas for pausing between cruise stages, so a two or three-season plan is perfectly feasible. We’ll be there this summer, so may see you in a lock, or alongside some leafy jetty!

Pottering in Zeeland

Zeeland is the south-west corner of the Netherlands, an easy destination from the Thames and Essex rivers. Solent boats can work up the English coast to Dover, cross to Calais and follow the inshore fairways towards the West Schelde.

Zeeland is an odd shape on a chart, its long peninsulas jutting out like tadpoles towards the North Sea. The most popular gateway to these beautiful landscapes is Vlissingen, on the north shore of the West Schelde. There’s a small marina here, but I prefer to head straight into the waterways to Middelburg.

Middelburg and Veere

Arriving from Vlissingen, you pass two lifting-bridges before turning into Middelburg harbour. I like to berth in the Binnenhaven, where tall Flemish houses line the cobbled quays. Arne Yacht Club is a friendly den, with a bar and hospitable members always game to pass on local information. Middelburg has a 12th century abbey and a grandiose town hall. The Thursday market is one of Zeeland’s largest.

At the north end of the canal, Veere is a postcard celebration of a Zeeland harbour. Boats lie to wooden staging and the north side is softened by grassy banks. To the west stands a white windmill.

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Veerse Meer is bordered by the picture postcard settlement of Veer

The south quay has elegant houses and café terraces dappled with shade from sycamore trees. From the pierheads you look out across the Veerse Meer, an enchanting lake dotted with islands and secluded jetties. The meer trends east for ten miles, where a lock leads out into the East Schelde river.

Round to Zierikzee

Emerging from the Veerse Meer into the Schelde, you can hang a left towards the spectacular Zeeland road bridge. Just beyond it on the north shore, the medieval settlement of Zierikzee is reached by a sleepy mile-long canal.

There are quiet berths here, or you can continue up to the old town harbour where two white drawbridges cry out for the clatter of hooves and rumble of carriage wheels.

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The harbour at Goes is enveloped by ornate Dutch architecture

Goes and Yerseke

Following the East Schelde upstream, you soon reach Goes, one of the lollipops of Zeeland cruising. A locked cut leads to an exquisite town basin graced by Renaissance-style houses.

Six miles beyond Goes, Yerseke is intriguing because of all the shellfish boats coming and going, and for its seafood stalls and cafés. Yerseke is renowned for its succulent mussels, which are superb eaten raw – like oysters – with just a squeeze of lemon juice and some crisp New Zealand Sauvignon.

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The ‘cul-de-sac’ of Grevelingenmeer is home to several marinas

Grevelingenmeer

Cruising east from Veerse Meer, you follow the wide barge route towards Rotterdam. At the end of this vibrant reach you pass through a shipping lock and can turn into the open spaces of Grevelingenmeer, a cul-de-sac between the two northern islands of the original Zeeland delta. This glorious boating lake has several marinas and some idyllic small islands.

Around the Ijsselmeer

Once called the Zuider Zee, the IJsselmeer is a famous expanse of sheltered water spreading 40 miles north from Amsterdam. At its outer end, a 30-mile barrage has two large locks allowing yachts, fishing boats and barges to pass.

To get here you can follow waterways north from the Veerse Meer via Rotterdam, or reach Amsterdam by sea via IJmuiden and the North Sea ship canal.

Amsterdam

Don’t miss staying in Amsterdam for a while. I love mooching around the city canals, with their ornate bridges and prestigious houses built on East India fortunes. The best billet is Sixhaven marina, opposite central station on the north side of the canal. This restful oasis is an ideal sightseeing base, with ferries shuttling to the city 24/7.

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Monnickendam harbour

Marken and Monnickendam

Ten miles north-east of Amsterdam, tiny Marken ‘island’ is now joined to the mainland by a causeway road. On its east tip, a white lighthouse and rickety timber cottage perch on a spit almost in the water. On the west side, Marken harbour is clustered round a quaint fishing village.

Just west of Marken, Monnickendam has three marinas and a genial coterie of English berth-holders. I usually make for Jachthaven Van Goor, a tranquil spot bordered by gardens.

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Edam harbour is one of many historic ports-of-call around the non-tidal IJsselmeer

Edam

This amiable port is approached along a mile-long canal and you must call here for some cheese culture! There’s a marina inside the entrance, but we go up to the Nieuwe Haven to be near the action. In the 17th century Edam ranked with Amsterdam as a trading and shipbuilding hub, but now its name is inevitably linked with cheese.

The summer cheese markets are worth seeing, when wheels of mature yellow Edam are brought into town by boat or horse-drawn cart.

Hoorn

Six miles north of Edam, Hoorn is tucked into a shallow bight. It has two marinas and an anchorage, but the true atmosphere of the place hangs over the quayside berths in the Binnenhaven. In summer, try to berth on the south side, where a park of spreading chestnuts looks across to a row of merchants’ houses.

In town, the original headquarters of the Dutch East India Company still bears the esteemed VOC trademark. In its heyday, the legendary Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie employed over 25,000 people worldwide.

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Enkhuizen is home to the Zuider Zee museum, which describes life around the estuary before it was landlocked

Enkhuizen and Medemblik

Enkhuizen is a sociable haven at the west end of the 12-mile barrage that divides the IJsselmeer in two. Arriving from the south you pass through a cavernous lock, where an invisible operator sits high in his control tower. Enkhuizen has a stunning fleet of sailing barges, some over 100-years-old. Their majestic rigs are seen all around the IJsselmeer and many cruise out to the islands and byways of the Waddenzee.

A little further north, Medemblik is an attractive boating centre. Four offshore windmills a mile from the pierheads are visible from far out in the IJsselmeer. A fairytale fortress commands the harbour entrance. Up in the Oosterhaven you can lie alongside a classic Dutch quay, or go further up to a lifting bridge and into Westerhaven.

Waddenzee islands

Out beyond the IJsselmeer locks you’ll find a completely different kind of cruising area, which looks like open water but is actually protected by the Frisian Islands. This is the tidal Waddenzee, a maze of navigable channels with enough nifty pilotage for many seasons’ cruising.

The most accessible part of the Waddenzee is enclosed by the islands of Texel, Vlieland and Terschelling, which crouch up to 15 miles offshore. Seen from a distance through summer haze, they seem like a trick of the light until you pick up some ghostly landmark – a solitary lighthouse or church, or a skeletal beacon on the edge of the dunes. At first sight, the prospect of a snug haven seems remote, but all these islands have marinas and a warm welcome.

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Barrelling through a brisk Waddenzee chop off the mainland side of Texel island

Oudeschild on Texel

Known for its woolly sheep, Texel is a treat to visit with your own boat. Oudeschild harbour is an interesting run from either of the IJsselmeer locks and you’ll see its village spires, red rooftops and a windmill just south of the entrance. Inside the pierheads, turn to starboard for Waddenhaven Texel Marina.

Oudeschild is very “North Sea Dutch”, its low cottages huddled behind the dyke. Texel is ideal for cycling and you can follow coast paths from the harbour, looking out across drying sands. On the seaward side of the island is a 13-mile driftwood beach.

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Vlieland is the smallest of the inhabited Waddanzee islands

Vlieland

The smallest inhabited Waddenzee island, Vlieland captures the remote, self-sufficient character of this area. The harbour at its east end has a narrow entrance, but inside there are modern pontoons and all facilities.

A short stroll takes you to Oost-Vlieland village, where the shops and cafés are ranged along a single main street. A circle of woods surrounds the village, keeping out northerly winds. The nearby lighthouse is sometimes open to visitors and has breathtaking views on a clear day.

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A typical village street in Vlieland

In quiet weather you can savour genuine Waddenzee vibes by anchoring in the narrow gullies off the south-east corner of Vlieland. A good spot is half-a-mile south-east of the lighthouse, between the shore and miles of drying banks.

Terschelling

A short hop east of Vlieland, West Terschelling harbour has plenty of space for ferries, coasters, barges and yachts. In the late afternoons you can watch dozens of big barges manoeuvring alongside with panache. These ships are perfectly adapted for Dutch shoals, with flat bottoms and sometimes barely a metre draught on 100ft length.

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Once a vibrant trading port, Terschelling is still alive with bars and bistros

Because of its relatively wide approach from seaward, West Terschelling was an important trading and whaling port between the 16th and 18th centuries. Old paintings show ocean-going ships packed along the quays. The island’s huge square Brandaris lighthouse towers above the harbour, 54m high with a 29-mile range. Built of yellow limestone, Brandaris is the oldest lighthouse in the Netherlands.

The lively town has plenty of bars and bistros. The best way to explore the rest of the island is by bike. The east end is wild and remote, a paradise for bird and seal watchers. The long north coast dunes and beaches have a liberating feeling of room to breathe.

Frisian Lakes and byways

Once an independent province and still flying its own flag, Friesland is the farthest Dutch cruising area for UK boats. Behind the long sea wall lie some of the most enticing waterways in Europe, easily entered from the Waddenzee at Harlingen or from various east IJsselmeer harbours including Workum, my favourite way in.

Friesland’s canals and meers have an open, invigorating quality as summer breezes waft through the reeds and wetlands, but they are cosy in hard weather when, imagining what the North Sea is like outside, you meander through peaceful panoramas in still water. This route can take you from the IJsselmeer all the way to the River Eems, useful for anyone bound for the Baltic by the Kiel Canal.

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The Friesland waterways and meers wind through sleepy rural wetlands that provide a perfect cruising escape

Sneek

This picture-book town is reached by a short spur off the Prinses Margriet Kanaal, the first part of the inland route from the IJsselmeer to the rather civilised port of Leeuwarden. This canal is suitable for sizeable barges, which push across the low open country amongst the mêlée of motor boats, sailing yachts, traditional Dutch bluff-bowed botters, dinghies, canoes and almost anything that can float.

The turning to Sneek leads west off Sneekermeer. Sneek is a Frisian gem, its quays, bridges and linked canals creating a rich gallery of watery vistas. The Waterpoort is a particular architectural highlight, an ornate canal bridge flanked by two slim towers, built in the early 17th century as the original harbour gate.

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The windmills at Dokkum have been preserved since 1652

Leeuwarden

The cultured capital of Friesland lies at a crossroads on the waterways’ route across the north edge of the Netherlands. A summer passage through the town’s lifting-bridges is a sociable jamboree, with all kinds of boats jostling about and spectators lining the quays. I like to berth on the west side of town, under the plane trees at Westerstadsgracht.

Canal bridges are as natural in Holland as pedestrian crossings in England. You’ll see bridges that lift, swing or slide in a hundred different ways. Most of them open virtually on demand, or as soon as there are a few boats waiting. There are usually traffic lights, so once you get a green press on and don’t dither.

Friesland waterway bridges often levy a small fee (brug geld) and some operators lower a Dutch clog on a fishing rod to collect these dues. Have plenty of change ready along these sections. The amount to pay is usually displayed on a notice just before the bridge.

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Schiermonnikoog’s wild sand dunes and salt-marshes are oases of real solitude

Lauwersmeer

Right on the north edge of Friesland, Lauwersmeer was once tidal but is now enclosed by the coastal dyke and reached from the sea by a lock in Lauwersoog harbour. The meer has some wonderful sheltered anchorages amongst the fens and wildlife. A few miles offshore, Schiermonnikoog is the last inhabited Dutch Frisian island before the German frontier. Don’t ask me how you pronounce it.

Lauwersoog marina is just inside the sea-lock in Noordergat basin. If you are here a day or two it’s worth taking the ferry out to Schiermonnikoog for a real taste of Frisian remoteness. Eight-miles long with a shallow harbour on its south-west corner, Schiermonnikoog has a village and a few cultivated fields, but most of the island tails away to salt-marshes and dunes. Its north-coast beaches are sublime, and at low water the drying sands between the island and mainland are extraordinary to see.