If you’ve ever won­dered what it’s like on the Dutch wa­ter­ways, you’ll find there’s more to them than wind­mills and clogs...


Join us on a trip down Hol­land’s wa­ter­ways to dis­cover a lot more than wind­mills and tulips

Vis­it­ing an un­fa­mil­iar coun­try, I ad­mit to a slight ten­dency to be­lieve the stereo­types – and so it was with our first boat trip in the Nether­lands. Not quite the clichés like tulips, clogs and wind­mills; more the idea of cruis­ing along long straight canals across a flat land­scape largely be­low sea-level, punc­tu­ated by towns and vil­lages where lift-bridges would span the wa­ter­way as it passed right through the cen­tre.

And the start lived up to some of our expectations, as we left Le Boat’s new base in the Vinkeveense Plassen, a large ex­panse of wa­ter formed from an­cient peat work­ings in an area of flat coun­try­side south of Am­s­ter­dam, briefly held up the main road traf­fic as a bridge-keeper opened our first lift-bridge for us, climbed our first lock, and headed east along the straight Mid­den­we­ter­ing canal.

A sharp right turn amid a clus­ter of house­boats took us on to the Ang­s­tel river, and shortly af­ter­wards on the right bank we spot­ted our first wind­mill. Mean­while, a glance to the left re­vealed what I ini­tially thought to be a goods train in the dis­tance – but soon re­alised it was ac­tu­ally a size­able barge loaded with freight con­tain­ers. This was a sign that we were about to emerge from our quiet back­wa­ter and join the Am­s­ter­dam-Ri­jnkanaal. That’s the Am­s­ter­dam – Rhine Canal in English, or as we nick­named it, ‘The M1’.

It’s said to be the busiest freight wa­ter­way in western Europe, and as we turned right and en­tered its wide wa­ters, we could be­lieve it. Our wide­beam cruiser, while large by the stan­dards of Bri­tish canal craft, was dwarfed by the con­stant stream of barges of all sizes from the oc­ca­sional old-fash­ioned 350-ton­ner up to a mon­ster oil-tanker with a 5,900-tonne max­i­mum load – and a tug push­ing four lighters, each ca­pa­ble

of car­ry­ing 2,800 tonnes. To put that in con­text, that sin­gle push-tow would carry a sim­i­lar amount to the en­tire Grand Union Canal Car­ry­ing Com­pany’s fleet of al­most 200 pairs of nar­row­boats.

All very ex­cit­ing and com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the oc­ca­sional barge seen on the UK wa­ter­ways – and while we were ex­pected to keep out of their way, the canal was plenty wide enough and the com­mer­cial skip­pers gave us a de­cent berth when they over­took us – not the most re­lax­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. So it was a slight re­lief to take a left turn through a nar­row (by Dutch stan­dards) flood-lock, en­ter the River Vecht and stop for the night at a pleas­ant moor­ing in the small town of Maarssen.

This was a clas­sic Dutch town: the canal run­ning through the cen­tre with streets on both sides (spanned by a pair of char­ac­ter­is­tic bas­cule bridges) – and with a good choice of restau­rants.

Al­though we planned to ex­plore the Vecht fur­ther, the fol­low­ing morn­ing we turned around and re­turned to the Am­s­ter­dam-Ri­jnkanaal to pay a visit to the city of Utrecht.

Old canals run right through the cen­tre, but the tight bridges mean that vis­it­ing craft (es­pe­cially larger cruis­ers) are ad­vised to tie up on the edge of the city. We moored on the south-west side and took a tram in to see the cathe­dral and the old canals.

Locks (other than flood-locks open at both ends) are a rar­ity in this part of the Nether­lands (they aren’t ex­actly fre­quent in most parts of the coun­try) so it was un­usual to pass through two in quick suc­ces­sion as we headed for our overnight stop in Nieuwegein. On the other hand, away from the mod­ern canal (which is spanned by a se­ries of large steel or con­crete bridges), lift-bridges dat­ing from the days of masted sail­ing barges are ex­tremely com­mon – and we were get­ting used to the as­sort­ment of

ways to op­er­ate them. Some have a keeper on duty while oth­ers in­volve call­ing a phone num­ber on a sign (which might con­nect you to a bridge-keeper, or might open the bridge au­to­mat­i­cally); a few fea­tured a push­but­ton that we reached out to press with our boat pole. Pass­ing un­der a se­ries of dif­fer­ent types, we reached our overnight moor­ing at the start of the Hol­landse IJs­sel.

This river con­tin­ues west­wards via Gouda (don’t miss the cheese mu­seum!) with con­nec­tions to Delft, Lei­den and other parts of South Hol­land. But our large Vi­sion cruiser, while very com­fort­able and spa­cious with its three en suite cab­ins and huge sa­loon and gal­ley, is too large for some of th­ese smaller wa­ter­ways. How­ever, the fleet in­cludes a range of dif­fer­ent sizes of craft, many of which are well-suited to the smaller wa­ter­ways.

Re­trac­ing our steps to Maarssen, we were soon back on the River Vecht, and once again re­mark­ing on the dif­fer­ence be­tween the river and the Am­s­ter­dam-Ri­jnkanaal. This was the route taken by barges be­fore the canal was opened in 1952 and it’s now a quiet ru­ral wa­ter­way, the pre­serve of leisure craft as it winds its way north­wards through old towns and vil­lages.

It’s very slightly rem­i­nis­cent of some of the mid­dle reaches of the Thames, twist­ing and turn­ing its way through quiet coun­try­side in­ter­spersed with grand wa­ter­side houses that were once the coun­try es­tates of the wealthy mer­chants of Am­s­ter­dam.

We passed through towns and vil­lages in­clud­ing Breukelen, Loenen, Vree­land and Nigtevecht, all with their lift-bridges and wind­mills, be­fore reach­ing Weesp (pro­nounced ‘waisp’) for an overnight moor­ing. Built around a se­ries of wa­ter­ways – the Vecht, the Smal Weesp and a couple of old town canals no longer nav­i­ga­ble – we took rather a lik­ing to the town; it’s well sup­plied with wa­ter­side bars (serv­ing a wide range of Dutch beer styles rather than just the ubiq­ui­tous pils) and restau­rants, as well as three his­toric wind­mills, a splen­did church and a chocolate fac­tory.

It also has an in­ter­est­ing history: there are rem­nants to be ex­plored of the se­ries of bas­tions which for­ti­fied the town, and formed part of the Hol­landse Water­linie or Dutch Wa­ter Line. A line of de­fence in ex­is­tence from the 16th to the 20th Cen­tury, this con­sisted of a se­ries of ar­eas of low-ly­ing land which could be flooded to stop an ad­vanc­ing army.

The next day we were headed for the busy mod­ern canal again and a trip into Am­s­ter­dam – but first, an­other Dutch stereo­type put in an ap­pear­ance as we cruised the Smal Weesp through the cen­tre of the town. Un­like al­most every­where else we passed, the three bridges through Weesp are sub­ject to a mod­est toll, which is still col­lected in the tra­di­tional man­ner by the bridge-keeper dan­gling a wooden clog on a string.

It was a blus­tery day as we headed for Am­s­ter­dam along the Am­s­ter­dam-Ri­jnkanaal. The wash of pass­ing freighters added to the waves on the in­creas­ingly wide wa­ter as the canal broad­ened out to join the IJ, the half-mile wide chan­nel run­ning past the city cen­tre. Not only is it busy with barges, it’s criss-crossed by pas­sen­ger fer­ries, and fre­quented by ships in­clud­ing an enor­mous cruise liner named Costa

Packet –’nuff said. Get­ting into a ma­rina to visit the city might have been in­ter­est­ing, had it not been for our boat’s con­trols: th­ese not only in­clude the bow thruster that’s stan­dard on large cruis­ers, but also an al­ter­na­tive joy­stick con­trol that al­lows you to spin the boat on the spot or to move it bod­ily side­ways!

Am­s­ter­dam’s at­trac­tions are many – not least its his­toric canals, of which the city has more miles than ei­ther Birm­ing­ham or Venice. But then it was time to re­turn to the River Vecht – and this time, to the lower reaches down­stream of Weesp.

The river here is rather larger and, as we fol­lowed its fi­nal wind­ings, we were start­ing to see more tra­di­tional Dutch sail­ing barges and seago­ing craft on the ap­proaches to Muiden. This is a

‘Now it’s a quiet ru­ral wa­ter­way, the pre­serve of leisure craft as it winds its way north­wards through old towns and vil­lages’

tra­di­tional port on the shore of what is now the fresh­wa­ter IJs­selmeer lake – but was once the Zuiderzee, a large in­let of the North Sea. It was also where we passed through our first ‘real’ lock (other than flood-locks left open at both ends) since the out­skirts of Utrecht. Rather cu­ri­ously, con­sid­er­ing that we were ap­proach­ing the mouth of a river, we rose about a foot or so – but that’s the Nether­lands and its in­ter­est­ing ap­proach to land drainage.

This marked yet an­other change of scenery – a few hun­dred yards be­yond the lock, we passed Muiden Cas­tle and headed out into a buoyed chan­nel along the edge of the IJs­selmeer – close to the shore on our right, but with noth­ing but wa­ter, sail­ing boats and a few is­lands stretch­ing to the hori­zon on our left.

We headed east­wards, fol­low­ing the buoys into an in­let that led un­der a rail­way viaduct into a long lake a mile wide called the Gooimeer, which in turn led via an­other bridge into a sec­ond lake called the Eem­meer. Th­ese might at first sight have seemed like nat­u­ral lakes, but they aren’t. They rep­re­sent the chan­nel that was left when large ar­eas of the for­mer Zuiderzee were drained with new earth­works and pumps to cre­ate new land, in a huge recla­ma­tion project which went on for much of the 20th Cen­tury.

On our right was the for­mer seashore, with old towns and har­bours at Huizen and Spak­en­burg; but on our left was the 500 square miles of the new prov­ince of Flevoland, for­merly un­der wa­ter but home to 400,000 peo­ple to­day. It’s mainly farm­land but also in­cludes – as we dis­cov­ered to our slight sur­prise – a size­able na­tur­ist park!

We spent the night in a small ma­rina at the mouth of the Ni­jk­erk Canal, en­joyed a tra­di­tional Dutch sup­per of Ge­hak­t­ballen (meat­balls) in the ma­rina bar, and watched an evening sail­ing re­gatta against the back­drop of a beau­ti­ful sun­set. And then, just in case we thought this was a sleepy back­wa­ter fre­quented only by yachts, a tug and lighter ar­rived at 9.30pm – fol­lowed by a 1,000-tonne barge a couple of hours later. Both had gone be­fore we woke up in the morn­ing.

A change from the pre­vi­ous day’s mainly cloudy weather to glo­ri­ous sun­shine showed the lakes off at their best as we re­turned to Muiden, where we tied up along­side one of the many sail­ing barges to look round the town. Then it was back to Weesp for the fi­nal time.

The last day of our cruise meant we were headed back to Vinkeveen. We didn’t have enough time to take the Vecht all the way back up to Maarssen, but we couldn’t re­sist a quick spin up the river and back for a few miles, be­fore re­join­ing the Am­s­ter­dam-Ri­jnkanaal for the run back to the River Ang­s­tel.

The River Vecht re­warded us with a couple of sur­prises: firstly, did I say it had been the pre­serve of leisure craft since 1952? Not quite, as we found out when we met a 1,000-tonne gravel barge us­ing the river to get to the branch canal to Hil­ver­sum. And the sec­ond sur­prise: as we cruised round a large loop of the river, cut off by a short­cut and now home to an as­sort­ment of res­i­den­tial craft, we spot­ted sev­eral storks nest­ing in the river­side trees, feed­ing their young.

I don’t think they were on my list of Dutch stereo­types!

Look­ing out across the IJs­selmeer and (inset)

clas­sic Dutch view at Loenen aan de Vecht

Tra­di­tion­ally Dutch on the River Ang­s­tel

The Vi­sion cruiser at Maarssen on the Vecht

Lift-bridges come in all shapes and sizes: this one is in Utrecht

Breukelen on the River Vecht

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