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Boat going under a bridge in a Netherlands canal

Seeing the Netherlands by Boat

During my recent European trip, I spent four days floating down the canals of the northern Netherlands on an 18-meter barge named Hendrika. I know lots of you are eager to hear about this nautical portion of my trip — how I did it and what it was like.

Sailboat and rainbow on a Netherlands canalLife on the canals.

The Netherlands by Boat: How I Did It

I am really lucky to have friends, Fiver and Stuart, who own a boat and live on it for five or six months a year, floating up and down canals in whichever European country they choose for the summer. (Fiver and Stuart live in Joburg for the remaining six or seven months a year.)

Fiver and Stuart were in the Netherlands this summer, so I visited them between stops in Berlin and Amsterdam. We arranged to meet in Leeuwarden, a quaint Dutch town in the northern province of Friesland, which is a seven-hour train ride (with a couple of changes) from Berlin.

Hendrika the boat in LeeuwardenHendrika tied up on a canal in Leeuwarden.

Hendrika's hullHendrika, a Dutch-made boat, was built in 1907 and still maintains her original fittings.

We didn’t know exactly where we’d be at the end of the four days — this is the fun of life on a boat — but public transport is fantastic in the Netherlands so I could easily get to Amsterdam from wherever we wound up. In the end Fiver and I traveled together from a town called Zwartsluis to Amsterdam, which took less than two hours via bus and train.

Along the way we spent one night tied up in the middle of nowhere near a town called Grou, and another night in an adorable little town called Lemmer. (The Netherlands has many adorable little towns.) When stopping for the night in a town, Fiver and Stuart usually just find an empty spot along the canal and tie up. (Usually they have to pay a small fee to park.) On my last night they parked the boat in a marina, which is what they do when they’re planning to leave the boat in one place for a few days.

Leaving Leeuwarden - bridge and leaning towerHeading out of Leeuwarden, under my first drawbridge. In the background is the Oldhove, a 16th-century leaning church tower.

Sea grass near Grou in the NetherlandsView from the boat near Grou, where we slept the second night.

Sunset in LemmerSunset in Lemmer where, oddly, I had one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant called La Gondola.

Navigating an 18-meter (60-foot) barge through narrow canals isn’t the easiest of tasks (don’t try this at home unless you know what you’re doing) but Fiver and Stuart are expert boaters and manage this large-ish vessel with ease. I hardly had to lift a finger, other than unloading the dishwasher and occasionally helping tie up the boat when we stopped. (Or trying to help — tying boat knots is hard.)

Co-captain StuartCo-captain Stuart surveys the terrain.

The Netherlands by Boat: What It Was Like

In a word: Delightful. I can’t think of a better way to see this beautiful country, which has more water than land anyway.

Hendrika on the canal
Aboard Hendrika.

I don’t think I’ve ever stayed overnight on a boat before (except for a Royal Carribbean cruise to Bermuda one time, which really doesn’t count), but I can’t imagine a boat more comfortable to hang out on than Hendrika. The boat has a spacious lounge, a full kitchen, a lovely shower AND a bathtub. There are several huge windows allowing in lots of light, as well as a few portholes. There is even a porthole in the shower so I could watch the world go by while washing my hair.

Hendrika the boat interiorHendrika’s lounge. I slept on an ultra-comfortable air mattress in this room. (Fiver and Stuart have a bedroom at the back.)

Hendrika's portholePorthole.

Lion and British flag on HendrikaThe stern of the boat.

I loved the scenery in the Netherlands — interesting towns with cute tiny houses, other boats, drawbridges, windmills, cows, sheep, ducks and swans, clouds, green grass and trees. The boat is moving so there’s always something new to see. I loved every single minute.

Dutch drawbridgeI loved watching the drawbridges go up and down. 

Town scenery in the NetherlandsTown scenery.

Cow in the NetherlandsCow.

Windmills in the NetherlandsWindmills.

Cute houses in the NetherlandsCute houses.

Cute houses in the NetherlandsMore cute houses.

Navigating locks was one of the most interesting activities on the boat. Locks are used to help boats move through sections of the canal with different water levels.

Entering a lock in a Netherlands CanalWe’ve just entered a lock and the water level is low. 

inside a lockNow they’re letting water into the lock and the level inside is rising.

Leaving a Netherlands lockThe water level is fully raised and we pull out of the lock.

I also loved the feeling of being on this boat: the slight rocking sensation, the birdsong, the raindrops on the roof, the silence…It was all wonderful. And just in case you’re wondering, I never got seasick and I am prone to seasickness. The canals are too calm for that.

If you’d like to take a trip like this, I suggest you figure out how to befriend Fiver and Stuart. Just kidding. Please don’t do that. I want to keep Hendrika to myself.

Rather just google “Netherlands canal trips”.

Rainbow over the NetherlandsMore posts to come from the #2SummersEuropeanTrip.