Explore Netherlands

Dutch safari


The Dutch have a way with water, and it’s a good thing too, as they have over 100 square miles of it within their borders. No wonder they’ve learned to sail on it, live on it, play on it, work with it and above all – tame it.

Since they began rolling back the sea and reclaiming the rich earth of the ocean floor the Dutch have enlarged  the land mass of their tiny country by 15% but they’re by no means finished. It’s a work in progress. ‘God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland’, so the saying goes, and just north of Amsterdam you’ve the chance to see them making it. Not long ago, this area was beneath the North Sea, eventually it will be productive acreage, but for the moment it is simply ‘the wetlands’. A guide from the “Wetland Safari Company’ will take you canoeing through the reeds which flourish there now, introduce you to the quaking bogs, spread a picnic for you in a bonsai-sized forest and tell you all about the wildlife as you go.

 My guide was named Majel and she met me on the steps of the Amsterdam bus terminal. She was young, cheerful, spoke English and carried a picnic basket over her arm. We hopped on an ordinary suburban bus and after a short ride Majel and I got off at the side of the wide highway at a stop called ‘Watergang’, where I felt momentarily like a hitchhiker waiting for an onward lift, so unlikely did it seem that this could be ‘it’. But it was. From a culvert under the highway, next to a roadside cafe, ran a little rivulet. This was the narrow entrance to the wide wetland world. Majel added ‘energetic’ and ‘strong’ to her other virtues as she tipped a canoe out from the shed behind the cafe and dropped it in the water. She spun open the lid of an aluminium keg and stowed my camera and her mobile phone in it and set it in the canoe. The keg was originally intended to hold fermenting sauerkraut. ‘But it’s waterproof and it floats’, she explained.

With Majel paddling in front and me behind we set off between narrow banks, under the philosophical gaze of two goats and a duck. Frogs jumped into the canoe and out again. Ahead was a very low bridge. ‘Well done,’ Majel congratulated me as we emerged on the other side, my head still on my shoulders. “Young men find that hardest to do, bend over like that. You’d be surprised how stiff they are.”

The water widened and became the main thoroughfare of a 17th century village. The brick houses, rebuilt over the years on their original foundations, all faced the canal, their flower gardens tumbling down to the water’s edge. Flat- bottomed boats were moored before them, used to transport their cooperative cattle from one handkerchief-sized field to another. We paddled on past a red brick schoolhouse and heard the children counting in chorus in their classroom. On the opposite shore, was a tiny island cemetery. One more bridge and we entered the wetlands which once had been the Zuyderzee.

 A silent, watery landscape, broad and low under a pewter grey sky, it was a Dutch painting come to life. Miniature black windmills turned silently, pumping water into the drainage ditch which ran behind the low dykes. Watery pathways, some wide as tiny lakes, others pressing closely in on the canoe, meandered in every direction. “Not many people explore the wetlands,” Majel remarked, “to many people, one stretch of reeds looks like another and it’s easy for them to get lost.” Without Majel, I certainly would have been one of those people. At that point the reeds on the left bank were marginally taller and greener than the reeds on the right bank, but the difference was a far cry from a road sign.

The quaking bog was our destination. As she paddled, Majel pointed out the water bird nests and the wildflowers at the water’s edge. She explained the process which was turning the polders from water to earth. Build a dyke, pump out the water, dig drainage canals into which the remaining water is pumped. In time, vegetation will take over and become pastureland. Houses can be built then, these days on pilings, though in mediaeval times dwellings would have been supported by animal skins stretched over the marsh. Majel pushed the canoe onto a bank and we stepped off onto some of the first-phase, mossy vegetation. Tiny red flowers grew in sparse clusters, minuscule carnivorous plants. Majel knelt to show me a half-devoured ant, head down in a blossom. Then she ran ahead, bounding in front of me like a child, setting the bog in motion. At each step, the ground sluiced from side to side sending ripples out into the reeds, like a trampoline crossed with a waterbed.

Along the path, two or three round holes, a foot or so wide, had been cut. They’d been made by naturalists, Majel explained, to provide deep water in which the frogs could spawn. She dipped her canoe paddle in and circled it around, showing me there was nothing under the earth we stood on but water. We were being supported by interlocking roots on a web only a few inches thick. “It will build into meadow,” Majel assured me. We went back to the canoe, heading now for our picnic spot. We paddled past a few cows and Scottish sheep, oversized on their toy pastures.

Our destination was a hummock of land which rose in the distance from the flat water. A grove of birch trees crowned it. A great place for picnic, Majel clearly thought, but no way to build Holland. “This is what happens when nothing is done to protect the pasturage”, she said. But as we unpacked the picnic basket and watched the birds wheel in to settle in the trees this late afternoon, I doubted it was neglect at all. Some nature-loving Dutchman, I suspect, wanted his bit of Holland just this way.

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Houseboat heaven

Houseboats moored along the canals are one of the iconic sights of Amsterdam. . There are about 750 houseboats of different types and sizes moored within the 17th century canal system – and some offer short term rentals, as an offbeat alternative to booking in to a hotel.

A friend and I booked three nights aboard a houseboat moored in the Jordaan district, an area within walking distance of the central station but as full of neighbourhood charm as you could wish. Lots of small restaurants and coffee shops, boutiques and ice cream shops. There was a well-stocked supermarket within easy walking distance of the boat.

Ducks and swan swam alongside everyday looking for handouts, and people passing in motorboats always gave a friendly wave as we sat out on the deck with glasses of wine in the evening.. The ripples their boats set up rocked the houseboat very gently.

Our boat was perfect for two, but conveniently slept four as my friend’s two teenagers joined us. The kitchen unit had a sink, electric cooker and a fridge.. though we didn’t bother cooking given all the great restaurants a short walk away. We brewed coffee in the morning to go with donuts from the local bakery. The weather was great so we had breakfast on deck and also had wine and snacks on deck in the evening.

Mosquitos, we were told, could be a problem so we bought repellant but didn’t need it.

The bathroom had a sink,toilet and shower stall and was connected to city water and electricity. There was a flat screen TV and WiFi, plus a dvd and a collection of films.

It was a fun alternative to a hotel and I’d happily do it again. Next time I’d have a bag of bread for the ducks. The donuts were so good they were hard to share

Contact websites for renting a houseboat:

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Time off in Istanbul

In between visits to Istanbul’s awe inspiring sights, it sometimes feels good to come up for air. Here are four suggestions for Istanbul experiences on the lighter side .

Cruise like a Sultan on a Sultanboat

A cross between a royal barge and a massive Venetian gondola these splendid open vessels hold 30 passengers and make regular excursions throughout the year. When the Sultan travelled on his gilded and bejewelled vessel loyal subjects bowed to him from the shore. As your boat passes under the Galata bridge, pedestrians and fishermen greet you almost as enthusiastically. Prepare to wave! Cruises on the Golden Horn depart from the dock outside the Halic Kultur Merkezi in Sutluce daily at 10.00 and 20:00. For a shorter outing take the Sultanboat shuttle from the Dolmabahce Palace on the European shore across the busy Bosphorus to the Beylerbeyi Palace and the Kucuksu Summer Palace on the Asian shore (daily except Monday and Thursday). Or book a Sultanboat for a private cruise any day between 10:00 and 20:00.

Visit for further information

Treat yourself to a view to remember

In the 19th century, the mystique of Constantinople was at its romantic height. Julian Viaud, a French naval officer who wrote under the pen name of Pierre Loti, was just one of those enchanted by the city. Loti used to climb the hill behind Eyup’s tomb to write in a humble coffee shop with a remarkable view of the Golden Horn. This 19th century coffee shop, now called the Loti Café, is still there.

And the view, too, is still worth the journey. Take a taxi, or better still, use the funicular signposted from the Eyup Mosque. (Eyup was a friend of the Prophet Mohammed and his was the first mosque built after the Turks took Constantinople.) The funicular glides up and over the ancient Ottoman cemetery that extends uphill from Eyup’s tomb – like a landslide in reverse – to bring you to the coffee shop terrace. From here, you can survey the Golden Horn in all its sinuous beauty. The view is best at twilight, when the sun’s rays gild the water of this natural harbour. Pierre Loti Café is open daily from 8.00 to 24:00. It serves non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. No credit cards. The funicular costs 1.30 Turkish lira. There’s a token dispenser at the station.

Commune with Agatha Christie at the Pera Palace

The mystery writer Agatha Christie began her love affair with Istanbul in 1923. She visited many times in the next few years and always stayed in room 411 at the Pera Palace Hotel, where she was inspired to write Murder on the Orient Express. Guests can still stay in room 411 where the key to her diary was found hidden under the floorboards three years after her death. Agatha Christie’s books form part of the décor. But you don’t have to book in to the hotel to enjoy the atmosphere. Take afternoon tea under the magnificent domes of the Kubbeli Salon, have a meal in the Agatha Restaurant, or muse over a drink in the Orient Bar, a favourite of Ernest Hemingway’s. The father of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk, stayed at the Pera Palace too, and his preferred room – 101 – is now a museum open to visitors. Just ask a bellman to show it to you. Pera Palace Hotel, Meşrutiyet Caddesi No. 52 Tepebaşı Beyoğlu 34430 Telephone: +90 212 222 80 90.

For details, see

Explore the Koc Industrial Museum

This is the private world of a world-class collector, Rahmi M Koc. Thousands upon thousands of items are housed in an elegantly restored 18th century anchor house and in 14 adjacent waterside buildings that were once a ruined dockyard on the Golden Horn. It’s impossible to describe the inventory adequately; it includes gleaming ranks of vintage cars, an olive oil factory, the Sultan’s railway car, a submarine (book in advance to visit) an airplane, a 1917 X-ray ambulance – just about everything that has wheels that go round or a motor. There’s also miniature doll’s house furniture, sailboats, a horse-pulled tram, and a street of reconstructed shops; I can only recommend that you see it for yourself. The museum is located at Haskoy Avenue No. 5. Open 10:00 to 17:00 Monday-Friday and until 19:00 Saturday and Sunday.

For details, visit

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