A dragonfly hovers above the tip of our canoe. A mother duck with her two fluffy broods navigate through a maze of blooming water lilies bobbing on the surface. From the fields around us the only sounds that emerge are those of chatty geese, a lonesome lapwing and small windmills, buzzing to keep the water level in check. From this quiet and peaceful scene, you would never guess that we are in one of The Netherland’s most popular tourist destinations that even made it to Monopoly’s world edition play board: Giethoorn.
Canoeing in Giethoorn
An hour earlier we had stood in the centre of the village, in a garden where numerous small boats and a few canoes were tied to the quay. We are renting a canoe from Gerrit Mol, the owner of this boating business who was born and raised in Giethoorn where his father had a thatching company. Gerrit left in his late teens to discover the outside world, but returned to enjoy life in what is arguably one of The Netherlands’ most picturesque villages. Old farm houses with thatched roofs are situated in meticulously kept gardens, with rose bushes blooming on the facades and chicken rummaging around. Judging by how immaculate everything looks, we half expected there to be a rule for inhabitants of the town to keep their garden tidy. The houses with their neat green lawns are surrounded by canals. Instead of roads, there are canals, and instead of cars, there are boats. Small motorboats serve as the main mode of transport here, although you can also get by on foot using the wooden bridges that connect one piece of land to the next. We were rather sceptical when this village of meaningless dimensions made its way on Monopoly’s world edition play board instead of, let’s say, Rotterdam. But it has to be said: it is a village you would expect to see in fairy tale books or fantasy movies.
Experiencing Giethoorn without tourists
Giethoorn is in fact so picturesque that for years it has attracted streams of tourists, many of them on a daytrip from Amsterdam. News reports spoke of busloads of tourists, armed with selfie sticks and hunting for hashtags, trampling through gardens and staring into kitchen windows as if exploring an open air museum. Rumor went that local inhabitants of Giethoorn even had to place signs in their gardens explaining in Mandarin Chinese that their homes are private property and were not to be trespassed.
According to our vessel fixer, those reports are exaggerated. “If you paddle just beyond the area around the church, you will have waterways all to yourself and can enjoy the beauty and quiet of this village undisturbed. Giethoorn is a place that makes you forget about the world outside.”
Exploring Giethoorn & surroundings
Gerrit was right. Soon after our departure we have left other tourists behind and start to feel like the true adventurers that we are. A map showing us the wide watery network of canals, ditches and lakes in the area, turns out to be more challenging to navigate from than a regular map showing roads. As we paddle north, we leave the tourist heart of the town behind and find ourselves in the midst of farm fields and more quaint homes. Naturally, all houses have a boathouse.
Spending time on the water in Giethoorn is a great mix of being active while at the same time reaching a blissful state of relaxation by the quiet dipping of our paddles in the water and the silent gliding of our canoe past green fields and charming houses. (If you are less inclined to work your biceps you can of course also rent an electric boat with a quiet motor).
Lunch in Giethoorn
As we make our way to our intended port of call – you guessed it, a terrace for lunch – the canal spills into a lake where a sudden wind creates a strong current. We are forced to pull a bit harder on our paddles to not drift away from our route. A small canal leads us from the lake to this lunch spot where a helpful grey man helps to pull our canoe onto solid ground. We do not have sea legs yet but it feels good to exchange the wooden ledge we’ve been sitting on in the canoe for a more comfortable wicker chair on the terrace near the water. De Landije van Giethoorn is a beautiful old farm-turned-restaurant where we enjoy lunch and after a short debate decide that one beer should not limit our navigation abilities for the rest of the afternoon. Not that we were flawless helmswomen to begin with – we’ve already had to push our canoe out of the reeds a number of times this morning.
Whether the beer was the culprit or whether it was the hypnotizing effect of the paddles’ rhythmic strokes, on our way back to Giethoorn center we find ourselves caught in a deja vu. “Didn’t we go past this house before? Like… one hour ago?” Thinking we have almost made it back to our starting point, we have actually circled around somehow and ended in the same spot we were earlier that afternoon. Did we already mention that navigating on a water map is more difficult than using one with roads?
With some extra strokes and encouragement from friendly locals we finally make it back to Gerrit’s garden.
A little bit of history
Some of the first inhabitants of this area were far from regular folks. In the 13th century, Flagellants hailing from the old town of Perugia in central Italy trekked to Holland as persecuted refugees, some of them settling in current-day Giethoorn. Flagellants were penitents who flogged themselves with whips to atone for sins. One of the events that drove them to self-mutilate was the plague that roamed around medieval Europe and was perceived as a curse from the heavens. We see an eerie parallel between the pandemic that drove those early Italians to Giethoorn, and the current-day COVID-19 pandemic that inspired us to visit Giethoorn today. With the Dutch borders still closed to most international visitors, we felt that the time was right to visit this classic tourist destination. It’s true that Giethoorn is more quiet during the COVID pandemic. But even in the regular busy times before, it was always easy to find a calm spot. The trick is just to take your boat or canoe outside the immediate center of the village, onto the waterways that spread out into the farmlands. The north side of the village has the same beautiful homes, gardens, bridges and canals as the village center, minus the buzz of camera touting tourists.
Sleeping near Giethoorn
Having enjoyed this beautiful village for a full afternoon, we make our way to a small campsite on the other shore of the large lake that lies west of Giethoorn. The original plan was to arrive here by canoe, but because thunderstorms are expected Gerrit advised us to steer clear of the body of open water and travel by car. This more conventional mode of transport takes a little bit away from our sense of adventure, but this is soon forgotten when we arrive at campsite Het Waterhoentje (‘the little moorhen’). Tonight we will sleep in a travelers wagon that the owners of the campsite have parked here, and it is adorable. The small but cozy space is decorated with lots of eye for detail in Delft blue, a string of lights framing the cupboard bed. Two tiny home-made apple pies await us in the kitchenette. We make use of the campsite’s comfortable sanitary facilities (the hot shower especially) and as we lie in bed, one of the biggest thunderstorms we have both ever experienced erupts outside. White light continuously flashes through the small round window at the bedside, but the loud thunder does not prevent us from drifting away. An active day on the water is all you need for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning the rains have cleared and Sonja, the owner of Het Waterhoentje, arrives with a rush basket carrying our breakfast. We compliment her on our sleeping spot and she says “I really enjoyed decorating it. I would actually like to get another one, and furnish it in shades of pink! But I need to convince my husband first.”
The fact that cheerful Sonja enjoys decorating is not hard to guess. Our breakfast is beautifully prepared, with a little card wishing us bon appetit and freshly picked field flowers adorning the fantastic spread of croissants, bread rolls, eggs, fruit bowls, yoghurt topped with honey and walnuts, granola, charcuterie and cheeses and pear juice. We devour it at the picnic table next to our wagon. In the background, the tiny sheep breed that the family keeps on their terrain have started bleating vigorously after having spotted Sonja (their cue to getting fed). This really feels like a holiday!
Before we leave the campsite we explore a walking trail along the lake. A number of old artifacts and buildings teach visitors about the history of human activity that formed the area’s typical landscape: the many ditches and trenches here were formed by people cutting turf. These layers of organic matter pressed into the soil, also known as peat, were removed and dried before being sold as fuel in the 18th century. The vibrating peat we tread on as we further the walk offers a comfortable soft floor, as if we are walking on the carpeted deck of a softly rocking ship. And nature has more on offer here; a variety of water birds can be spotted in the swamp. The trail offers observation points making it not only interesting for history buffs, but also for bird nerds..
Canoeing in National Park Weerribben-Wieden
Watching the water birds, we’re eager to get back on the water ourselves. We drive a short way up north, where in the middle of National Park Weerribben-Wieden a small town named Kalenberg stretches along a wide canal. At the directions of Gerrit, our canoe guy from Giethoorn, we call at restaurant Het Doevehuis. Gerrit has lots of connections in this area and has fixed another canoe for us here in lieu of our original 2-day return canoeing trip from Giethoorn. This being our second day paddling, we are nearly seasoned pros as we make our way into the national park.
Even though we are close to Giethoorn, the environment here is very different from yesterday’s scenery. We find ourselves in the largest network of wetlands in Western Europe where we travel down wide and small streams surrounded by lush greenery. Some stretches look like green tunnels, the canopy overhead reflected in the clear water around us. It is quiet here. Except for a few other people in canoes or small boats, including some locals fishing for pike, we see or hear no one.
Along the route are designated picnic spots where you can get out of your canoe and stretch your legs for a bit. They are numbered and indicated on the map of the area that we were given, which makes it easy to plan for a next break – and makes navigating a whole lot easier.
As we sit down at one of these spots, enjoying some snacks, a beer and the warm sunlight streaming down to our faces through the treetops, we say we can’t believe this is only our second day on this trip. It feels like we’ve been gone for a week! This must be the calming effect of being on the water all day. The world glides by at a soothing pace, a distant cuckoo’s call is about the loudest sound you hear, and the outside world feels very far away. We have learned that one of The Netherlands’ most popular day trip destinations had so much more to offer. Giethoorn is rightfully popular for its picturesque village core, but just beyond the few crowded waterways in its center awaits a world of quiet exploration.
Canoeing in Giethoorn – how to make most of your visit
Our main advice for anyone who wants to visit Giethoorn is: take your time and look beyond the busy village center. Ideally, try not to go on a daytrip from Amsterdam but spend at least a night in the area. It will give you time to explore the waterways north of the center, where you can experience the canals lined with beautiful homes and gardens without the many tourists, have lunch at a more secluded spot, and explore the different lakes and waterways in the area. Plus staying in Giethoorn till late afternoon means you can enjoy the sight of dozens of white swans in the lake just outside the village.
We highly recommend spending the next day in National Park Weerribben-Wieden for a very different experience of quiet, green nature.
We booked our trip with De Peddel (also known as ‘Kanoweekend’), a small travel agency specialized in canoe trips. Everything was arranged perfectly – from the canoe rental in Giethoorn to the pleasant overnight stay at the campsite. De Peddel has ready-made itineraries and arrangements to choose from or they can help you create a custom made multi day canoe trip tailored to your own wishes. They work with trustworthy local partners like Sonja’s campsite Het Waterhoentje and Gerrit Mol’s canoe and boat rental. As these people are locals, they can provide a lot of tips (and good stories). They are also able to flexibly alter your itinerary in case the weather plays up. In the area of Giethoorn and Weerribben-Wieden you can choose between sleeping in your own tent, a cabin, or in a wagon like we did. A waterproof barrel and bag, life jackets, and a map with the route are included in the arrangement.
Our two personal food tips for you are by no means comparable to one another in terms of location, entourage and culinary experience, but here they are:
Simple – Sit down at the large open terrace of Smit’s Paviljoen looking out onto the lake and go all Dutch: enjoy a pancake.
Chique – Reserve (well in advance!) a spot at Michelin star restaurant Kaatje bij de Sluis in Blokzijl, only a 15 minute drive from Giethoorn.