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Located in the Netherlands, on a peninsula between the North Sea and the IJsselmeer, North Holland is a great destination for day trips from Amsterdam. An even better way to see North Holland is on a circular driving tour that begins and ends in Amsterdam, the largest city in the province.

Costumed couple walk by homes in Marken.
Costumed couple walk by homes in Marken.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Volendam Holland

Less than 30 minutes from Amsterdam are Volendam and Marken, two small towns that lost their fishing industry when the enclosure of the Zuiderzee cut them off from the North Sea. Tourism keeps them alive today and helps preserve the postcard-pretty houses and traditional costumes.

Marken was once an island. Many of its homes were built on piles to protect them from floods that frequently occurred.

A causeway now joins Marken to the mainland. Dikes will soon cause the island to be completely absorbed into the Markerwaard Polder.

Many Marken homes have a sheep or goat in the front lawn to trim the grass. Others have dovecotes built like miniature Marken homes, trimmed in white.

Costumed men on Marken drawbridge
Costumed men on Marken drawbridge
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On a quiet Sunday morning, we watched some women, wearing lacy white bonnets, embroidered bodices and long black skirts, walking home from church with their husbands, dressed in black baggy trousers.

During the summer, the number of people visiting Volendam and Marken can be overwhelming. Try to arrive before the tour buses.


Continuing through Edam, the famous cheese town, with its pretty canals, drawbridges and gabled homes, we drove north to Enkhuisen. Located on the IJsselmeer, the huge salt lake that was created when the Enclosing Dam (Afsluitdijk) cut off the Zuiderzee from the North Sea in 1932, Enkhuisen is best known for its Zuiderzee Museum.

Historic warehouses contain model ships, costumes, contemporary and traditional art. A boat house shelters freighters, fishing boats and pleasure craft that were taken out of service. An outdoor museum has houses, shops and streets from the Zuiderzee region that were rebuilt on the museum site.

We followed the North Holland coast up to the Enclosing Dam. One glance at the 32-kilometer (20-mile)-long sea wall convinced us of the immensity of its construction, involving hundreds of people and 500 ships.

You can drive along the dam to the province of Friesland and continue your circuit of the Ijsselmeer back to Amsterdam (a full-day's drive) or elect, as we did, to continue your North Holland tour to Alkmaar.

Edam cheese in Alkmaar
Edam cheese in Alkmaar
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Alkmaar Cheese Market

Plan to arrive in Alkmaar on Friday morning for its cheese market (kaasmarkt), held from April to September. Workers roll thousands of round yellow balls of Edam cheese out of trucks and stack them in neat rows on the cobblestone courtyard next to the Alkmaar Weigh House. (The cheeses bounce like rubber balls, but don't break.)

After removing thin cores from each lot to check for taste, smell, fat and moisture content, buyers use a centuries-old method of negotiating prices with sellers. Each offer and counter-offer is made with a hand slap and the final price is agreed upon with an extra-firm hand slap that is as binding on both parties as a signed contract.

Cheese carriers transport Edam cheeses in Alkmaar market.
Cheese carriers transport Edam cheeses in Alkmaar market.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

An ancient guild of cheese-carriers takes over. Garbed in spotless white shirts and pants and wearing colorful lacquered straw hats, they pile up to 80 cheeses on shiny wooden barrows supported by leather shoulder slings.

With distinctive bobbing gates, calculated not to spill their loads, they bring the cheeses to Alkmaar's Weigh House scale (Waag). After the weighmaster records the weight, the cheese carriers bring the barrow to the buyer's truck to unload the Edam cheese.

Cheese has been sold this way in Alkmaar for nearly 400 years. It's a sight that should not be missed.

Man carves clogs in wooden shoe factory.
Man carves clogs in wooden shoe factory.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Zaandam Holland

Neither should you miss De Zaanse Schans, in the nearby town of Zaandam. We strolled along red brick streets and took a boat tour of this quaint open-air museum.

People still inhabit many of the 17th and 18th-century green wooden, steep-roofed, white-trimmed homes that were relocated here.

Inside the Wooden Shoe Workshop and Museum, we watched a clog-maker shape wooden shoes (klompen) from blocks of poplar and hollow them out by machine. After drying the wooden shoes for 10 days, he polishes some for farmers' shoes and varnishes and decorates others for tourists.

Windmills have been features of Holland since the Middle Ages. In this flat country, where the wind blows frequently, windmills were used not only for grinding corn and sawing wood, but also for pumping water from low-lying polders. In the 17th century, large lakes, such as the Beemster, were entirely drained by wind power.

Zaanse Schans windmill at sunset in Zaandam
Zaanse Schans windmill at sunset in Zaandam
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Originally, there were 10,000 windmills in Holland. Today, Holland's 1,000 remaining windmills are national monuments. In one of three windmills, open to the public in Zaanse Schans, we watched a millstone crushing peanuts to make oil.

Zandvoort beach

We crossed the North Sea Canal on our way to Haarlem. Extending for 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Amsterdam to IJmuiden, the canal passes through locks vast enough for large cruise ships.

Although Haarlem is worth a stop to see historic almshouses and Golden Age Dutch paintings in the Frans Hals Museum, most visitors head to the Zandvoort beach resorts. The Dutch government opened Holland's first casino, in Zandvoort, in 1976.

Aalsmeer Flower Auction

Our final stop in North Holland was at Aalsmeer. The largest flower auction in the world sells more than 20 million flowers every weekday.

The building, covering an area of 43 hectares (17.4 acres), is so large that employees travel from one area to another on bicycles and trucks. To see the best action, we arrived before 9 am.

We viewed Aalsmeer's flower market from a catwalk, without disturbing the workers. As each cart of carnations, mums, roses, daisies, tulips and orchids is wheeled into auction halls, a sample is shown to the buyers.

Yellow and orange tulips in Aalsmeer flower market
Yellow and orange tulips in Aalsmeer flower market
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The auctioneer started the bidding with a fixed price. On the large screen in front of the theatre-style room, a clock's hand rotated as the price quickly decreased. The first buyer to submit a bid electronically stopped the clock and purchased the flowers at the indicated price.

The flowers could be gracing a bridal bouquet on the other side of the Atlantic within 12 hours. Eighty per cent of the flowers are exported.

Aalsmeer was a colorful and fragrant way to end our driving tour of North Holland. From Aalsmeer, it's a short 13-kilometer (eight-mile) drive back to Amsterdam.


Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions: www.holland.com

More things to see & do in Holland:

Dutch Foods, Drinks and Cuisine

Keukenhof Flower Parade

Rijksmuseum at Schiphol Airport

South Holland Trip

Dutch Phrasebook