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The Vechtplassen or Vecht Lakes of North Holland are one of the most famous water playgrounds in the Netherlands. Man-made water bodies created by the harvesting of peat in the 17th century, the shallow lake systems stretch along both sides of the Utrechtse Vecht River. Fed by a tributary of the Rhine River, the Utrechtse Vecht meanders from the City of Utrecht to the IJsselmeer near Amsterdam.
Some references say the name Vechtplassen only applies to those lakes east of the River Vecht. Others name three lake systems: the Loosdrechtse Plassen and the Maarsseveense Plassen east of the river, and the Vinkeveense Plassen to the west. All three lake systems are considered part of the Vechtstreek, or Vecht Region, and all are popular recreational lakes with a variety of watersports. Marinas provide service and shelter to the many boaters who sail these waters. So vital a part of the Netherlands' boating culture are the Vechtplassen that one can even find world-renowned custom boat builders and restorers located at local marinas on the Loosdrechtse Plassen.
The many lakes and canals form a maze of navigable waterways that require a good map to navigate. Fortunately, such maps are available for sale in several local businesses and internationally. The Vecht River itself is a major pleasure boating route; European boaters can travel through the Netherlands from Germany to Amsterdam. Canals, some with locks, connect the lakes to the river in several areas. A third waterway, the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, handles most of the considerable barge and commercial traffic that used to navigate the Vecht River, leaving the Vecht a peaceful, scenic waterway to delight pleasure boaters. The Vechtplassen is the preferred place to harbor, swim, water ski, wakeboard, canoe, kayak and pontoon. So popular a stopping place is the lake system that there is even a four-star hotel provided with dock space for weary travelers. The marinas rent pontoons, motor launches and kayaks, repair boats, and offer food and fuel. The most-used lake system is the Loosdrechtse Plassen north of Utrechtse, where many lakes are separated by narrow tree-lined strips of land holding picturesque country homes.
Marshes and wetlands around the man-made lakes create an important and unique environment that was named a Wetland of International Importance in 2000 by The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The margins, ditches and boggy areas around the lakes offer perfect habitat for a variety of waterfowl. This unique landscape has long been recognized, and the first area under protection was dedicated early in the 20th century. Now, over 11,000 acres are protected under both private and public control, and the area is part of the European Natura 2000 master plan. The unused canals and ditches created by peat harvesting provide ideal habitat for geese, and a purple heron breeding ground offers limited access from viewing blinds. Efforts are underway to restore the optimum chemical composition of the unused canals; changes in ground water levels and infiltration from the Vecht River have altered the chemistry of the water over time, changing the vegetation that grows there. This is a long-term project, requiring much trial and error, but scientists see some hopeful changes.
The entire area around the Vechtplassen is ideal for a scenic and serene North Holland holiday. The area along the Vecht River was the home to many rich Dutch families during the Dutch 'Golden Age'. Castles and impressive manor houses dot the countryside, complete with well-groomed decorative gardens. The area is known for growing fruit, and bike paths abound. The marinas often rent bicycles so that yachtsmen can take a cycling day or two to tour the scenic countryside. One of the country's most famous Medieval castles is the Rijksmuseum Muiderslot in Muiden. Located on the estuary of the Vecht, the castle was built around 1280 and is open to visitors. Another well-known castle is the Zuylen Castle, which was built around 1520 on the remains of an older castle. The 19th century English style garden is delightful. Many parks in the area sport nature trails and scenic views. Every body of water seems dotted with sailboats. Other entertainments in the area include hot-air balloon tours, amusement parks, Go-kart tracks and petting zoos. And, of course, there are golf courses, movie houses and plenty of restaurants, quaint cafes and shopping.
Scenic and historic, the old towns and cities along the Vecht include Loenen, Oud-Zuilen, Nederhorst den Berg, Maarssen, Breukelen, Weesp, Nieuwersluis, Vreeland, and Nigtevecht; all are worth a walking tour and a history lesson from the Dutch Golden Age. Visiting the Vechtplassen is the perfect way to learn about the marvels of Dutch ingenuity when one discovers that all of the fen lakes average about four feet below sea level. A visit to the mouth of the Vecht where it enters the IJsselmeer amazes visitors when they realize that the river itself is lower than the huge freshwater lake it joins; a lock separates the two most of the time except during the rainy season. Even more amazing is the fact that the IJsselmeer used to be an arm of the North Sea called the Zuiderzee that was dammed in the last century and much of the land reclaimed for agriculture. The lake soon became freshwater, and the dam has ended the catastrophic floods that doomed so many in centuries past.
Even non-boaters can enjoy the Vechtplassen area. Campgrounds, cozy inns, guest houses, apartments and hotel lodgings of every type can be found in the area. Because the lakes are only a short distance from Amsterdam, the lakes are an easy day trip or the perfect romantic weekend getaway. Serious boaters likely have the Vechtplassen on their list of 'must-visit' locations. But non-boaters can realize just as much enjoyment even when traveling light. Everything visitors need can be found here, so start planning your visit to the Vechtplassen.
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