With a giant puff of smoke and the screeching of metal on metal, the steam train lurches from the station in Hoorn, a cozy city an hour north of Amsterdam, and our journey to the past begins. My husband, Peter, and I—and our son, Ross—are taking a unique excursion by train and boat through three towns in the province of North Holland that border the IJsselmeer, an inland sea.
We’re sitting in an old-fashioned train car (circa 1926), surrounded by families who chat excitedly. The excursion is part of Museum Steamtrain, an experiential attraction that features historic steam locomotives and train cars, exhibits at train stations along the line, and a ride on an historic ferry.
Our trip starts at the train station in Hoorn, where we sip coffee in a cozy waiting room, decorated to reflect days gone by. Children are invited to pick up old suitcases and satchels and carry them on board the train. Soon the friendly conductor dressed in period costume blows his whistle, signaling it’s time to board.
With the windows down and fresh air pouring in, we quickly become mesmerized by the scenery. At a top speed of 30 kilometers per hour (18 mph), the train’s leisurely pace ensures a relaxing ride. Backyard gardens and industrial areas soon give way to pastures full of cows and horses and, yes, the occasional old-fashioned windmill. It’s summer, so the tulips are long gone, but here and there we see colorful fields of bright pink and blue hyacinths. At intersections, people on bikes wave and smile.
Soon we stop at the restored station in the town of Wognum, where kids are invited to try old-fashioned children’s games—such as walking on stilts or hoop rolling. You can also get a closer look at the steam locomotive, where coal feeds a hungry fire to fuel the steam engine. When the conductor blows his whistle, we’re off again, creaking and lurching on a track that’s been in use since 1887. Peter, Ross, and I dig into our picnic lunch as we make our way north.
Our next stop, Medemblik, has a colorful history and a beautiful castle from the Middle Ages, built in the 1200s by Floris V, the count of Holland, who invaded the region. Other attractions include a bakery museum, which still bakes delicious treats, and a steam machine museum. But you might just want to stroll along the beautiful harbor or stop at a café for a yummy ice cream cone.
Soon it’s time to begin the next leg of our journey. We cross a wooden plank to board Friesland, an historic ferry boat built in 1955 with a beautifully restored salon deck. Here you can order a meal or relax with a cup of coffee as you watch the scenery float by. My family and I head up to the top level and view boats of all sizes and shapes heading out to sea.
After ninety minutes, we arrive at Enkhuizen, our final destination, and disembark at the Zuiderzee (South Sea) Museum, one of the best museums I’ve visited. It has both an outdoor living museum next to the harbor and a nearby indoor exhibition, which houses the largest collection of wooden ships in Europe as well as changing exhibits. We spend most of our time in the outdoor area, comprised of 140 authentic dwellings, shops, and workshops brought to Enkhuizen from villages around the former Zuiderzee, which was closed off from the North Sea in 1956 by a thirty-foot dike.
As you stroll through the cobblestone streets, you might walk under a clothesline with towels fresh from the wash hung up to dry. You can stop to chat with a housewife stoking her cook stove or learn how to mend fishing nets from a sailor across the lane. Kids can play a variety of old-fashioned games in the church square or build a klompbootje, a sailboat from a wooden shoe. There’s a beautiful restored windmill, a fish smoker, a blacksmith, a basket maker, and much more.
As we are leaving, we see a funny-looking china cabinet inside a barn. A docent beckons us to come in, and we’re so glad we do. The china is displayed in all sorts of odd positions connected by wires, but when the docent puts a euro coin in the slot, it all makes sense. It’s a carillon, and as the euro travels along its wire track—think Rube Goldberg—it “rings” the china and plays a sweet little tune. The best part is you get your euro back at the end!
The docent explains that the china cabinet is an art history project created by a Dutch student. It’s a great symbol of Dutch inventiveness and just one of many reasons we will return to this unique historic region again soon.
IF YOU GO:
• The excursion is available from March through December and can also be completed in reverse. If you have less time, you can buy tickets for the train, the boat, and the museum separately. The combination ticket (train, boat, and entrance to the Zuiderzee Museum) costs 30 euro for adults and 21 euro for children (4-12). For more information, visit www.stoomtram.nl
• Between Enkhuizen and Hoorn, you’ll need to take the regular train to return to your starting point. The fare is approx. five euros and trains run every half hour.
• You’ll want to allow time before and after the excursion to explore the region. For tourist information, visit www.vvvhartvannoordholland.nl
• For lodgings, consider a stay at Villa Vakantie Park IJsselhof, a bungalow park in Andijk with comfortable vacation villas that accommodate 4-16. www.villavakantieparkijsselhof.nl