Sweeping white-sand beaches, wildlife-rich nature reserves, sun-dappled forests and quaint villages are among the highlights of Texel, the largest and most visited of the Wadden Islands. About 3km north of the coast of Noord-Holland, Texel (pronounced tes-sel) is 25km long and 9km wide.
Time moves slowly in this rural area that starts only 9km north of Amsterdam. Fields of green are watched by herons standing motionless alongside watery furrows amid surrounding farmland. It's glorious cycling country, with plenty to see, including the picturesque towns of Monnickendam, Marken and Edam as well as touristy Volendam.
Once a renowned whaling port – in its 17th-century heyday it had 33 shipyards that built the fleet of legendary admiral Michiel de Ruijter – this scenic little town is another of Noord-Holland's treasures. With its old shipping warehouses, quiet cobblestone streets, hand-operated drawbridges and picture-perfect canals, it's enchanting for a stroll.
Enkhuizen may be a quaint town today but during the Golden Age its strategic harbour sheltered the Dutch merchant fleet. It slipped into relative obscurity in the late 17th century but now possesses one of the largest recreational vessel fleets on the IJsselmeer. For many travellers, Enkhuizen's biggest drawcard is the Zuiderzeemuseum, one of the country's finest.
Monnickendam gained its name from the Benedictines, who built a dam here, and traces its roots back to 1356. Since the demise of its fishing industry, it has transformed itself into an upmarket port for yachts and sailors. The beautiful old fishing trawlers mainly operate pleasure cruises. History still pervades the narrow lanes around the shipyards.
Along the slow-moving Vecht river southeast of Amsterdam lies Het Gooi, a shaded woodland strewn with lakes and heath. In the 17th century this 'Garden of Amsterdam' was a popular retreat for wealthy merchants, and nature-hungry urbanites still flock to its leafy trails to hike and cycle today. Naarden, on the Gooimeer to the north, has an intriguing fortress.
A former fishing port turned unashamedly tacky tourist trap, Volendam is certainly quaint, with its rows of wooden houses and locals who don traditional dress for church and festive events, but the harbour is awash with kitschy souvenir shops, dress-up-in-Dutch-traditional-costume photo booths, a virtual-reality walk through old Volendam, a huge cheese shop/museum, fish stand.