Historical boat trips connect lakes with picturesque small towns, villages and nature areas

Frysian Lakes: the holiday resort of Europe

The Frysian Lakes in the Dutch province of Friesland (‘Fryslân’ in Frysian) are dozens of interlinked large and small lakes and two former sea arms, the IJsselmeer and the Lauwersmeer.

Het Heegermeer (Hegemer Mar). Op de voorgrond bungalowpark De Pharshoeke in Heeg. Foto: De Pharshoeke, Heeg.
The Heegermeer (Hegemer Mar). In the foreground, bungalow park De Pharshoeke in Heeg. Photo: De Pharshoeke, Heeg.

The Frysian lakes are a worldwide unique holiday region with recreational sailing and cycling connections at all levels, hundreds of circular routes as well as 8-shaped ones, clean water and open sandy beaches. Nowhere else in the world does one see kitesurfers, cyclists, sailors, walkers and motorboaters intensely enjoy sunshine, wind and water as they do here.

The Frysian wetlands are an extremely affordable holiday destination. For instance, nowhere else in Europe can you rent this affordably a luxury dory, motor or sailboat: no need for a sailing licence up to 15 metres’ length and a top speed of 20 km per hour! And furthermore, mooring opportunities galore: in the towns and villages or in nature.


Het Tjeukemeer vanaf een parkeerplaats aan de A6 tussen Lemmer en Joure. Foto: Albert Hendriks, Friesland Holland Nieuwsdienst.
The Tjeukemeer from a parking area at the A6 between Lemmer and Joure. Photo: Albert Hendriks, Friesland Holland News.

Relaxing at a picnic table at the shore of a Frysian lake, you see boats as small as nutshells as well as impressive clippers pass by. Sometimes even a cruise ship, which you would normally encounter on the river Rhine, sails along. The Frysian lakes are an international touristic highlight. For every boat there is a waterway and a mooring, so that the passengers can admire the treasures of the province of Friesland, such as the medieval ‘Eleven Cities.’

All lakes are interlinked by navigable rivers, channels and canals. Pleasure boaters are always able to sail loops or large circles, such as the 200 km long, centuries-old ‘Eleven Cities’ route as well as the Peat route.

The majority of the lakes are well suited for both small and large yachting. On the Sneekermeer each year the largest sailing regatta on European inland waterways is held: the Sneekweek.

Some of the lakes have designated speed sailing zones, for instance for waterskiers and wakeboarders. Kitesurfers from many countries rate the coast of the windy IJsselmeer, with its many beaches, high up on the list of hotspots.

The Frysian lakes are not deep: on average 2 metres. They offer an eldorado for both watersporters and sport fishermen alike.

Holiday at the water

Overal in Friesland kun je je boot afmeren, zoals hier voor hotel-restaurant-jachthaven Galamadammen aan de Morra bij Koudum. Foto: Albert Hendriks, Friesland Holland Nieuwsdienst.
Everywhere in Friesland you can moor your boat, such as here in front of Hotel Restaurant-Marina Galamadammen at De Morra Lake near Koudum. Photo: Albert Hendriks, Friesland Holland News.

Local and provincial governments also paid a great deal of attention to cyclists and walkers.  For them, beautiful paths have been built along the shores. At various points observation huts and lookout posts with benches have been constructed, such as at the Rode Klif (Red Cliff) at Stavoren. Every lake’s shore is dotted with picturesque villages, small bungalow parks, campings, hotels and restaurants, all in perfect harmony with nature or more built-up areas.

Pleasure boaters who wish to change from boat to bicycle in order to carry on their journey on Country can make use of special moorings which serve as transfer points. Many people who rent boats take their rental bicycles on board so that they can experience even more. All attractions in Friesland are at or near waterways.

History of formation
The Frysian lakes were formed in various ways: peatlands were washed away by storms or destroyed by peat fires; they were also drained for agricultural purposes, and diminished due to peat extraction. Also, for safety reasons, a sea arm was separated from the sea by a long dam, called the Afsluitdijk.

Glacial valley

The Heegermeer, the Fluessen and De Morra in the Zuidwesthoek (southwest corner) of Friesland have an elongated bottom of boulder clay, glacially formed 238,000 to 128,000 years ago. That’s when the Scandinavian ice sheet reached down to the middle of The Netherlands. The polar ice carved out a valley in the southwest of Friesland: a genuine glacial valley!

After a later, warmer period, the three lakes, like De Zuiderzee (IJsselmeer), were overgrown with trees and plants and over time a peat layer of several meters thick was formed. Storms dragged this layer of peat into the sea as there were no dykes to stop the flooding. In Friesland, monks only began building dykes during the High Middle Ages (1000-1300). The oldest seawall is De Slachte, a chain of small polder dykes totalling 42 km from the North Frysian Oosterbierum to Raerd, between Sneek and Grou. It is now a historical monument and also a popular natural trail the length of a marathon.


Het skûtsjesilen stamt uit de tijd van de Sailingde vrachtvaart met platbodemschepen (skûtsjes). Foto: Narelle Hofstra, Grou.
Skûtsjesilen’ hails from the days of cargo trade with flat-bottomed boats (skûtsjes). Photo: Narelle Hofstra, Grou.

The former islands Schokland (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Urk, now incorporated in the reclaimed Noordoostpolder (1942), were until 1450 AD located in a large peat bog. Back in those days most of Friesland was a marshy wilderness. To prepare peatland for agricultural purposes the water was drained - resulting in peat shrinkage – and by extracting peat for energy purposes, even more lakes were formed in the lower regions of Friesland. From 1000 until 1900 peat was the fuel in The Netherlands. East-Friesland (De Alde Feanen, in the region of the Peat route) was a large peat supplier. The ‘skûtsjes,’ the flat-bottomed boats which in the old days were used for transporting peat to cities in the west of The Netherlands, are still seen daily on the Frysian lakes as a maritime heritage. ‘Skûtsjesilen’ now comprises a series of sailing contests and group entertainment, but centuries ago this cargo trade wore men out.

New lakes

Kitesurfing op het IJsselmeer voor de kust van Gaasterland (Mirns). Foto: Albert Hendriks, Friesland Holland Nieuwsdienst.
Kitesurfing on the IJsselmeer near the coast of Gaasterland (Mirns). Photo: Albert Hendriks, Friesland Holland News.

Some of the lakes were formed as a result of peat fires, but most of the Frysian lakes used to be a bog. The Lauwersmeer came into existence after the Lauwerszee (sea) was closed off from the Waddenzee in 1969. The old sea arm, which once gave Dokkum the status of naval town, officially became a National Park in 2003. Also the large ponds around Earnewâld, such as the Princenhof, altogether form a National Park (2006). The lakes of southwest Friesland form part of Nationaal Landschap Zuidwest Fryslân (2005). The IJsselmeer, partly a Frysian lake, came into being after the completion of the Afsluitdijk in 1932.

The Frysian lakes

Below is a list of the most famous Frysian lakes in alphabetical order. The official Frysian names are between brackets. The biggest lake is the IJsselmeer, the second biggest, the Tjeukemeer.

Stavoren, één van de Friese Elf Steden, is een populair watersportcentrum aan het IJsselmeer en één van de invalspoorten van Friesland. Foto: Skips Maritiem, Marina Stavoren Buitenhaven.
Stavoren, one of the Frysian ‘Eleven Cities,’ is a popular watersport centre at the IJsselmeer and one of the entry points of Friesland. Photo: Skips Maritiem, Marina Stavoren Buitenhaven.

Bergumermeer (Burgumer Mar)
Brandemeer (Brandemar)
Eeltjemeer (Eeltsjemar)
Fluessen (Fluezen)
Goëngarijpsterpoelen (Goaiïngarypster Puollen)
Groote Brekken (Grutte Brekken)
Groote Wielen (Grutte Wielen)
Grote Gaastmeer (Grutte Gaastmar)
Heegermeer (Hegemer Mar)
Holken, De
Idskenhuistermeer (Jiskenhúster Mar)
Idzegaasterpoel (Idzegeaster Poel)
Koevordermeer (De Kûfurd)
Langweerderwielen (Langwarder Wielen)
Lauwersmeer (Lauwersmar)
Leijen, De (De Leien)
Morra (De Morra)
Nannewijd (Nannewiid)
Oudegaasterbrekken (Aldegeaster Brekken)
Oudhof (Aldhôf)
Pikmeer (Pikmar)
Slotermeer (Sleattemer Mar)
Sneekermeer (Snitser Mar)
Terhernstermeer (De Hoarne)
Terhernsterpoelen (Terhernster Puollen)
Terkaplesterpoelen (Terkaplester Puollen)
Tjeukemeer (Tsjûkemar)
Vlakke Brekken (Flakke Brekken)
Witte Brekken (Wite Brekken)
IJsselmeer (Iselmar)
Zandmeer (Sânmar)
Zwarte Brekken (Swarte Brekken)

Frysian Lakes packages: www.frieslandhollandtravel.nl