Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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ZEN on the Water

Sail Holland's greatest lake and find nirvana aboard the Nirwana

Ho!" Silence. "Land Ho!" I bellowed once more from the bow of the sailboat.

Day two began with rich, chocolatey coffee, and although I'm not a breakfast person, I couldn't resist warm raisin bread, mild cheeses, yogurt and cereal with fresh fruit. The heat rose to a humid 25oC so I leaned over the guardrail and felt the spray cool my face. A V-formation of black cormorants darted past the stern, three centimetres from the lake's murky-green surface.

The wind was picking up. Soon it would be time to raise the sails and test our resolve. "First rule. Do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you," said the skipper. "And falling overboard is absolutely forbidden." His deadpan delivery forced a few laughs, but it was good to know that safety was at the top of his list.

Matthys steered us into the wind, cut the engines and gave the signal. First, we hoisted the main sail. I pulled and yanked as my hands throbbed with rising blisters, but sure as Popeye loves spinach, the sail began to rise and catch wind. Next, the skipper and I hoisted the smaller jib and mizzen sails. I winced as the skin burned off my now-open blisters. When it was over, Matthys noticed my palms and wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Writer's hands," I said with a shrug.

I soaked them in ice as we sailed full-speed ahead toward Enkhuizen, and Mariolene served some snacks on deck: sweet gherkins, spicy sausage or smoked herring wrapped in cheese and skewered with toothpicks. Jenever, or Dutch gin, was a nice way to wash it all down. It's made from molasses, flavoured with juniper berries and tastes quite medicinal.

During our first night in Enkhuizen, the crew and I staggered to the mainland: Jenever and sea-leg syndrome had gotten the better of us. Christmas lights entwined in rustling trees gave the early May twilight an eerie feel as the music and merriment beckoned from beyond the town walls. We followed the main cobblestone path through the centre of an enormous stone turret built in 1540; originally a guard tower, it's now home to a pub.

We climbed the ancient spiral staircase to the pub without a name. I half- expected to see archers dressed in chain mail with bowstrings pulled taut; I never expected to see an 18-piece brass band setting up for a roomful of half-soused sailors. Our group gathered round a huge table with the obligatory vase of fresh-cut tulips in the middle. We ordered a round of spirits and within moments, we were treated to the sounds of James Brown's I Feel Good; admittedly, the Godfather of Soul seemed out of place in a 16th-century castle. Nevertheless, the ancient structure shook, rattled and rolled, and sometime after midnight we shimmied our way back to the boat.

The next day, after a light breakfast, we went ashore and paid a visit to the Zuiderzee Museum. (We would need the whole day to cover the grounds.) The Dutch East India Company had left traces behind here, too. After the Zuiderzee was dammed in and salt water gave way to fresh, village fishermen changed over from herring to eel fishing. Now nearly 100 homes, shops and workstations provide an overall view of daily life when the Zuiderzee's fishing industry thrived.

A must-see is the Urk neighbourhood. This is where actors posing as villagers dress in traditional garb from the late 19th century and go about their daily tasks. They've never heard of TV, cars, highways or even information highways, but they'll happily engage in conversation regarding the best way to catch herring, how to fix a gill net or smoke a school's worth of fish. Befriend one of the women dressed in wooden shoes and bonnet and maybe, if the time is right, you'll be invited in for a morsel from the stew pot.

Go deeper in time with a visit to the fully restored sailmaker's workshop, a barber's shop built in 1845 or the first dental clinic where wooden busts of clowns and pirates stick out their carved tongues to get fussy children to "open up." And there's the cheese warehouse filled with yellow wheels of Gouda and red wheels of Edam.

It had been a long day of time travel, and the heat was getting to some of the crew. I sensed mutiny, so we headed back to the comforts of the Nirwana, where cold Heineken and a meal of beef and vegetable ragout awaited. In the early evening, we headed north toward the "forgotten city" of Stavoren, in the heart of Friesland province. The name sounded mystical, but Atlantis it wasn't.

You can explore the village on foot in about an hour. The people are friendly, the tiny beach is clean, but I couldn't help thinking I'd landed in the Frisian version of Twin Peaks. Our guide even resembled David Lynch a little. But the most sublime sight was a statue -- The Lady of Stavoren -- her stone gaze falling on the water for eternity.

Legend has it that during the 15th century, the Lady jumped aboard a ship only to find grain instead of gold. She was enraged and ordered the captain to dump his cargo into the sea. He complied, but warned her of times of poverty and hardship that would follow for such waste. She laughed and hurled her ring into the water. "My ring will return to me before I ever become poor," she cried.

One day, many years later, the lady ordered her maid to prepare a meal of fish. While eating the fresh catch, she came across something hard. She raised her hand to her mouth and pulled out her forgotten ring. Soon after, fires set by invading armies demolished most of Stavoren.

After a walk along the beach, we were ready for a traditional Frisian meal of flatfish and greens. The Restaurant Ald Gilles serves the kind of great seafood you'd expect from a fishing village restaurant and the dÄcor is pure maritime: nets, lobster traps and tables shaped like giant oars. The best part? We were in the company of greatness.

Sitting next to our table was a famous skooche racer. A skooche is a boat with a long history of hauling cargo and tourists. These days, the design of the skooche has been altered for one sole purpose -- speed. "Mr. Skooche" was a legendary racer, with many medals; physically, he was Thor with a beer belly.

Pints of Heineken vanished in his massive hands and down his greedy gullet. The more he drank, the more animated his storytelling. He waved his long arms as he recounted tales of the sea, including the storm of '85 when 10-metre waves crashed down on his ship. His only way to escape death was to run aground. Interesting fellow, but I'd had enough hot air to raise a zeppelin, so I made a dash for our boat.

Stars brushed the shimmering blackness of the lake and nesting waterfowl made tranquil warbling sounds. But the spell was broken when the neighbours came back, stumbling and giggling across the gangplank. I tried to hide behind the mast, but it was too late. "Bonjour, buenos noches, how do you do?" Members of the drunken dozen tried to find a salutation I could understand.

"Great," I said.

"Wunderbar! We're on vacation," shouted the brazen leader as he tripped on various ropes and pulleys. He explained that he and his colleagues were on a sailing trip sponsored by a pharmaceutical company out of Munich.

"Are you enjoying your trip?" I asked.

"The food is bad, but the beer comes in lovely kegs." And that's how I befriended a boatload of German gynecologists, halfway around the world.

Freeze that hangover
Now, the best cure for a hangover, I discovered, is to stay out of the head -- the ship's toilet that is. Then, down a mug of Dutch coffee and follow it up with a dive into the Ijsselmeer. For this to work, the coffee has to be hot and the lake very cold -- about 8íC. Refreshed, I was ready to say a proper goodbye to our hosts and crew, since it was here that we would go on ahead by bus and leave the Nirwana behind. A gentle handshake from Matthys and his mate, who took care not to irritate my healing blisters, and three kisses, alternating cheeks, for Mariolene. The Dutch will happily shake your hand, but three kisses is the next level of cordiality. I guess helping with the dishes had won me some points.

The ferry from the docks of Holwerd to the Isle of Ameland costs $12. The trip takes about 45 minutes, and if it's hot, sit on the upper deck and enjoy the cool breeze and view as you head toward the island. Simply put, Ameland is a nature-lover's paradise. There are 27 kilometres of white-sand beaches, and to the west, just a kilometre offshore, lies a small islet of sand and rock called Robbenbank. Hundreds of seals sun themselves here and a two-hour boat tour is available if you want a closer look.

Renting a bicycle is the best way to explore the island. The bikes are basically antiques, but they're comfortable, which is important with over 90 kilometres of trails to ride. First, head to the lighthouse near the village of Hollum. The structure was built in 1880 and stands 58-metres high. If you walk all the way to the top you'll get a bird's-eye view of the entire island. Speaking of birds, see if you can spot willow warblers, short-eared owls or blue herons. Of the 500 species that inhabit Holland, Ameland is home to over 130.

After a full day of biking, I headed back to the hotel and flopped out for a deep 45-minute doze. It was my last day exploring the islands of Lake Ijsselmeer, so I decided to walk the 20 minutes to De Binkert stables and hire myself a guide and horse. The cost was $22.50 for 90 minutes. I was a bit nervous, as it was my first time riding another beast, let alone a horse. But with basic English and some international sign language, I conveyed my apprehension to my guide, Oda. She smiled. "You will ride Vera. She is very calm."

After a few quick, easy instructions and a couple of clicking sounds, we crossed pastures, a highway and entered the region of sand dunes. Tall, rigid grasses and pockets of sagebrush poked through the sand. I could've used a cigarillo, a wide-brimmed Stetson and a red bandana round my neck -- a regular Dutch Clint Eastwood. After a dreamy ride, we trotted back to the stables. I climbed down and Vera nudged me with her pink-and-white nose as if to say "you did all right."

The next day I would hop the ferry and bus it back to Amsterdam, the metropolis of red lights, marijuana, museums and mayhem -- quite a change from my seafaring lifestyle, but Amsterdam is the perfect stopover for sailors and has been for centuries. I'd have to lose my sea legs there and discover a new balance...but that's a whole other story.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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