Imagine you are in the prim and historic town of Middenbeemster, 25km north of the centre of Amsterdam. You have a plane to catch from Schiphol airport, 10km south of the capital. It's the height of the evening rush hour. A recipe for stress and delay? Not when I tried. Just half an hour later I was dropping off the car at the rental counter at Schiphol and was walking towards check-in.
The fly-drive holiday is supposed to help you to explore big, empty countries, such as the deserts of Australia or the mountains of Canada. Such locations have great distances to cover, with thin populations and lousy public transport. The Netherlands is the opposite: densely populated, and blessed with frequent and dependable buses and trains – the last place, you might imagine, to head off on the highway. Yet picking up a car at the airport can help you to explore some of its best off-the-beaten track locations even more easily than, well, riding a bike. As soon as you drive out of the well-organised car park at Schiphol, you discover good roads, excellent signposting and tolerant drivers.
Given the modest scale of the Netherlands, you can have big ambitions about how much of the country to cover. My first call was less than two hours from the airport, towards the far north-east of the country. Makkinga, a placid village reached along a pretty avenue close to the northern cities of Leeuwarden and Groningen, is a place I had long wanted to visit because of its radical attitude to transport: the concept of "shared space", where traditional road markings and divisions are removed. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists co-exist with consideration for one another – the rule of the road is simply: be kind.
I expected to find a community that resembled a Utopian artist's impression of what happens when the people genuinely reclaim the streets. Makkinga is a perfectly pleasant Dutch village with a church and a café and a shop and a windmill. But a transport revolution? I was hoping so, until a large truck whizzed the wrong way around the roundabout at the centre of the village. There is clearly still work to do. Nevertheless, a visit to Makkinga is rewarded by the chance to experience the serenity of life in a corner of Europe where the main allure is woodland and water.
Water has always been a blessing and curse for the Dutch. It has bestowed them with rich agriculture and fishing industries, and helped them to become an energetic trading nation. But water comprises an ever-present threat for a low-lying country on the edge of Europe. So it has come up with a series of inventive schemes to manage the dangers.
Much of the intricate network of canals and sluices is invisible to those without a background in hydro-engineering. But as you approach the inland port of Lemmer, the spire of the "steam cathedral" dominates the horizon. The 1920 creation by chief engineer D F Wouda is the only steam pumping station still used for its original purpose – which is why, in 1998, it won a place on the Unesco World Heritage List. It stands astride a canal to help to drain the province of Friesland. Its first attribute is the handsome Amsterdam School architecture, with ornate brickwork more in keeping with a city hall or railway terminus than a piece of plumbing.
Once inside the huge turbine hall, four steam engines – in all their brassy brilliance – power eight pumps that can drain 4,000 cubic metres a minute. Not even gap-year students can drink that fast. While an electric-driven pumping station has largely supplanted its work, on a few occasions each year the mighty pistons swing into action – and draw visitors from across the Netherlands (announcements are made on the media, and tours run continuously all day). From this week, visitors are treated to a brand-new visitor centre that explains the station's role in the never-ending battle with the elements.
About 20 minutes south (give or take a U-turn or two due to road-building schemes), the remarkable landscape of Schokland tells a longer, sadder story of the war with water. Five centuries ago, it was an island, around 4km long. The economy was based on fishing, but life was always fragile; successive storms carved slices from the island, despite man's efforts to protect it with a barrage of wooden palings.
In 1825, 13 islanders drowned and all the houses were destroyed. King Willem III ordered its evacuation in 1858 before any more lives were lost. Three or four people remained on the island to operate the fog horn (the old building that housed the misthoorn still stands).
Then, in the 1930s and 40s, Schokland rose from the dead – or at least the water around it was drained. It now forms part of the north-east polder, looking like a smudge on the map and, from the car, detectable above the flat fields by a slight rise.
The remains of three villages have survived, and today you can get a sense of life in a different geography as well as a different time, now granted Unesco protection.
Most of the fly-driver's distance is ticked off at 110km/h on well-engineered motorways, but the occasional detour is well rewarded. Drive south and west along the eastern edge of Flevoland – another man-made island – and you get a sense of gliding through an Old Master's landscape, with mills punctuating the horizon, hawks perched on fences and barges drifting past.
Rural bliss is interrupted by the brash Walibi theme park, but across the water the small city of Harderwijk has a more intricate combination of pleasure generators. The old town is steeped in elegant architecture that tells tales of maritime mastery. That Harderwijk does not appear in the Lonely Planet's Netherlands guide is a reminder than some of the best corners of a country lie beyond the tourism mainstream. Worth a detour, indeed.
Holland's version of the M25 is called the A10, and wraps around Amsterdam – keeping juggernauts (and fly-drivers) at bay from a city that is the natural home of the barge and the bicycle. Motorways spiral from it, one of them scything through the fields of the province of North Holland. While this is one of the natural areas of the Netherlands, rather than reclaimed land, it is also home to some neat works of man. At Middenbeemster, you can downsize from four wheels to two to explore a heroic piece of engineering (and, predictably by now, Unesco site) that next year celebrates its 400th anniversary.
Early in the 17th century, at the dawn of the Dutch Golden Age, the largest lake in the region was drained with the help of 40 windmills. The resulting rectangle of land was settled by farmers and manor houses, with churches catering for Protestants, Mennonites and – clandestinely, at first – Catholics.
Today you can pedal through the languid landscapes, watching clouds billow across wide-open skies and trace the planes approaching Schiphol – a large aeronautical beacon is placed in the middle of a field. Then engage low gear to climb the large dyke that surrounds Beemster Polder, to complete a most engaging round trip. From all points of view, the journey is a study in contentment.
You can fly to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport from around 20 UK airports.
All the big car-rental companies are represented at Schiphol.
D F Wouda pumping station, Lemmer (Gemaalweg 1; 00 31 514 56 18 14; www.woudagemaal.nl); guided tours at 10am, 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3pm (not Sunday mornings, nor all day Monday); €5.
Museum Schokland, Ens (Middelbuurt 3; 00 31 527 25 13 96; www.schokland.nl); open 11am-5pm daily (less frequently outside the summer); €5.
Infocenter Beemster, Middenbeemster (Middenweg 185; 00 31 299 62 18 26; www.beemsterinfo.nl).
Netherlands Tourism: 020-7539 7950; www.holland.com
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies