To me, Drenthe is the most beautiful, peaceful province of the Netherlands. The most underestimated and undervalued. In particular the Drentsche Aa area. Stone graves older than Stonehenge. Beautiful forests, heather fields, special plants and animals. Numerous kilometers of bicycle and walking paths. Super friendly, modest people. Authentic architecture, shops with handmade, local products. And the largest concentration of prehistoric monuments of The Netherlands. Enough to explore!
“I am in a wonderful country” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo while staying in Drenthe in 1883.
In this article I will write mainly about National Park Drentsche Aa and a number of places beyond the NP yet part of the overlapping UNESCO Geopark De Hondsrug. Drenthsche Aa is an area, brook and National Park in the North of Drenthe. To learn more about the Drentsche Aa, De Hondsrug and my relationship with Drenthe, see the last part of this article. First I will tell you all about the best things to do and see in this beautiful area in the northeast of The Netherlands.
Attention nature lovers!
Drenthe may not offer a lot of what some may perceive as spectacular attractions; Drenthe is an attraction on itself. Like New Zealand, Norway, Ireland and Iceland, you go to Drenthe mainly for the nature. There are no mountains, so ideal for bicycling and walking. As mentioned in the first paragraph; Drenthe has beautiful nature including forest, heather fields, sand dunes, etc. A paradise for nature lovers and peace seekers. There are beavers, particular breeds of sheep and cows, Scottish highlanders, birds, frogs, butterflies and many horses. You see, there is a reason why Drenthe traditionally has built up the reputation of Horse Heaven.
‘t Nije Hemelriek
Recreational lake ‘t Nije Hemelriek in the Forestry Gieten-Borger is part of the Hondsrug, located between Gasselte, Eext and Anderen. In Dutch, hemel means heaven. This place is heaven on earth on a warm summer day! Surrounded by a lush green forest, you will find two lakes: the left lake is the smallest and has a restaurant that also sells soft drinks, ice cream and offers toilets. The right lake is much larger and the prettiest by color. The water of this lake is so blue it almost seems too exotic to be in the Netherlands. The dot lines in the water indicate the areas safe for swimming. For location see the map below.
With 367 acres, the Balloërveld is the most extensive heather field within the National Park Drentsche Aa. There are peat lakes, trees small sand drifts, hunebedden, Celtic fields, a sheep fold, bicycle and walking paths and bridges. It is located between Assen and Eext. Have a break or lunch at one of the pick-nick tables or benches and admire the wonderful natural landscape. Best time to visit the Balloërveld is the end of August until mid-September, when the heather is blooming purple. For the location see below map.
Hunebedden (dolmen) are a pre-historic, common tombs that look-like big piles of old rocks. They were built by the Funnel Beaker Culture, the first farmers in Northern Europe, who buried their dead in the hunebedden more than 5000 years ago. Hunebedden are the oldest monuments of The Netherlands. See below map for hunebed locations. Please treat these tombs with respect when visiting, do not climb on top.
Hunebedden are older than the famous Stonehenge in the UK and the pyramids in Egypt!
More than 50 hunebedden can be found in the north of The Netherlands, especially at the Hondsrug in Drenthe, dating back between 3350 BC and 3050 BC. In Borger there is a Hunebed Centrum where you can learn more about the history and meaning of hunebedden in Drenthe. This is close to Hunebed D27, the largest hunebed in Drenthe. Hunebedden are quite a unique phenomenon on themselves, but not in The Netherlands alone. Other hunebedden can be found in for example Germany (Hühnenbett) as well.
The Gasterse Duinen are located north of Eext and Balloërveld. A beautiful area with sand dunes (duinen), heather fields, sheep, Scottish highlanders, a hunebed (D10). There is evidence people were already living here more than 5000 years ago! The area is not huge but very diverse and pretty, great for a walk! Simply follow the purple route (5km). If you come here by bicycle, I would suggest to park it and continue on foot. Like the Balloërveld, a great time to visit is the end of August or early September when the heather is blooming. See map below for the exact location.
Charming brink villages
Eext, Anderen, Gieten, Gasteren, Annen, Rolde, Balloo, Schipborg, Anloo, Loon and Zeegse are examples of so-called ‘brinkdorp’ (green village) or ‘esdorp’ located in the Drentsche Aa area and close surroundings. These medieval, rustic villages always include a group of old farm houses around a grass field with big trees and the village itself is usually surrounded by a small river, fields with heather and buttercup flowers, forest and arable landscape.
The older farms (18th Century) often have a tatch that almost reaches the ground. Other, slightly younger farms often have a horizontal roof beam so straight it somehow reminds of some of the ladies’ bangs here LOL And in most cases, a well-kept garden.
Eext is my favorite village in the Drentsche Aa; it is usually where we spend the night (see below Where to stay). Eext is a small, rural and atmospheric village with about 1400 inhabitants, a few streets, a brink, some hunebedden, a small supermarket, a church, a war graveyard and numerous typical farm houses, of which a few function as B&B. But I guess that’s the charm about it: Eext is tranquil and authentic. A place where I can find my peace.
In the center of Eext, sharing the same bend at the main road of the village as the church, you cannot miss this good restaurant called De 7 Ossen (the 7 Oxen). It also offers take-away and delivery meals during Corona. Another good restaurant in the village is Rikus, which is also a hotel (overpriced). For kids there is the Rijk der Kabouters (Empire of Gnomes) and several bicycle and walking trails cross Eext.
Forest swimming pool Zwanenmeer and the earlier mentioned recreational lake ‘t Nije Hemelriek are both on a short cycling distance from Eext.
Once upon a time, this area was so dry, it was only popular by juniper bushes. At some point owners started to sell pieces of land to those who wanted to build a holiday home here, because the ground was too poor for agriculture. Nowadays the Zeegser Duinen is a popular recreational area for walking between the landscape that is interspersed with sand dunes, trees, heather and a small lake.
The Zeegser dunes is also an excellent area to go horse riding. For location see map below. You can easily park at Fletcher Hotel Zeegser Duinen or the streets before that, like Schapendrift. Sure, these dunes cannot be compared with for example the Schoorlse Duinen in North-Holland or Dunas de Maspalomas on Gran Canaria, but the Zeegser Duinen are definitely worth a visit!
Obviously there are a lot of shops of the well-known chains and brands in the bigger cities of Drenthe, such as Assen and Emmen. Personally I prefer the small local shops that sell antiques, bric-a-brac (‘curiosa’) and flea market stuff (‘brocante’), which shops are usually located in the smaller villages. There is also a Brocante Fietsroute (cycling route) in this area, but some of these small shops might be closed due to Corona thee days. We bought these cute little sheep, hand-made from stone, rubber and can as a souvenir from a small stall in front of the house of Trea Boekhorst (Balloo 33 in Balloo).
Normally every summer, in the months of July and August, regional markets are held all over Drenthe, including antique markets and local farmer products. But since they are considered events, they cannot be held due to Corona (COVID-19) until at least September 2020. The regular weekly markets are allowed and supermarkets are open.
Central & Southern Drenthe
South of the Drentsche Aa, further down the Hondsrug, in the middle and south of the Drenthe province, there is lots more to see. A few highlights.
Old cobbled streets, historic thatch-roofed farms, horse tram, nostalgic shops with local hand-made products and art… Museum village Orvelte just southeast of Westerbork is a must-visit in Drenthe for those who can appreciate history and old craftsmanship like making cheese, wooden shoes, etc. Typical regional dishes and sweets are served at the eateries, which will re-open again June 1, 2020. Unfortunately, due to Corona measures all markets in Orvelte are cancelled until September 2020.
Former Camp Westerbork was a transit camp during World War 2. Thousands of Jews, Sinti and Roma were put on cattle wagons to concentration camps like Auschwitz and Sobibor. Only a handful returned at the end of the war; humiliated, sick, emaciated and a soul damaged forever. The museum of former Camp Westerbork teaches visitors about the history of the camp. The museum is closed due to Corona until June 1, 2020. Prior ticket reservations are now required. When the museum is open, a bus rides between the parking lot and the open air area.
The outdoor area of former Camp Westerbork remained open despite Corona. Several paths lead visitors through the forest to the barb wire fenced outdoor camp area (2.5 km). Here for example the former commandant’s house, a piece of rail with a wagon and the remains of a barrack are on display. Sound poles and displays tell the stories of Camp Westerbork, such as the postcards prisoners had to write to calm tempers back home. Just like Anne Frank’s famous diary, a move shot at Westerbork in 1944 is in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
Sauna Thermen Zuidwolde
As you may know from this blog, I am a big fan of sauna and wellness. Drenthe is home to one of my top favorite saunas in the Netherlands, Thermen Zuidwolde. A unique, mid-size thermal with a beautiful garden and numerous relaxing saunas including a cave sauna. Saunas in The Netherlands will re-open July 1, 2020. Read more in the article Relax at my favorite saunas in The Netherlands.
In the southwest of Drenthe there is another beautiful National Park called Dwingelderveld. It is Europe’s largest contiguous wet heather area. Much more wet than the Drentsche Aa NP. Two flocks of sheep with shepherd maintain the heather fields of Dwingelderveld NP. A great area for walking, cycling, horse riding, watching birds and the fantastic sunset.
You may think this article is getting quite long…. There is more to see! Maybe I should write a book about Drenthe one day LOL However,m I have still not seen everything either. One trail that is still on my to do list for my next trip to Drenthe is called Wolvenspoor (Wolf track), in Elp just southwest of Schoonloo. See map below for location.
There are two places that I wanted to mention, which are not actually located in Drenthe but popular to visit from Drenthe:
- Fortified village Bourtange in Groningen that shows life in 1742
- Water village Giethoorn ‘Venice of the North’ in Overijssel
If you are interested to read more about other beautiful places in The Netherlands, check out my earlier article My top 5 recommendations for a relaxed long weekend up to 1-2 weeks in The Netherlands.
With kids in Drenthe
Besides exploring the nature, there are lots of other fun things to do with children in Drenthe, such as:
- WILDLANDS Adventure Zoo in Emmen
- Pretpark Drouwenerzand theme park
- Planetron with cinedrome, star watching and e-skateboards in Dwingeloo
- Speelpark Sprookjeshof in Zuidlaren
- Rijk der Kabouters in Eext (0-8 years old, re-opens July 1, 2020)
- Ellert en Brammert in Schoonoord
- Veenpark near Emmen where you can relive the past
- Prison Museum in Veenhuizen
- Boomkroonpad experience the forest like a squirrel up high in the trees
- Schaapskooi Balloërveld the info board mentions where you can find the 400 sheep
Drenthe has lots of indoor and outdoor swimming pools. My personal favorite is the forest pool Zwanenmeer in Gieten. Many larger camping sites have midget golf, such as Camping De Hondsrug in Eext. And obviously you will have to eat delicious Dutch pancakes at pancake farm Brinkzicht Gasteren. I’d say, enough to do here, right?!
Please be informed that due to Corona measures, all paid attractions require tickets to be purchased online in advance, to limit the number of visitors per day. Most parks and museums re-opened June 1, 2020.
How to get around
Traveling to Drenthe can be done by car or train. A car will definitely be the most convenient way. If you come to The Netherlands by airplane, or do not have a car yourself, you could consider renting a car from for example Amsterdam Schiphol airport.
Sunny Cars is an all-inclusive, worry free rental concept with affordable, fair prices, great service and no unpleasant surprises upon pick up or drop off. I am a big fan and use them all the time! In most countries the 2nd driver, free cancellation up to 4 hours in advance and all-risk insurance are standard included. Ideal, I use them all the time!
Bicycle rental Drenthe
If you come by train to Drenthe, Assen station or Groningen central station is probably the most logical train station to get off and start exploring Drenthe. Those are the bigger regional train stations that also offer bicycle rental. Cycle from the train station to your accommodation. There are some local public busses in this area, but none to Eext for example. Check the website of 9292 for a door-to-door travel advice by public transport.
Be aware that as part of the Corona measures, wearing a face mask is required when traveling by train in The Netherlands until further notice.
Unless you bring your own bicycle (by car or train), or your accommodation offers bicycles, you may be interested to learn more about the bicycle rental (‘fietsverhuur’) options in the area:
- OV fiets (public transport bicycle) from the bigger NS train stations like Assen and Groningen
- Drenthe Fietsverhuur in Rolde (closed on Mondays, pick-up in Grollo also possible)
- Fietsverhuur Gasselte tel +31 599 564 607 (Sunday only on appointment)
- Egberts Fietsen in Borger (Sundays and Monday morning closed)
- Installatiebedrijf Hofsteenge in Eext, tel +31 592 262 477 (EUR8 p/d incl. pick up & drop off)
Should you would come to Drenthe by car, and you would be interested to rent a bicycle, you may want to check with your accommodation whether they can arrange the bicycles to be dropped off and picked up again to/from your accommodation. In addition, some accommodation also offer:
- luggage service: taking your luggage to your next accommodation for you, and/or
- return service: bringing you back to your starting point from the final point (one way route)
Bicycle route Drentsche Aa
The bicycle paths in the Netherlands include direction signs set by the ANWB. It is easy to bicycle from one bicycle junction (‘fietsknooppunt’) to another, this is also the case in the Drentsche Aa. The bicycle junctions are numbered and mapped. At each junction there is a sign with a map with the numbers where you cycle to. You could also print for example this pre-determined ANWB bicycle route through the Drentsche Aa. More bicycle tips and routes for the Drentsche Aa.
There is an app called Avenza Maps that you can download on your smartphone. The nice and unique thing about this app is that it works on the GPS of your phone and therefore does not need internet connection (saves costs and battery). The Arthuur cycling route and Tour de TT cycling route are available on this app for free. In the app, go to store, search for Drenthe and download the map you want to use.
To use the app safely, I would recommend to get a smartphone holder for on your bicycle handlebar. It is actually forbidden to hold a phone in your hand while cycling in The Netherlands and may result in a fine of EUR 95 (effective since July 1, 2019).
Combine walking & cycling
With a regular bicycles we normally cycle about 20-25km per day. With an electrical bicycle doubling the distance would be possible. Take into account that cycling a lot more kilometers than you are used to, usually results in a soar ass and muscles. Therefore, we usually combine walking and cycling on each trip, like day 1 walking, day 2 cycling, day 3 walking, etc. Walking is a very enjoyable and healthy way to see the natural beauty of the Drentsche Aa!
You go on different paths than cyclists and usually follow walking routes indicated by colored poles. If you have a car, you easily drive to the nearest parking lot of a forest, heather field or any other attraction of your interest, and start your walking from there. Check out this page for walking trails. There is one particular family trail that includes several playgrounds, plus it is stroller, wheelchair and disabled friendly!
Make a pit-stop at Bakkerij Fledderus in Hooghalen; they have delicious pies, cakes, ice cream, bread and local products.
Other ways to get around
Alternatively, you could:
- rent a MTB and take one of the MTB tracks
- rent a 50s solex motorbike from Solex Verhuur Ruinen
- do canoe and/or step trips from Annen with Breeland Recreatie
- join a daily forest horse ride in a group with Manege Gasselte
There are also lots of multi-day horse riding camps in Drenthe for kids and teenagers. Please check whether they have English speaking groups as well.
Where to stay in Drenthe
As mentioned before, whenever I visit Drenthe, we usually stay in or around Eext, a small and peaceful village in northern Drenthe. Personally I prefer to stay at a B&B, especially when it is located in an authentic, charming building and the space is outside the house of the owner. The following B&B’s are my four personal recommendations in Eext and surrounding villages.
- De Violier in Eext
- Het Blauwe Schaop (The Blue Sheep) in Eext
- Bonnen 43 in Gieten
- B&B Gasteren in Gasteren
When you have a family I can imagine you may prefer to stay on a camping site. My parents wanted the same when I was a kid and I loved it (back then, nowadays I prefer the luxury of a B&B). Eext has several camping sites:
The nearby Camping Zwanemeer (swane lake) in Gieten is also a great option; in the forest, next to the forest swimming pool mentioned earlier in this article. Camping Het Horstmannsbos in Gasselte is another excellent alternative in this area.
Should you prefer to stay in a holiday home, De Leemstede in Eext would be my first recommendation, very authentic and charming. If you are looking for more something like Centerparcs, but then more luxurious with lots of things to do for kids, then Resort Hof van Sasksen would be your best option.
When to visit Drenthe
Honestly, Drenthe is suitable to visit any time of the year. Obviously, every season has its charm and if I had to pick a season it would be spring or summer. In April you will see buttercups, in May lots of rhododendrons. In summer there are the markets called ‘braderie’ or ‘streekmarkt’ (not in Jun-Aug 2020 due to Corona), in late August and early September the heather fields blooming. It is also a great idea to visit Drenthe in the fall, when there will be less tourists and the trees will change color beautifully. Always a good excuse to visit the beautiful Drentsche Aa!
If you are not into motorcycles, I’d suggest to avoid Eext during the annual Motor GP Eext (Feb). Another big annual event in Eext is the National Concour Hippique (end of May), but that does not generate so much noise.
Drenthe deserves more
In an earlier article My top 5 recommendations for a relaxed long weekend up to 1-2 weeks in The Netherlands I already mentioned the Drenthe and the Drentsche Aa briefly, but I decided my favorite area in The Netherlands deserved a full article. Drenthe has more trees than people, lots of natural beauty and the best of all: tranquility. Drenthe is by far not as densely populated as the western provinces of The Netherlands. So a perfect place to visit now that the Corona (COVID-19) measures are being relaxed a little further here.
The area that we now know as Drenthe, was called Triënte by the Romans.
Honestly, my boyfriend would rather move to Drenthe today than yesterday. If it would not be that far from friends and Schiphol airport (2.5 hours), I probably would. The quality of living is high here. Every year we visit Drenthe a number of times, at least for the past six, seven years. So we know the area pretty well, having explored the area by bicycle, car and on foot extensively.
Normally in between the international travels. And now with the Corona crisis, as soon as the restrictions allowed us, we went to Drenthe for a long weekend. God, we missed this place. What a delight to be back. Who knows one they we will go Drentenieren (retiring in Drenthe). Enough pretty houses!
Drenthe is one of the 12 provinces of The Netherlands. In the northeast, enclosed between provinces Groningen, Friesland, Overijssel and Germany. Officially, Drentsche Aa is actually a system of brooks that flow through the Drenthe province and even a southern part of the Groningen province. Aa means brook (small river) in local dialect. However, only a small part of the brook system is nowadays referred to as such, most parts of the brook got local names too.
Also, most people will refer to Drentsche Aa as the area between Zuid Laren and Schoonloo, not the brook. Part of the Drentsche Aa is named National Park Drentsche Aa. This was previously also known as ‘Nationaal Beek en Esdorpen Landschap’ (National Brook and Es villages Landscape). Because the area did not really fit the bill as a regular National Park, as the uniqueness goes beyond the nature alone. The villages are unique too, with characteristic Saxon farms for example.
De Hondsrug (‘dog’s back’) is a ridge that goes all the way from Groningen city to Coevorden in the southeast of the Drenthe province. The Drentsche Aa is also part of De Hondsrug. De Hondsrug is the first UNESCO Global Geopark of the Netherlands. A geopark is an area with its own unique geological history, nature and culture, registered by UNESCO. The brook Drentsche Aa practically follows a part of the Hondsrug, at least a part of it, on the east side.
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and more! It is smartphone friendly; you can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. To customize the map to your interests, simply (un)select categories. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
Have you ever been in Drenthe? I hope this article was helpful for you and made you enthusiastic about visiting the Drentsche Aa and its surroundings. I believe the Drentsche Aa has something to offer for anyone, whether you are a couple, friends and family. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below. And enjoy your future trip to the Drentsche Aa!
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