IT'S an otherworldly feeling to drive through green fields and realize that, by rights, you ought to be underwater. Water -- too much of it -- is a constant theme wherever you go in the Netherlands. That's true whether you are excitedly hunting for signs of old Holland (windmills and canals) or passing through new Holland's polders (sea bottom transformed into fields of grazing cattle and planned cities).
I was on the lookout for quaintness, so my tour plan included the funny little towns of Giethoorn and Urk on the west side of this small country, and the Zuiderzeemuseum, where one goes to see exhibits on local architecture, a few hours north of Amsterdam.
But in the Netherlands, the practical and the picturesque exist together. New Holland keeps intruding. The ways, old and new, that the Dutch cope with their low country turned out to be a recurring motif in my journey.
Thus, the highlight of Giethoorn (``HEET-horn'') is its canals. That's why you must stop at the tourist board (look for the sign that says VVV) as soon as you arrive, because you can't see much of Giethoorn from the road.
If you park your car in the VVV lot, you can pick up a map and head across the street to a paved path leading through a soggy field. If you follow it, wondering where on earth you're going, you'll see a small bridge on your left. When you go over it, you are in another world.
A small canal of brownish water, some 12 feet wide, forms the main street of Giethoorn. All travel here is done by boat. Mail is delivered, cows go to and from pasture, harvests are brought in, and families go to church on the canal. Trees and wooden bridges arch over it. Only a footpath borders it on each side.
The houses are like those in ``Alice in Wonderland'' illustrations. They're brick, have a rounded sloping shape, and are neatly thatched.
Each is set back a few feet from the footpath, has dark green doors, and, of course -- this being Holland -- plants and tiers of white lace adorn their windows.
Also compulsory is an intensely colorful postage-stamp garden.
I walked along, sniffing aromas of apples and wood fires. There wasn't a car in sight; if there were any, they must have been tactfully concealed behind barns.
It was a gray day, and some hefty white ducks were enjoying the canal and the weather. Goats and cows posed in the fields in the distance. Once in a while a flaxen-haired child would whiz by on a bicycle.
All other residents stayed in their snuggeries, except for a crew at work rethatching a roof, with additional thatch in bales piled on a boat moored alongside. Numerous long, narrow boats for showing visitors around in the summer were clustered in quiet side canals, indicating that tourists by the busload are not unknown here.
I recommend a chill, gray, autumn day, when the only sounds are rustling yellow leaves and an occasional sharp bell of a bike behind you. Then Giethoorn is a fairy-tale land you have almost to yourself.
After you leave Giethoorn for the old fishing village of Urk, you're in polder country. Towering watercolor-gray clouds press down on green fields. Substantial brown barns cozy into the landscape. The horizon is about the same, left and right, fore and aft.
The Dutch are sensitive to minuscule changes of altitude, emphasizing to the visitor variations that would pass unnoticed elsewhere. The reason is that a few feet here is the difference between being above water or below it.
Now on a modest rise in the Noord Oost polder, Urk was originally an island in the Zuider Zee. It isn't a particularly pretty town. Its tiny brick row houses of fairly recent vintage give it a look of being suspended in air.
Tourists go to Urk because a few of its people still cling stubbornly to the quaint costumes of their former isolation as an island in the Zuider Zee. You see elderly women, and a few men, wearing peasant outfits.
The women's costume is a black dress, gathered at the waist, worn with a vest of shiny green or blue.
Most distinctive is the hat, a small black-and-white, close-fitting bonnet rimmed with lace. Underneath and showing through is a silver band with hair rolled around it; this ends in big silver prongs that press into the cheeks.
The men wear black pants that blouse around the hips and stop well above the ankles, a shirt with wide red and white stripes, and a pillbox hat worn jauntily on the side of the head.
You don't want to stare too obviously at these unwilling tourist attractions.
After an hour or two of assiduous snooping while trying to look inconspicuous -- including checking out the Saturday morning market, surely a prime spot -- I saw a total of four men and 11 women dressed this way.
Polders may not look very exciting, but they do pique your curiosity. On my way to Enkhuizen, I made an unscheduled stop at the Museum Nieuw Land in Lelystad.
Here the slide show ``From Flevomeer to Flevoland'' can be heard in English on request. It is a good wrap-up of the history of the polders. You learn that in the 19th century the steam engine replaced the windmill, and for the first time it became possible to take land back from the ocean. The Dutch put a dike across the old Zuider Zee (renamed the IJsselmeer in honor of its new status). Then they built other dikes along the edge and began draining. This not only created new land, but protected the old seashore from the disastrous floods that were a problem in places like Urk.
You can learn all sorts of things about polders at the museum: how to build a polder dike with layers of sand, boulders, clay, and brushwood mattresses; how to make the land usable after it has been drained, leaving flats of dead, soft, bluish, impassable mud. There's a bit about the objects they found after the land was drained: crashed World War II aircraft and the remains of 300 shipwrecks.
After the museum visit, it is interesting to traverse the dike that crosses the IJsselmeer from Lelystad to Enkhuizen. The water is gray and smooth on one side, rough and blue on other.
The open-air Zuiderzeemuseum in Enkhuizen was opened in 1983 to immortalize the little fishing towns that ringed the Zuider Zee before they became landlocked by polderization. Each section of this ``museum village'' consists of 130 buildings from 20 Zuider Zee towns.
You get to the museum by boat, which enables you to view Enkhuizen from the water -- reminding one of a Dutch plate scene. You can also admire the sailboats on the bay, with their huge brown gaff-rigged sails and round, cloglike fronts.
The museum is beautiful. In fact, it was named the European Museum of the Year for 1986. It is designed and maintained to the highest contemporary standard, and yet it has the mellowness that age gives. You can walk along the dike and see the attractive harbor, or stroll along brick walks among trees on espaliers and a harmonious variety of tiled-roof, two-story brick houses and little bridges.
Some buildings are devoted to trades: a carpentry shop, a shipbuilder's shop, and a housepainter's shop, among them. At the tanning shed I learned that the brown sails I saw in the harbor are traditional and that the material was tanned to preserve it.
The Zuiderzeemuseum is so delightful, you wish you could have toured Holland when it all looked like this. Practical information
Driving in Holland is easy. Even in the smallest towns the roads are excellent and clearly labeled. The Zuiderzeemuseum has a small indoor section, open all year except for January and the first half of February. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The outdoor museum is open April 15 to Oct. 15, seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission price: adults $3.35, children $2.65.