MANY years ago, as a young child, I was often read to by my sister - and quite a number of her stories appeared to be set in a magical faraway land called Neverland.

My young mind was confused by JM Barrie's fictional island - what Nancy was really describing was The Netherlands.

A colourful nation of men and women in exotic costume, of windmills, of canals, of flowers - and a massive near landlocked sea. The magic was maintained by the stamps from that country which I still treasure.

All of those memories from the 1940s were re-kindled while road-testing for the Guardian Series one of the latest Volkswagen Golfs - a journey that took me to the very heartland of The Netherlands - the watery northern reaches of the area called North Holland. The magic I had heard about is all still there.

And, of course, it isn't far away at all.

I have undertaken many overnight journeys from Hull to Rotterdam with P&O Car Ferries but all too often turned right for France.

This time I was leading a posse of VWs to the left, beyond Amsterdam, into a land that literally rose from the sea and which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It was here that eight-year-old Hansje Brinker is claimed to have put his finger in a hole in the dike and saved the town of Haarlem - and the nation. It was worth saving.

One of life's finest moments is sailing out of the Humber of an evening, glass of Chablis in hand, full of expectancy. But this time it didn't go according to plan - the wine was fine but P&O's Pride of Rotterdam luxury ferry had a technical problem.

Safety being all meant that we couldn't get away until 3am.

In turn, that meant a midday arrival in Rotterdam - yet at short notice the ferry's catering staff were able to lay on a free three-course lunch for more than 1,000 of us on board before disembarkation.

The late arrival meant missing out on a visit to the famous Madurodam model village I had first visited as host of a Guardian readers' trip almost 40 years ago.

With the help of Rianne Steenbergen from the tourist board and the VW's sat nav I bashed on to the village of Graft-De Rijp and my first taste of the magic I had heard about so long ago.

This was the birthplace of Jan Leeghwater, who turned the wetlands into dry land four centuries ago and where you can punt or electrically power your way along the rivers and canals all day long amid glorious windmill-strewn countryside.

You can also visit the mills that work on the same principle as today's wind farms yet look so much more romantic.

On then to the picturesque city of Alkmaar for the night and next day Golf, Touareg and Jetta were off to Hoorn train station - a veritable hotbed of activity where scores of Dutch Fred van Dibnahs were enthusiastically polishing and tuning their steam engines.

There, we boarded one of the old steam trains to take us to quaint old Medemblik where we would board the steam boat Friesland for the highlight of the trip - a sail on what was, and still is for me, the Zuiderzee.

It's actually been the Ijsselmeer since the 1930s because it's now landlocked by two man-made causeways and has fresh rather than seawater.

Here, the inheritors of the great Dutch tradition of seafaring enjoy sailing hundreds of colourful craft of all descriptions.

All too soon our party was on the way back to that massive symbol of modernity, the Europort, the ferry and home.