Holland's three northern provinces were home to the earliest settlers of what is now the Netherlands. Almost another world, Friesland (pronounced Freess-luhnd) has customs and a language all its own. Which is not to say the people are not Dutch; they are, but first they are Frisian. In the windmill-speckled north of the province are ancient earth dwelling mounds, or terpen, constructed on land that was subject to frequent floods before dike building began. In the southwest is a cluster of lakes, and in the southeast are woodlands and moorlands covered in heather. Four of Holland's five Wadden Islands belong to Friesland.

Although not as varied, Groningen has its share of historical sites, among them its own mound villages. The provincial capital, the city of Groningen, has the vibrant atmosphere of a university town, with architectural touches from a history that stretches back beyond the 12th century. The past is most eloquent at places like the 15th-century Menkemaborg manor house in Uithuizen, the fortress town of Bourtange, a 15th-century monastery, and any number of picturesque old villages.

Sparsely populated Drenthe is a green, tranquil, rural haven. The Dutch have dubbed this land of deep forests, broad moors, small lakes, and villages Mooi Drenthe (Beautiful Drenthe). It hosts prehistoric hunebedden (giants' beds), huge megalith constructions that served early inhabitants as burial sites. Farming provides a satisfactory living in Drenthe, to judge from the size of farmhouses and barns. Church spires, which elsewhere stick up through the haze on the horizon, are mostly hidden behind the trees of a province that hosts two national parks: Dwingelderveld and Drents-Fries Forest.

Independent Spirits -- Frisian (Frysk) is spoken by two-thirds of the 600,000 inhabitants of Friesland, which is known to the natives as Fryslân. Road signs are in both Dutch and Frisian (I've put the Frisian name for localities in parentheses after the Dutch). These highly independent folk have their own flag, their own coat of arms, their own national anthem, and their own sense of belonging to a nation that long predated the Netherlands. They even have their own nasjonale slokje (national drink): potent, heart-warming Beerenburger herbal bitter.