Brandenburg: German state offers fine waters for a houseboat holiday
Special to Stars and Stripes
With its 3,000 lakes and 18,600 miles of waterways, the German state of Brandenburg is the perfect place to explore by boat.
Last October, six of us did just that, making a 43-foot houseboat our home for a five-day journey on the lakes, locks and canals of this spectacular region.
Brandenburg, one of the 16 German federal-states, surrounds Berlin in eastern Germany. And while most tourists are familiar with the nation’s capital, the same cannot be said of Brandenburg.
“I never expected the scenery to be so beautiful,” said Heti Lutz, one of the passengers on our boat. “This was one of the best-kept secrets in Western Germany — the beautiful scenery in the East. ... It reminds me of Finland, Scandinavia.”
Except when navigating locks — there were eight on our trip — days were leisurely: lounging on board, admiring the vistas, reading and chatting.
Getting through the locks required all hands on deck. With the captain at the helm, two “mates” rushed to grab the ropes for tying up. Others kept a careful watch at the bow and shouted directions to the captain as we entered a narrow, walled canal. Most of the locks had attendants, but a few were self-service, adding more demands to the task.
When no locks were on the horizon, the passengers were free to chill out. Our captain, Heti’s husband Heinz, however, was always on duty. Occasionally someone else would take the helm, especially in open water where steering the boat was child’s play.
Heinz, who has a German motor-boat license, was given a brief trial initiation from the company that rented us the boat, but he learned most on his own.
“It’s challenging at first, but after a few turns and trials in open lakes, it’s easy to operate,” he said.
Even though October is not swimming and sunbathing weather in northern Germany, we were content aboard the boat. Each couple had a separate cabin and bathroom on the spacious craft, named Katinka. Its galley was well supplied with dishes, pots and pans, cutlery and gadgets.
Heti was our “chef,” planning and preparing scrumptious meals. We usually had two meals on board. One was always breakfast — hearty German fare of wurst, cheese, soft-boiled eggs and fresh rolls — then lunch or dinner. Someone would search out a bakery on shore to supply the fresh bread, or a good restaurant for our third meal. We enjoyed the dining-out excursions and found prices far more reasonable than in other parts of Germany.
In early October, there was little traffic on the placid lakes, wide expanses of shimmering water bordered mainly by forests. We cruised by willows whose branches skirted the water, reeds and water lilies, families of ducks, swans, the occasional heron and fishermen. Sometimes we’d pass a small boat. Faster boats passed us.
Along many of the canals connecting the lakes are pretty, well-kept houses with perfect gardens, as well as big villas and small cabins. Many were, and still are, the Datsche, weekend homes of East Germans. On shore we enjoyed walks in the woods, visited the lovely town of Bad Saarow and lingered over tasty meals at harbor-side restaurants. It was all calm, peaceful and totally relaxing, and we slept well on the gently rocking boat.
On our first day out, Heti’s brother, who lives in Berlin, joined us and gave us tips on the region and its waters. That evening we docked at the home of his friends, huddling around a roaring fire in their terrace fireplace, drinking red wine and listening to their stories about life in the former East Germany.
“Berlin is the most beautiful city. It’s ‘multiculti,’ ” said Thomas Pfannschnit, one of our hosts. “The changes in the past 20 years are phenomenal.”
“Most people don’t know about Berlin and all the water,” added his wife, Birgit. “Berlin has more bridges than Venice.”
On other evenings, we tied up for the night at harbors where we could plug into electricity needed to heat the boat and take advantage of on-shore shower facilities. We could have showered onboard, but the bathrooms were small. An exterior shower on the boat’s stern would have been an option in warmer weather.
Our stroll and lunch in Bad Saarow, a spa town, were pleasant surprises. The city is a jewel of impressive homes; a lakeside park; shaded, picturesque lanes; and a new state-of-the-art spa with several indoor-outdoor pools.
“I didn’t expect such a luxurious resort in the former East,” remarked Dagmar Stark, another traveler on our boat.
Our journey started in Zeuthen, a Berlin suburb where our boat rental company has a dock and its craft. We cruised about three to four hours per day at a top speed of 10 kilometers per hour and covered about 115 kilometers in the round trip to Bad Saarow. Had we set out in the other direction, we could have explored Berlin from the water (the Spree River and canals), but we opted for the tranquility of the lakes.
“The scenery was changing all the time. It was never boring,” said Heti as we gathered to celebrate the end of the idyllic voyage with a bottle of Rot- käppchen Sekt, a “champagne” that was famous in the former East Germany.
Kuhnle-Tours (www.kuhnle-tours.de) rents houseboats in Brandenburg and in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, as well as in Poland and France.
Boat sizes vary, and rental costs vary with season and size of boat. The “six plus two” passenger Katinka is a Kormoran 1280. We paid 1,729 euros for five days in October, plus 196 euros in operation expenses, 8.50 euros per hour for fuel and 60 euros for extra insurance. Price per couple: 707 euros.
The boat could have accommodated another couple. Bicycles can be rented to take on board and use for shore excursions, or you can bring your own.
In addition to maps of recommended routes, the booklets supplied by the rental company provide restaurant recommendations. Our culinary highlight was the four-course gourmet dinner we savored at the Schloss Hubertushöhe, a 100-year-old hunting castle that is now a luxurious hotel and restaurant on the Storkower See.
Germany has specific rules for operating a boat. Kuhnle-Tours said Americans living in the United States do not need a license to drive a boat, but Americans permanently living in Germany — including servicemembers stationed in the country for six months or longer — must have either a German or American boat license. Americans living permanently in other countries must follow the rules of their country of residence regarding licenses.
For specifics, email