If you ever wondered where the Holstein cow comes from, you’ll find out by traveling along the Kiel Canal, which cuts diagonally 98 kilometers (61 miles) through Schleswig-Holstein. Passengers crossing the canal from east to west enter at Holtenau, a town just north of the port of Kiel. The northern German state is a far cry from the tourist image of beer halls, lederhosen and dirndls: Up here, Germans are known for lounging on the beach in Strandkörbe (shaded canvas beach chairs) or watching the sea from covered wicker sofas out of a Thomas Mann novel. The heaths and low hills that reign allow wind farms to harness energy, while the nation’s largest national park, the Wadden Sea, is made up of vast estuaries that in 2009 earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Called the Nord-Ostsee in German, the Kiel Canal, which connects the Elbe River with the Baltic Sea, was a pet project of Wilhelm II; he finished it just in time for World War I, sparing ships then and since the 400-kilometer (250-mile) journey around Denmark. Today, you sail quietly past waterfowl in the marshes, as well as cows, sheep and bike riders along the banks. You’ll witness small freight ships sharing the water with pleasure craft helmed by serious sailors heading to their yacht clubs, all of which make the Kiel Canal the world’s most trafficked manmade waterway.