When I said to people that I was going to Holland, most said exactly what I myself would have done; “Where? I’ve only ever been to Amsterdam. I loved it though”. And the capital might be the natural first thought at any mention of The Netherlands (I also loved it), but I was excited to see more of the country. I spent two days exploring some of Holland’s most picturesque and historical locations without so much as setting foot in gorgeous Amsterdam, so here’s what I got up to – a travel diary.
We travelled to Holland on Stena Line’s rail and sail package, which gets you train travel from a Greater Anglia station to Harwich, a ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, and then an onward journey to any station in the Netherlands.
I rocked up to Liverpool Street with an abnormally large case for a three night trip, since the lack of luggage limit is literally a joy for an incompetent packer like me. On board there’s a bar and restaurant, a cinema, a duty free shop and even a small casino; and while I can’t say I spent any time at the casino or cinema, dinner was another story. We started the trip with an evening spent eating a three course meal, drinking wine, and chatting about the next couple of days, before retiring to comfortable cabins to sleep the rest of the journey away.
I consider myself something of an experienced overnight transport user (sorry to go all Gap Yah on you, but once I spent four nights sleeping on a small moving boat that didn’t have any walls or rooms with 12 other people and a chicken in a cardboard box) and this is genuinely the most comfortable option I’ve taken.
Plus, the next day was able to start with hash browns and beans on board (there’s a full breakfast with countless options but I will always choose hash browns and beans when given the chance), which definitely was not the case on any of the other overnight boats, trains and buses I’ve used before.
We disembarked the ferry, sailed through passport control and made our way to Haarlem, our base for that night, to drop the bags off before heading out again – it was tulip time.
A reasonably short bus ride from Haarlem is Lisse, home to Keukenhof, allegedly ‘The most beautiful spring garden in the world’. Do you know what? They might be right, although I haven’t visited them all so can’t say for sure. Open eight weeks of the year (March – May) and welcoming one million visitors in that time, Keukenhof is quite literally flower heaven, with 7 million bulbs planted over 32 hectares to create incredible flowerbeds and seas of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and countless others I barely (read: don’t) know the names of.
Due to Holland sharing in our pain and experiencing a pretty poor excuse for a spring this year not everything had flowered yet, but it was still a beautiful place to spend some time wandering (it’s also massive, so leave ample time). The park is redesigned every single year, with the theme this year being Romance in Flowers, and the designs reflected that – think heart shaped beds and romantic colours.
Keukenhof is a busy place, there’s no doubt about that, and I can’t see that it would ever be properly quiet during the time it’s open, but it’s also possible to hire bikes and cycle away from the bustle between flower fields in the surrounding area – just please don’t trample over them for an Instagram photo, the bulb growers literally work on these all year – which I imagine is the ultimate spring activity. Unfortunately we didn’t have time on this occasion, but no one panic; my cycle quota was filled later in the trip.
A return bus ride took us back to Haarlem, where we quickly changed and headed out for dinner to somewhere I am truly delighted to have been introduced to.
This absolute gem is exactly the kind of place I would usually try to seek out when visiting a new city – it’s delicious, it’s fun and it’s a bit quirky and interesting. Jopenkerk is a brewery and restaurant housed in a former church and it has a perfectly laid back yet buzzy atmosphere with just the right amount of trendiness. We began our evening here with the beer and food pairing – 6 little food tasters with beers to go alongside them – and it’s an A* from me for the food too. Travelling as a vegan can be pretty frustrating at times, but they catered for it with no problem and just as well as they did for meat and dairy eaters.
When the excitement of the day started to catch up with us and knowing that we had to be up early the next morning, we headed back to the hotel (the Amrath Grand Hotel Frans Hals) to get some sleep.
I’ve already written about the things I loved about Haarlem, but there’s no harm in underlining my enjoyment of it again I suppose. Practically speaking, it’s a really convenient base if you want to be near the action but not in the bustle of Amsterdam; many parts of it resemble the capital, but it’s quieter and more peaceful, and actually has a longer history too.
Since Haarlem was a major trading centre for tulips, particularly in the 17th Century, we started the day with the Tulpomania walking tour along some of the canals, into Grote Markt (the main square) and through the historical streets. Many of the central medieval buildings are still intact, and it’s utterly charming, particularly considering our tour was at 8am so we caught some beautiful morning light.
Sadly we said goodbye to Haarlem not long after this – a flying, but wonderful, visit, and I can’t wait to go back and wander for longer. Still, windmills awaited, so we hopped on a train to Rotterdam (which has shot straight to the top of my Dutch cities to visit list) and from there took a Waterbus to Kinderdijk.
This UNESCO World heritage site in the wetlands around Dordrecht is the largest collection of windmills in Holland and a really arresting (plus undeniably Dutch) sight. We started with some lunch before exploring via some of the footpaths that run between the waterways with a guide who was kind enough to fill us in on all things windmill. Much of Holland lies below sea level, something I never realised until now, so the Dutch have had to contend and work with the water for years, and these 18th Century preserved working windmills are a big part of that.
I really loved this part of the trip for the satisfying combination of spectacle and culture. The place is quite magical, a unique sight, but there are also a couple of the windmills that are museums, which you can enter and climb right up into – at your peril, if you dislike ladders – to read about and imagine life inside. The rest, if you’re interested, are actually still people’s homes, although I imagine they don’t contain families of 12 quite as often as they used to. After the time travel was complete, we hired bikes to get ourselves out to some of the further ones, and had such a lovely end to our time there riding along the paths that criss cross the whole area.
After returning the bikes, it was time to make our way back to the UK via Rotterdam and then back onto our return Stena Line ferry – with a little sit down in a porthole and with beans and hash browns again in the morning, obviously.
And that was the end of a jam packed but completely wonderful trip that turned me into a total Holland fan girl. And it took less than three days, which has made me realise that I could get a trip in without taking a single day of annual leave and without needing a bank holiday; hop on an overnight ferry on Friday night and return on the overnight Sunday night and I’d be sorted. I take my holiday allowance very seriously, so I guess we know what that means…Holland, I’ll be back.
I was a (wildly grateful) guest of Stena Line and Visit Holland. All opinions, photos, and delight in exploring new places are very much my own.