My first holiday abroad as a child was to the Netherlands, aged 10.
I have visited numerous times since, as has my husband, so we have many fond memories of the country as individuals and as a couple, so with a Miffy-loving daughter we decided it was time for a Netherlands road-trip!
We loaded the car, drove across the M62 and headed to Hull to catch the overnight ferry to Rotterdam. Within three hours of leaving home, we had the keys to our cabin and the children were exploring the ferry.
Being a 12 hour crossing, the ferry is relatively basic but does have a couple of restaurants, a bar with some evening entertainment, a cinema, and a small soft play area. There are a variety of cabin options, but we chose to upgrade to provide us some extra space and sleeping options, which we were grateful for as the bed guards supplied were not suitable for young children on the ‘bunks’- worth a thought if you are travelling with smaller ones. An early wake-up call at 6:30am signals that breakfast was being served – its buffet-style but with options for everyone. We were certainly fully fed and ready for our first day in the Netherlands.
The ferry docked into Rotterdam at 8:30am and we headed straight to the small but famous town of Delft, a short drive away.
We were parked and sitting in the town square, enjoying a morning coffee listening to the Church bells ringing at 10am!
We spent a few hours there with my husband retracing his steps to his parents' old house, enjoying a beer in his & his Dad’s favourite pub, along with mooching in/out of the famous Delft Pottery shops (where I was in a constant state of panic of the children breaking something!). It's definitely a beautiful chilled town to meander around for a morning or afternoon.
Our first base for the holiday was the Holiday Inn in Leiden. We shamefully didn't get to spend much time in Leiden itself as we had other plans, but will definitely be going back as it’s a beautiful compact city from what little we did see. It has the largest number of canals & waterways in the Netherlands outside of Amsterdam, is home to the Netherlands oldest university and was also the home of the Dutch artist Rembrandt. So definitely worth a ‘proper’ visit. Seeing this holiday was for all things Miffy (or Nijntje as she's known in Dutch) we couldn’t miss heading up the coast to Egmond aan Zee – the birthplace of this famous rabbit character that Dick Bruna created back in 1955 during a family holiday. Now I admit I had never thought of the Netherlands as a typical beach holiday destination, but upon arriving in Egmond aan Zee (a traditional relaxed family friendly seaside resort), I was quite literally blown away (it was a rather breezy early April day after all!) as the most beautiful expanse of golden sands as far as the eye could see was laid out in front of me.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the Netherlands have some of the cleanest beaches in the world,
many of them also hold the European Blue Flag for cleanliness, excellent access and facilities. And I can see why, we enjoyed warm drinks and snacks in a Beach Bar while the children made friends & played in the beach playground, counting the Miffy’s on the ‘orientation poles’ along the beach. Granted these were not required on an empty beach in April, but why don’t we have anything similar on our UK beaches?!
After a morning of sea air we headed inland to Zaandam, the home of Zaanse Schans. Historic windmills and distinctive green wooden houses were relocated here to recreate the look of an 18th/19th-century Dutch village. The Zaanse Schans is touristy but you can’t deny how well done it is, full of working windmills, people in typical dutch costumes, interactive exhibits on chocolate making, and rare handicrafts such as wooden clog carving. My eldest absolutely loved climbing all the windmills and seeing them in action. Its definitely worth a visit.
I have a vague memory of visiting the Keukenhof Gardens on my first visit to the Netherlands so I was desperate to go back, and was so glad we did. The world-famous tulip gardens just outside Lisse, display on average seven million tulips every year are only open for eight weeks (mid-March to mid-May). Even though the flowers weren't in 'full' bloom it was majestic, and the children loved playing hide and seek between the flower beds, stopping at the various little play parks around the gardens, chasing the goats and rabbits in the petting farm, climbing the windmill, taking a ride on the boat through the tulip fields and eating the best Dutch frites and mayo, and chocolate waffles, some more Miffy spotting and completing the garden trail and earning some of their very own tulip bulbs to bring home and plant!
Amsterdam is famed for a number of things, some of which may put people off of going there with an eight and five-year-old in tow, but it’s such a child-friendly city. Having read so many good things about the VondelPark being perfect for children due to various playparks, an outdoor theatre (not that we were expecting to enjoy a show in early April!), paddling pool, lots of cafes, and vast amounts of open space to roam by either foot or bike we headed straight there after arriving in the city. Unfortunately the weather was against us, just as the children were heading towards the wooden forts, the heavens opened so we headed to the nearest cafe for what was to be an extended pitstop. Deciding that it was too wet for play parks we headed back into the city for a pancake, and there is only one place to go - The Pancake Bakery (Prinsengracht 191).
This popular restaurant in the heart of the city has been flipping pancakes since 1973. It regularly has queues outside the cosy 17th century building, but the pancakes are worth the wait with every flavour and combination is available! And the children loved their little extras which arrived on their Pirate & Animal themed pancakes!
With the rain continuing to fall, we strolled back to the train station stopping to look and take a moment outside Ann Franks house (Westermarket 20). After visiting this Museum when I was young, I knew that - however educational this house - our children were too young. The museum itself suggests 10 years and over so it's worth bearing this in mind if you are planning on taking children. And remember to pre-book. It's often booked up months in advance.
After three nights in Leiden we headed for a full day of all things Miffy in Utrecht. The first stop was the Miffy Museum (Agnietenstraat 2). It's more a play centre where those with young children (under seven yrs I would say) can explore miniature worlds such as going to the doctor, going to the zoo or driving around a small town. It’s a very ‘hands on’, bold, touch-everything play museum that celebrates Miffy and other related characters designed by local artist Dick Bruna.
Even though our daughter was a little old for the play sections, she loved the craft room (again Miffy themed) and reading some of the facts and history of Dick Bruna and his beloved character. Dick Bruna’s original studio is located in the Centraal Museum across street. But of course the highlight for our daughter was buying a few Miffy items from the Museum shop. They kindly gave us a Miffy Trail map so off we went exploring even more of Utrecht. The best bit was Miffy's Traffic Lights & Rainbow Crossing. The kids loved it - but be warned - it's a major crossing on a busy road so if you have little ones in tow - hold on tight!
After a busy day we headed south to our next destination of FarmCamps De Smulhoeve near the town of Kaatsheuvel. This had been recommended to me by Little Clogs Holidays who specialise in holidays to Holland and Belgium. Their knowledge was second to none and definitely not limited to travelling with babies and toddlers! Definitely worth checking out their website!
To the children’s excitement on arrival they received a set of overalls each, and a farmer's passport with lots of activities to be completed by helping Farmer Dennis and Karin around the farm in a bid to earn their Farmhand Diploma! But to trump all of that was the option of them choosing to have their very own pet rabbit for their stay (additional 10 euros). After much deliberation, Flip was the chosen one, and was brought back to our accommodation for us to look after!! For those true horse lovers there is also the option to have your own pony to care for and ride during your holiday too....but the rabbit was enough to send my husband into a state of shock!
Our accommodation was a Ranch Tent which was spacious for the four of us, with the unique Hay Hay bath housed in a beautifully restored horse trailer next to our tent overlooking the countryside. The children weren't seen for hours, they were up & out in the mornings helping farmer Dennis & Karin feeding the goats, pigs, rabbits & horses, and our daughter was helping groom the ponies and the boy was not seen as he sped around the farm on the Go-Karts. My two are well versed on being on a working farm due to spending endless weekends and school holidays with their Grandpa on his Tractor, so I felt very comfortable leaving them to their own devices, but for others, just bear in mind this is a working farm. The Hay Barn was also a huge hit, they spent hours with their new-found friends, climbing and jumping off the hay bales.
The unique location of Smulhoeve is a great for those wanting to visit the Efteling Theme Park which is only a short distance away, but we decided that we wanted to explore the Loonse and Drunense dunes. With the warm sunshine arriving we decided to hire bikes and explore the dunes which we had never heard of but boy am I glad we did - nothing prepared me for what we witnessed – endless sand dunes in the middle of Holland (it’s basically a sandy desert and apparently is the largest of its kind in western Europe!). Its definitely not to be missed. We did a circular route which took most of the day but there are shorter routes you can choose, there are lots of cafes and picnic places to stop if needed.
The end of our stay meant the final stage was over the border into Belguim for a two night stay in Bruges. As beautiful as the city is, in retrospective me & my husband felt we would have had a more enjoyable time staying in the more child-friendly, Netherlands. Don’t get me wrong the children loved eating their weight in free chocolate in the numerous chocolate shops, but felt its more of a childfree city break!! That said my daughter & I did enjoy the most yummy chocolate waffle at Chez Albert and was a great end to the holiday before we had to head to Zeebrugge for the rather choppy crossing back to Hull!
WRITTEN BY ALISON DOGGRELL
Alison lives in Cheshire with her husband and two children aged 9 and 6 years. She loves gardening, photography, travel and planning the next family adventure!