It’s now or Netherlands: how the Dutch country will soon get even easier to visit on a no-fly trip

The Netherlands is surging ahead as an easy-to-reach destination for the increasing number of travellers looking to avoid flying. We investigate four of the best no-fly trips across the country.Monday, 23 December 2019

If you’re facing a future of fewer flights, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a destination like the Netherlands on your doorstep. With its smart cities, café culture, floral landscapes and its bewildering preponderance of famous art, there can be few places so well suited to a short break.

What’s more, in April 2018, this neighbour was brought closer than ever before when Eurostar launched its first ever direct service to Amsterdam, bringing it within just under four hours of London’s St Pancras International station.

The return trip, however, has remained a sticking point, with inbound passengers still having to change at Brussels on their way back to London. Next year, this messy arrangement will finally be cleared up, with Eurostar confirming that a direct service will begin in early 2020.

Meanwhile, the Hook of Holland — the Dutch gateway for UK ferry passengers — has finally been relinked to the country’s rail system. As of last September, it’s connected to the Rotterdam Metro, having been without a rail link for the past two years, after a plan to switch from heavy to light rail was hit by delays.

The two developments mean that in 2020, the Netherlands should become a much more attractive proposition for travellers looking for a no-fly holiday. So, with the whole of the country waiting to be explored, here are four ideas for a Dutch adventure.

1. Visit Europe’s most atmospheric theme park

As you climb into the Dream Flight ride at Efteling amusement park, you’ll spot a curious safety notice. It illustrates the preferred seating arrangement for a family of four –— children on the inner seats, parents on the outside. What’s curious is that the father in the picture is quite clearly sporting a huge top hat. Nothing could better sum up Efteling’s charm. Even on its safety notices, it refuses to break character.

The result is a theme park that feels as though it exists entirely within the worlds created by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. What’s more, every care is taken to ensure this spell remains unbroken throughout your visit, from characterful cafes to harpsichord music piped through toadstool speakers — even the cash machine is made out to look like a huge wooden treasure chest.

The beating heart of the park is the Fairytale Forest — home to Sprookjesbroom the talking tree, plus several beautifully rendered storybook settings, from Geppetto’s workshop to Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It’s an intriguing mix of modern and old fashioned; for example, the sleeping Snow White and her seven grieving dwarves remain in their original cave, exactly as they were carved back in 1952. In the castle next door however, Snow White’s wicked stepmother makes a slightly more hi-tech appearance, cracking her mirror in dazzling fashion.

Beyond the forest, there’s a host of roller coasters, rides, shows and other spectacles, but what really sets Efteling apart is its animatronic dark rides. These include Dream Flight, a six-minute journey on a chairlift through a twinkly fairy kingdom, and Fata Morgana, a boat trip through a forbidden city, straight out of the pages of 1001 Arabian Nights. Meanwhile, the park’s newest dark ride, Symbolica, twirls you through the enchanted chambers of a spectacular royal palace — the highlight being the wonderfully disconcerting moment when a passing whale cracks the glass walls of the aquarium, and water starts to leak through the ceiling.

On top of all of this, the park has its own accommodation in the form of a fairytale castle hotel and a woodland holiday village. And, as a further incentive to hop on a Eurostar, its latest addition is a 4D animated film, created in collaboration with Aardman Animations, which will be shown in the park’s revamped 4D theatre, Fabula.

How to do it: Tickets for adults (and children above the age of four) start from €42 (£36) with a €2 (£1.70) discount for online booking. A six-person village house in Efteling Village Bosrijk starts at €630 (£537) for two nights and includes unlimited access to the park. 

2. Be beside the Dutch seaside

It might lack the international pulling power of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but The Hague is a criminally underrated city break destination. The seat of the Dutch government, it offers plenty of grand architecture, attractive squares and some of the best art galleries and museums in Europe. But something that’s perhaps too often overlooked is that The Hague is also besides the seaside.

Just a 20-minute tram-ride from the city’s centre, the coastal suburb of Scheveningen offers up to nearly three miles of inviting soft sand. It’s popular with surfers and kitesurfers, and, when the weather allows, swimmers — yet in truth, the resort’s appeal rests more on just how much you can do there while remaining dry.

In some respects, this is a beach resort in Victorian sense, with carousels, a pier and stalls selling the Dutch equivalent of a seaside fish and chips — raw herring and onions. Meanwhile, in the middle of the promenade stands the 200-year-old Grand Hotel Amrâth Kurhaus, an imposing palace that’s the source of so much of Scheveningen’s period splendour.

That’s not to say that it’s stuck in the past. The pier, for example, has recently been redeveloped, and now offers zip-lining, bungy jumping and a Ferris wheel; the Sculpture by the Sea open-air museum is distinctly modern and thought-provoking; and there’s a great selection of restaurants and cafes, many of them actually on the beach itself.

There’s also a grand theatre and a cinema as insurance against rainy days. But if bad weather really gets the best of you, it’s worth remembering you’re just a 20-minute tram ride away from two of the world’s most famous paintings — Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and The Goldfinch by Fabritius, both of which are housed at the The Hague’s compact-yet-magnificent Mauritshuis art museum. And there aren’t many beach resorts that can say that.

3. See cheese town by candlelight

The Netherlands has more than its fair share of attractive squares, but the Plaza Markt in the city of Gouda is special, for two reasons. And the first, as you might expect, involves cheese.

Between April and October, the city’s main square hosts the historic Thursday cheese market, with those huge, famous, waxy wheels delivered by horse and cart or tractor and trailer and then stacked in long rows on the cobbles. It’s a wonderfully antiquated affair, with plenty of traditional outfits (including clogs) on display, and the farmers and traders conclude their deals (as they have for centuries) with their special clappy handshakes, before the cheese wheels are weighed in the 350-year-old Goudse Waag building.

But Gouda isn’t famous only for its iconic cheese. In the 19th century, it was also known throughout Holland for producing high-quality candles. The legacy of this can be seen in a special ceremony held every December, during which crowds gather in Plaza Markt in front of the striking gothic city hall, all electric lights are switched off, and the square is lit entirely by thousands of candles, placed in the windows of the surrounding buildings. The city’s Christmas tree — an annual gift from the Norwegian city of Kongsberg — is then lit, carols are sung, and visitors get to experience the most festive spectacle this side of Lapland.

4. Cafes, culture and canals, in Den Bosch

The one obvious downside to having Amsterdam as the capital is the extent to which it eclipses the Netherlands’ other cities. Take ‘s-Hertogenbosch, or, to give it its infinitely more user-friendly local name, Den Bosch. This fine historic city might not be a household name this side of the North Sea, yet it delivers much of that famous Amsterdam magic, albeit on a much smaller scale.

There’s the city’s cafe culture, for a start. When the weather’s warm, the cafe terraces are rammed with good-natured crowds (Den Bosch is often touted as the friendliest Dutch city), particularly around the handsome market square and down the Korte Putstraat, a short street in which every building offers al fresco dining in some form or another. While you’re there, make sure you try the city’s local speciality, boscche bol, an indulgent pastry filled with whipped cream and coated with chocolate.

There’s also a winning mix of architecture and art. Check out St John’s Cathedral, a stunning gothic building complete with an army of gargoyles; the impressive Noordbrabants Museum, which has its own collection of original Van Goghs; or the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center — a striking museum dedicated to the influential artist who plied his trade here over 500 years ago.

And then, of course, there’s the canals. While waterways are a fixture of many Dutch cities, Den Bosch’s medieval canal system, the Bennendieze, is a real treat. To experience it, take an open boat tour, which winds through the old city, under bridges and through surprisingly tight tunnels, then out through the restored fortified walls onto the river. It’s a great way to get to know the city.

How to do it: Eurostar offers returns to Rotterdam from £70 — there travellers can take Intercity or Sprinter connecting trains to Den Bosch, Gouda and The Hague. Stena offer day-sailing returns from Harwich to any Dutch station, including cabin, from £133, with overnight sailing from £166. 

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