Holland: Push past the beer boys, avoid Nicole Kidman and go straight to Zeeland

Miles of white beaches, acres of sand dunes and a paradise for walkers and cyclists. Wayne Hemingway and his family go Dutch
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

When it comes to holidays, we are creatures of habit in the Hemingway household. In spring and summer school holidays we stay in the UK. At Christmas, we do a sunny long haul. Autumn half term is a short burst of heat in the Middle East before the onset of winter and February half term is snow. This half term it was to be Dubai, but then "that thing" happened and we felt it prudent to look elsewhere. So, where can you go for a week for culture, outdoor pursuits and watersports? We decided to be a little selfish.

Gerardine and I are working on a large mass-market housing development and we had heard there was lots of modern, inner-city, affordable house building going on in Amsterdam. We planned to spend three days in Amsterdam, then four days in one of those CenterParc-style places that the Dutch gave birth to. An internet search turned up the Gran Dorado park in Port Zélande. A midweek, four-night stay in an apartment for six including ferry cost only £288.

With fond memories of school trips to Holland on big ferries with a disco and cinema, we decided to use the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry. There is something exciting about driving on to a ferry. It's the combination of trying to jostle for a quick exit position and trying to get out of your car quick enough to get a seat, while the younger children shout: "Are we going up the bum or in the mouth of the boat?"

After queuing in lashing rain for a delayed ferry in a smoke-filled terminal at Harwich (asylum-seekers must think they have ended up back at home) and food that even after a 36-hour ride in the back of a darkened lorry would not seem appetising, this was an inauspicious start to a holiday. The older ones looked distinctly unimpressed.

The Stena ferry looked pretty cool but so did the Millennium Dome and appearances can be deceptive. The children were in full Wind-Up-Mum mode, so she chose to eat on her own in the bistro. "Serve her right," was the cry when she emerged decrying it as the worst meal in living memory. The children took turns in the 35-minute queue for the devil's food that I refuse to name. To give you a clue it has the same name as the old farmer in the song with the chorus that goes "E I E I O". So, with a "a moan, moan here and a moan, moan there", and loud English lads with "a pint downed here and a pint downed there" and a disco with "shite music here and shite music there, here a moan, there a pint, everywhere shite music", it was off to the sanctuary of the cinema. Moulin Rouge is a great visual film but all I could hear was the rumble of the engines.

There were some good points to the ferry, though. The Freight Drivers Bar is great eye candy when your favourite films are Convoy and Duel, and signs around the dance-floor that say "Dance if you want to" are hilarious on a rough crossing when everyone standing up has no option but to dance. Four hours later we were exiting the bum of the ferry. It had seemed like one big arse to me. Never again. Next time it's a short hop from Calais.

An hour later we were in Amsterdam. One hour and 25 hotels later we realised that everyone else was taking their hols in cities as far away from those in danger zones or in countries with war-mongering governments. The only hotel with space was The Pulitzer in the Jordaan. It is a fine hotel (good job at £500 for two rooms for two nights) and in a fine location. The Jordaan is like a mini East Village in New York with great little fashion stores stocking Dries Van Noten and Anne Demeulemester and some of the best quality vintage-clothes stores I have ever seen. If you are into vintage clothing and 20th-century modern furniture, then don't miss the markets. There's Waterlooplein (closed Sundays) and Noordermarket in the Jordaan on Mondays, where you can buy clothing by weight.

With children aged from four to 15, trams, trips on canals, fashion mixed with great cafés mixed with street upon street of "coffee shops" (none sells hot chocolate and they are all over-18s only, but the children kept saying they smelt nice from the outside), and ladies sitting in windows wearing very little ("She looks like that lady Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, Dad." "Not quite, son, but well spotted"), Amsterdam is a fantastic three-day experience. For architects and interior designers it's a must. The new Pakhuis interior store on the old East Docks is the best we have ever seen.

Then it was down to Zeeland with a couple of hours in Rotterdam en route and a jelly-legged ride up the Euromast for a view over this architecturally advanced city.

Port Zélande is a holiday village with all the facilities you would expect from a country that gets its priorities right. (Are you listening, Butlins?) Fantastic indoor sports facilities, including tennis courts, that are almost impossible to find in the UK, imaginative play areas, a not-quite-tropical-paradise-but-good-nevertheless pool, quality bike and equipment for rent, clean and spacious accommodation, a well-stocked supermarket and some acceptable restaurants.

But what sets Port Zélande apart is the location. We were spoilt with unseasonably sunny and warm weather but from the minute I got up and ran along the miles of pristine "Blue Flag" white beaches, to the games of hide and seek in the acres of sand dunes, to the vast network of safe cycle routes and pathways (why are they so much better at creating car-free environments than we are?), it was clear that the location of this holiday centre put it strides ahead of anything in the UK. Thanks to careless planning by unimaginative councils, Britain has over-commercialised much of its coastline and what is left unspoilt is often selfishly inaccessible and/or not designed so that leisure and the environment work sympathetically together.

We walked on the beach, windsurfed, rode horses and cycled, stopping off to drink hot chocolate and eat cream cakes, play games and watch local fisherman hauling in their nets full of sea bass, sole and eels. Evenings were spent playing tennis (I won the tournament!), squash or badminton and swimming. There was also much deserved and guilt-free pigging out.

Four days flew past. We decided to avoid the Harwich ferry and drove via Antwerp to Calais where we got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams. We wished we were involuntarily dancing with the beerboys on the Stena line out of Hook of Holland.

The Facts

Getting there

Return crossings from Harwich to Hook of Holland for a car with four adult passengers start from £119 with StenaLine (08705 707070; www.stenaline. co.uk).

Being there

Gran Dorado has seven resorts in Holland and two in Germany. You can book through EuroVillages, Bridge Travel Service, Travelscene and other leading operators. EuroVillages (01606 787919, www. eurovillages.co.uk) offers breaks to Gran Dorado Port Zélande from £259 in total for a four-night break from 11 to 15 February. Prices are based on a family of four and include Dover to Calais crossings. Book before 20 December and get an additional 15 per cent off.

For further information about Gran Dorado resorts, contact the British office (01242 255000; www.grandorado.com).

Comments