Zeeland: Come on – pluck up a little Dutch courage

Amsterdam's all very well, but drive off the tourist track and you'll find history and glorious sunlit seas in Zeeland, says David Ryan

'Why don't more British families visit the Dutch coast?" My wife, Anya, veteran of decades of damp, overcast beach holidays from the West Country to Brittany, would really like to know. If I knew, I probably wouldn't tell her, for my wife is as Dutch as a clog made of cheese and anything too negative could easily offend.

But it's a fair question. As we sit on our balcony munching breakfast under a blue sky, piercingly white yachts glide over a placid sheet of aquamarine off the island of Schouwen-Duiveland. And it's hard to know why, during eight days in Zeeland, we have yet to see another car with a British number plate.

Yes, the winters can be bitterly cold, but Zeeland has its own summer micro-climate with more hours of sunshine than anywhere else (anywhere else in the Netherlands, that is) and the tanning is good. It's right on our doorstep too. Our Landal bungalow park in Port Greve is an hour's drive from Hook of Holland and less than four hours from Calais.

The Dutch have hundreds of miles of broad, sandy beach backed by nature-rich dunes; it's cheaper to holiday here than in Scandinavia, or France for that matter; and English is spoken everywhere. (Even primary schoolchildren are appealingly eager to try out their English on you.) Campsites and caravan parks may be more expensive than at home but they're among the Continent's best – and the country's flatness and ubiquitous cycle tracks make it ideal for families to exploit either on foot or on two wheels.

Add historic cities such as Middelburg, the provincial capital, Vlissingen, at one time a major port, and Zierikzee, and, well, what's not to like? This is the Netherlands of creaking bicycles on cobbled lanes, clock-tower chimes, quaint canals, picturesque bridges, domineering church spires, august town halls, street organs, smoked eels and herring sold on the street, and terrace bars where you can sip beer or coffee and watch it all go by.

"We get plenty of Germans and Belgians. They have always come here," says the tanned, moustachioed custodian of the tourist office in the fortified port of Veere. "The English mainly cross the Noordzee [North Sea] on their yachts and just use the marinas in Zeeland."

And there's the nub. Most Britons take the clichéd tour that starts with Amsterdam (red lights, brown cafés and Anne Frank) and move on to windmills, bulb fields, cheese markets and clog key rings. It requires a degree of adventure to go in search of windsurfing (Domburg, Brouwersdam, Ouddorp), paragliding (Nieuwvliet Aerodrome near Breskens, Zoutelande), even nude sunbathing (Renesse, Nieuw Hamstede and many more).

We arrived on a grey day in July, better suited to jigsaws indoors than the see-saws outside. But Zeelanders, like the Cornish, are prepared to entertain families in bad weather. There's a plethora of small museums and theme parks just designed for a rainy day. (Try, for example, the National Football Museum and the Maritime Museum, both in Middelburg.)

In fact, Zeelanders are like the Cornish in many ways. They have a fierce regional pride, a distinct cultural heritage and their own dialect. They are of seafaring stock, with an independent spirit and a stoical outlook. Their blue-and-white striped flag bears the lion rampant under a crown motif with the legend "luctor et emergo" or "I struggle and I emerge".

Mind you, that motto could apply to the whole nation, nine million of whom – well over half – live below sea level. The constant battle fought by Dutch engineers to hold back the North Sea employs some 100,000 people every single day. And nowhere is that struggle better illustrated than among the islands of Zeeland. When that work is neglected, as it was in the time when post-war austerity gave way to Cold War priorities, the result is disastrous. In January 1953, a storm surge combined with a high spring tide broke Zeeland's sea walls and dykes. Some 10,000 were made homeless overnight and 1,835 were drowned.

Dramatic stuff. As is the engineering miracle that now protects these islands. A day out at the Neeltje Jans theme park shows the enormity of the work, undertaken in the Sixties and Seventies, to reduce the coastline exposed to the power of the North Sea by more than 4,000 miles. It involves massive storm barrages; one has 63 gates, can hold back a four-metre surge, and makes the Thames Barrier look like a child's Meccano project. But there are also conservation spin-offs because much of the area around the delta works is now a wildlife sanctuary.

The birdlife in Zeeland is quite special. Back at Port Greve, we cycled along a raised dyke road in the early evening sun. The geese were returning to their night roosts while swallows skimmed the fields and a heron stood, stock still, stalking its prey. Zeeland's light and landscape have long attracted painters to take up residence here – Jan Toorop and Piet Mondrian (born Mondriaan) among them.

Middelburg, like so many Dutch cities, is almost too olde worlde to be true, with close-packed higgledy-piggledy houses, leaning walls and gables, enormous churches and ostentatious guild halls. The old city hall, now part of the university, dominates the main square while several churches glare back at such ostentation.

Most Dutch towns will show you two contrasting historical mindsets: the churches portray Calvinism, forbidding in its simplicity, with a bloody-minded, iconoclastic streak that can brick up a stained-glass window; the merchants' houses and trade halls, with their brightly painted shutters, gold gilt trimmings and statuary, trumpet civic pride, personal status and the wealth of a seaborne trading empire.

Thursday is market day in Middelburg's cobbled square, a real working market, held under the watchful eye of that impressive town hall, where fruit and veg vendors vie with street performers, and the cheese makers and fishmongers are out in force.

For a change of pace, on Tuesdays through the summer you can visit the all-day historic market in Veere, with traditional products such as nut wine and goat's cheese; while such local crafts as sheep-shearing, wool-spinning, glass engraving and, yes, clog-making are demonstrated.

Veere is an old fishing haven, home to 20,000 souls, yet four million people are said to pass through this area each year. Precious few of them British.

Travel essentials

Getting there and staying there

David Ryan travelled by car ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland courtesy of Stena Line (08447 707070; stenaline.co.uk). He stayed at Landal GreenParks at Port Greve, Zeeland (00 31 111 691855; landal.com). Two-night breaks start at €179 for two adults, self-catering.

More information

holland.com; vvvzeeland.nl; veere-stad.nl