In a country where sheep and suburbia are kings, there are no prizes for guessing the biggest eye-opener. Carefree Amsterdam is like a celebratory cigarette behind the bike-shed - every Dutch suburbanite knows what goes on, but most prefer the safety of their net curtains. Twenty miles out of town, "exciting" means not waiting for the green man before crossing, but Amsterdam follows a different drummer from the rest of Holland. The Dutch have very clear ideas about the place: "Live in The Hague, work in Rotterdam and play in Amsterdam." If forced to choose, skip the first two.
One of the drawbacks of writing a guidebook is that, as well as all the best places, you have to visit all the places no one ever goes to, just to find out what's there. However, the places nobody bothers with in provincial Holland are really out on a limb. Lelystad is a dormitory town, built in the mid-1960s on an entirely flat, treeless polder, reclaimed from the Ijsselmeer lake (formerly the Zuider Zee). Getting there on arrow- straight roads is a snooze-worthy experience in itself, but once there, standing in the chilly sea wind amidst concrete carbuncles, the only thing to do is find a hot black coffee and move on.
Holland has one of the highest population densities in the world, over 15 million people crammed into a Wales-sized nook. There's nowhere in the country that comes close to being truly deserted, but it's easy to lose yourself in the thick woodland of the beautiful Hoge Veluwe National Park, east of Amsterdam. Dotted with deer, moufflon and wild boar, the woods are dark, lush and utterly tranquil and, in true Dutch spirit, there are free bicycles at the gates for exploring the miles of criss-crossing paths. An unsuspected, but very fitting, added attraction is the Kroller- Muller Museum in the middle of the park, home to the finest collection of Van Goghs in the world.
It's very hard to beat an Amsterdam canal view from your hotel room, especially in summer. Narrow Reguliersgracht is one of the more peaceful stretches of water in the city, lined with cobbles and reflected trees. The Seven Bridges Hotel, in a crooked old gabled house close by, is the most charming and characterful place to stay you could ever wish for.
As might be expected, the one event the Tourist Board and all the brochures say has to be seen is in fact the most disappointing. The Dutch hype their cheese markets out of all proportion, and the famous one at Edam is no exception. Every Wednesday morning, traditionally dressed buyers and sellers crowd into the village square and go through the motions of testing and choosing samples. The whole thing is utterly phoney (they stopped selling cheeses like that in 1922), heavily over-touristed and rather depressing. Edam itself, though, away from the crowds and the cheese, is a beautiful village and worth a visit.
Everyone comes to Holland to see the tulips - all spring long, the Keukenhof flower gardens near Lisse are a voluptuous riot of fragrance and colour. The best view to be had in this hill-less country is in early May, out of the windows of the Haarlem-Leiden train - it passes right through the middle of the bulb fields, which, at that time, are solid carpets of amazingly vibrant colour.
It's the little differences that count. Instead of ketchup, the Dutch really do put big globs of mayonnaise on their chips; you really can drink a beer while sitting in the cinema ("...and," like John Travolta said in Pulp Fiction, "I don't mean in no paper cup"); and - outside Amsterdam at least - salty old locals really do go up to a fish stall, buy a whole raw herring, tilt their heads back, dangle it into their mouth by the tail and eat the whole thing in one go. But my best discovery about the way the Dutch do things was in the small fishing village of Volendam. I went there first in high summer, when the village sees a lot of tourists, and all the locals were walking around in traditional dress - lace-cap, pinafore, the works. I returned in November, only to find everyone in jeans and sweaters. I asked someone where the lace-caps had gone. "Oh," she said, "people only wear that stuff for the tourists; no one can be bothered with it out of season."
Matthew Teller did research for The Rough Guide to Holland (pounds 10.99). Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
Although train and boat travel are cheaper, flying is a real timesaver. There are flights to Amsterdam from 22 regional airports; also to Rotterdam, Eindhoven or Maastricht from London. Around pounds 90 return. (STA Travel: 0171 361 6161).
The best way of getting around is by train. Netherlands Railways are one of the best in Europe, very punctual, fast and relatively low cost. Trains run every 15 min from Haarlem to Leiden.
Where to go
The Keukenhof Gardens are open March-May daily, 8am-7.30pm.
The Hoge Veluwe National Park, just north of Arnhem, is open daily 8am-sunset. Admission is pounds 3, which also covers entry to the Kroller-Muller Museum (Tues-Sun 10am-5pm).
The Seven Bridges Hotel is at Reguliersgracht 31, Amsterdam (tel: 003120 623 1329). Double rooms with a canal view start from pounds 53.
Edam is 20km north of Amsterdam, reached by bus 110. The cheese market is every Wednesday in July and August, 10am-12.30pm.The village of Voldendam is 3km from Edam.