By Tim Gaylord:
After traveling through Belgium, I had the luxury of seeing several amazing cities throughout Holland on my way to Amsterdam. I was traveling with a group of terrific writers, and our first stops were through the region of Zeeland and the westernmost provinces of the Netherlands. While Amsterdam is without doubt one of the most-visited jewels in Europe, there are many other must-see gems in this magnificent country.
With daily trains from Amsterdam to Middelburg ranging from $36 for economy to $61 for comfort class, travel is quite affordable and only takes about 2.5 hours. Grab a bottle of wine (or two), sit back, and enjoy the views. Once you arrive in Middelburg, set out to see what this amazing city has in store for you–and also make sure to visit the other cities that make up the province of Zeeland.
Veere, Zierikzee, Sluis, and Middelburg are the cities we visited in Zeeland. Although we were only in each city for a short period of time, we had the opportunity to see the splendor of each and the unparalleled kindness of the people living in this region. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so kind as the people in this area of Holland. As a photographer, I often venture off on my own to capture images seen through a lens, and along my journey through these cities I was greeted with a kindness I’ve never experienced before. Not only would people willingly stop what they were doing to have their picture taken, they would invite me into their home to join them for tea and cake afterwards. At first request I thought they were joking, but after the third or fourth time I realized they were simply being nice. The best part is, you find this kindness every place you go in Holland!
We also had the luxury of being guests at several great hotels while visiting Zeeland. With rates per night varying from roughly 140 to 300 euros, there are plenty of great affordable places to hang your hat. Our first stop in Veere was the Hotel Auberge de Campverse Toren. Although we couldn’t stay for long, we had a chance to see the rooms and have a quick bite to eat in the hotel’s charming dining area. The small hotel (14 rooms) sits right on the water and is full of color and charm. It’s certainly a place I would have liked to stay.
Later that day we arrived in Sluis and checked into the four-star Fletcher Hotel. This former monastery has a fantastic restaurant, De Dikke Van Dale, and is also host to a casino for those who like to take their chances at the tables. It’s also located just minutes from the center of town. We arrived late at night and were leaving early, so it was difficult to see much of the town. I did, however, head out at sunrise to see the village and waterways, and I wasn’t surprised when I found this small town to have all the same charm as the others.
The Zeeland capital city, Middelburg, is bustling with life. It’s full of museums, cafés, art, and architecture, and you’ll be busy trying see it all. The Hotel aan de Dam was a great place to stay but had so much to do that we were rarely there. I did bond with the front desk staff, who offered to refasten the loose buttons on my sport coat, loan me cufflinks, and serve me beer while I waited in the lobby for the others. They garnered extra points for that. But as I mentioned before, this type of hospitality is common and was seen in every city we visited.
Walking the streets of Middelburg is an adventure in itself. With stately canal manors and incredible historical architecture, the city is an open-air museum. I’ve never seen such attention to detail used to design homes and buildings. The roads also host roughly 1,200 monuments, and most of these roads lead to the main town hall square, where it’s hard to miss the open-air market. Located in the courtyard in front of the famed Old Town Hall (now a university), the market occupies the entire square and hosts different vendors almost every day of the week. If you’re a foodie seeking amazing edibles or a collector looking to add to your collection, this market has something for you. Here is a list of the impressive markets in Middelburg.
-Antique and collectables market: From mid-June to the end of August, Thursdays from 9 a.m. to4 p.m. Location: Vismarkt
-Books and collectables: May to mid-October, Mondays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Location: Markt
-Fruit and vegetable market: Every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Location: Markt
-Flea market: Every first Saturday of the month except in January, from 8:00 a.m. Location: Vismarkt
-Mixed market: Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Location: Markt
One of the many great things I discovered while traveling through Belgium was the incredible cuisine and attention to detail in every
restaurant in every city. I was hoping to find the same in Holland, and the brothers Paul & Bert Melis, owners of the Michelin-rated Restaurant de Gespleten Arent, met those expectations and then some. It’s an intimate setting where one brother runs the front of the house and the other is in the kitchen. In addition to the fantastic decor, the chef has raised the bar on unique culinary mastery. I loved it. It’s not a big space and it’s exclusivity allows it to host only a few tables, so make a reservation well in advance. It’s worth it.
Before moving on toward Amsterdam, I must mention the benefit of guided tours while visiting Zeeland and Holland. Every city is loaded with attractions, and having a tour guide will make your experience far better. There’s a detailed story about everything, and what better way to learn about it than from a pro. Our guides were Atty Bax (Veere and Middelburg), Theo van Dijk (Zierikzee), and Yvonne Zumpolle (Amsterdam). They’re fantastic. I would compare walking with them through the streets of Holland to getting help from an employee at an Apple store. They’re cool, love their jobs, and want to share their educated knowledge about things that interest you, so be sure to book a tour with them. I’ve posted their contact information below.
Another great item to travel with is a Garmin GPS. Mine has saved me on several occasions. They cost about $100 and once you’ve bought it, be sure to install the location card for the destination you plan to visit. You can purchase the destination downloads on the Garmin website. Then, once you check in to your hotel, all you have to do is push the Current Location button and store it in the device. This will allow you to just walk and not have to worry too much about how to get back. When you’re ready to head back, simply go to your stored locations and it will guide you back to the hotel.
Our next stop was the Neetlje Jans Delta Park. Considered to be the eighth wonder of the world, the park is something everyone should see and something kids certainly will love. More than half of the Netherlands lies below sea level, and the delta works were constructed to keep the people of the provinces safe from flooding disasters while also controlling the level of freshwater to saltwater. You can visit the Delta Works from inside the storm-surge barrier or visit the water theme park. They offer various packages to enter the park costing from 19 euros per person to 33.50 euros per person, which includes entrance to the grounds, lunch, and a guided tour. The structure of the flood barrier is one of the largest in the world and cost an estimated 5.5 billion to complete. While the weather wasn’t very accommodating when we went, what we did see was amazing.
As our trip toward Amsterdam continued, we made a stop at the Keukenhof Gardens. Keukenhof is the world’s largest flower garden and a must-see while visiting Holland. According to our guide, the garden has roughly seven million flower bulbs planted annually covering roughly 80 acres. The colors and floral designs are spectacular to see and even more amazing to photograph. The garden is open annually from the last week in March to mid-May. Fees are 14.50 euros for adults and 7 euros for kids, and apparently the best time to see the tulips is around mid-April. Be sure to visit the Keukenhof Castle as well. It’s located across the street from the gardens and worth a see.
Three things come to mind when I think of Amsterdam: history, great food, and lots of bicycles. OK, maybe a few other things come to mind, but let’s start here. With over 37 museums, an incredible history, and countless amazing restaurants, Amsterdam can boast an impressive 4.6 million international visitors each year. And it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point they all rode bikes while seeing the city. Upon visiting, you’ll see what I mean. Bicycles are the main mode of transportation in Amsterdam and they are everywhere! Note: Pay close attention to where you’re walking–bikes rule the streets. If you don’t watch where you are walking, it’s very likely you’ll get run down. I almost did on several occasions, so stay out of the bike lanes and look before crossing.
When we arrived in Amsterdam we checked in to the first of two hotels that were kind enough to make us their guests. The Grand Hotel Amrath Amsterdam is situated in the monumental Shipping House. The hotel was built by the architectural cooperative Van der May, De Klerk and Kramer and is considered to be the first building fully constructed in the Amsterdam School style. This fantastic hotel has spacious high-ceilinged rooms and is centrally located, making it an ideal place to stay. Rates vary from 260 euros for a superior deluxe room to 510 euros for a two-room suite. And because the hotel is gigantic, it also has the space to provide all the amenities you could ever ask for in a hotel. You can choose between a day at the hotel’s spa and wellness center, enjoy a lazy Sunday high tea, or even get married there.
Like many cities we visited in Holland, Amsterdam is also manageable to cover on foot. The Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, The Jewish Historical Museum, and many other sights are all within a short walk from most hotels or wherever you might be staying. But I suggest arriving at your destination early. By 9 a.m. the line at the Anne Frank House is around the block. (As are the lines at most of the other museums.) So get up and get out.
One museum that is a must-visit is the newly built Grachenhuis Museum (more commonly referred to as The Canal House Museum). This museum is a preserved canal house and offers an in-depth detailed multimedia history of Amsterdam and the people that make up this unique city filled with canals. The museum is currently adding a new exhibition and will be reopening March 1, 2012, so purchase your tickets in advance and be sure not to miss what National Geographic calls “the newest star attraction of Amsterdam.”
For you foodies, Amsterdam also has everything and more. In addition to the countless cafés that line the canals there are many great restaurants that provide a unique experience complemented by innovative creations. We had the chance to visit three hot spots during our visit to Amsterdam and I not only feel comfortable recommending them but encourage you to visit them.
Envy is a great place for lunch for those looking for a tasting menu that perfectly pairs each course. Your experience will be a great one from the minute you walk into this open-kitchen restaurant. I suggest the Envy Chef’s Choice. It’s a luxury tasting menu in which every aspect of the a la carte menu is presented; it’s the ideal way to indulge in the Envy experience.
Our first stop for dinner was Stork, an old industrial warehouse transformed into the largest fish restaurant in Europe. Occupying one of the most attractive locations on the waterfront of Amsterdam, the restaurant is part of a gentrification of the industrial area of “Stork.” The food is fresh and great and the service is informal, which suits the comfortable atmosphere. But take a cab and be sure to call for one when you leave. The restaurant is located on the north side of Amsterdam and certainly too far to walk.
On the second night we had the opportunity to be guests at the newly renovated Hotel De L’Europe and the fine-dining restaurant helmed by chef Thomas Groot. The hotel is often referred to as the other Royal Palace of Amsterdam, and after visiting this five-star hotel and any of its four world-class dining destinations, you will understand why. If you’re looking for a more formal atmosphere, this will be a perfect setting, where you will dine amongst dignitaries and celebrities.
If you chose to stay at the newly renovated hotel, you will be pleased to see that it showcases 111 beautiful new rooms. Each room and suite is designed to emulate a sense of being at home. Rates for a stay at the hotel are from 399 euros for a superior room to just under 2,500 euros for the exceptional Provacateur Suite.
So that wrapped up our time in Holland, and the next morning we were on KLM flights back to the States. Special thanks to our host, Brigitta Kroon-Fiorita, for all her effort, and to the Holland Board of Tourism for the invitation and an amazing experience in an amazing country.