By Christopher Hedley
Colonists lacked imagination when naming their newly pillaged lands: New York, New South Wales, New England etc. Of course we all know of the original York, South Wales, and England, so what about New Zealand? The answer lies in southwest Netherlands.
The Dutch province of Zeeland, not to be confused with the Danish island of Zealand (which despite being spelled the same as New Zealand, is not what New Zealand is named after) is what Abel Tasman had in mind when he first visited the pacific island. Apparently the tropical climate and mountainous landscape reminded him of his home country, the notoriously flat Netherlands, and he named it accordingly. It doesn’t make sense to me either. So while we all know of the ‘new’ Zealand, what about the original? That’s enough Zealands for one paragraph.
Firstly, how do you get there? Well, the province is tantalisingly close to the fairytale city of Bruges so that’s an option. Or you could fly into Amsterdam and cycle down along the coast. If you really like cycling, you can make a trip of it and start in London, getting the ferry to northern France before ploughing through Belgium in pursuit of greener pastures.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll start in Amsterdam, because flights from Malaga are cheap and easy, and there’s a lovely cycle route nearby all the way down the west coast. Once you’ve had your day or two of debauchery, avert your bleary eyes from the night workers, grab your bicycle and find your way to the LF1 cycle route.
The province is tantalisingly close to the fairytale city of Bruges.
The LF1 isn’t your standard cycle route with time restrictions and bollards on Main Street. This is pure, uninterrupted (and flat!) cycling joy. Admittedly, the ride out of Amsterdam isn’t a scene from ‘into the wild’ but here’s what you can find along the way.
Making your way southwest from Amsterdam – following the signs is easy enough – you’ll find yourself in the seaside town of Katwijk aan Zee. The local claim to fame is that this is the landing area for a lot of international and intercontinental telephone cables. If transatlantic communication isn’t your bag, there’s a nice beach, a couple of museums, bars and restaurants. There’s also one of the world’s largest flower gardens, Keukenhof, where over seven million bulbs are planted each year. If you’re in the area between March and May, you can catch part of the eight week tulip display. Quintessential Netherlands.
A short ride further south will take you to the judicial capital of the world. The Hague might be popular with those that aren’t attracted to the hectic scenes available in the Dutch capital. There’s less of a cosmopolitan approach to life in the centre, meaning you can enjoy good old conservative fun. The medieval and renaissance architecture combined with wide, cafe laden streets give the place more of a continental feel than many other parts of the country. The Plien is the square next to the Binnenhofa complex of buildings, which is kind of like a Dutch version of the houses of parliament, so from here you can either enjoy the view or partake in a little politician spotting. The city is always known for its greenery, with an abundance of parks to choose from with an array of different styles: English, with its own rose garden; a Japanese garden; parks with lakes. It’s definitely a city to relax in – if you’re not convicting or defending international criminals.
The LF1 runs through the coastal region of The Hague, Scheveningen, which has a little bit of an extreme sports/party scene going on, so after you’ve spent some time being civilised in the city centre, get back to the shoreline and have a pop at something a bit different. Kayaking, windsurfing or taking a ride on a powerboat and water activities of choice. On land (if it counts as land) there’s a local bungy jumping centre. Meetup.com/sport-in-scheveningen organises an array of beach events as ecclictic as volleyball to line dancing. And if just reading about all this is making you feel out of breath, you can take a picnic onto a rowboat and enjoy life al fresco on the ponds and canals of Westbroek Park.
This marks the end of your quest to find the promised land of Zeeland.
Breezing further south, and you’ll begin to start riding over bridges between the islands of western Netherlands. When the wind is low, it’s a nice place to slow the pace, take in the waves of the North Sea to your right and marvel at the cycling infrastructure this country has to offer. More sand dunes and kite flying opportunities can be found near Ouddorp, a town best known for its picturesque lighthouse, which leads you nicely onto the 18km beachfront.
South again takes you across the six-kilometre-long Brouwersdam, another fantastic spot with great views where you can stop to watch the kite surfers. There’s also a massive water slide with an eight metre drop along the way for the thrill-seekers. This also marks the end of your quest to find the promised land of Zeeland. The antiquated among us will notice I’ve been referring to the Netherlands rather than Holland. That’s because many of us ignorantly discount the ten other provinces (not just North and South Holland) that make up the rest of the country. Well ignorance be gone, now we are in Zeeland, and officially out of Holland.
The first of the Zeelandic islands offers a smattering of the kind of villages you will have become accustomed to by now: tiny, quaint, maybe with a little church or a windmill or something stereotypical. At the bottom of this island you’ll cross the most impressive piece of hydraulic engineering you’ll see on this trip – the Oosterscheldekering (Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier). This behemoth barrier has three moving parts, and when works were finally completed, the Queen (Dutch Queen, obviously) opened it with the words ‘The flood barrier is closed. The Delta Works are completed. Zeeland is safe.’ Cracking work.
A little push further on and we reach the capital of the province of Zeeland, Middleburg. This historic city, latticed with canals is another spot with a beautiful square to enjoy breakfast and appreciate the architecture. The church tower is calling out to be climbed, and from the top you have a fantastic view over the whole of the former island of Walcheren. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the place is as much as ten thousand years old. There’s a museum to remind you.
The southwestern city of Vlissingen, a lively seaside area with a distinctly maritime character, will be your last stop on the Zeelandic (former) islands. The historic centre is compacted into the old fortress, so once you’ve ambled around the area, had a look at what some Dutch casemates are like, and visited another windmill, make your way to the longest seaside promenade the country has to offer and watch the big ships float past, sometimes scarily close to your face. If you want to visit the mainland again, you’ll need to get a ferry, which is necessary for those finishing their trip in the Belgiun city of Bruges, and probably worthwhile even if you’re not.
Off the ferry, you’ll be pleased to know that you’re still in provincial Zeeland, in the small town of Breskens. A quick visit to the cast iron lighthouse and you’ll have time for one more charming historic town: Sluis.
Largely destroyed during WWII, Sluis has been rebuilt to retain its beauty. The belfry, windmill, and city ramparts give you a sense of the history here. Of course, it’s another place to spend the day wandering around the canals, taking in the toy town, and when you’ve had enough tranquility, there’s a museum with a twist. The Bizarium showcases a number of weird and wacky inventions: A flying bicycle, a swimming umbrella, a walking submarine, hair helmet, and a other strange ideas from the likes of Nicholas Tesla and Leonardo Da Vinci. A fun way to end your trip. From here you can continue cycling (or get the train) to Bruges, or head back to Amsterdam for your flight home. The LF1 is only a small part of the larger, North Sea cycle route, so if you’ve enjoyed this trip, there’s plenty ore to offer.
In all, the Netherlands has more to offer than cannabis and clogs: the sea, the dunes, windmills, pristine villages and sky for days. Each town name sounds like it’s being pronounced by Pingu. As for the cuisine, it’s… ok. Well, let me put it this way, when was the last time you heard someone say “Hey! I went to this really great Dutch restaurant last night…”