Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Child Friendly Holiday Review: Eurocamp at Camping Koningshof, Rijnsburg, Holland

Last year was a first - we did the same holiday (with Eurocamp to Holland) for the second year running. This change of habit into creatures of habit was because:

1) Money was limited. But a week at Koningshof in early May, travelling overnight with P&O Ferries from Hull to Rotterdam (so 9 nights away in all) cost only £540. That's including taking our car on the ferry - a car we could fill with non-perishable food to save on shopping when we were there.

2) We had invested a lot of time locating the best museums, cafes, car parks and supermarkets, and the appeal of just being able to rock up knowing where everything was and what we wanted to do was great.

3) Four year olds - we had one - are by nature creatures of habit and like to do the same thing over and over again.

4) We had purchased annual Dutch museum passes the previous year which were still valid. While we had broken even with them last time, it seemed crazy not to get another week's use.

5) You can never do everything you want in a week.

6) Spring had come early the previous year so we had missed the tulips.

7) Apart from the last two days, the weather had been shocking - there was just a chance it might be better if we went again. Right?

So much as I longed for a week's holiday when I wouldn't have to wear my winter coat, the coat was once again packed and we set off on the 45 minute drive from York to Hull. I've already written an ode to the wonderful Boat here, so on with the holiday.

And - hurrah! - this time the sun was shining when we arrived. We drove straight to our favourite multi-storey car park in Leiden (if it's possible to have such a thing), opposite the Morspoort gate and windmill. The Saturday market was in full flow and we were soon sat outside a canalside cafe enjoying open sandwiches and Dutch chips with mayonnaise. We then made the short journey on to Rijnsburg, stopped at the Albert Heijn supermarket in the centre of the town to stock up on essentials, and headed to the campsite for our 3pm check-in time. Easy when you know how.

Because what a contrast to the previous year, when we had driven straight from the boat to the campsite in the most horrendous rain, assuming that there might be something for us to do there to fill a terrible day. But no, the small shop, bar and on-site restaurant were closed and the pool was busy with swimming lessons. Not that we had much desire to go swimming when we were already soaked by the storm. So we drove on to nearby Noordwijk, a seaside town I vaguely remembered from a school trip aged 11. Beaches in lashing downpours are not your best bet - the town was deserted, but eventually we found a nice enough cafe open to give us lunch and keep us warm and dry for an hour or two.

This wasn't a good start

And on this first trip, when we finally got into our caravan, we quickly noticed that it stank. Of sewage. The courier (Dan) came as soon as we called him, but a quick fix with Gaffa tape to a pipe under the the caravan did little to alleviate the problem, and overnight things became unbearable. Dan tried to contact Eurocamp's repair people, but they would not have been able to come out for another two days. So Dan, in an extraordinary level of commitment and competence in his job that you probably wouldn't see among many holiday reps, sent us off to a fantastic museum in Leiden (more on this later) and spent the Sunday afternoon underneath our caravan in more pouring rain, replacing the pipework from the toilet. Eurocamp only provide their couriers with shorts rather than trousers so he must have ended up cold, wet, covered in mud, puddles and possibly worse. But by the time we got back, the caravan smelt fresh as a daisy and had been cleaned from top to bottom, and there was no trace of the problem. Man, we owed that guy a beer or two.

Dan gets rave reviews on Eurocamp's Koningshof page, and they are thoroughly deserved. And to our delight he was back for another year when we returned. Thankfully this time we didn't need such extreme service from him (despite being in the same caravan) and could fend for ourselves, but whenever we had a query he still did his utmost to help. He was genuinely pleased to see us again, and even gave our daughter a wooden tulip as a gift on departure. I don't think anyone could match him. He was running the show single-handed as there are only nine Eurocamp units, which he keeps spotless, their gardens mown and surrounding hedges trimmed.

Camping Koningshof is - for its garden plots - green and quiet. You park away from the caravans, which gives you that much more personal space. Whether or not you get the weather to enjoy your garden plot is another matter. Thankfully for when you don't, the campsite has a lovely indoor pool. It is in two halves. One side is great for younger children, with a slide, a little "mermaid cave", various plastic animals and birds to clamber over, and water sprays, pumps and channels. The water is at paddling depth. It's not Center Parcs, but it fuelled our daughter's imagination and she loved it. The other half is a deeper, more conventional pool, with a slide in a lighthouse. The pool isn't big so can feel cramped, and often has lessons on. There is also an outdoor pool but the weather wasn't warm enough on either trip to try it. The campsite also has a good play area, an adult exercise area, a couple of table tennis tables, and a little fishing lake. The campsite shop has restricted opening hours and you need to get there early for fresh pastries in the mornings. The bar (which only serves fast food) and restaurant are not open every day. We ate only once in the restaurant - the portions were massive, the food fine, the set menus better value, and I got a free glass of fizz as it was Dutch Mother's Day.

Fishing lake

OK, so not just an adult exercise area

Our second trip unwittingly coincided with Dutch half-term, so the campsite was full of school kids who were generally unsupervised (thanks to Holland's more laissez-faire approach to parenting) and as a result quite badly behaved. Our four-year-old got shoved down slides and jumped on in the pool, which was frustrating to say the least. On the plus side it meant that there were a few more children's activities organised by the campsite, like discos and craft sessions, although our girl was shy among all the Dutch kids (or fed up with them injuring her) so we didn't participate in many.

Plus there is so much to do in this part of Holland that there wasn't much time for hanging out on the campsite. Rijnsburg is a small town, but virtually on the doorstep are several long sandy beaches, the bulb fields in spring, and the beautiful city of Leiden. Slightly further afield are The Hague and Amsterdam. Here are our highlights:

1. Leiden

Leiden is like a small Amsterdam, with its brick gabled houses and extensive canal system, only it feels much less touristy and a place you could easily live. Its Saturday market is buzzing with life and bursting with food, its cafes are too numerous to mention and its museums are world class. It also has two windmills and beautiful botanical gardens. A boat trip along the canals is definitely recommended.

As I mentioned before, during our first trip we bought annual Museumkaart passes, which cost about 50 euros each. They are valid at most major Dutch museums. If you plan to visit more than two or three in a week you quickly get your money back, and the cards' other advantage is they enable you to skip long ticket queues. This is a huge bonus if you are in busy Amsterdam. Our daughter was only three the first time we went to Holland so she was free everywhere. On our return visit we had to pay for her at some places, as a few museums charge for four year olds. However, many museums let kids in free up to age 11 or even 16.

Our favourite Leiden museum by a mile was Naturalis, the natural history museum Dan sent us to while he fixed our caravan. It is near the station and the university. It's brilliant for kids and is light, airy and modern. Once you have crossed the long bridge over the road from the ticket office you are greeted by a scene straight out of Night At The Museum, with a selection of the museum's impressive taxidermy collection staring down at you:

On other floors there are dinosaur bones, a sensory zone where our daughter spent hours, and a children's area where you can feed various animatronics, who will only open their mouths for the right kind of food.

Feeding the animatronics

Being a bee gathering nectar in the sensory zone

Dead cat in the sensory zone, our daughter's favourite thing

Another recommended Leiden museum is the Boerhaave, which looks at the history of science and medicine. It has an old operating theatre and hundreds of interesting pieces of scientific equipment. Whilst it's probably better for older kids, it does have a brilliant outside play area, which features climbing frames and slides, plus model ships, cranes and a couple of Archimedes screws. We do love a bit of water play.

And despite it being Dutch school holidays, we had it to ourselves

2. Noordwijk and the coast

The nearest beach to Rijsburg is Katwijk, but we preferred Noordwijk, It was quicker to get to and had more of a community feel. There is easy parking at the beach and plenty of restaurants, ice cream and pancake houses. The beach goes on for miles - dunes, sand, shells, big waves. Just watch out for the tractors driving up and down the sands.

Better in the sun 
Beachfront pancake house

On rainy days, Noordwijk also has the Space Expo. It's not included on the Museumkaart but is worth a trip if you have a budding astronaut or stargazer in your family. The car park gets pretty crowded in bad weather, but driving there is really your only option in proper Dutch rain. Inside there are rockets, space suits and satellites, as well as a replica of the International Space Station and a Soyuz rocket. It also has very cool bins. And a lot of Lego.

The ISS cupola

Man on the moon
Rocket bin

Soyuz simulator
On our first trip we also went to the beach at Scheveningen, which has a quite spectacularly ugly pier:

But if you looked the other way, there was Miffy:

3 Keukenhof and the Bulb Fields

If you are there in spring, the gardens at Keukenhof near Lisse are a must. They are just beautiful. The first year we went, Keukenhof was well past its peak - thanks to the early spring, the flower beds had pretty much finished. (The gardens are only open until mid-May anyway.) But the gardeners keep the place colourful with boxes of fresh late-flowering bulbs, and the greenhouses have new displays every week. There are also lovely play areas, a Miffy house, a petting zoo with a very obliging peacock, and a windmill. So we still felt it had been worth a visit.

Orchid house

Very obliging peacock

However, things were so different on our second trip that I realised quite what we had missed. Despite our visit only being a week earlier in the year, winter had been longer, and this time we hit the gardens at their most glorious. I gasped in amazement when we walked in and were met by sights like this:

The theme of 2015 was Van Gogh

What's more, the bulb fields all around still had colour  - the tulips were being harvested while we were there.

You can book Keukenhof tickets online in advance to save queuing - or get a discounted ticket at the campsite. You will also need, if driving, to buy a car parking ticket, which is checked on exit.

4. Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a supposedly easy day trip from Rijnsburg, but with a young child it was a hassle, and we didn't repeat the experience second time round. Dan explained the Park and Ride system to us as best he could. It meant driving round the Amsterdam ring road to the ArenA (the Ajax football stadium) and getting a train from there. But the P+R ticketing system made everything very confusing. It had recently changed, which didn't help. No one knew what they were doing, and there wasn't anyone around to offer assistance. The train station wasn't right by the car park - it was quite a walk away. Thankfully our daughter was still in a pushchair at the time, but nowadays that sort of distance would lead to Moaning with a capital M before we had even started. I'd have much rather got the train all the way, but there wasn't a station near the campsite and the train ticketing system (also undergoing major changes at the time) seemed even more complicated than the park and ride.

So from now on our preference would always be if we were going to Amsterdam to stay in Amsterdam. But despite the stress of getting there, we did have a good day. Not enough time to see everything we wanted - all the lovely art galleries had to be left for another time, although I am not sure how child friendly they would have been. But the science museum Nemo (turn left out of the station) is fantastic, and a boat trip is the easiest way to see most of the sights with a young child without too much effort.


5. The Hague

The Hague had a much easier park and ride system. While you still have to drive round a fairly hairy ring road, there's a simple open air car park at the end from where you hop on a tram into town. We dragged our daughter round the paintings of the Mauritshuis so we could see Girl With A Pearl Earring, The Anatomy Lesson and The Goldfinch, none of which disappointed. The Museum has an app which you can download in advance for a bit of four-year-old preparation. But she probably enjoyed the Escher palace more, with its special chandeliers and optical illusions.


Escher illusion

Two other places near to The Hague and worth a visit are Madurodam and the Louwman Museum. Madurodam is Holland in miniature. You can get there by tram from The Hague or Scheveningen. We drove as Dan had told us a sneaky free place to park opposite the entrance - under a flyover alongside a load of abandoned cars. There was enough broken glass to make us slightly nervous, but our car remained intact and his tip saved us about 10 euros in parking charges. (It's quite normal for attractions to charge for their car parks on top of the entrance fee, to encourage bicycle and public transport use) Our daughter loved Madurodam. There is everything there - from the cheese market at Alkmaar to the Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam to the windmills at Volendam to the planes at Schipol, all made with meticulous precision.

The Louwman Museum is all about cars, but it's so impressively done that even if you aren't a massive enthusiast you will still enjoy it. They have a De Lorean, for example. And a James Bond Aston Martin. And an Elvis Presley Cadillac. And all sorts of weird and wonderful vehicles, all immaculately presented and part of an even vaster collection, only a fraction of which is on display. For the museum is huge. And you don't get to the rather nice cafe until the end, whereas you probably could use a break about halfway round if you are with that four year old who does Moaning with a capital M.

6.  Haarlem

A pretty drive between the coast and the bulb fields away is the lovely town of Haarlem. It's that same mix of squares, canals and gabled houses, but no one's complaining. We really enjoyed the Teylers Museum. It's very old fashioned - a jumble of fossils and gems and shells and crystals, with some lovely paintings by Dutch Masters. But sometimes the simple things are the best.

7 Delft

We stopped briefly in Delft on our way back to the Europoort in Rotterdam. It was very touristy and busy. But there was pottery. And excellent cake. And sunshine.

So are we making it three years at Koningshof in a row? Actually not, much as we enjoyed our previous visits. Dan said he was moving on, and we thought so should we. Our daughter on the other hand is determined to go back. She wants - needless to say - to stay in the same caravan, go to the same animal museum, paddle in the same pool and eat the same pancakes at the beach. But I am not sure I want to pay school holiday prices for something we got at such a bargain rate. I'd be curious to try Beekse Bergen, with its safari park and proximity to Efterling. And one day we may brave the craziness of Duinrell, with all its water slides and theme park rides, but I think we aren't quite ready for that yet. 

But if you don't fancy a long drive, want an easy trip abroad from the north of England and plenty of rainy and sunny day options, then go. Holland may not be hugely exotic, but it's a place where you quickly feel at home, which has a lot to be said for it. You may even get good enough weather to hire bikes and travel like a native. But you may not.