Campervan travel: Discovering the delights of Amsterdam & Alkmaar
Words and photos by Peter Rosenthal
One of the great delights about a campervan is that it removes the need to pre-book a summer holiday. While this might strike fear into the hearts of traditionalists, this travel flexibility is a great plus to me. I’m baffled by people who holiday in the same place, year after year, and the thought of having to be at a certain place for a certain time isn’t for me.
Helen, my wife, doesn’t entirely share this view and likes the reassurance of having a decent campsite nailed down. So the compromise we made on our trip to the Netherlands was to have a researched list of campsites packed with us.
We also each had a hit list of places we wanted to go: Helen’s was to see Amsterdam and the Anne Frank museum; mine was a visit to the Nürburgring for the Oldtimer Grand Prix; and – for reasons no one can quite explain – our son, Sam, was desperate to see the tank museum in Munster. A rough route was plotted around these.
As the trip coincided with our friend Graham’s 50th party in Norfolk, it made sense to head to the Hook of Holland via Harwich, stopping overnight at the Stranger’s Home Holiday Park in Bradfield, Essex.
Harwich proved to be a good route and although the crossing is a little longer than the more common Dover-Calais route, at just over four hours, it was calm. We were soon driving off into the easy to navigate Dutch roads.
About an hour later we were in Amsterdam at campsite number one, which didn’t have any spaces... They suggested we try Camping Gaasper, Amsterdam’s largest campsite, which proved to be a great tip. It was about a 20-minute drive away, and the day was already moving to evening, so we were relieved they had space.
Gaasper proved to be a real find because of its location. It’s set next to a park that, critically, is next to a direct train link into the city centre. The campsite and supermarket both sell the access tickets for the train, making things even easier.
The Anne Frank Museum
The next day we caught the train into the centre of Amsterdam armed with tickets for the Anne Frank Museum. These are only available online at annefrank.org (you can’t queue and pay on the door at all) and are hard to get hold of. 80% are pre-booked months in advance and the remaining 20% are only released on the day.
The crucial bit of information (that I found out by speaking to their press office) is that the tickets are released in batches on the hour. So get up early, get near a good WiFi source and keep refreshing your device. I got lucky and bagged three tickets for an early afternoon visit.
While I’d read Anne Frank’s diary in school and obviously knew the tale of the Jewish family hiding in the attic of a house for two years, it was made all the more poignant because of our surname: members of my family were killed in the War by the Nazis. The fact that Anne wanted to be a journalist also resonated. Even though the rooms of the house are largely empty, it’s the documents, photos and audio narration that make it highly atmospheric. Not to mention the original pages of the original diaries all in Anne’s neat copperplate.
A boat tour of Amsterdam’s canals
We needed a bit of light relief so, after pancakes from the excellent Pancakes Amersterdam Westermarkt restaurant opposite the museum, we hopped on board a boat for a tour of the canals.
As well as pointing out key high-end shopping areas, our tour guide also pointed out some much more relevant information for me and Sam: the speciality of Dutch pubs is ‘bitterballen’ which is what all the locals eat. These are deep-fried balls that usually contain beef or veal mixed with a creamy filling and are usually served with a small pot of mustard on the side. They soon became our favourite snacks of the trip, together with croquettes, which are served everywhere!
We’d had a great day exploring Amsterdam and decided to spend another day here on our return journey (it’s only an hour from the Hook of Holland) so it’s an easy drive to the ferry port.
A day in Alkmaar
Day two of our Holland adventure had been prompted by Sam, who’d previously been to Alkmaar on a holiday with the Scouts and reckoned this old Dutch town was just the sort of place we’d all like. He was right and after a couple of hours driving from Amsterdam, we’d found Camping Alkmaar – a small and quiet campsite on the outskirts of the town, run by a really friendly family.
They could not have been more helpful and, after pitching up, they gave us a map of the town and carefully drew the route into town on it. They also hired us three Dutch bikes – complete with built-in locks – and we were soon pedalling along a pleasingly flat cycleway.
It took about 10 minutes to reach the town centre of Alkmaar and it’s a typical Dutch town, with narrow streets intertwined with pretty canals. After securing the bikes, we enjoyed ambling about in the various small shops. Sam took us to a chocolate shop he’d visited previously and we were soon munching away on a variety of sweet treats.
Helen wanted to go on the obligatory boat tour and so we could take in the various significant parts of Alkmaar while gently being wafted along on the water. The only downside was that the bridges were incredibly low and you had to be flexible to bend double as we went under the lowest ones. By the time we’d had lunch at a laid-back restaurant overlooking the canal, we were starting to feel acclimatised to the Dutch way of life.
Much as I love cars and campervans, town centres are definitely improved when they become bike-friendly zones.
We spent the rest of the afternoon pleasantly mooching about the many boutique-style shops. Despite being stuffed from lunch, we forced ourselves to buy some of their wares. Also on a back street, we found a wall-mounted vending machine on the side of the Vlaamse Hoek snack bar.
It’s not a regular vending machine where food sits around for days, and it's topped up by the chefs on the other side of the wall. Pop a euro or two into the coin slot and you can open one of the little glass doors and grab a kroket or a frikandel, and they proved to be delicious! Sam loved it and I got his leftovers, so I was happy, too... Fatter, we wobbled back to the campsite and reflected on our relaxing day in Alkmaar.
Driving over the sea on the E22 - the road to nowhere
At this point our schedule was open-ended. I wanted to head into Germany for the Nürburgring by the end of the week, but the route was flexible. Looking at the map we spotted the intriguing-looking E22 road, which seemed to just disappear over the sea. It looked an interesting route and meant we didn’t have to retrace our path back to Amsterdam to head into Germany, so the next morning we were soon driving over the sea.
Rather than a glamorous bridge between pontoons, the E22 proved to be a rather dull straight road built on reclaimed land with the northern view blocked by a huge seawall. This seawall was built in 1932 to prevent the Zuiderzee bay from being troubled by storm surges and flooding. It was renamed Lake IJssel at that time and is now a 420-square mile lake that’s popular with sailing boats.
After a 20-mile drive along the E22 we googled a few campsites and settled on the most northerly one on the coast, called Beleef Lauwersoog. This large campsite proved to be a real find and, as well as having incredibly helpful staff, it also boasted a nautical-themed bar and a circular restaurant with panoramic views over a marina.
As it was raining heavily – something of a relief after the baking summer heat in Amsterdam and Alkmaar – we headed to the bar and spent a pleasant few hours playing pool and testing the beers. After exploring the on-site supermarket and the various artefacts dotted around the visitor centre we enjoyed a great evening meal in their on-site restaurant. This was far removed from the burger and chips that many campsites serve and proved to be a proper foodie place.
The campsite offered all sorts of other facilities, but the dark skies meant that we didn’t fancy kite surfing or lounging around on the water’s edge. Walking back to our pitch we passed one of the modern toilet blocks and I was amazed to see that they also offered a coin-operated dishwasher. It’s the future!
We slept like logs that night, largely due to the cooler weather, and woke refreshed and ready for a new adventure: head into Germany and get to the Nürburgring for the incredible AvD Oldtimers Grand Prix. But that’s a story for another day...
This feature was originally published in the February 2019 edition of Campervan magazine. This trip took place prior to the coronavirus pandemic. We are publishing it for your enjoyment and to help you plan your future trips. Read the latest camping travel advice here.
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