This is one of the few trips in Europe we’ve taken with low expectations … which is really how you should set out on any adventure. Having lived in the Netherlands for years, we were totally aware that Zandvoort is one of – if not the – major seaside vacation destination. It’s popularity is due in some part to its proximity to a huge slice of the Randstad including expat centers such as Haarlem, Amsterdam and Den Haag. There are probably 10 million people living within an hour’s drive of Zandvoort.
So we expected it to be crowded, even in late April, with daytime temps still in the 50s and a cold wind off the North Sea. We expected it to be seriously commercial because that’s the nature of tourist destinations. Finally, we expected it to be expensive.
Immediately, Zandvoort defied its reputation.
The truth is, it’s an inviting little town on the sea that offers access to so much – wide, wide horizon-to-horizon beaches, a huge dune park, a Formula 1 track and easy access to Haarlem, which is a great place to take a break from your vacation and reconnect for a few hours with the urban hubbub.
Really, we ended up using Zandvoort as more of a vacation base camp than a vacation destination. But there’s lots to do even if you never intend to leave the beach.
After just the first few minutes on the ground, we were watching Jeffrey and a dozen other kitesurfers zipping across the waves at amazing speeds, doing dazzling tricks just a few yards off the beach. That alone was a great introduction for three really enjoyable days. In fact, we left feeling like we’d barely scratched the surface.
If I had to say what I enjoyed the most, it had to have been just walking around the charming side streets. I thought Zandvoort would be Gatlinburg on the Sea. Instead, as you walk downhill on Kirkstraat from the kind of rundown main cluster of sad hotels, tourist shops and pizza carry-outs just off the beach, you walk into a maze of inviting side streets lined with funky houses, many of which are city dwellers’ second homes. Instead of feeling like a tourist trap like Gatlinburg or Sete in France, the biggest portion of the town feels like, well, a seaside village. How it’s managed to keep its bohemian buzz is a mystery, but we met several people, including one Kiwi who’d come for adventure, then never went home.
WHAT TO DO
Hang out on the beach.
Honestly, there are so many beach bars you could go for days without drawing a sober breath and not regret it. And most like the Hippie Fish and Beach Club Far Out, seem really nice, nicer on average than those at Scheveningen. But like Scheveningen, most are striving for a tropical ambiance, which is pretty funny considering you’re on a stretch of the North Sea at the same north latitude as Newfoundland.
We were there at the end of the pandemic, so all were only serving outside and we didn’t get the full experience. But a seriously good reason to go back.
Just off the beach, there are dozens of shops ranging from funky boutiques to generic High Street retailers and the obligatory Hema.
Zandvoort means “on sand” in Dutch. And this area is all about sand. Lots and lots of sand. Entire parks dedicated to sand. Zuid-Kennemerland National Park is a just a few miles north of Zandvoort on the way to the port of Ijmuiden. You literally can’t miss it because there are huge dunes on both sides of the road to Ijmuiden, dunes that on the west side of the park drop down to the sea.
We spent much of the afternoon hiking the small lakes and pine forests. What’s really amazing is that there’s this much undeveloped land in Randstad, one of the most densely populated regions of Europe. Enough open land that the park is home to a herd of bison, which we didn’t get to see.
Park entry is free, but there are parking fees, which you can see here.
The Boyds will never be seen in wetsuits in 40-degree water. Ain’t gonna happen. But apparently, Zandvoort and the entire Dutch coast is the place to go kitesurfing, and there are plenty of places to get lessons and equipment if you’re a newbie. More later in a more detailed post.
Our neighbor Ingrid, who’s been to Zandvoort a million times, told us to head for Ijmuiden just 20 kilometers north. Ijmuiden is not anyone’s idea of a vacay destination, just an incredibly industrial port area with commercial craft including fishing boats, a three-masted schooner and even a North Sea oil platform. This is on the waterway connecting Ijmeer to the North Sea, and if you got in a boat and headed east, you’d end up in the middle of Amsterdam, which is about 25 kilometers by water. But this is where the fishing vessels unload their catches, and we had the absolute best fish ever at Restaurant De Meerplaats. Again, only carryout was available and it wasn’t inexpensive, with the meal running about 50 euros for three adults. We picnicked in the back of our Honda CR-V and it was a memorable lunch.
WHERE TO STAY
There are lots of places to stay, from fairly nice renovated hotels in huge high-rises built in the 1960s to quite nice Airbnbs. There’s an NH that gets good reviews as does the Hotel Beach House. There are also a Center Parcs complex, a brand popular with Dutch families.
But if you want a really nice hotel, you’re going want to stay someplace like the Staats, a boutique hotel in nearby Haarlem. We needed a dog-friendly space, so we rented at No. 5 Beach House Zandvoort, a group of vacation rentals that isn’t really on the beach. Our apartment was okay, with a second-floor bedroom and a nice kitchen. Location-wise, it was perfect, right in the middle of the action, with easy access to everything.
WHERE TO EAT
Again, we were restricted by the pandemic to carryout, so we didn’t get to try the great places we saw including Thai and Greek restaurants, or even the cafés and beach clubs. We tried everything from New York Pizza right across from our apartment to Khao Tai, a tiny carry-out-only spot a few doors down. Khao Tai was very good, with excellent Pad Thai for about 11 euros.
And of course, Restaurant De Meerplaats was a huge hit and worth driving a few minutes to try.
The groceries are very nice, with great choices for eating in. The Dirk supermarket was especially well-stocked.
The only bad experience of the whole trip was actually at a café on the canal in Haarlem where the overwhelmed waitstaff was surly, to say the least.
WE SHALL RETURN
As noted above, we barely scratched the surface and plan to go back this year for:
• Amsterdamse Waterleidingduinen, a nature preserve just south of Zandvoort amid the dunes surrounding Amsterdam’s water resevoir. Like Zuid-Kennemerland National Park above, this park is home to lots of animals, including Highland cattle. Which begs the question, “What are Highland cattle doing in a country with no highlands?”
• the beach cafés now that the world has reopened.
You can read more here about beaches in the Netherlands, which are are pretty swell.