Sunday , May 15 2022

Let’s go Dutch: why the Netherlands beats the Med for family holidays

‘Fshhhhh,” says my two-year-old, Jemima, as the arrow whips through the air and thunks into its wooden target. Her brother, Seb, five, looks up as the string on his bow twangs back, somewhat startled at his own strength and precision. Robin Hood eat your heart out.

Time to hand over the toddler and have a go myself, as our archery instructor, Lucas, shows me how it’s done. This is one of many family activities at the uber-chic Hof van Saksen family resort, in the Drenthe province of the Netherlands.

Holiday resorts and their well-established brand of organised fun have never really been my thing – I much prefer a cottage or villa off the beaten track, with a small village nearby for provisions, and a local beach. But when we arrive at Hof van Saksen – one of the most luxurious options on offer from Landal GreenParks – I am ready to be converted. The first impressions are so warm that I almost ask our host, Ingrid Poppinger, if she wants to take care of our children for a week, too. But then I would miss out on all the fun.

From the minute we arrive to the moment we regrettably have to leave, we exist in a glossy magazine advert. Bickering, nagging, tiredness, work worries … gone! They’re all lost in a flurry of waterslides, archaeology digs, beach games, archery challenges, outdoor cinema and woodwork sessions.

Five-year-old Seb at the building academy.
Five-year-old Seb at the building academy. Photograph: Nazia Parveen

Our farmhouse-style property has a thatched roof and inside is all cool greys and whites. The gorgeously furnished children’s bedrooms come complete with a box of toys and a beautiful wooden draughts set – and there’s a cute little shed for our bikes, which panders to my husband’s need for order. Yes, it is achingly stylish and perfect Instagram fodder. But it is also exceptionally practical, and the traditional games keep our children occupied for hours. This is now their world. My husband and I become semi-useful guests, providing sustenance.

Other properties on the site, set around a sand-fringed lake and village greens, are mostly occupied by Dutch, German and Belgian families with one thing in common, according to Poppinger: “These are families that expect a little bit more from their holidays!”

Laura Riley, who runs Little Clogs Holidays, an online travel company which specialises in child-friendly holidays to the Netherlands and Belgium, says Landal GreenParks resorts generally feel “less commercialised and more laid-back” than other, similar resorts. Other points of difference are that many activities are included in the price, and that the accommodation is less uniform and more adapted to its natural environment.

Nazia with Jemima in the Hof Van Saksen outdoor play area.
Nazia with Jemima in the Hof Van Saksen outdoor play area. Photograph: Nazia Parveen

We easily overfill our days signing up for activities at the academies scattered around the plattegrond (resort plan), including cookery, paddleboarding and canoeing, along with raft-building, bouncing, crafting and climbing. There is an app to keep track of activities each day, but popular activities need booking in advance.

We also make good use of the resort’s lakeside beach, with its free loungers and deckchairs. A wooden educational play area fascinates Seb and Jemima as they try to build a dam, and an enormous inflatable bouncing mat keeps us all entertained.

On some afternoons there is an opportunity for me to have quality one-on-one time with Seb, including at the archaeology academy. On arrival we are handed a trowel, small brush and kneeling mat with strict instructions to note down all our discoveries in our archaeology passport. Buried in our sand-covered plot are the remnants of existing and prehistoric animals. Budding palaeontologist Seb could not beam any more brightly when his bison bones are showcased in the resort’s own archaeology museum.

Palaeontology patrol …
Palaeontology patrol … Photograph: Nazia Parveen

Apart from timetabled activities, there is a soft play centre for rainy days, a bowling alley, mini golf, exercise classes for adults, and of course the pool, with its variety of age- and height-appropriate water slides. For parents, there is also a spa and wellbeing area, with a Finnish sauna.

One day, we decide to give ourselves a break from self-catering and sample an on-site restaurant in the Havezate (main building). We opt for the Italian Gusto over the slightly pricier self-service Al Fresco restaurant. Once the kids have finished, they are occupied by a giant, wall-mounted Lego board while we relax over our meal in surroundings not dissimilar to a city centre restaurant.

Enormous detail has gone in to perfecting the family holiday experience, from the stunning art on the walls and the sculptures dotted across the gardens (all for sale, should you wish to part with thousands of euros) to the child-height banisters and the foot-golf course running across the grassed areas between houses. So the absence of British people at the resort remains a bit of a mystery. “These resorts are so close by and easy to get to without needing to fly,” says Riley. “But people just haven’t really heard of them. I think it goes hand in hand with the Netherlands not yet being such an obvious family holiday destination.”

Riley started Little Clogs with her friend Jane Grove in 2018. The two are mothers of, respectively, half-Belgian and half-Dutch children, and realised there was more to those countries than city breaks.

“A lot of the family holidays available tend to be in Mediterranean destinations, which are more difficult to get to, and temperatures can often be too hot when you have young children. So the Netherlands is perfect in many ways – for such a small country it is rich in diversity, with some of the most stunning beaches in Europe, beautiful woodlands and dunes, and the temperatures are appealing,” she says.

There are appealing walks around gardens near Hof van Saksen.
There are appealing walks around gardens near Hof van Saksen. Photograph: Nazia Parveen

This was the second time we’d holidayed in the Netherlands – this time in our own car, via an overnight P&O Ferry from Hull to Rotterdam. It made a much more sustainable, exciting and relaxing way to travel.

My husband, a fellow journalist and fan of listicles, occasionally asks our son to name the top five days of his life. Christmas Day is second on that list; his sixth birthday a close third. First, every time and without hesitation, is the day he went on the water rapids ride eight times in a row at Hof van Saksen.

Hof van Saksen can be booked via Little Clogs Holidays, where a week’s stay costs from €712.60 including tourist taxes, based on two adults, a child and a baby. Ferry travel organised by Visit Holland on a P&O ferry

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