Saturday, May 23, 2020

Pandemic Travel: Beyond Amsterdam in an Armchair

In the midst of a pandemic, planning a trip might seem foolhardy, if not downright dangerous. But I’m re-learning how to appreciate travel the way I discovered it—in an armchair.

Whether I’m reading—or writing—about places, I’m transported. And these days, we could all use a little healthy escape. And when we’re once again able to board a plane and start exploring again, we’ll savor the experience that much more. In the meantime, I plan to armchair travel regularly. 

Holland, my first shelter-in-place stop, is so chill an ottoman is required. Just as there’s more to America than New York City, there is more to Holland than Amsterdam. When I first visited this northern European country at the end of college, though, I was most interested in its largest and most famous city. With its brown bars, Heineken Brewery, Old Masters’ art, and quaint canals—not to mention those unconventional caf├ęs that served space cakes—Amsterdam monopolized my imagination.  

The Keukenhof Gardens live up to the hype.
Sure I knew about the famed tulip fields and windmills in the adjacent countryside and I’d heard about The Hague and Delft, but that’s about as deep as my knowledge went. During a recent trip, however, I made up for my youthful ignorance by exploring a little of the wealth of the Netherlands outsideof Amsterdam. 

For starters, I did more than check a box by visiting the famed Keukenhof Gardens with its acres of brilliant tulips. Despite crowds that sometimes seemed nearly as abundant as the blossoms on display, I found the gardens to be almost overwhelming—in a good way. Over the years I’ve seen plenty of Instagram-quality photos of fields of tulips, but none of these prepared me for the sheer scale and number of flower beds lining the park’s meandering walkways and tucked into its woods. Of course, it helped that I’d visited on a perfect late spring day that offered brilliant sunshine, mild temps, and a gentle breeze, but I’d return again in any sort of weather. 

A house in Breukelen.
After strolling the colorful garden paths of Keukenhof, we drove along the banks of the nearby Vecht River (one of the joys of exploring this petite country is that nearly every destination is nearby.) Running from the Rhine and Utrecht to the former Zuyderzee, the Vecht served as a main traffic route for thousands of years. Possibly the inspiration for illustrations in fairy tale books, the river delights as it skirts medieval villages, an occasional windmill, tidy farms, and vibrant green pastures occupied by goats (frolicking, of course), lounging cows, and bleating sheep.

One village worth a visit, Leiden, dates to Roman times, though it looks hardly older than the mere Middle Ages. Narrow cobblestone passages and streets built for pedestrians can scarcely accommodate cars, making them extra fun to stroll. Equally quaint and historic is Breukelen—predecessor to the New York version minus the hipsters and a few million people. (Think medieval—instead of edgy—charm.)

The banks along the river were first discovered during the 17thand 18thcenturies when the wealthy of Amsterdam and Utrecht built stately manor homes with en
A 17th century weekend home along the Vecht River.
tea houses. While the tea houses sat mostly empty when I visited, nearby bars, restaurants, boats, and bike lanes were full of life. On weekends, the Dutch book horse-drawn cart rides along the narrow road or boat excursions on the river and the mood is celebratory and pastoral. 

After exploring the area, have lunch or dinner at Michelin-recommended Slangevgt on the banks of the Vecht. Oysters, seafood, local meats, and bread that must have been baked in heaven make for a menu of options that provide for agonizing decisions. In my experience, though, there are no wrong decisions. Sit outside on the riverbank or in the conservatory-like section of the restaurant which provides the best of both worlds.

Closer to Amsterdam you’ll find Het Bosch which you can reach by boat, car, or bike (of course). Serving French/Dutch cuisine with stellar views of the water and sunsets that seem to last for hours, Het Bosch is a little outside of town but worth the effort to find. The best season to visit is summertime when sunsets last for hours and are reflected in the nearby water. Caution: GPS sometimes has difficulty finding this spot (ours took us to a cottage in the woods). 

Finally, no visit to the Dutch countryside is complete without a visit to the fairytale Castle De Haar. With its intact moat, acres of gardens, towers, and bridge guardhouse, the historic fortress screams Middle Ages.
The Castle de Haar features two rarities: an intact moat & bridge guardhouse.


Pulitzer (see my recent post on this unique hotel).


Visiting the Dutch countryside is possible via rental car or by booking a half-day or full-day excursion through a local tour agency. For a bespoke tour and insider’s look into the area, book a tour through Delta


Slangevegt on the river. 
Het Bosch on a waterway on the outskirts of Amsterdam. 

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