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New Zeeland: happy returns to the Netherlands coast

Category: Beer Humor
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As a child, Caroline van Keeken hated family trips to this sleepy coast. But its now a popular holiday destination and it turns out travelling with her livewire father is terrific fun

Twelve years ago, my father bought a holiday home in Zeeland, a coastal province in the southwestern Netherlands. Since then he only ever spends time at home – in Amsterdam – when his plants need watering.

According to the latest figures, over half of all tourists visiting the coast of Zeeland are Dutch. As a child, I spent many a holiday here. However, during these brief escapes to Zeeland I always longed to escape back to Amsterdam. I did not know what to do with myself amid the endless, deathly quiet fields of maize, and the locals my age whose dialect I could not understand. Besides, I had secret but no less serious plans to launch an international career as the Dutch Britney Spears, so these seaside holidays did not suit me.

Holland map

And then there was my father. I always preferred to walk a few steps ahead of him so as not to get involved in the random conversations he struck up with complete strangers. Or not to be associated with him when he burst into song or dance, or both. But I’m all grown up now. I get this.

Time for two days in Zeeland. Destination: the small village of Waterlandkerkje. The train from Amsterdam Central to Vlissingen takes three hours. The connecting boat to Breskens, across the Westerschelde, 30 minutes. Zeeland is an archipelago of peninsulas, all connected by bridges and tunnels. This southernmost part of Zeeland I am going to is known as Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and borders Belgium.

Caroline
Caroline Van Keeken and her dad

I take the boat. On the aft deck I hear mostly German, but also some English and Flemish. Many of my fellow travellers are families with young children. And there are older couples, too. They are visiting Zeeland for its beautiful beaches, bike rides by the water, and fresh fish. For its peace and quiet, more than anything. But right now, in peak season, calm is not immediately apparent. Tourism is growing in Zeeland. Good news for those renting out holiday homes, such as ones directly on the beach for instance, on Noord-Beveland or Walcheren, and for campsite owners. Not so much for those looking for peace and quiet. Unless you know where you are going.

My father is waiting for me: large white cap, sunglasses and waving both arms above his head while calling out my name. On our way to the house, he talks animatedly about his neighbour’s horse, which he found grazing in his garden the previous week. And about a nearby farmer who keeps an eye on his stabled cows via webcam. He’s called Frank, and I should definitely meet him.

Breskens
Breskens

In the garden, we spend a long time watching a blackbird. “Isn’t it beautiful,” my father says. “It’s lording it over all the other birds.” The neighbours opposite are driving a tractor across the land; they yell something and my father raises his hand. Other than that it’s quiet. “This is nothing like Amsterdam.”

It is Wednesday morning and already quite warm when we drive 20 minutes to the beach at Cadzand. But first we stop off in Oostburg for a Zeeuwse bolus pastry at Bakkerij ‘t Bakkertje (“Bakery the Bakery”). They may have missed out on this year’s Best Bolus award, but their pastries are a household name. Baker Tamara Waebeke explains that they are selling some 200 a day this summer. “And it’s just bread dough with cinnamon and sugar.”

The
The lighthouse at Breskens

Passing vast fields of maize, sugar beet, onions, potatoes and grain on either side, we drive towards the seaside resort. Over the past five years, the locals have witnessed huge changes here. From a sleepy little village by the coast, Cadzand has been transformed into one of the most popular holiday destinations in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, and now has a few large hotels. The beach is crawling with sandcastle builders, kite flyers, surfers and children covered in ice-cream, straddling the various stages between euphoria and meltdown.

“Let’s go.” My father wants to take me to Het Zwin, a nature reserve that crosses into Belgium about a mile down the road. It is a beach plain behind the dunes, and directly connected to the sea. At high tide, sea water enters Het Zwin via a channel. In this secluded spot, nature-lovers armed with binoculars go in search of plants and birds unique to this area. The sandy beach here is in sharp contrast with that of Cadzand. Here there is only a single beach pavilion to be found (De Zeemeeuw, which serves a good lunch) and just a few elderly couples, the odd dog and small groups of friends.

Het
Het Zwin nature reserve

Het Zwin is a place where you can find shark’s teeth on the sand as a result of shifting earth plates and beach replenishment. Today we fail to spot any, but we do see a trio behind a metal detector. André van Es hails from the east of the Netherlands and has been holidaying in Zeeland for 20 years. He is looking for ammunition from bunkers in the dunes that were blown up after the second world war. “This is my way of relaxing,” Van Es explains.

“Wonderful”, my father says.Back in the car, we listen to the song Zoutelande by Zeeland band Bløf on the radio. Thanks to this summer hit, quite a few Dutch people have descended on the eponymous village this year, in search of seaside romance and the beach house mentioned in the lyrics. My father winds down the car window and treats passing cyclists to a concert.

Waterlandkerkje
Waterlandkerkje

On Thursday we drive to Groede, 15 minutes away. Down narrow country roads we trudge behind slow tractors. The air is thick with the scent of leek. My father thinks he spots Frank, the webcam farmer, in a garage. He parks in front of the door, cups his hands around his mouth and yells into the empty space: “Fraaank!” He keeps this up for several minutes. I nod politely at two passersby. In Groede, we walk around the small village centre, past houses with picturesque facades, and along a street where artisanal workshops from the early 20th century have been renovated.

Groede
Groede, a good pitstop for a beer or a coffee

On the square in front of the church we have coffee at De Drie Koningen. Followed not long after by a glass of their celebrated beer, brewed on site. Next stop: nearby Breskens, for fresh fish at fishmonger Erasmus in the port, where they have stretched the definition of “mussel time”. The official Dutch season starts in August and finishes in April.

“The Zeeland mussel season will go on a little longer,” the woman at the fishmonger’s smiles mysteriously.

Friday morning. Time to go. My father takes me to the boat. He drums his thumbs contentedly on the steering wheel. When is he heading back to Amsterdam? He shrugs and looks dreamily through the windscreen. Not any time soon.

For beach houses try roompot.nl and holland-vakantiehuis.nl; or for bungalows in Westerschelde try village-scaldia.nl. This part of Zeeland is closer to Belgium than Amsterdam, so from the UK it’s more convenient to take the ferry to Ostend, or fly/take the train to Brussels; from there take a train to Vlissingen.

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to find a range of fantastic trips

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