My trip to the Netherlands began and ended in its busy capital, Amsterdam. I spent days walking the assortment of brick, cobblestone and asphalt along the canals and bridges. I devoured lunch at Gartine, witnessed the Anne Frank House experience for the first time, and spoke at a Dutch search conference. But having visited the famous city before, this trip would be dedicated to finding outdoor beauty beyond Amsterdam. I arrived just in time to witness the Dutch landscape slowly awakening as winter gave way to spring.
An excursion to the dunes: Kennemerduinen National Park
Winters in the Netherlands are chilly, and nights commonly reach freezing temperatures. The Dutch see plenty of rainfall, occasional snowfall, and ice on the canals. But at the first sign of the sun, Dutch people spill from their cozy abodes, filling restaurant patios and enjoying the green spaces that dot the landscape.
Kennemerduinen National Park is a perfect destination for Haarlem locals to enjoy the sunshine. Accompanied by my friend Kate and her family, I embarked on a biking adventure through the quaint streets of Haarlem to reach the dunes. The laid-back, family-friendly city was forgiving as I fumbled back to familiarity on a bicycle. The trek ended at Duincafé de Kennemerduinen, the café with a menu of coffee, juices, sandwiches and salads, ample outdoor seating, and a playground for de kinderen.
A few steps beyond await the dunes. Formally named Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, this unique landscape features rolling dunes and expansive heathlands. Couples walked hand-in-hand to the Het Wed swimming lake beach, and parents trailed small children with buckets along the dunes.
At quieter times, European bison (wisent), native red deer, or the famed Polish Konik wild horses emerge. The nutrient-poor soils of the dunes are home to native plant species like orange-berried sea buckthorn and naturalized dune pansies, a type of violet that adds pops of color across the sand at the height of their seasons. For now, only a few blossoms broke through the beige.
After an embarrassing incident with a broken lock key for a borrowed bike, we went to Grote Markt before returning the bicycles to their courtyard homes. The open-air market is in the city’s heart and sits in the shadow of the Grote Kerk (“Great Church”).
The area was alive with color from vegetables spilling out of market stalls, and early tulips dotted the canals. One local vendor enticed customers with the savory scent of pork and cured sausages in white-crusted bloom. Another created syrupy stroopwafels, wafting the sweet smell of caramelizing sugar into the air. We treated ourselves to several larger than our heads as an amuse-bouche for our dinner reservation.
Dinner was reconnecting with an old friend from South Africa at Bistrobar Indonesia for a giant rijsttafel (“rice table”) spread, followed by a beer at Jopenkerk, a local brewery honoring 14th-century Dutch brewing traditions in a renovated 15th-century church.
When a monsoon let up outside, we walked to the train station. While waiting on the quiet platform to return to Amsterdam, I reflected on the fullness of the day. Perfection is bike rides through the village, wandering through the dunes, sweets in the market, and great dinner table conversations with friends.
Captivated by the Veluwe, the Gelderland gem: Het Nationale Park De Hoge Veluwe
Otterlo is a tranquil village in the Gelderland province, a three-hour train ride from Amsterdam. A cottage rental in EuroParc de Zandig, and my friendly host, Tonwaited at a bus stop just across the street to walk me there.
Unlike Amsterdam, among the most visited cities on earth, Otterlo has no teeming nightlife and abundant culinaire variatie. Rather, it’s a peaceful escape from hectic urban life, well-suited to family holidays and restful getaways in nature, with a few local favorite spots and quieter streets at night.
My cottage in Otterlo backed up to the Nationaal Park De Hoge Veluwe, making sunrise and sunset hikes a simple daily affair—a series of connected walking trails loop and intersect in the park. The scenery invites hikers, Nordic walkers, and bikers to explore the nature reserve.
One moment, you’re forest-bathing on a damp trail of trodden leaves. Next, you’re trudging sandy paths through the open dunes. The next you pass chickens pecking in the mud behind cottages along a hidden path through the trees.
And the next, you are taking off your raincoat and getting a table for one in the bistro at De Wever Lodge for kroketten and brood by the fireplace. The restaurant offers a cozy, warm respite on the inside for drizzly days and a beautiful terrace where guests can sit outdoors and take in the views.
The Veluwe landscape’s forests, heathlands and shifting dunes have a special and serene beauty. I spent days immersed in its budding greenery, surrounded by a symphony of spotted and green woodpeckers. Rain appeared and disappeared haphazardly, stratocumulus clouds wavering between short showers and sunlight piercing through.
Purple heather will drape the rolling hills throughout the park at the height of its season. Wildlife, like many species of birds and deer, plus wild boars, foxes, hares, badgers and pine martens, wander the landscape at dawn and dusk.
Although the earliest part of spring isn’t the most colorful season in the Netherlands, the cool temperatures make it a pleasant time to hike and cycle through the Veluwe. Inside Het Nationale Park de Hoge Veluwe, visitors can cycle the main loops for hours or take side trails to find the occasional statue or tumbling pile of moss-draped nurse logs. They can discover blankets of plait moss wrapped around tree trunks, or toppled young trees peeking above the tall grasses, roots up.
The Veluwe delivered an epic sunset on my final night. I photographed in the waning light until dead batteries forced me to stop, sit still, and take it in.
The cacophony of birds darted across the dunes between the treetops. I breathed deeply, trying to bottle the smell of the misty air. I thought out loud, “I’ll remember this as a time when I was happy.”
A Final Sunset on the Canal
As my time in the Netherlands ended, I found myself at De Belhamel, a charming canal-side restaurant in Amsterdam. I fortuitously stumbled in just in time to wedge myself in before someone else’s 8 o’clock reservation. I sat at my table for one just as sunset began. It cast a glow on the shimmering canal water. I savored the views while I savored my delicious gnocchi and a refreshing glass of rosé.
In those final moments of my journey, I contemplated my short exploration of the Dutch landscape, a testament to the allure of early spring. Each town revealed its unique charm. With deep gratitude, I soaked up every last bit of Amsterdam’s essence.