Many moons ago, my first solo assignment abroad was to the Netherlands, travelling on Sealink’s grotty Harwich ferry to the Hook of Holland for a piece on Amsterdam.
There were windmills, canals, Van Goghs, and I loved it. Everything felt excitingly different yet familiar and safe, even when wandering around the red-light district.
Times have changed in so many ways. For a start, today’s ferries offer greatly improved comfort, speed and convenience. Stena Line operates the Harwich route with one of its Superferries. You can take your dog, tap into the wi-fi and (pre-Covid anyway) watch a movie in its cinema.
Eye-popping: The annual flower parade showcases elaborate creations made from thousands of flowers
And while Amsterdam retains star billing in the Netherlands, what well-travelled Brits now seem to covet most are less-congested mini-break destinations. So for anyone embarking on tentative travel who doesn’t want to go too far, step forward fabulous Haarlem.
Just 12 miles from Amsterdam, the older, quieter and less touristy Haarlem is easily negotiated on foot and perfect for a stress-free short escape.
It is pleasingly photogenic, with ornate medieval architecture, cobbled streets, the sparkling river Spaarne and a windmill, of course, plus a couple of splendid museums and bars and restaurants galore.
Ease yourself gently into sightseeing again with an early stop at Jopenkerk, an old church turned brewery. In the 16th Century, Haarlem was one of Europe’s best beer producers, thanks to good local water. The craft beer industry was successfully resurrected in the 1990s, and at Jopenkerk you can sample a treasure trove of brews.
Get your bearings afterwards on a guided walking tour – booked through the tourist office (visithaarlem.com). We took in the central square, Grote Markt, dominated by the 16th Century Reformed Protestant church, Grote of St Bavokerk.
The imposing and ornately decorated Muller organ is the attraction here, with more than 5,000 pipes, and it was once played by Handel and a ten-year-old Mozart.
Amble along the river to Windmill de Adriaan – it is a handsome replica, completed in 2002, of the original 1778 mill, which burned down in 1932.
Summer sails: The Windmill de Adriaan – a replica of the 1778 original that burned down in 1932
Then visit a hofje – a tranquil enclosed courtyard gardens flanked by almshouses – for which the city is famous. There are 21 main ones open to the public, such as Hofje van Bakenes, with the oldest dating from 1395.
Art-lovers can make a pilgrimage to the impressive Frans Hals Museum to see glorious works by the Dutch Golden Age painter, Haarlem’s most famous inhabitant. If quirky is your thing, Teylers Museum has art plus an awesome, eclectic collection of books, fossils and scientific bits and bobs, including a woolly mammoth skull and, if you believe it, the tip of Mont Blanc – supposedly the mountain’s highest point which was hacked off and brought back to the town during an expedition to the Alps in 1787.
Another Dutch quirk is the ‘brown cafe’ – almost the equivalent of our pubs – so named for their wooden interiors made darker by years of cigarette smoke.
Riverside Cafe de Zwaan is perfect for a restorative coffee and slice of excellent sweet and squidgy traditional apple cake.
Haarlem is considered the gastronomic capital of Holland, with a wealth of tempting restaurants, cafes and delicatessens.
Foodies should not miss Eating Europe’s excursion (3½ hours, £70), which takes a maximum of 12 people to assorted shops and cafes for tastings (eatingeurope.com). On our tour we tried kibbeling (chunks of battered cod), bitterballen (meat-based finger food), pickled herring and liquorice – apparently the most-loved Dutch snack – along with the splendidly named stroopwafels (syrup waffles) and poffertjes (mini-pancakes).
The organ in Grote of St Bavokerk
Haarlem is in the midst of flower bulb fields and is the historical centre of the country’s bulb-growing district. Its next eye-popping Flower Parade, which showcases elaborate creations made from thousands of flowers, is on April 17 next year. You can also pick up some delightful souvenirs, such as bunches of colourful wooden tulips, from The Golden Streets, a picturesque shopping area which houses boutiques selling everything from clothing and jewellery to books, crafts, food and homeware.
Haarlem Canal Tours offer a relaxing 75-minute trip along the inland waterways on an open boat, The Cornelia, for £12.50pp (haarlemcanaltours.com). It includes commentary, and keep your cameras primed for some unusual shots of the city’s handsome architecture.
Away from the city centre you’ll find pleasant residential areas, in the middle of which is a little gem of a hotel, Boutiquehotel Staats.
It’s just a five-minute walk from the railway station and a 15-minute amble from central Haarlem.
Each of the 21 modern and luxurious rooms has quirky art and artefacts. Check in to the Royal Suite and you’ll be treated to a free-standing bath in the bedroom and a hammock chair dangling from the ceiling.
I wanted to peel off the mouth-watering mosaic tiles in the Restaurant de Ripper to take home, their brilliance reminding me of this vibrant, colourful city.
Stena Line from Harwich has fares from £59 single for a car and driver, or get a Dutchflyer Rail and Sail ticket from £55pp, including train tickets to Haarlem in about 1hr 45mins (stenaline.co.uk). Boutiquehotel Staats has double rooms from £112 a night (hotelstaats.nl). For more about Haarlem, go to visithaarlem.com.