Camping in Holland: The great European road trip
Holland is one of the unsung destinations for a camping holiday - but can Mark Evans survive the drive with two demanding teenagers in tow?
TWO 14-year-olds who want to go to a nerds' computer games convention in Germany. One car that's almost as old as them. One adult behind the wheel. Over 1,500 miles to cover in just 10 days. What could possibly go wrong?
If your idea of a holiday is getting on a plane, and later landing on a beach, you haven't lived till you embark on a European road trip.
It's more than a vacation, it's an adventure, one that will leave lasting memories, both good and bizarre.
Five countries and an expedition involving lots of mileage, with buses, trains and trams thrown into the mix. We shopped in Birmingham, visited Dusseldorf and Cologne, saw the sights in Cambridge, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, ended up in Belgium (still not sure how), were thrilled in three theme parks, and ate a lot - a lot - of McDonald's in service areas around northern Europe.
And it's a hard job winning over the toughest of audiences - teenagers cut adrift from their XBoxes. The beauty of a trip by car is you can throw everything into the boot (short of the kids) and not worry about check-ins and excess baggage.
On tour in Europe.
Our evening sailing with Stena Line was at Dublin Port - with check-in a doddle. Onboard, it's all about relaxation. My son Stephen and pal Kevin and I headed for the Stena Plus area. For a small fee you can avail of endless cups of coffee or tea, soft drinks and the odd snack. The free wi-fi kept them quiet for the three and a half hour night journey, heads down into their tablets and phones.
Our next destination was Harwich - involving a trip across north Wales, skirting around Birmingham and on to the distant east of England.
It's a journey of about six hours, so pacing yourself is a must. First pitsop was the gigantic Chester Service Area, and the first of many McDonald's (don't worry, they ate healthily too). Driving through the night is a joy - no congestion, and the towns just whizz by. Birmingham, Coventry, Stafford, Northampton, before our next stop, historic Cambridge.
Queen's College, Magdalene College, the River Cam. Yes, we saw none of those as the boys spotted a McDonald's sign as the sun crept up over the English Fens.
It's a beautiful part of England - all Midsomer Murders towns, and a fantastic Imperial War museum, at Duxford, dedicated to aircraft. If you're smart, give England some time - the extreme east is a beautiful corner of the country, little visited by Irish tourists.
Fun on the road.
By the time we hit Harwich, the boys were dozing, but soon awoke, determined to check out their next ship, the Stena Brittanica (one of the biggest superferries in the world).
With a 9am sailing, we got a few hours sleep in the surprisingly comfortable en suite cabin, and were back up for a bit of lunch in the impressive Metropolitan restaurant, where the boys were made to eat their veg.
It's a sailing of about six hours, but it flies by with the Dutch coast creeping up faster than you think.
From the Hook of Holland, our campsite - Eurocamp's Koningshof - was a short drive away. France as a camping destination is well know to many Irish, but Holland offers a brilliant alternative.
They may be the world's tallest people, but their country is puny, so a week is more than enough to see Amsterdam, Utrecht (a beautiful canal-filled mini version of Amsterdam) and the historic Hague.
The campsite was on the edge of an upscale town, and close to the Dutch seaside. Onsite, there's a great value pub/snack bar and a fancy restaurant. For children, there's a great playground and indoor and outdoor pools. And teenagers will be boys ... and the swings, slides and climbing frames were used in the wee hours by the lads when smaller children were tucked up asleep.
A small site, it's a great place to unwind, and if you can't be without Facebook, the wifi is superb throughout the campsite.
Mainly catering to British and continental families, it's a friendly place and well situated to explore much of Holland. Our campsite rep was a mine of information and good advice, filling us in on the region and bringing us to our mobile home accommodation, which had a handy welcome pack if you haven't had a chance to get to the shops beforehand.
The bar was buzzy by night, and the weather was hotter than you'd expect, so we made use of our home's decking and barbecue area.
Quick dip, anyone?
Teenagers being teenagers, they set the agenda - and the next morning involved a trip to Holland's best theme park, Duinrell. Eurocamp also has a site there (big and bustling), slap bang beside the theme park and sprawling water park. The great thing about Duinrell is that it's a handy size to get around in one day, and the queues are short. The boys loved the Dragonfly and Falcon rollercoasters and the Mad Mill (gigantic swing) and Ship Ahoi, one of those massive boats that whizz you from side to side in the air. The attractions are great for all ages, with playgrounds, baby rides and the impressive indoor Tiki Pool area.
The campsite's also close to two attractions, in the Hague area, that will keep kids and teens interested - the world's oldest private car collection and a brilliant miniature world of Holland.
Even the most jaded teen will love The Louwman Museum. It's got cars. Lots of cars. From an 1886 Benz prototype to numerous vintage Rolls-Royces to my favourite - the original Aston Martin DB5 given by Q to James Bond in Goldfinger.
Nearby is the amazing Madurodam. If model collections make you yawn, think again. I mentioned that Holland is teensy-weensy, but this places was taking the proverbial: it's got the entire country on its grounds. The canals of Amsterdam are there, as are the windmills and dykes. There's even a brilliant recreation of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. But, no joking, even the port where we docked was there, with a brilliant recreation of the Rotterdam and Europort docks.
I expected a few days in Holland to be enough, but I was wrong. It's small but we only scraped the surface.
The beauty of having a car is that you're in control, and a few hours' drive will have you in Germany (a trip that needs an article all of its own), Belgium or Luxembourg, all so close to one another but so different. Eurocamp has an array of sites around the Benelux and Germany, so mapping out an itinerary is a cinch.
Heading home from a foreign airport is always a downer, but ferry travel is so different. Onboard Stena Hollandica (a sister to Brittanica) the teens headed for the complimentary PS3 gaming consoles (hours of my life standing with them that I'll never get back) before dinner.
A few hours in the comfy cabin and then Harwich loomed. Planning our return, we had a full day in England, so stunning Cambridge got a look-in before we headed to Staffordshire to Drayton Manor theme park.
For weekend breaks from Ireland, it's a destination in itself, and it's easy to see why.
Smaller kids would bit your hand off to get to see Thomas Land, home to the animated steam engine and his pals. But our gang was way too cool for that - we endured the massive dropping platform (where you stand up!) and Maelstrom, a rollercoaster where you, yes, stand up too!
Chilling but thrilling hours, and the joy of stuffing an oversized orange toy that the lads won at a basketball attraction.
Definitely a must-see.
And then shopping in Birmingham before the car's starter motor packed in - and we had to be pushed out of the city, driving non-stop before we broke down (again) at Holyhead. As we were towed onboard the Stena ship home, the lads covered their heads during the tug of shame.
Ah the memories...
Mark and the boys travelled by landbridge (via Britain) to the continent with Stena Line (fares available at www.stenaline.ie). Stena Plus is a great way to travel in luxury on the Irish Sea leg, and a cabin is a must if you want to stay refreshed. The ferry operator is also running a January sale.
Prices from €119pps sharing for a two-night hotel break including return ferry travel by car and you can choose from some of Britain's most popular hotels including Travelodge, Hilton, Radisson Blu and Park Inn.
They stayed with Eurocamp at Koningshof campsite, which is 45 miles from Hook of Holland ferry port. The campsite is one of three Eurocamp sites in the country.
Food prices at the campsite are much cheaper than at home - €1.80 for chips, €3.20 for sandwiches.
The company has just unveiled two new luxury accommodation types - Avant and Aspect - which are available across 34 sites in Europe including Holland, France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland.
For more information, see www.eurocamp.ie, contact the Cork-based call centre on 021 4252300 or visit your local travel agent.
Highlights included Duinrell theme park (www.duinrell.com), Madurodam (www.madurodam.nl), The Louwman Museum (www.louwmanmuseum.nl) and Drayton Manor (www.draytonmanor.co.uk).
Book the best value holiday packages to Europe on travel.independent.ie.