The Netherlands really cares about green living, being eco-friendly, sustainability and conservation. Just think about how the windmill (and therefore wind power) is basically considered the unofficial mascot of the Dutch!
There are more zoos/wildlife parks here than I ever imagined, and all of them I visited are in superb condition. They all have some connection with wildlife conservation and education.
I was truly impressed with the habitats for the animals in each of the zoos we went to. My favorite was Burgers’ Zoo, south of the Hoge Veluwe National Park. I commented that it seemed like we were in the animal’s natural habitat with every site we visited.
It really feels as though you’re walking in different climate zones and just happened to come across the animals in the wild. They’ve done such a good job. The animals there are the happiest I’ve ever seen in captivity, and animals in “bad” zoos don’t have enough space to exercise (I hate seeing what I call “dead eyes” on animals in zoos), and Burgers solves both problems by giving them a lot of space to move in an environment that feels authentic, but without having to worry about survival. The combination makes for some very happy animals.
Another fantastic zoo, is the Apenhuel Primate Park, just to the east of the Hoge Veluwe. This was a wonderful experience, with capuchin monkeys greeting us upon arrival. And when I say greeting us, I mean crawling on my head, my husband’s arm and all over our pram Lemurs were also free roaming, and other primates had amazing enclosures/open air habitats.
It is set in a beautiful park that would be lovely to take a day and picnic, or ride a bike, have a romantic date and finish off at the restaurant. Speaking of food, if you want to eat while in the zoo, you need not worry about finding healthy fare. Most of the zoos in The Netherlands offered organic meals! In fact, Apenheul only offered organic ice cream! Quite a contrast to zoos in the United States, for instance, where you’re basically going to solely find the worst kind of fast foods, and inevitably leave feeling a little sick.
Exploring the National Park took us to Kootwijk, a small village that lies in the middle of the park, and is filled with farms that house gorgeous horses, ponies, sheep, goats, cows, llamas and even a few wallabies (which we spotted from our car as we zoomed by, then turned around to make sure we weren’t hallucinating). We hiked a bit, finding our way to the famous and beautiful sand dunes along the coast (who knew The Netherlands had sand dunes?!).
I can’t forget about our trip to Efteling, the oldest amusement park in Europe, which predates Disneyland by 3 years. You can see that Walt Disney got lots of inspiration from this park, which is far less commercialized than any Disney park… as well as less crowded, cheaper and way more magical. Despite not being able to do the big roller coasters (thanks to having our toddler with us), we still immensely enjoyed every moment of it – especially the Enchanted Forest and carousels.
Before our visit to the amusement park, we stayed in Tilburg, a small university city located just a stone’s throw from Efteling, as well as the Safari Park Beekse Bergen, which had African animals, as well as all sorts of ungulates, walking around. I recommend doing the drive-through section on a weekday, not at a peak time. We learned this the hard way, getting stuck in traffic, with no room to pull over at a whim to admire an animal for more than a few seconds. Our experience here was not ideal, but I imagine if you go when it’s not packed, it could be lovely. If you must go at peak time, opt for the walk-through or boat tour instead of the drive through safari.
We then traveled to Drachten and stayed onboard a yacht for a few nights. Odd as it sounds, this is Airbnb-able. It was great fun, and my daughter decided she wants to live on a boat after that experience. We even found fantastic food in the city center there, enjoying the best mustard soup (a Dutch favorite) of our entire trip.
Not too far away is the charming town of Giethoorn, which is inaccessible by car, so you need a boat and/or bicycle to get around. We rented a small boat and took a couple of hours sailing through the canals, admiring the beautiful thatched roof homes, perfectly manicured with fragrant flowers on the lawns and lily pads in the water. Giethoorn is a busy touristy town, but it’s easy to find your way into your own bubble, if you just exit the main area and venture off in your boat or bike or on foot for 20 minutes or so. Idyllic. In fact, I imagine that Giethoorn is where the word “quaint” originated. It should have been, anyway, because that’s what it feels like when you’re there. Quaint in the best way possible.
Driving west, we stopped to visit the Castle De Haar, a fantastical castle, complete with moat and drawbridge, perfectly manicured lawns, and the best kept castle I’ve ever seen. The Dutch do take pride in their country, maintaining their historic buildings and manicuring the landscape in ways that many countries don’t. Everything is taken care of and maintained so well. Even the neighborhoods we were told were lower income still looked beautiful, and were exceedingly well kept, including the roads, buildings and sidewalks. Visit this castle and be blown away by its grandeur.
Of course, we had to visit Gouda on our trip. We did, and we learned that Gouda is not only known for cheese, but also candles and ceramic pipes. I learned all about the Gouda cheese making process, and the different types, based on age. We had one of our best meals in the town, and left with a suitcase full of cheese, vacuum sealed and ready for our flight. You likely think I’m exaggerating. I am most certainly not.
Finally, we stayed in a farmhouse just twenty minutes drive from Schipol Airport, and our toddler enjoyed the chickens while we enjoyed the fresh eggs each morning.
We left The Netherlands after experiencing so much, yet feeling like we only skimmed the surface of what the country has to offer. We need to go back, especially during springtime to see the tulips, and also during winter to skate on the canals in Amsterdam when the water freezes over. It sounds like a dream – but in reality, it is already calling us back.