The Hague for a Day
Cabin fever is not to be ignored. My partner and I do a lot of things together and we both work at home. I find it does our relationship good and it does me good for us to occasionally do something different.
Our adventure need not be much – it can be a trip to a garden centre or new restaurant. Or we can visit family or friends in different parts of the world. Feeling the pinch a little, I proposed a visit to The Hague in the Netherlands. We could test out the National Express/Stena special offer for rail and ferry to anywhere in The Netherlands for £29 and I could do a travel article that I needed for the writing course I am doing. Kill two birds with one stone, I thought.
It certainly worked for the purpose. We both came back exhausted and refreshed and ready to tackle things again. However, if you want to do it on a shoestring there are some key things to think about:
1. Book well ahead. The £29 offer would have worked if I had booked a couple of months in advance instead of a week. I felt it was still not unreasonable to pay £65 per head for the ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and rail to anywhere in the Netherlands and then back again but it was certainly more than £29. The offer covers rail from anywhere on the line between Liverpool Street and Norwich to any rail station in the Netherlands. We happened to live close enough to Harwich to just drive to the ferry. But as parking is £7.50 per night, we might have been better to taxi. I also found it easier to book by phone rather than the internet. The special offer is searchable (“Dutchflyer”) but they expect you to book ferry and rail separately and I tended to get lost.
2. Book the hotel ahead. You might be lucky with www.lastminute.com but I ended up booking through www.Expedia.com. Taking a couple of days over the bookings meant that I lost the chance at a cheaper hotel in the centre and we ended up paying more than I had hoped. However, the Carlton Ambassador was a superb hotel in the leafy embassy district and the evening meal was modestly-sized nouvelle cuisine but tasted fantastic. All the staff speak excellent English and are very helpful and friendly. The hotel was a handy five-minute walk from a tram stop that took us right to the centre of town and to the rail station at the end of our stay. Definitely one I would recommend to someone who is prepared to pay a bit extra for living comfortably.
3. If you’re going to use the tram, get a ‘stamp card’ from the hotel. It cost 7.50 euros for 15 sections. As it would have been more than twice that to do it by ticketing for each journey on the tram, it saved us money as well as hassle.
4. Learn (or write down) the Dutch names for the places you want to get to. When I was searching for Dutch train timetables on the internet it really helped to know that I wanted to go to Den Haag from Hoek van Holland. You will also need it to change trains. The train from The Hook is a little side line out to the beach, with stops at the ferry. You will inevitably need to go from the ferry to Schiedam Central or Rotterdam to change lines. The signboards up for each platform are very helpful, but in Dutch.
5. Arm yourself with a map. There is a very useful map for the city centre on www.denhaag.com – follow the links to ‘Living in the Hague’ and ‘Getting around’. It has all the main attractions and gives you tram numbers and stops as well. The same website is very good for background information. Wikipedia has an excellent overview and links for more detail.
6. Check out the opening dates of anything you particularly want to see. I wanted to see the 15th century Grote Kerk (the Big Church) and weaponry from the Thirty Knights of the Golden Fleece from their first meeting in 1456 only to find that the Grote Kerk was not open for public viewing until later in June.
Don’t expect it to be New York or Amsterdam. The population is only around 480,000 people in spite of being the third largest city of the Netherlands. It is the seat of parliament and the home of the International Court of Justice. Queen Beatrix also lives and works at The Hague. There is a night life but the city is more interesting for its history. There is a substantial shopping area of walking streets.
A treat for an afternoon, and a chance to rest weary feet is the Ooievaart boat trip around the canals. At 9.50 euros the tour is around 90 minutes. Originally created around 1612 as the city moat, the canals take you right around the centre and items of interest such as the Royal Stables, homes of artists Paulus Potter, Jan Steen and Jan van Gooyen and the house of Mata Hari, executed as a double agent in the first world war. The guide speaks only Dutch, although a binder of translations is available. But the opera singer in the boat who breaks out into occasional song is international. Anyone interested in bird life can expect swans, ducks, moorhens (who find handy corners to nest in), pigeons (who tuck themselves in under the bridges) or even a red crested grebe.
Keep your eyes open when crossing streets. The same space is used by cars, trams and thousands of bicycles. 30% of The Hague is green, many of the wide streets are lined with trees and there are 400km of cycle paths. In the time it took to consume one glass of beer (not long, it was about 25⁰C) we saw people going to work on bikes, carrying the shopping on bikes, casually enjoying the fresh air or rushing who-knows-where on bikes and one was carrying the dog in a saddlebag as well.
The ferry is a civilised way to travel if you can find a spot out of the sun and reasonably close to the food and drink and toilets. It’s not cheap, they seem to make a lot of their money out of the food and drink, but the variety is impressive and you have the option of the ‘Food City’ buffet style hot or cold food, sandwiches or salad, or a sit down grill restaurant. Or take your own sandwiches and sit out on deck in the fresh air. It is a family affair and you might need to be able to cope with free-range children but there are a lot of corners to tuck yourself into or you could always head for the casino corner and gamble.
It was a great break away that we both thoroughly enjoyed. It was very short – out one day, stay a day, back the next day – but a fun way to just wander around somewhere new, have a look at some shops, have a beer or an iced coffee under an umbrella in the open air. You could do it a lot more cheaply than we did (£368 per person) by thinking and booking ahead