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A day in Holland with DFDS

Looking to introduce your groups to cruising? DFDS’s mini-cruise option is the ideal short break, with time ashore to explore Amsterdam

Few attractions open for only eight weeks a year. Even fewer spend the other 44 weeks carefully planning and investing to make sure the next season is even better.

By the time you read this, Keukenhof will already have closed for the rest of 2017. It's the central attraction of Holland's famous bulbfields, a centrepiece of seven million lovely tulips and other bulbs planted in new ingenious ways every year. Its short season between March and May sees hundreds of thousands of people flock to the Netherlands to see the riot of colour.

New for 2017 is a bigger, wider entrance, which allows easier access for its scores of guests. When we visited, the attraction had already soared past the 1m visitor mark, and even midweek, the place was packed, with well over 100 coaches parked up.

Next year, Keukenhof will be open for one less week than usual to ensure the last visitors of the season will still get the full spectacle, so it's worth booking as early as possible.

Dutch art and design was the theme for 2017

The gardens are easily worth two hours. Each year they take a different theme, and 2017's was Dutch design. Particularly notable of the displays around this theme was the Pavilion, housing wonderful indoor displays that were quintessentially Holland; and the incredible flower mosaic representing one of Mondrian’s famous abstract paintings. Keukenhof is already hard at work planning 2018’s theme.

Keukenhof hosts 100 flower bulb companies displaying their wares each year, with 20 flower shows.

There’s plenty of fun to be had: There’s a maze, a petting farm, and treasure hunt for children, as well as plenty of shopping and food stalls.

Beside the main attraction of the flowers, the history of Keukenhof is fascinating too. The name translated is “kitchen garden”, as it was the herb garden of the Countess of Hainaut in the 15th century, and the name later became attached to the grand castle as well. The park was landscaped in the mid-19th century, and first used as a permanent exhibition of spring-flowering bulbs in 1950, quickly becoming a world-famous attraction.  

Around Amsterdam

We had only six hours in the Netherlands, but that was enough time to take in not just Keukenhof, but Amsterdam as well.

Amsterdam is the kind of city that’s simply good for a long stroll. It’s a small capital of a small country, with 800,000 residents (but over a million bicycles, and many millions of tourists and day-trippers), and as it’s very flat, it’s eminently suitable for walking.

Amsterdam’s canals are a great way to experience the city in an afternoon

Its web-like network of canals, quaint leaning merchant houses and well-maintained streets make it very picturesque, and on a sunny day, it’s easy to flop down outside one of the hundreds of pubs and cafes and enjoy the scene with a cold drink and a snack.

The city is home to world-famous museums, including the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House, but there are plenty of lesser-known intrigues as well: we spotted museums dedicated to pianolas, sex, and marijuana. Where else?

Other small museums explore the Resistance, the history of torture, and bags and purses through the ages.

City Sightseeing’s familiar red buses are on the streets, giving commentary in many languages, and walking tours are also available.

But one of the best ways to see the city is from the canals, and a cruise is perfectly suitable for a day trip; it lasts an hour and gives you a good grounding in what's where. Lovers Canal Cruises offers trips from three starting locations, and you can choose a route to suit you. Lovers also does combined ticketing with sightseeing buses, so groups can experience a canal cruise and a bus tour. These can be booked through DFDS.

Onboard King Seaways

We sailed to the Netherlands with DFDS, on board the mighty King Seaways. It’s one of two ships that ply the Newcastle-Ijmuiden route, the other being the Princess Seaways, and it offers an easy and relaxing way to travel.

The King Seaways, one of two ships sailing between Newcastle and Ijmuiden

We checked in from 1430hrs – a simple, fast process – and were given lunch in the trendy Compass Bar, which transforms into a nightclub when the sun goes down.

We were given a tour of the ship, including its numerous restaurants and bars, and a quick peak at the bridge. Then we repaired to our cabins to settle in. DFDS offers several options – two-berth, four-berth, standard inside and seaview, plus more luxurious Commodore cabins, which also gives access to the exclusive Commodore Lounge, if members of the group wish to push the boat out (sorry) and upgrade.

The cabins are small and basic, all with en-suite bathrooms and a plug socket, and mostly with single beds. However, the beds are very comfortable indeed, and DFDS’s use of the word “snug” to describe the cabins is entirely fair – the experience is nothing if not cosy.

We were blessed with fairly calm seas on our crossing, but it can get a bit choppy. Guest Services offers free sea sickness tablets.

Guests are unlikely to want to stay in their cabins, as there are plenty of places on board the ship to relax and enjoy the views of the North Sea.

Dining and relaxing

There are five restaurants on board: The Lighthouse Café, family-friendly and recently refurbished, which offers snacks and light meals; 7 Seas, offering a mighty smorgasbord; Explorers Steakhouse and Little Italy, enough said; and Blue Riband, the premium option, an elegant a la carte restaurant.

Inside the Explorers Steakhouse on board

We enjoyed Blue Riband’s a la carte menu the first night, and 7 Seas buffet the second. The food is excellent, better than many four-star hotels, and is beautifully presented: The dozens of dishes in 7 Seas were fresh, varied, and garnished to perfection.

After eating, there’s a good choice of bars to kick back in: The aforementioned cool Compass Bar, the casual Navigators Pub, the Mermaid Bar on the open deck, and the comfortable Columbus Club.

Entertainment in the Columbus Club starts early in the evening and carries on through the night, with a live band, dancers and cabaret.

There’s plenty of other entertainment too: Two cinema screens showing three films a night, a well-stocked duty-free shop, casino and amusements, and an observation and wi-fi lounge.

There is also a Wildlife Centre onboard, in partnership with charity ORCA, where you can part in wildlife-themed activities and spot whales and dolphins in the North Sea. Or you can just sit on deck and watch the water.

The atmosphere in all the ship’s public spaces is a happy one, and that’s thanks to the lovely, cheerful and helpful staff.

The ship docks in Ijmuiden at 1000hrs Central European Time – perfect timing for waking up at a decent time in the morning, eating a good breakfast, and getting ready for a day in Holland. 

The cruise experience

It’s no wonder DFDS refers to these two ships as ‘cruise ferries’. They transform a simple journey abroad into an experience; a chance to relax, eat good food, and enjoy being at sea.

The Columbus Club provides live entertainment through the evening

DFDS has maximised that selling point by launching the Amsterdam mini-cruise, which is what we experienced. It’s a popular option for groups, including two nights on board the ship and six hours to discover Holland.

The mini-cruise is on offer to coach groups of 20+ from £39pp, and that includes all-you-can-eat breakfast on both mornings and free driver and coach carriage.

What’s more, drivers are very well looked after on board. They’re given a sole-occupancy cabin, breakfasts and evening meals included, and the use of an exclusive commercial driver lounge.

Group dining can be booked in advance, as well as extras – such as VIP room service kits on arrival, wine, beer and whisky tastings, and packed lunches to take into Holland.

The mini-cruise could be a great way to introduce your groups to the cruising, or add something a little different to your brochure, and it’s such a hassle-free way to travel.