A New Year home away from home

I’ve spent the Christmas and New Year period in a number of interesting places. While I love our family’s (very loose) tradition of gathering to eat charred animal and sup from a 40 litre bowl of spiked punch to escape the oppressive 40-plus degree Christmas weather, we tend to spend most holiday periods taking advantage of the kind of extended break usually only reserved for the ridiculously wealthy or the long term unemployed (of which we are neither).

The most memorable festive escape I’ve ever managed was to Egypt, Jordan and Dubai where I spent a chilly December 25th eating vegetarian on a felucca on the banks of the Nile followed by a surreal New Year’s Eve lost in Siwa – an oasis near the Libyan border (you can read about Siwa Oasis here).

CARRY ON: Our Christmas vessel in Egypt.

CARRY ON: Our Christmas vessel in Egypt.

2016 started somewhere in between the roasted debauchery of our back yard in Australia and the company of the ghosts of Pharaohs. I woke up on January 1 about as far as I could get from my bed in Perth, but – at the same time – I was in familiar surroundings.

Linh and I had travelled to the Netherlands to visit her family who had showed us a great time in The United Kingdom for Christmas (you can read about Christmas in London here), followed by a whirlwind tour of family in France and all associated sights. On New Year’s Eve we arrived home to Heerhugowaard where we proceeded to witness one of the more amazing fireworks displays I’ve ever seen.

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In Australia, we (apparently) pride ourselves on our ability to spend millions of dollars on highly choreographed displays of pyrotechnics – usually surrounding – and sometimes dangerously affixed to national icons. In the Netherlands however, the danger is much less regulated and far closer to home. Explosives regulations are relaxed on December 31 so every Dutch resident is free to take part in the cost, the show and the thrilling risk of explosive dismemberment.

We awoke reasonably early the next morning and headed off on a tour of the region. Initially it was our plan to visit the beach where overly keen Netherlanders see in the New Year by diving into the ball-shrivelling cold of the North Sea, but while we were on the road it seemed logical to take a peek at what Noord-Holland was all about.

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Our first stop was Schoorl, where we climbed the highest dune in the Netherlands, ‘Klimduin’. The dune is 51 metres high and leads to a network of forested tracks into the inter-coastal region between the North Sea and the village. The aim of this attraction is to hurl yourself down the dunes and allow gravity to take over. We spent an enjoyable half hour doing just that, and although it wasn’t as mind blowing as some of the sights we saw in other parts of Europe, it was a satisfying taste of local Netherlands – something it can be hard to find as travellers.

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From Schoorl it was a short drive to the beach, Hargen aan Zee. On hand – as promised – were a dozen or so hardy Dutch folk braving the 5 degree temperatures to take their first dip of the year. We had discussed joining the crowds earlier in the morning and I’d indicated that it would be an experience I was interested in trying, but I was more than a little relieved when I was outvoted.

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Our next stop was the Afsluitdijk, what I’m happy to call the mightiest Dyke in the Netherlands. This immense barrier stretches more than 30 kilometres out into the sea between Den Oever in Noord-Holland and Zurich in Friesland. The Dyke was created as part of significant works to keep the North Sea out of the famously low-lying country and was completed in 1933. The Dyke’s completion effectively created a massive man-made lake (The Ijsselmeer) out of a fairly significant chunk of formerly cold, floody, murderwater. We drove to the midway point of the Dyke and stopped at a monument commemorating the closure of the final gap. Here (in a most civilised step that monuments everywhere should consider), we were able to avail ourselves of a hot coffee, frikandel, and kroket.

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Our final stop before heading on to another Dutch experience not to be missed – Wereldkeuken (more on that later) – was De Zaanse Schans. This tongue-twistingly difficult (for me) to pronounce spot is an excellent pause for any traveller who is short on time and wants to tick off as many Dutch stereotypes as possible in one place. Here you can find everything you might have expected to see during your time below sea level but haven’t (because the Netherlands is actually a modern, progressive and lovely place, not a flood-prone mire protected from watery death by a few well placed mounds).

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In De Zaanse Schans, we took a look at a collection of operating wooden windmills which were once widely used in the county for any number of reasons (saw mills, oil mills, mustard mills and so on), not least of which were to push the water that always tried to drown the Dutch back out into the North Sea where the residents so boldly decided that it should belong. In addition to this, De Zaanse Schans is the perfect place to sample and purchase another of the Netherlands non-tulip drawcards (tulips aren’t around in January), Cheese! We arrived late in the day and were only able to grab a few wheels of Gouda and take a shot outside the closed clog house before night fell and we moved on to fill our stomachs.

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This year’s start to the year was not as far flung or isolated as some I have enjoyed, but it was a pleasant change to see some of the everyday sights in Linh’s home region with her lovely family as guides. Who knows, next year we might blog in the New Year, half piste, from the slopes of the Alps!

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