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A day at the beach ­– with a Dutch difference

Beachgoers between the sea and the Kurhaus.


A day at the beach ­– with a Dutch difference

The Netherlands may be internationally identified by windmills, tulips and clogs, but according to some of the locals, its beaches are worth talking about too. ALLISON WHITE spends a day beside the seaside on the North Sea.

Although it is difficult to imagine Holland competing with the sun, sand, sea, and sky of the Sunshine and Gold Coasts, defensive Dutch folk consider North Sea coastal towns such as Scheveningen and Kijkduin worthy tourist destinations.

And if the banks of traffic and wall-to-wall people on even a not-so-sunny Sunday are any indication, they must be right.

Of course, the fact that Holland has 17.9 million people jammed into an area about the size of south-east Queensland, and that the little low country would fit into Australia 186 times, may also help account for the numbers.

Nevertheless, while there are plenty of good reasons to add the Netherlands to a travel agenda, the Dutch coast is generally not among them.

But it could be – even if only for the sake of comparison.

The tourist industry in Scheveningen, for example, is more than a century old and it was home to fishermen long before the Dutch set sail south to discover Terra Australis.

To residents of The Hague, the seat of Dutch government which is less than an hour from the more famous capital Amsterdam, Scheveningen is a “must see”.

In terms of tourism, it rates right alongside the home of the International Court of Justice, the Peace Palace, and the Madurodam, a miniature village which offers a garden walk through the whole of Holland on a 1:25 scale.

The biggest challenge to finding The Hague’s premiere beach is knowing how to say it – it is pronounced Schray-ven-inger – as became obvious during World War II.

During the occupation, the name was used by the Dutch resistance to identify German infiltrators.  It was a dead give-away, sometimes literally, if those asked failed to pronounce the ‘Sche’ with a guttural similar to throaty rolled “chr” of the Scottish loch.

A tram from the city centre takes only 15 minutes down an avenue of trees and past the architectural grandeur of the Peace Palace and The Hague’s many foreign embassies, to reach the sea.

The route is lined with elegant old buildings and shopfronts, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell just where the city stops and the beach resort starts.  It’s safe to alight when the tram empties as the beach is the end of the line.

There is a long, wide expanse of beach, an esplanade, a pier and a lighthouse. The water and wind is popular for windsurfing and kiteboarding, and even a few keen surfboard riders who will put on a wetsuit and look for a wave – even in winter when the sand is white with snow.

Like coastal towns everywhere, development has taken its toll with burger joints, pizza chains and the obligatory golden arches flashing their neons around the superb Kurhaus, or “cure house”.

Built on the site of a bath house beside the beach in 1884-85, it was destroyed by fire soon after and had to be rebuilt in 1886-87, but as a health spa, it drew thousands, including the rich, royal, and famous, to the beach in the late 19th century.

For much of the 20th century, the Kurhaus was more famous as a concert hall attracting top artists from around the world, including the Rolling Stones in 1964 and Ike and Tina Turner in 1971.

The Kurhaus was saved from demolition when it was listed as a historic building in 1975, and

was renamed the Grand Hotel Amrath Kurhaus in 2014. On the last Sunday of each month, there’s a tour of the grand old building followed by high tea.

The ornamental brickwork and art nouveau style of the Kurhaus still manages to stand out from the casino, cinemas, shopping centre and apartment blocks that, along with the promenade, have joined the beachfront clutter as quickly as a Gold Coast high-rise.

And like Mooloolaba, it’s a far cry from the days when everything revolved around the fishing industry.

The bright side is that on the northern coast of the northern hemisphere, there is no fear of buildings throwing a shadow on the beach. In fact, they provide protection from the cold winds that howl in from the North Sea.

Even so, on a bright summer’s day in June, when the average temperature is 19.4C, the chill wind still often calls for a jumper before venturing out on to the sand.

Contrary to popular thought, there is sand. The expanse between the esplanade and the water is wide enough to accommodate restaurants, rows of sun chairs and then some, and while not the glistening white of the local habitat, it’s close enough to be acceptable to Australian beach-goers.

The swell is little more than a gentle ripple and even in summer, the temperature is literally breathtaking.

While local government in Queensland has agonised over how close buildings should be to the beach, here restaurants sit right on the sand, even blocking beach access so that unless you are prepared to look for a public access, the only way to the beach is past dining tables and a maitre d’.

While in Scheveningen, visit the Panorama Mesdag. Housed in a purpose-built museum the work by Dutch artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag is more than 14m high and about 120m round. From the gallery in the centre of the room, it gives the illusion of standing on a high sand dune overlooking the sea, beaches and village of Scheveningen in the late 19th century.

There’s also plenty of history, particularly from World War II, when the coastline was part of the Atlantic Wall coastal defences built by Nazi Germany against allied invasion.

At the nearby Haagse Bos, (Hague Forest) V1 and V2 missiles were fired on London, and residents of Scheveningen lived in fear as if a launch failed, the rockets crashed into their streets.

At the same time, more than 25,000 members of the Dutch resistance were held at the Scheveningen prison awaiting interrogation. Many were shot in the nearby dunes.

The prison became known as the Oranje Hotel, acknowledging the national colour and the fact that these were not criminals. It’s now open for visitors to hear grim stories of the era.

There’s plenty to choose from when it’s time to eat. Where locals once relied on the fruits de mer – North Sea herring, cod and plaice – visitors can now find anything that takes their fancy.

And if throwing your head back and dropping a whole raw herring into your mouth isn’t quite to your taste, fish and chips on the beach or at the harbour is hard to beat – followed by a serve of famous Dutch poffertjes, little pancakes drenched in butter and topped with icing sugar.

A day beside the seaside is a whole new experience for Queensland coastal dwellers who will find a Dutch beach is worth a visit even without sun and surf.

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