Maiden voyage to discover the hidden magic of Haarlem

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They say it's not the destination, it's the journey but in reality the logistics of holidaying always leave me complaining are we there yet?

Being cooped up in a car or queuing at airport security praying for a seat with extra leg room just seems like the necessary evil of a holiday.

But when I was invited by DFDS on a ferry trip to Haarlem in the Netherlands I was assured the holiday would start as soon as I stepped on board.

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Having somehow managed to reach the ripe old age of 34 without venturing on a ferry I was keen to see if this method of travel would be more bearable than my past train, plane and automobile journeys.


I reached the Port of Tyne in Newcastle and much to my amazement it was calm and quiet in the check in area with not a queue in sight, a far cry from Terminal 1 at Manchester Airport.

And I was soon making my way on board to find out what the DFDS King Seaways had to offer.

Bars, restaurants, a shop and even a cinema awaited but first it was time to check into my cabin – a very swanky Commodore De Luxe.

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The room enjoyed a sea view, comfy double bed, en suite and access to the exclusive Commodore De Luxe lounge featuring complimentary drinks and snacks.

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The DFDS cruise ferryThe DFDS cruise ferry
The DFDS cruise ferry

Sitting down with a complimentary glass of fizz it was time to set sail and find out if I had my sea legs.

The swaying motion of the choppy North Sea did take a bit of getting used to but I was quickly distracted as I arrived in Explorers Kitchen ready to hit the all you can eat buffet.

I was soon filling my plate with a scrumptious selection of Mediterranean, Italian, Far Eastern and classic English offerings.

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After several plates of food (I just couldn't resist) I enjoyed cocktails in the Navigators Bar accompanied by some live musical entertainment. We were then making our way to the Columbus Club with a nightclub like feel, DJ, dance floor and a live singer – this was quickly becoming by new favourite way to travel.

Commodore lounge on the DFDS cruise ferryCommodore lounge on the DFDS cruise ferry
Commodore lounge on the DFDS cruise ferry

I awoke the next morning as we arrived at the port in Ijmuiden – just a 20 minute car journey away from our destination of Haarlem.

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Often referred to as the 'older and wiser brother of Amsterdam' Haarlem is a city bursting with culture, historical architecture and award winning shopping, minus the crowds and hustle and bustle associated with its' younger sibling.

Our base for the trip the Amrâth Hals Hotel, was just a stones throw from the stunning Grote Kerk cathedral on the central market square (Grote Markt) – one of the prettiest market squares I have ever seen and the hub of the city.

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The Grote Markt really comes alive over the weekend when the market takes place featuring an array of stalls selling everything from cheese and meats to flowers and fashions and of course the traditional Stroopwafel – which I enjoyed warm and smothered in Nutella.

Kate Mason in HaarlemKate Mason in Haarlem
Kate Mason in Haarlem

Haarlem is blessed with medieval cobbled streets and winding waterways and the relatively small size of the city makes it the perfect destination to explore on foot.

A guided city tour is the best way to fully appreciate everything Haarlem has to offer and learn more about the city's rich history.

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Our tour guide for the trip was the wonderfully charismatic Walter Schelfhout who navigated his way around the streets and hidden hofjes – mysterious enclosed courtyard gardens, the oldest dating back to 1395.

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The beauty of these hofjes are many are concealed behind seemingly private doorways and unassuming alleyways – in fact on many occasions I thought Walter was on the verge of walking into someone's living room but alas behind every door a beautiful hidden outdoor oasis.

You need a tour guide to find many of the hidden treasures Haarlem has to offer let alone appreciate the history and beauty behind them.

One of Haarlem's most famous former inhabitants is portrait painter Frans Hals, one of the Dutch masters, and a visit to the Frans Hals Musuem is the best to appreciate some of his finest works.

The Jopenkerk brewery in HaarlemThe Jopenkerk brewery in Haarlem
The Jopenkerk brewery in Haarlem

Home to the largest collection of Frans Hals portraits in the world the museum also features other treasures including a beautiful eighteenth-century doll's house – my personal favourite.

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But the jewel in Haarlem's crown has to be Teylers Museum – the oldest museum in the Netherlands that has welcomed visitors, including Albert Einstein and Napoleon, since 1784.

The museum's interior itself is as remarkable as some of the magnificent minerals, ingenious scientific instruments, precious books, fossils, drawings and paintings on display.

Walking around this magnificent building I felt I had truly entered a world of wonder and I felt privileged to be retracing the steps of some of the most significant figures in history - standing in the very same spot as Albert Einstein was a particularly pinch me moment.

A tour is a must when it comes to truly appreciating all Teylers has to offer and our guide Annelise Hoogland really helped bring this unique place to life.

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Regularly voted as the Netherlands best shopping destination some retail therapy is a must when visiting Haarlem with its' vast array of independent boutiques and retail favourites.

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And when it comes to refueling after all that retail therapy rest assured that Haarlem has it all from swanky cocktail bars and traditional taverns to Michelin star restaurants and stunning street food.

We were spoilt for choice but a trip to the city is not complete without a visit to Jopenkerk brewery – a place that fuses Haarlem's beer brewing roots with clever creative food.

Housed in a former church the brewery, grand cafe and tasting room is home to one of Haarlem's most successful exports – Jopen beer.

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We sampled a varied selection of Jopen beers along with a tasting menu that paired each dish with a different tipple to truly bring out the best of both flavours.

Before I knew it it we were making our way back to the port after a magical weekend exploring the hidden gem that is Haarlem.

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Back on board a new vessel the DFDS Princess Seaways it was time for the journey home - usually the most laborious and dreaded part of a holiday.

But as I sat in the North Sea Bistro - a swanky on board restaurant - enjoying pan fried scallops and chorizo followed by a sublime steak drenched in peppercorn sauce washed down with a good glug of red wine – I began to wonder is there really any other way to travel?

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Kate Mason travelled to Haarlem as a guest of DFDS and Netherlands Board of Tourism. DFDS prices for the Newcastle to Amsterdam crossing start from £73 per person.

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