Road Trip: Holland and Belgium
Published: November 2009
By Maria Shollenbarger
Holland and Belgium’s northern provinces make for the perfect quick drive.
Day 1: Amsterdam to the Hague (40 miles)
Set out from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, following the signs for the A2 to Utrecht. The passing countryside (dikes; pitched-roof farmhouses; windmills) bears a striking resemblance to those Jacob van Ruisdael landscapes of centuries ago. Home to one of Holland’s best universities, Utrecht has a vibrant mix of shops, cafés, and restaurants. Begin with the half-hour-long, 465-stair climb to the top of the 14th-century Domtoren church tower
—worth it for the views alone. Back at street level, browse for antiques in the shops on the Oudegracht (Old Canal), the historic center’s absurdly picturesque main drag. Grab a sandwich at the hip organic bakery Broodnodig (
lunch for two $25), then get back on the road, looking for the A12, which takes you straight into the Hague. Headquarters for the International Criminal Court and home of the Dutch royal family, this is the country’s stealth good-taste capital. Check in to the Hotel des Indes, a Luxury Collection Hotel (
doubles from $370), a grande dame on Lange Voorhout square that underwent a total makeover by French design star Jacques Garcia three years ago. For dinner, there’s the tiny Maxime (
dinner for two $100), where the lacquered walls and velvet banquettes are a sumptuous backdrop for a light, seasonal menu (try the North Sea bass with fennel and cucumber).
Day 2: The Hague to Maastricht (140 miles)
Rise early and head to the Binnenhof, a small compound of buildings on a tranquil lake that’s been the center of Dutch government for more than 600 years. Nearby sits the Mauritshuis museum,
which holds Rembrandts, Brueghels, and two of Vermeer’s great masterpieces, Girl with a Pearl Earring and View on Delft. Back behind the wheel, hop on the A12, which merges with the A2 and leads down to Maastricht, one of the country’s oldest cities (settled in 50 B.C. by the Romans). Tefaf, the European fine-art fair, is held here every March, but you can soak up great art year-round: Visit the Bonnefanten
for old masters. The Netherlands Architecture Institute’s new Maastricht outpost is right next door. Stop for a cocktail under low vaulted-brick ceilings at Molo 5,
then order the chef’s-course dinner at Beluga
for sublime fresh fish, such as wild turbot with langoustine. End the night at the Kruisherenhotel (
doubles from $500), a Renaissance monastery turned design hotel.
Day 3: Maastricht to Ghent (100 miles)
From Maastricht, it’s a straight northwesterly shot along highway E40 through Belgium to its northern coastline, where you’ll find Knokke-Heist, a favorite resort for wealthy Dutch, Belgians, and Germans. The modest-looking two-story storefronts along the Kustlaan, the main road, house Hermès, Vuitton, and luxe Belgian housewares giant Flamant, plus dozens of smaller jewelers and men’s and women’s boutiques. The beach is wide and sandy, ringed by a Croisette-like boardwalk and pristine grassy dunes. In the warmer months you can take a rest on a striped beach chair, then it’s time to backtrack a bit, taking the pretty two-lane routes N34 and N9 toward Ghent, a city that’s equal parts early-Renaissance splendor and 21st-century grit. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—a.k.a. the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432—stands in the Saint Bavo Cathedral
. A few blocks away, clothing stores filled with Belgium’s signature deconstructed looks line the Mageleinstraat. Ghent has one of Belgium’s loveliest B&B’s, the Hotel Verhaegen (
doubles from $280), five enormous rooms in a former mansion. End your journey at Belga Queen (
dinner for two $110), a restaurant set in a 13th-century granary on the oldest canal in town. Expect low beamed ceilings, a backlit lounge, and a long list of meat-based dishes—served, of course, with frites of several varieties.