The Hague is often thought of as a buttoned-down town of government institutions, embassies and international law courts, but it has its fancy-free side, situated as it is on the North Sea coast. Superb beaches and dunes stretch up and down the coast for as far as you care to walk or pedal, with the option to swim or sun at every turnoff.
A look around
Just 2km north of central Den Haag and easily reached by bike or tram, the district of Scheveningen (pronounced ss-CHAY-ven-in-hen, with a throat-clearing gargle on the second syllable) has been a seaside adjunct of the city since the early 1800s. So taken was the artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag with its dramatic seascape, that it became the subject of his most ambitious work, a 360-degree view of the coastline, now on display at the purpose-built Panorama Mesdag. Housed in a glass dome and naturally lit, the 120m circular canvas is a fantastic illusion that depicts the village as it looked in 1880, with flat-bottomed fishing boats lined up along the beach (before a proper harbour was installed) and the dunes beyond.
One prominent remnant from the 19th century anchors this seaside resort: the Kurhaus, dating from 1885. With its stately dome and rows of arches between twin turrets, it’s an iconic reminder of the days when this resort boasted global allure. To get the best perspective, stroll out onto the pier, which extends 380m out to sea; tinged orange at dusk with the waves ebbing and flowing over pale-brown sands, the Kurhaus becomes a magical palace. For the ultimate view climb the tower at the far end which sports a crane for bungee jumping (bungy.nl/en).
A beach within reach
On warm days in mid-summer – or even not so warm days – Den Haag’s masses hop on their bikes or board trams to languish upon these sands, typically planting themselves in front of one of the dozens of strandclubs that line the rear edge of the beach. The broad esplanade – dotted with inviting sky-blue benches – is for admiring the scene. Above the esplanade a two-lane bicycle thoroughfare offers another way to caress the shoreline.
Wij, the last strandclub before the harbour, is a gezellig (Dutch for warm and cozy) locale with flames flickering beside solid wood tables, plenty of nooks for hanging out with friends and a broad beachside terrace with cushion-lined benches. Dozens of other beach clubs, such as Doen, Bora Bora and Cocomo offer thematic variations of the same concept.
Surf and SUP
While the main beach is the domain of swimmers and sunbathers, the harbour end is for surfers – and you’ll see plenty of wet-suited board toters here in every kind of weather. The waves vary in size and strength. In particular it’s an ideal spot for stand-up paddling (SUP) as the gusts are attenuated by the breakwater that edges the harbour. Several surf clubs rent gear and provide instruction – along with espresso and camaraderie – and rentals include wetsuits. Surfles.nl is one easygoing, professionally run outfit. Check weather conditions before setting out; offshore winds can be dangerous. Ideally you’ll want smooth rolling surf.
Blending into the dunes a short distance west of the Kurhaus is the country’s leading sculpture museum, Beelden aan Zee (beeldenaanzee.nl), featuring the work of prominent sculptors from Holland and abroad. The architecturally innovative space comprises two circular halls, and there are outdoor exhibits on decks with the sea as a backdrop. Some sculptures spill onto the esplanade: you’ll find Tom Otterness’ fanciful if slightly macabre stick figures swallowing herring, practicing yoga or just moping around.
Fresh fish and a festival
Scheveningen’s circular harbour links to a pair of rectangular inner harbours. Every day trawlers haul in their catch of sole, herring, cod and sea bass and deposit it at the warehouses between the two. Not coincidentally, this is the place to head for the freshest seafood, and dozens of restaurants line the quays. All of the above fish, plus lobster from Canada, get the auteur treatment at Restaurant Mero (merovis.nl) on the east end of the first harbour. Local families tend to crowd humbler establishments such as Henk Kraan (henkkraan.nl) at the northeast corner, where a classic tray of fried codfish, fluffy and spicily battered, makes a reasonably priced repast; some old-timers opt for the smoked eel sandwiches.
The summer’s biggest bash is in mid-June when Scheveningen’s fishing fleet simulates the old tradition of heralding the season’s first catch of herring by returning to the harbour festooned with flags. The spectacle attracts some 200,000 visitors who come to admire the ships, enjoy live music events and consume massive quantities of herring.
Escape to the dunes
For a real sense of unbridled freedom head up or down the North Sea coast. The Netherlands has wisely restricted development along this corridor, making it a natural haven of dunes, forest and beaches, and access is as easy as hopping on a bike and following the LF-1, the coastal long-distance bike route (which runs 330km from Noord-Holland to Zeeland).
About 1km east of the pier (look for signs leading to the LF1-B or point 39), a brick water tower marks the entry to Meijendel, an 1875-hectare nature reserve. Both casual cyclists and racers follow a maroon brick road through the reserve, climbing then cruising roller-coaster style alongside yellowish hills studded with low wiry trees and brownish shrubs. Observation points afford sweeping views of the dunes and lagoons, and there are beach turnoffs along the way. At point 40, take the LF-4 to wind through the heart of Meijendel, a forested section on slightly higher ground.
Three short loop hikes (3 to 5km), marked by color-coded posts, thread through the reserve, each highlighting a different ecological zone ranging from sparse to thicker vegetation as you move inland. Southwest of the harbour the LF-1 traverses Westduinpark, a 3km-long rectangle of protected dunes and forest. Cycling, hiking and horse trails penetrate this wilderness, and there are periodic turnoffs to the beach. Inland the dunes rise higher to patches of forest. Paths weave up into the hills leading to observation points and WW2-era bunkers built by the Germans as part of the Atlantic Wall that were meant to fend off Allied attacks.
High as a kite
The southwest end of Westduinpark abuts Kijkduin, and beyond Kijkduin the sky is filled with kites, hovering in a line all the way down the coast toward the smokestacks of Europoort at Rotterdam. This stretch of coast has become the kitesurfing center of Holland. Klein Ockenburg, just west of Kijkduin, is the center of activity, and kitesurfers like to hang out at one of the two beach clubs there. There are several kitesurfing schools, such as kiteboardschool.nl, that provide instruction and gear. You might otherwise just sit at the cafe and observe the kitesurfers as they shimmy over the waves.
The perfect sundowner
Mesdag’s panorama depicted one aspect of the sky, with puffy white clouds scuttling across a vast blueness. But Scheveningen’s sky is an ever-shifting canvas and any of the beach clubs make perfect viewing posts for the sundown spectacle. After dark, the show continues: in mid-summer the night skies burst with colour every Friday at 11pm when fireworks displays are held off the pier; and after that, the town’s nightlife commences.