Dutch cities like Den Haag, Rotterdam and especially Amsterdam are a whirlwind of big-hitting attractions and high-octane nightlife. After hitting the Netherlands' hedonistic urban hubs, set sail aboard a ferry and escape to the country's idyllic, ends-of-the-earth island of Texel, which flies under most visitors' radars, to unwind at its powdery-white beaches, wildlife-filled nature reserves, quiet forests and quaint villages.
This little 25km-long, 9km-wide paradise is actually the largest of the Netherlands' Wadden Sea Islands, and it fits a wide array of natural spaces into its tiny landmass. For an unforgettable introduction to its pristine landscapes, head for the Nationaal Park Duinen van Texel (Texel Dunes National Park), a bird sanctuary where salt fens and heath mingle with grass-strewn dunes and local flora including marsh orchid and orange-berried sea buckthorn. Bring your hiking boots as the majority of the area can only be accessed on foot.
Ranger-led tours of the dunes are run by Ecomare, a superb nature centre that traces the evolution of Texel since the last Ice Age. Ecomare's fascinating aquarium has species from the Wadden Sea, including steely-eyed sharks and playful seals. Nature trails fan out from the centre.
Human history on Texel is explored at the state-of-the-art Kaap Skil Museum Van Jutters & Zeelui (Maritime & Beachcombers Museum). Framed by a matchstick-like, fretted-timber façade made from recycled materials, it contains an incredible array of flotsam and jetsam reclaimed from sunken ships and the shore. Outdoors, catch rope-making, fish-smoking and blacksmithing demonstrations. Indoors, learn about everything from underwater archaeology to windmill technology.
A stunning, three-storey-high traditional windmill sculpture, Ontstaan Uit Iepen van de Molenlaan (Arise From the Mill; 2010) by Meijert Boon, rises near the island's northernmost village, De Cocksdorp. Climb its 45 twisting steps for panoramic views of the Roggesloot marsh area.
The best views, however, are from Texel's crimson-coloured, 35m-high lighthouse at the island's northern tip, where scaling its 153 steps rewards you with shimmering far-as-the-eye-can-see vistas.
In warm weather, you could easily spend your time on the island lazing on its silky, blissfully empty beaches stretching along the west coast (numbered by the kilometre from south to north) but opportunities to get active also abound.
Cycling is ubiquitous: the island is, typically for the Netherlands, pancake-flat and laced with 170km of signposted cycling routes. Every town on the island rents bikes; you can also hire them at the ferry terminal.
Boating is brilliant here, whether you rent a catamaran from De Eilander or take a boat tour from the still-working fishing harbour at Oudeschild aboard vessels such as fishing boat Emmie TX10, preparing freshly caught prawns for passengers, or the nostalgic 1906-built yacht Texelstroom.
Horse riding is another favourite island pastime. Stables offering rides and lessons include Manege Elzenhof. A gentler alternative is clip-clopping on a horse-drawn wagon ride along the beach or through picturesque pine forest with Jan Plezier.
If the salt-tinged sea air has fired up your appetite, there are some wonderful local producers on the island. Local dairy Kaasboerderijk Wezenspyk has organised cheese tastings, or you can visit any time to watch cheese being made from Texel's cows, goats and sheep (more than 27,000 of the latter roam the island) and, of course, buy it too.
A winner with kids is a working dairy farm called IJsboerderij Labora, where they can watch robots milking the cows and taste the end product in handmade ice creams – flavours include strawberry (using farm-grown strawberries and own-whipped cream) and strender stropertje (caramelised Texel raisins).
For adults, a highlight is the island's own brewery, Texelse Bierbrouwerij, which runs 45-minute guided tours that include four tastings, and also has a bar and glorious terrace for sampling its seasonal brews. More unexpectedly, the island also has its own winery, De Kroon van Texel, producing medal-winning whites, reds and rosés. Don't miss its one-hour tours through the vines, followed by three tastings.
All ages will find the chocolates at De Texelse Chocolaterie – made from fresh Texel milk in shapes such as the island's outline, lighthouses, windmills and resident sheep – irresistible. Ask about its bonbon-making workshops.
Pick up Texel-produced picnic ingredients (cheese, wine, jams and preserves, herbs) at De Kade, which also stocks some great island-made souvenirs (handicrafts, woollen blankets, clothes and more).
In addition to a slew of classic campgrounds, a hostel and a host of hotels, Texel has some wonderfully unique places to stay; reserve well ahead in high summer.
To immerse yourself in nature without sacrificing creature comforts, book into the aptly named Camp Silver Island Hideaway, which has eight gleaming silver Airstream trailers with Dutch-designed interiors and stainless-steel bathrooms. Organic breakfasts are included; there's also a camp kitchen and geo-dome lounge.
Beautiful furnishings (and toasty woodstoves) also fill the fabric-sided, timber-beamed Texel Yurts, where hammocks sway between the trees.
The pick of the island's hotels is the exquisite Boutique Hotel Texel, with 42 charcoal-hued rooms, an indoor swimming pool, sauna and beauty treatments, and a sublime restaurant, Gusta, serving local, seasonal produce like luscious seafood platters from the surrounding waters.
Former rectory Bij Jef has lovely balconied rooms and a gastronomic restaurant. And a historic harbourside brick warehouse now shelters the sumptuous Design Hotel Texel Suites along with its seafood restaurant 't Pakhuus.
Make it happen
The train from Amsterdam to Den Helder is 75 minutes, and trains depart frequently. Teso operates crossings from Den Helder on the mainland to 't Horntje at Texel's southeastern edge aboard massive car and passenger ferries; the journey time is just 20 minutes. Texel Hopper buses can pick passengers up from the Den Helder station and drive straight onto the ferries.
Texel Hopper also runs a bus service around the island, or you can take a Taxi Botax cab or free-wheel on a bike in true Dutch style.