If you recently read my Europe road trip plan with kids then you’ll know we planned a very last minute trip away to Europe in our Mazda Bongo campervan! This is the first of 8 posts of my travel diary of what we did on our family European road trip!
We’ve had our Bongo for one year and only ever spent a night or two away in it. This year we hadn’t been away in it at all and thought it was about time. We had been putting off booking a holiday as we were desperately saving an emergency fund before Ben left his employed job to go self-employed. If we were going away then it would be the one week after he left his job and before he fully immersed himself in his self-employment.
As we hit our emergency fund target we decided to go for it. Ben’s Gran is German and we hadn’t visited her for two years, so it was time. She’s 94 and we thought we shouldn’t wait another year. A road trip in the Bongo to Germany sounded fun and we’d stop at Amsterdam on the way and Bruges on the way back.
Well, at least at first it sounded fun with a seven year old and a four year old, but I’ll let you know if it was a good idea at the end of our trip!! Perhaps we’ll have changed our minds by then!
So far so good though. I want to write a diary of each day to keep track of everywhere we’ve been and also it will be too much to put in one single blog post for the entire road trip. So today I will share with you what happened on day one of our family European road trip.
I will have so many reviews to write and travel tips blog posts. I already have a stack of notes such as our road trip packing list, the price of everything, European travel tips, a food list for camping without a fridge and so on. I’ll be writing as many useful blog posts about travelling on the road with kids as I can. They’ll also be great for us to remember what to do and what to pack in the future!
So read on to see what happened on day one of our family European road trip with kids.
DFDS ferry from Dover, England to Dunkirk, France
Our first day began at 4am in the morning!
We didn’t actually leave at 4am, but had to get showered and finish packing the Bongo. Ben put most of our bags in the Bongo the night before so it was pretty quick. We also wanted time to make a big coffee each!
We had booked a DFDS ferry from Dover to Dunkirk at 10am and needed to be there 45 minutes early to allow for check-in, plus they suggest extra time in case of customs and checks.
Ben also wanted to avoid any holiday and London traffic. Even though it was a Sunday, he was worried it could be busy because of the UK school summer holidays. Luckily though, it was really quiet! A lot of the schools break up at different times nowadays and many ended the week after our kids’ schools.
Our drive from Gloucestershire to Dover was around three and a half hours.
We arrived in plenty of time and the ferry wasn’t too busy, but we still had to queue for around 20 minutes to go through the first checkpoint. It was only a short queue of cars, but seemed to take ages! I can only imagine this part taking well over one hour if it’s busier, so it’s definitely worth arriving in plenty of time in the summer and school holidays.
The kids were really excited to go on the ferry. It was the first time they’d been on a ferry!
I was excited too as I’d only been on the ferry to Calais as a youngster from ages 10-13 so couldn’t remember it.
We went to Dunkirk rather than Calais as it came up as a cheaper price and also shaved around 37 minutes driving time off our road journey each way as it’s further north. It’s only 26 minutes from the Belgium border! But, the ferry takes a little longer as it’s a two hour crossing.
There were plenty of cafes on-board the ferry and I loved going out on the deck. If I’d been on my own I’d have sat on the deck the entire time enjoying looking out to sea, but the kids wanted to go in, out, in, out, in , out, café, toilet, window, etc. They don’t sit still, so we moved around a lot!
The two hours went quickly and we even managed to find vegan gourmet sausage rolls in the café so had an early lunch on the ferry.
Before we knew it, we were in France!
Driving through France, Belgium and Netherlands
The next part of our journey was to drive to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. To get here we had to drive from France to Belgium and then to the Netherlands. I assumed we’d have some sort of borders or tolls or something to drive through that separates each country at the border, but there’s no such thing. We simply carried on driving and suddenly there’d be a sign on the side of the road to name the country as we entered!
Our journey was mostly motorways so nothing too interesting unfortunately. The roads were either surrounded by fields or pretty industrial. The land is so flat through this part of Europe that there wasn’t anything too exciting to see. It wasn’t so much different from driving on motorways in most of the UK! In fact, even less to see as the landscape is so flat.
Taking a detour to the UNESCO World Heritage Kinderdijk windmills
Ben wanted to see the historical windmills at Kinderdijk which are around 15 miles outside of Rotterdam so we decided to take a detour!
It’s just over four hours from Dunkirk in France to Amsterdam and it was the same distance to Kinderdijk. Then it was around a one hour drive to our campsite in Amsterdam. So we added about an extra one hour, plus the time we spent at the windmills onto the first stretch of our journey to Amsterdam.
They were definitely worth seeing and they’re an iconic landmark of the country. Often when you search for images symbolic of the Netherlands you will come across many images featuring windmills.
I didn’t realise they are also listed as a World Heritage site with UNESCO so they are very famous. I didn’t know much about them so I researched them as we were almost there.
In case you don’t know either, here’s how Wikipedia explains them “The windmills at Kinderdijk are a group of 19 monumental windmills in the Alblasserwaard polder, in the province of South Holland, Netherlands. Most of the mills are part of the village of Kinderdijk in the municipality of Molenwaard, and one mill, De Blokker, is part of the municipality of Alblasserdam. Built in 1738 and 1740, to keep water out of the polder, it is the largest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands and one of the best-known Dutch tourist sites. The mills are listed as national monuments and the entire area is a protected village view since 1993. They have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.”
The windmills are really picturesque due to the surrounding landscape and the sheer number of them dotted along. It was also a beautifully sunny and hot day which always makes green landscapes look so much more luscious and appealing.
We pulled up in the Bongo and had a short stroll around to get a little closer to some of the windmills. We weren’t planning on staying long as we still had one hour to drive to our campsite and by this point it was around 4.30pm – more than 12 hours after we woke up to start our road trip!
As everyone was pretty tired and needed a break from the Bongo, we decided to stay and cook up some dinner next to the camper using our camping stove! We boiled some water and had a buffet of Naked Soup, Naked Noodles and Naked Rice! I’ve never tried these before, but they have lots of versions that aren’t made with egg and are vegan friendly. They are perfect for camping or eating on the side of the road or in a World Heritage site carpark!
Arriving at Camping Vliegenbos, Amsterdam, Netherlands
After eating some dinner we set off to our campsite for the night. For the first two evenings of our road trip we booked Camping Vliegenbos which is just on the outskirts of Amsterdam city centre in the Netherlands. I think it took around one hour to get here, but I wasn’t really paying too much attention by this point. We were all pretty tired and keen to get to the campsite and stop travelling!
We arrived here early evening and were greeted by some very friendly staff at the check-in. They even gave me some cash as they said their online system overcharged for kids so handed me 16 euros which was a lovely surprise! I had no idea I’d been overcharged and assumed the price I saw and paid online was correct. I’m not sure I looked at the price page, but only at the booking page so I knew no different.
A great start to our stay. It also meant to campsite only cost us 84 euros for two nights instead of 100 euros. I thought this was a great price to stay so close to Amsterdam. We had to walk 15 minutes to a free ferry to take us across the water to the start of the main city, so we were very close. Yet we were surrounded by trees and woods in the campsite, so we also didn’t feel so close at all when camping. It was the perfect combination of city sightseeing and camping mixed together!
We had booked a campervan pitch without electricity and were given a pitch number. We were parked upon a bark campervan section along with several other campervans. There were sections for groups camping, tents, campervans with electric and also campers with no electric. They also have small camping huts that can be rented for the night if you don’t have a tent or camper and I guess even if you just fancy something a little more luxurious than your tent!
The campsite was just fine. The staff were friendly and there was a café, bar and small shop on site. Ben brought some beer cans on the first night, but that’s all we brought. There were signs for live music on certain nights, but it wasn’t whilst we were there. We had a choice of two toilet and shower blocks near our camping with sinks for washing up too. They were well maintained and clean when we used them with plenty of toilet roll.
The staff were also very helpful informative. When we asked for directions to the free ferry they let us know a couple of places to visit with the children that they thought they’d enjoy.
I think we found a real gem of a campsite in Amsterdam and I’d be happy to book here again in the future.
On the first night I went to sleep really early! I took Bella to brush her teeth and brushed mine at the same time. Then when I got back to the van I curled up and decided I just needed to sleep. Probably not as much as Ben needed to though after all that driving!
I need to learn to drive the Bongo so we can share the travelling. I’ve only tried to drive on the motorway in the UK in the Bongo and hated it! The steering is so light I felt all over the place and it was quite scary. First I need to drive it around some slow roads to get used to its size and steering. Ben is a pro at driving the Bongo as it’s his everyday car, but I find it so different to driving my car.
Our journey to Amsterdam from the UK by car and ferry was a long journey with a surprise pit stop on the way to the windmills which was definitely worth it. Tomorrow we explore Amsterdam for the whole day!