One Man & His Dog: Setting Sail to Holland
Have you ever wanted to pack up and set off with your dog in tow for company? Whether by road, sea, or in the air, there are many ways your dog can join you as you travel.
In fact, when speaking with K9 Magazine some time ago the songstress Mariah Carey admitted it was only the enforced quarantined period that stopped her bringing her dog, Jack, with her to the UK when travelling here.
Our dogs are huge part of our family so when we're able it's no surprise many more dog owners are choosing to holiday with their pets.
Paul Wojnicki, a travel writer from Yorkshire and owner of 5 year old Jack Russell, Falco, recently set sail to Holland with his family and their canine companion. With plans to travel across Europe by rail, their diary will unfold in K9 Magazine.
Falco joined us as an 8 week old puppy in 2010 the day after we returned from a tour of South America and the Far East. We’d discussed getting a dog for years but the thought of being unable to travel, or having to leave the dog in kennels dissuaded us.
Then I read into the pet passport scheme and realised that travelling and dog ownership needn’t be mutually exclusive. Sure I wouldn’t be booking any package holidays with the major operators but I rarely travelled that way in any case.
We’d also be restricted to European adventures and to overland travel - the thought of him in an aircraft hold doesn’t work for me - but with a continent as physically and culturally diverse as Europe I knew that we’d have a lifetimes’ worth of travel before we ran out of places to explore.
The more we travelled with Falco the more I realised that many of my fellow dog travellers owned campervans or holiday homes on the continent. I could never afford either of these but we managed just fine with the car and chain hotels on the continent anyway.
On our most recent trip I wanted to re-trace one of the travel experiences I’d had as a younger man, Inter-Railing through Europe. Only now I’d be doing it with a four legged friend and two young children in tow instead of my old university buddies. We’d also be taking dog travel one step further and prove that you needn’t even own a car to travel into and around Europe with your dog. All we needed was Stena Line’s dog friendly Dutchflyer service, public transport and a sense of adventure.
Our journey begins with an overnight crossing on Stena Line’s Harwich to Hook of Holland service. If I’m honest this is a part of the trip I’ve been dreading because Stena Line don’t do pet friendly cabins yet and Falco just doesn’t do kennels. He’s accompanied us all over Europe since he joined the family five years ago but he’s never been left overnight in a kennel, so I feared the worst, with visions of him being the only one there, barking alone in the bowels of the ship as we plough across the North Sea.
I needn’t have worried though, the kennels are clean, spacious and almost fully occupied. It’s obviously a popular crossing for dog owners and Falco is soon in his element, sniffing at each of his new friends before being shown to his own quarters. He does yelp as we walk away and I feel a terrible pang of guilt as they close the doors. 'Maybe we should have driven down to Folkestone and parked in a long stay car park somewhere in Germany,' I moan.
We are reunited the following morning in Holland, after spending the night in the comfort of a premium cabin, complete with television and double bed. Much more relaxing than the drive I’d been contemplating the night before. Falco is obviously happy to see us and we are ecstatic to see him. There are no signs of the emotional trauma I’d feared; he seems rested and rearing to explore the continent.
The docks at Hook of Holland are functional rather than photogenic so we only linger long enough for a quick walk and toilet break before catching a train from the adjacent station into central Rotterdam.
The great thing about Stena Line’s Dutch Flyer service is that the ticket includes onward rail travel to anywhere in Holland. But if you’re travelling further afield then the most useful station to travel to is Utrecht, which is the hub for all domestic and international services in the Netherlands. From the Hook of Holland this requires a change of train in Rotterdam, which is no great inconvenience as the trains are so frequent, but we decide to spend the night here in order to explore the city and the windmills at nearby Kinderdijk.
Kinderdijk boasts UNESCO status and is the best place in Holland to see authentic windmills, it’s also a mere 45 minute drive from the ferry terminal, so if we’d brought the car it would have been really easy to visit. That said it’s only a 35 minute waterbus ride from central Rotterdam, so once we’ve had our lunch and dropped our bags off at the hotel we’re on our way from the ultra modern Erasmus Bridge to the quaint little village of Kinderdijk.
As well as being a great place to see canals and windmills, Kinderdijk is an ideal spot to dip your paws if - like Falco - you’re the sort of dog that just can’t stay out of the water, so we spend the entire afternoon letting Falco swim along the canals while Harrison throws stones in the water and we admire the sunflowers, the waterlillies and the 19 windmills that have been used to prevent the area from flooding for almost 300 years.
Leaving the windmills behind we head back to Rotterdam and spend the night in the very decent Novotel Rotterdam Brainpark, which as the name would suggest, is close to a park. Cue more running and swimming for Falco’s and more throwing stones into the water for Harrison.
The following morning - after another swim in the park - we head onward to Cologne. This is a city that Falco has become very familiar with over the last few years. It is after all one of the most important rail hubs for night trains in Europe, with overnight services leaving on a nightly basis to Munich, Prague, Zurich, Vienna, Budapest and Warsaw among other destinations.
In the past we’ve always driven here from Calais (approximately four hours journey time), and it would have been possible to bring the car aboard Stena Line’s ferry to Hook of Holland (or indeed P&O’s service from Hull to Rotterdam). From both ports it would have been less than a three hour drive to Cologne. But, as we are travelling solely on public transport we caught a local train to Utrecht (40 minutes), and then a superfast international train to Cologne (three hours).
The Kölner Dom is Cologne’s most famous landmark and is situated right next to the train station, so we’re reacquainted with it moments after we drop our bags at left luggage. It’s our second UNESCO site in two days and one of the most famous churches on earth but Falco just wants to urinate on it. Still, he receives plenty of smiles and the odd pat as he sniffs around the square.
The Dom supposedly houses the remains of the three wise men and its massive facade grabs the attention of even the most jaded traveller. It’s a staggering sight with the towers thrusting 157 metres into the air. Dogs are not allowed inside but the exterior alone is well worth visiting, especially as we’re in the area for onward travel.
Next we pass the synagogue that was burned down by the Nazis on 9 November 1938- then rebuilt between 1957 and 1959- and head toward the river. Cruises on the Rhine are popular in Cologne and at least one operator- Kölntourist Personenschiffahrt- allow dogs on board for a unique perspective of the city (90 minutes, €9.50). We’ve sailed on the Rhine before though so we head along the river to the 40 acre Rheinpark instead.
The park is dog friendly, has views of the Dom and is home to the Cologne cable car. Dogs are welcome to use the cable car, but Falco is afraid of boarding it so we play ball in the park for an hour instead before heading to Rheinwiesen Niehler Hafen- a dog friendly beach on the banks of the Rhine- where Falco is free to run without a leash and swim in water.
After such a long day we’re all exhausted and are glad to be onboard the City Night Line as it pulls out of the station, bound for Prague at 10:20pm. Our private sleeping car is small but comfortable and we’re all fast asleep before the train is even an hour into its journey.
The train pulls in Dresden at 7am the following morning, where it sits for half an hour before it continues onward to Prague. I’ve overlooked this city far too many times while travelling on this train to Prague; it was after all one of the most beautiful cities in Europe before it was flattened by allied bombing. I’ve also gazed in awe at the Elbe Valley through the window of the train in the past, as it chugged toward Prague and I’ve decided to take a closer look on this journey.
It’s still early and I’ve learned from past experience that this is the best time to appreciate any city, especially warm cities in the height of summer, so we decide to head straight to the river in order to appreciate the magnificent imperial buildings from the start of what is known as the Elbe Valley.
The Elbe Valley was justly awarded UNESCO status for its cultural landscape - then stripped of it for building a four lane highway across it in 2009. As if to echo UNESCO’s sentiments on the giant skid-mark on the valley’s landscape Falco choses to do his business the moment we reach Augustusbrucke- the beautiful bridge, reminiscent of Prague’s Charles Bridge, that links the city centre to the far side of the riverbank.
We spend a good two hours walking along the wide, green Elbwiesen - or river banks - where Falco chases his ball until he’s ready to drop. Luckily there are plenty of sheltered stretches of the river for him to do what he does best- paddle. And as he glides through the water- and Harrison throws a never ending supply of stones into the water- we’re able to stand in the shallows admiring one of the most picturesque cityscapes in Germany, if not Europe.
We drop our bags off at the hotel at mid-day and I’m surprised to note that the Swissotel has a dog bowl situated at the main entrance.
'Now that’s what I call dog friendly,' I remark to the receptionist.
She smiles and we’re shown to our room, which is one of the finest rooms I’ve ever had the privilege of staying in. I’m actually a little dumbstruck as the bellhop leads me inside, and it’s not just the elegance of the rooms, there were even two little dog bowls provided by the hotel for Falco’s food and water. I had of course mentioned the fact that I was travelling with a dog when booking the hotel, which is not unusual in Europe, but this was a touch that I’d never encountered before and one that will surely have me returning in the future.
After lunch I we catch a local S-Bahn train (30 minutes) to the nearby national park known as Saxon Switzerland that makes an easy day trip from Dresden. If we weren’t on such a hectic schedule we could just have easily have taken a dog friendly steamboat up river to the national park instead, but we’ll have to save that for our next visit.
Once we disembark the train we hop across the river on a very short ferry and the kids board the shuttle bus with their mum while I begin climbing the well-marked path through the forest. It’s a steep hike with and I’m glad Falco is pulling ahead. He’s eager to get to the top for some reason that I can’t quite figure out until we catch up with it. A female Springer Spaniel, who decides to pull her owner backward as soon as she realises Falco is on her tail.
Despite the fact that we share no common language it seems to be universally recognised that being ahead when your dog wants to socialise with another is far more problematic than being behind. And so a deadlock is reached and we scale the steps together untangling our leads every fifty metres or so.
Still, the views of the sandstone bridge and the huge sandstone mountains are well worth the effort when we reach the summit and meet up with mum and the kids again. It’s some of the most distinctive scenery in Germany and feels like monument valley, but in a forested setting rather than a desert one. Harrison wants to throw a stone from the top and Falco wants to chase something, but it’s the sort of place you need to keep a firm grip as the drops are terrifying in places.
We ride the bus back down to the valley rather than do the trek in reverse, and it takes a matter of a few minutes to travel the distance that took me the best part of an hour on the way up. Then after a short ride back to the city we’re curled up in the Swissotel resting before we move on to Prague.
Stena Line’s excellent Dutchflyer service from London to Holland is pretty much the only realistic way of getting to and from the continent by foot, since Eurostar steadfastly refuse to allow pets on-board despite numerous campaigns to change their minds.
Basic Dutchflyer tickets cost as little £49 one way and for that you get a rail ticket from London to Harwich, a day or overnight crossing to Hook of Holland and an onward train ticket to anywhere in Holland! A bargain, I’m sure you will agree. You do, of course, have to pay extra for your four legged friend and if you use the night crossing you’ll need to pay for a cabin (in which dogs are not allowed). Once in Holland dogs can travel on all trains but you’ll need to purchase a dog day ticket which costs just €3.
ICE trains run from Amsterdam (2 hours 38) and Utrecht (2 hours 10) on a regular basis and cost as little as €19 each way if booked in advance. Small dogs travel free in a carrier but larger dogs need a half-price ticket.
The City Night Line departs Cologne 22:28 arriving in Dresden 07:00 the following day. Private double compartments are available from around £130 each way with a €30 supplement for dogs.
Swissôtel Dresden am Schloss - Adjacent to Dresden Castle in the heart of the old town. Everything about this hotel is fresh and has a quality feel, from the large elegant rooms to the rooftop restaurant with views over the old town and the spa in a historic stone cellar. Rooms start at an unbelievable £85 and dogs stay free.