Westphalia: A hidden gem in Western Europe

Wunderland tops family attractions in the region, while Baden-Baden is a great spot to relax.

Wunderland 248.88 (photo credit: Elana Kirsh )
Wunderland 248.88
(photo credit: Elana Kirsh )
Let's face it, images connected with Germany and the Netherlands hardly scream "family holiday." While impressions of Deutschland have come far from World War II associations, blonde beer wenches and piles of oily potatoes, and nowadays we think more of Holland than just legal drugs and the red light district, the northwest region of Germany, along the Dutch border, is a hidden gem of Western Europe. Singles and couples of all ages could entertain themselves for as little as a weekend to as long as a couple of weeks in this region, but the real pull to Westphalia is for families looking for a new type of summer vacation. Snuggled along the wide, gentle banks of the Rhine, the region is green, flat and quaint, with houses reflecting both German and Dutch architecture. The real estate industry is thriving, bringing much wealth to the area, as well as fastidious care of buildings, gardens and surroundings. Though many local residents struggle with English or have none to speak of, they are largely friendly, hospitable and helpful. The majority of tourists in the area are either German- or Dutch-speaking, but the region has a special appeal for the Israeli family looking for something different, and is especially affordable this summer. Excellent food and dining are prominent across the region, with German cuisine predominant but others available if you care to search and ask around. Vegetarians will find limited and very carbohydrate-oriented choices, though fruit and vegetables are fresh and tasty and served in abundance. Both local and imported wines and other alcoholic beverages are also largely available. Direct flights from Ben-Gurion Airport are available to a list of airports in the region, including to the central town of Weeze, the plush spa region of Baden-Baden, and the thriving metropolis of Cologne. The four-and-a-half hour flight is a breeze with the family, and Hamburg International's planes are brand new, with great in-flight service, though four euros for a glass of wine is a bit steep, even by European standards. An Israeli tour company called Holiday Lines has all sorts of packages available to suit a wide range of traveler needs, and their friendly staff can help tailor the ideal holiday, including significant discounts for children under the age of 12. While there's definitely enough in the North Rhine area to keep the family entertained for the length of the summer holiday, it's worth keeping in mind that a trip to Germany can be combined with trips to other European countries, and the crew at Holiday Lines can put together a variety of different flight combinations. Once on the ground, the best way to get around the region is by car; the roads are well-maintained, wide and easy to navigate. For groups and larger families, minibuses, vans and buses are also available for rental, with or without a driver. For inter-city travel, the autobahn makes traveling distances quick and easy, and orderly German road manners are a welcome relief from the lunacy that is the Israeli motor experience. For the family looking to rough it a bit, a great idea is to join the many locals who take advantage of the few months of good weather over July-August and rent a caravan or campervan. This type of camping experience tends to be more popular than pitching a tent, due to the often unpredictable downpours. Holiday Lines flight packages can be purchased with vehicle-hire included. Probably the most worthwhile, enjoyable and not-to-be-missed family attraction in the Lower Rhine region is Wunderland, providing at least one and easily up to three days entertainment for the whole family. Built on the site of a nuclear plant which never opened due to protests after the Chernobyl disaster, the park sits on the bank of the Rhine, and has over 450 comfortable, simple rooms spread over four different hotels. Four restaurants and seven bars make for ample choice, and the all-inclusive entry prices (65-85 euros per person/per night with 50 percent off for children) include food, drinks, accommodation and unlimited use of the amusement park and facilities. Wunderland also has live music nights, and casino nights, "kinder discos," bowling and pirate parties. The big thriller of the park, however, is the giant swing, built in the steam tower of the former plant. Climbing some 60 meters, the ride is not only exhilarating but also gives a fantastic view of the area, whether you're riding the outer swing seats or the easy-on-the-adrenaline fixed chairs. The park also includes, but is not limited to, a Ferris wheel, tea cups, pirate ship, water rides, drag-star racing, trampolines and bumper cars. Situated just out of the scenic town of Kalkar, Wunderland serves as the perfect base for a getaway in the region. From there, families can travel short distances to many nearby attractions, such as round seven-person bicycles to tour the countryside, the twice-weekly flower markets in Stralin, the castle and old jail in Kleeve and the green, quiet scenery around Goch. Less than a hundred kilometers away, the pretty harbor-side city of Duisberg is definitely worth a visit. The city wraps itself along the northern section of the Rhine, seamlessly meshing green surroundings and mirror-still water, as well as modern architecture with utilitarian, square industrial blocks. Once the family tires of strolling the bar- and cafe-lined promenades along the river, and shopping in the numerous pedestrian malls and classy shopping centers, a trip to Lego Land is well worth the slightly pricey entry fee (40 euros per family). A life-size giraffe made completely from Lego welcomes visitors to the interactive museum, with entry and exit passing through a gift shop with a range of fun, Lego-themed souvenirs for both adults and kids. Inside Lego Land itself, a flow-on design tour takes you through "Mini Land," which, like Mini Israel, depicts real cities, but out of Lego of course, an educational depiction of how Lego is produced, and truly breath-taking (even for adults) Lego creations such as Indiana Jones, a jungle scene, Darth Vader and R2D2 of Star Wars, and the whole crew from Harry Potter. For families with a bit more cash to burn, the spa town of Baden-Baden, literally "Bath-Bath" in German, is a must-see. With a choice of up-market five-star hotels and numerous different spa and relaxation centers, the city is Germany's answer to Herzliya Pituah, and a great place to spend a few days kicking back. A beautifully groomed five-kilometer park runs along the river through the area, and provides a wonderful location for a picnic, assuming the weather holds out. Baden-Baden is a great spot to recharge one's batteries before heading back to the grind, with an airport nearby offering direct flights to Tel Aviv. So from this writer, it's two enthusiastic thumbs up for Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia region this summer - just get your flights booked early! The writer was a guest of Holiday Lines Israel. For more information contact the travel agency at 03-6211003, e-mail main@kavei.co.il or visit their (Hebrew) Web site at www.kavei.co.il.