Holland's wooden shoes and gnomes are a hit with kids

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AMSTERDAM -- Because of Holland's diminutive size, -- about half of the state of Maine -- even families under time constraints can venture out of Amsterdam for a day trip or an overnight in the country.

Whether you are chasing windmills, looking for amusement parks or just admiring the scenery, choosing from among the possibilities will be the most difficult part.

Based on a recent journey here, the following are the top picks chosen by my 10-year-old son, Cole, and me:

Zaanse Schans

Located about 20 minutes north of Amsterdam, this picturesque area seems at first glance to be an open-air museum along the lines of Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts or the seaport of Mystic, Conn.

The difference here, however, is that real folks live in the green, 17th and 18th century houses that line the Zaan River.

In addition to the picturesque homes, Zaanse Schans has a year-round visitors center, a cheese farm, a wooden shoe factory and working windmills that children can explore.

Mills and shops are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m,. weekends only, the rest of the year.

Kids can climb into one of the windmills for a demonstration of peanut oil production.

They also can visit shoe shops to see wooden shoes being made and purchase the finished product.

Adults, be warned: Not one child in our group left without a pair of full-sized wooden shoes to show friends back home.

Zaanse Schans draws 800,000 visitors a year and is the second-largest tourist attraction in Holland.

Madurodam

This well-known miniature city in The Hague, a little more than an hour away from Amsterdam by train, is an attraction especially suited to younger children.

Continually updated, Madurodam features waist-high versions of Holland's most famous buildings and attractions, from gloriously intricate castles and cathedrals to working canal locks, trains and even a tiny version of the airport, complete with taxiing aircraft.

Some of the exhibitions have moving parts that can be activated with local coins; visitors shouldn't miss the chocolate factory, where kids can get a sample after inserting a coin.

Madurodam has a spacious snack bar with rest rooms and outdoor tables.

Open year-round, admission is about $7 for children ages 4 to 11 and $10 for those 12 and up.

Efteling

This will be a sure hit with children, although U.S. travelers will find this a very different species of theme park.

Gnomes, trolls and gnarled houses will draw children into the Fairy Realm section of the park, where familiar tales are told and retold in an unfamiliar tongue by talking mirrors, toadstools and eerie statues.

Adults will find acres of flower beds, ponds and serene vistas interspersed among the rides and fairy-tale castles.

Rides range from the expected, such as the Python roller coaster and the appropriately titled Rocking Ship, to those a bit more imaginative.

The Pagoda, for example, is a Thai temple that stretches high into the air and lowers again, and Fata Morgana takes visitors through a dreamscape of Arabian settings.

We especially liked the Bobsled ride, which offers thrills without whiplash, and the Eagle, where, except for laser effects, the sudden turns are conducted in complete darkness.

We also liked the "Efteling Fairy Tale" show, performed daily, which featured a mix of traditional fairy tales, ballet, singing and laser effects.

Efteling, situated in Kaatsheuvel, about an hour south of Amsterdam by train, is open from April through October from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays; from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays and holidays, and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. during July and August.

The entrance fee is about $16 per person; children under age 4 are admitted free.

The National Heritage Museum

Located in Arnhem -- less than an 90 minutes from Amsterdam -- this complex is worthy of a full day's excursion, with such attractions as HollandRama, a new, high-tech diorama depicting the history of Holland, and an open-air museum that includes farms, 80 historical buildings and an exhibition hall.

Kids can play on antique cycles and stilts in the re-created Zaan town square and visit a children's farm where they can try washing clothes on washboards; milking stationary "cows," and making paper, which they can take home as a souvenir.

Best of all, the various stops are accessible via antique tram, complete with a conductor.

The museum is open from April to October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is priced from about $7 for kids ages 4 to 12 and from about $11 for adults; kids under age 4 are admitted free.

National Park De Hoge Veluwe

Holland's largest nature reserve with 13,000 acres of woodlands, the national park is a good choice for families who enjoy rustic experiences.

The reserve, home to such animals as red deer and wild boar, also features a cycle track network.

There are 900 white bicycles at the park entrance that visitors can use free of charge. Visitors can simply take one -- children's sizes are available -- and drop it off wherever they make a stop. If someone takes it, pick up another one and carry on.

A favorite destination within the park is one of Holland's top depositories of modern art, the Kroller-Muller Museum, which boasts a sculpture garden with works by such artists as Rodin and Moore.

The museum features an astonishing 274 paintings by Van Gogh as well as works by Picasso, Mondrian and Seurat, among others.

The park is open year-round except for Mondays, with extended hours during the summer.

Admission is about $4 for adults and $2 for children ages 6 to 13; prices are $8 and $4, respectively, with admission to the Kroller-Muller.

Located in Gelderland, the park is accessible by bus, car or rail. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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