Hup Holland! A Netherlands Bike and Boat Adventure
By Laurie Ellis and Shady Hartshorne
The promise of mellow flat riding interspersed with some cafe-sitting, cheese-eating and canal-cruising worked on my husband, at any rate! And no logistical headaches gear-wise sure appealed to me.
There are many outfits from which to choose if you want to go on an organized bike and barge tour. Cycletours was recommended to us by another cyclist, so after looking over the website, we signed up for the Southern tour. The different companies offer a variety of tours and accommodations - pick the one that’s right for you.
A Bunk of One’s Own
The cabins were outfitted with bunk beds – in ours, the bottom was a single bed and the top one was wide enough for two (and long enough according to one 6+ ft participant) - with a private bathroom with shower.
No lack of heat or hot water, which was good since it was pretty chilly during our week.
Toward the end of our trip, however, it got warm enough that we were able to lounge on the boat’s top deck after the day of riding.
Since Holland is quite far north (further north than Montreal), it stays light until after 10:00 pm in early June.
How it Worked
Cradle to Grave on a Bike
The Dutch are practically born on bicycles. Everyone rides. It is not unusual to see a baby in a milk crate that has been attached to the handlebars. Whole families are on bikes: one child in a seat in front of the rider, and one in a child seat in back.
There’s the wheelbarrow approach as well: a big bucket in the front. Great for hauling cargo and/or kids. And we’re not talking new, high-end bikes, here. Most people have what look like English 3-speeds with various baskets and panniers. Very upright heavy tanks, often with flat or mostly flat tires and rusty chains.
On our trip, we had 24-speed Gazelle hybrids - probably 20 gears too many, but more like what most of the participants were used to. Remember, we’re talking FLAT riding here! Daily distances went from as few at 18 miles to as many as 35 (give or take). Each tour is different, however, so you should check before signing up to make sure it’s the right amount for you.
This was not fast riding by any means, but a basic level of fitness is helpful and will make the trip more enjoyable. Of course, you always have the option to spend the day on the boat if the riding turns out to be more than you bargained for.
Check your ego at the border
You can’t get upset when someone old enough to be your grandparent passes you. Remember, they’ve been riding their whole lives, and you’re in a group waiting for the slowest member to catch up!
Yes, you have the option to go ahead on your own, but we found that riding with the group was a big part of the fun. And there are all those turns to watch out for. You don’t want to end up in Arnhem when you’re supposed to be in Scheveningen.
Bike Paths to Die For
The Netherlands is a land of lush green countryside and canals perfectly suitable for biking. The miles and miles of well-marked, wonderfully maintained and constantly used bike paths crisscross this small country roughly the size of Maryland. You may ride through grassy dunes, or see cows and sheep, horses and ponies grazing peacefully on one side of the path while a canal courses by on the other.
And don’t forget the windmills! Majestically rising above the landscape, these act as reminders of an older time. Although still in use, they have largely been replaced by modern pumps and machinery in the never-ending battle the Dutch wage against the water.
Itinerary: A Southern Odyssey
The Southern Tour is one of the most popular routes that Cycletours offers because it is a kind of Greatest Hits of Holland.
You get the major cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Hague as well as some cuter, smaller towns like Haarlem, Leiden and Vianen.
The Hague is the center of government and has the grand old buildings to show for it. While there, we went to the Panorama Mesdag, a small museum with a very impressive panorama of the nearby beach resort, Scheveningen, c. 1881. Also in Den Hague is the Mauritshuis, home of the royal art collection with works by Rubens, Vermeer and Rembrandt. If you’re looking for something different, visit the Escher museum.
In Haarlem’s main square, Grote Markt, we chanced upon a giant comic-art swap meet called Stripdagen (stripdagenhaarlem.nl – the site is only in Dutch, unfortunately), which takes place every year in June. Scores of booths stocked with comic art of all persuasions were mixed together with refreshment stands and a small stage with a rock band.
In contrast to what we came to see as typical Dutch cities, Rotterdam is very modern. It was almost completely destroyed during WWII and then rebuilt with exciting, bold architectural designs. It’s not as bike-friendly as other Dutch cities so we didn’t get to see as much of it, but we did get to go over the beautiful Erasmus Bridge.
In Delft, we got a tour of De Delftse Pauw, the Delft Peacock pottery factory, including a detailed description of how they make the distinctive blue and white ceramics that made this city famous back in the 17th century. Naturally, there’s a shop where visitors who aren’t afraid to spend money can purchase a piece of Delft pottery for themselves. You’ll find it’s not just blue and white!
Also in Delft, we climbed to the top of the 108.75 meter (approximately 360 feet) “New Church” tower, which was built in the 14th century. It is the second highest tower in the Netherlands. The long climb up the narrow, twisting stone stairway leaves you gasping for breath and a bit dizzy, but the view from the top is worth the effort. In case you were wondering, the “Old Church” was built about 100 years earlier, in 1240.
Windmills, Windmills, Windmills!
Of course you expect to see windmills in the Netherlands and we saw plenty of them. We visited not one but two open-air museums where we saw these graceful giants up close and learned about their history and the different ways wind power was harnessed.
You can buy souvenir wooden shoes from the giant wall ‘o shoes on display or pick up samples made during the demonstration for about $2.00 each.
The Beach – Brrrrrr!
Just outside of Den Hague we biked through miles of beautiful dunes to a beach resort called Scheveningen. In the short Dutch summer, people flock here to gamble in the casino, eat pickled herring or even go bungee jumping from a giant platform mounted on the end of a long walking pier. When we were there, the weather was chilly and the 40-degree North Sea was not too inviting. The Southern Tour has a number of stops at other, less developed beach areas, so if it’s hot when you go, don’t forget to pack your “swimming costume” as they say in Holland.
Getting There is More Than Half the Fun
One thing you’ll find on a Dutch bike tour is that the scenery you pass as you go from city to city is arguably the best part of the tour. Cows, sheep and horses graze on lush green pastures while great blue herons wait for their meals perched like statues in the canals.
As you ride through the polders, you get a sense of the massive amount of work and ingenuity that has gone into Holland’s centuries-old battle with water. Frequently, the bike trail is lower than the canal!
Throughout the riding, the guide keeps careful tabs on the group to make sure no one gets left behind. Each day a new “sweep” is chosen from among the group to ride at the tail end of the group with a bright orange flag that can be seen by the guide so he or she knows when it’s ok to move on.
Our one complaint about the trip had to do with the size of the group. Our trip had 24 participants and only one guide. Cycletours adds a second guide for parties of 25 or more, but we think they should lower that number.
A Trip to Take Again (and Again)
Aside from this minor complaint, we wholeheartedly recommend a boat/bike trip to the Netherlands. By the end of the week we were ready to sign on for another tour. The scenery is amazing, the biking is fun, and the cheese is absolutely fantastic. Riding through small towns that are off the usual route was a highlight – especially when we got to talk to the mayor of Abcoude!
Don’t forget, though, this IS a group activity and you never know what the group dynamic will be. Some groups probably work together better than others. Be ready for anything and take it in stride. After all, everyone is there to have a good time.
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