A Netherlands Bike and Boat Adventure

By Laurie Ellis and Shady Hartshorne

A family outing
A family outing in Holland.

So how do you get someone who’s not really interested in an “active vacation” to agree to a week of biking? A boat and bike trip in the Netherlands is one way to do it.

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.
By day, we rode through the beautiful Dutch countryside, and by night we ate and slept on the Liza Marleen, a 100-foot canal barge in the “comfort plus” class that can hold up to 34 passengers in 14 two- or three-person cabins.

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.

The main deck was the common area and dining room. Food was good and plentiful, and special attention was made to accommodate dietary needs. At breakfast, fixings were put out for us to make our own lunch to eat on the road: bread, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, candy bars. A feast! Dinners were simple but satisfying. And there was always dessert. Ride to eat, eat to ride!

Getting ready to head out for a day of riding
Getting ready to head out for a day of riding

How it Worked

Each morning we had breakfast at 8, and left the boat by bike at 9. Timing was important as the boat often had to go through locks to make it to the destination town. We would ride for a while, take breaks at interesting towns or sights, and meet up with the boat later in the day.

We only had to take what we needed for the day, and the bikes were equipped with panniers big enough to hold an extra layer (or two), and whatever lunch we prepared. Tip: expect all/any kind of weather.

If you go during tulip time: April/May, be prepared for cold and wet. Same for June! We lucked out weather-wise, but the week prior saw plenty of rain and even hail. You just never know. During our week, we went from temps in the 50’s to well into the 80’s.

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!

Biking through the Dunes near Den Hague
Biking through the Dunes near Den Hague

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.

Staying with the group means you have time to look around, take in the scenery or stop to take pictures. Each day’s ride has regular rest stops, sometimes in a small town where you can feel the local vibe and have a koffie verkeerd in an outdoor cafe. No pressure but that of the bike seat on your butt (and that pretty much goes away after the second day).

If you decide to ride on your own, you should make sure to have a detailed map. Check the bigger bookstores – ANWB maps (AAA equivalent) are especially thorough.

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.

Biking by a windmill
Biking by a windmill

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 guide offers a short history tour of each city after dinner – ours was in English only, much to the dismay of the Francophones on the trip. You also have plenty of time to explore the cities on your own, take in a museum or sip a fine beer or coffee in an outdoor café.

In most of the cities, you’ll find beautiful canals and architecture similar to Amsterdam’s, but each has its own unique history and personality.

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.

The parliament building in the Hague
The parliament building in the Hague

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!

The view from the top of the New Church Tower in Delft
The view from the top of the New Church Tower in Delft

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.

While most windmills were used to pump water from one canal into another, others ground grain or powered lumber mills.

At Zaanse Schans, they have a number of windmills as well as authentic re-enactors not unlike Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village in the US. You can see how the Dutch made pewter, cheese and, of course, wooden shoes. The wooden shoe exhibit shows the old way of making them by hand, which took two to three hours, and the newer machines that cut them using a template like a key cutting machine.

You can buy wooden shoes at Zaanse Schans
You can buy wooden shoes at Zaanse Schans

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.

At Kinderdijk, near Rotterdam, you’ll find 19 functioning windmills, one of which is open to the public so you can see the inner workings and how people lived in them. There are still schools in Holland that train windmill operators to keep the practice alive, but most windmills have been replaced by modern pumps and machinery.

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.

Sights along the way
Sights along the way

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!

We were able to stop for coffee and pancakes (the omnipresent Dutch offering) at a scenic thatch-roofed restaurant alongside a canal by the bike trail. Other stops included a stork nesting area and a monument to a WWII British bomber that crashed in the marshes during a bombing run.

The trip also included a number of rides on ferries of various sizes. Some had all 24 of our bikes and several cars while one held only a few bikes at a time.

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.

The bridges across the canals are the only hills you'll see.
The bridges across the canals are the only hills you’ll see.

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.

Compounding the problem in our case was the fact that 15 of the riders were from France and didn’t speak much English. Our guide spoke basic French, which was good enough to explain the plan for the day, but he had a bit of trouble going beyond that to keep everyone in line.

We thought that at the very least, they could have added an assistant to the guide, (maybe someone who spoke French?) to lighten the burden.

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.

We’ll say it again: mellow flat riding through a beautiful country with plenty of snack stops… what’s not to like?!


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Shady Hartshorne

Shady Hartshorne

Husband and wife team Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis of Arlington, Massachusetts are among our most adventurous travel writers. Whether it's open-water swimming in the British Virgin Islands, houseboating on the Suwannee River, ziplining in Costa Rica or soaring over the Grand Canyon in a Maverick helicopter, they go the extra mile to bring us great stories from all over the world.Shady began writing for GoNOMAD back in 2005 with stories on the fabled Suwanee River and the city of Gainesville, Florida (more than just gators!)They teamed up for two stories about the Netherlands: "A Bike and Boat Adventure" and "A Brief Guide to Amsterdam" (more than just stoners and prostitutes!)Since then Laurie has written stories about Italy's Piedmont Region, open-water swimming in the British Virgin Islands (Ferries are for wimps! Let's swim!) and an eco-adventure tour of Costa Rica.Shady, a video editor, recently completed a three-part series titled "Arizona Rocks" about the Grand Canyon, the Navajo Nation and the Page/Lake Powell area. He's always up for an adventure that has some activities to go along with it.