My impression of Holland has always been a mélange of canals, polders, pretty villages, tulips and bicycles. Every time I have driven in Holland, I have envied the cyclists who were riding on the dedicated bike lanes off the roads. It seemed the ideal way to see the countryside and villages. I decided that I would plan a trip that would include all my interests.
I began with the bicycling. I searched the web for companies that offered biking holidays and settled on Cycletours Holland, based in Amsterdam. I selected an itinerary north of Amsterdam that included picturesque countryside and villages, and the best tulip fields in the country, for I was purposely scheduling my trip in late April at the height of the tulip season. I would risk the possibility of cool weather and some rain.
My decision to go with Cycletours was influenced by another attraction. Accommodation would be aboard a canal barge. We would be able to unpack once and not repack until the end of the holiday. Breakfast and dinner would be taken aboard the barge, and we would make a picnic lunch each morning after breakfast. After the bicyclists set off, the barge would sail and put in at our next destination.
I was so enthusiastic about this trip that I decided to put a group together. I recruit for my soft adventure tours on the web, and it was not long before applications began to come in from all over the country. Cycletours assigned the recently-refurbished Madeleine for our exclusive use, and it was soon full with twenty members.
The group met on the boat at Amsterdam. My wife Carol and I were the last to board. The others had worried about us, and with good reason. We had stayed the previous night at a delightful B&B in Diemen, an eastern suburb ten minutes by rail from Amsterdam Central. The Madeleine was moored at Eastern Dock, a ten-minute walk from the station. On arrival at the station, instead of consulting the instructions--which I had carefully sent to each member--I asked directions from a guard. He gave directions without hesitation--all wrong--and we set out. After walking for thirty minutes, dragging our luggage which was increasing in weight by the minute, it was obvious that we were lost.
I called a halt, and we pondered. We stood on the sidewalk beside a six-lane thoroughfare of fast-moving traffic. We were exhausted and worried that we would be late at the boat. A car stopped on the other side of the road. A woman got out, made her way through the traffic and walked over to us.
You look so forlorn," she said. "Can I help you? This kind lady took us across the street, and she and her husband set out to find our boat. She did two illegal U-turns, changed lanes illegally and finally found Eastern Dock. We didnt see the Madeleine, but we did see another barge, whose name I recognized as a Cycletours boat, underway toward a footbridge. She stopped the car, and we ran onto the bridge.Where is the Madeleine? she called. The startled crew member on deck pointed across the bay to a line of boats. We returned to the car and set out. She drove around the bay and down on the dock, and we were delivered. A policeman walked over to the car and politely notified her that this was strictly forbidden. She smiled at him, and they chatted good-naturedly. He saluted her and walked away.
We thanked our benefactors profusely and boarded. Ten minutes later, we were underway. We had arrived thirty minutes late, and I was embarrassed. And a bit stupid. I had read the departure time of 1500 in the tour instructions as 5:00 p.m. Duh. This was not my first experience with the 24-hour clock. Honest. I simply have the unfortunate habit of being the only member of my tour groups that does not follow instructions that I send to members. On my Tanzania safari a few months ago, I was the only person in our group of sixteen who brought a copy of the yellow fever certificate rather than the original, as required by the instructions that I had sent to all members. Very embarrassing.
We met the members of our group on the deck and the passageways as we stowed gear in cabins in a sort of ordered confusion. This done, we gathered in the dining hall. Our guide, Ilja Bendeler, welcomed us aboard. Ilja is the founder and president of Cycletours. We had met the previous February when my safari group spent a night in Amsterdam, en route to Tanzania. Ilja was interested in the makeup of the tour and told me that he was going to try to get away and guide us. Now he briefed us on the weeks activities, and we met the crew of two, Els and Winfred, both of whom are certificated skippers and cooks.
I looked around the room at the tour members. Judging from their talk and apparel, most were serious bikers. Ominous. Carol and I had biked little for many years.
The skies were dark and threatening, but we had come to ride, and we began that very evening. Never mind the weather. We had been warned to expect rain, which would not stop us.
We dressed and met on deck where we were each assigned a bicycle which would remain ours for the week. Seats and handlebars were adjusted, and panniers were checked for lock, key, and water bottle. By this time, the boat had docked at Wormerveer. Bicycles were offloaded, and we were off in a light rain.
This first ride was a short one, about five miles through the streets of the town and a connecting bike path to the wonderful open air museum of Zaanse Schans. We rode beside windmills and walked among the historic houses and shops of the museum village. A popular stop was the shop which offered samples and sales of a great variety of cheeses. Then it was back to the boat, load the bicycles aboard, and dinner.
The next morning, we made our picnic lunches after breakfast, handed the bikes down to the dock and set out behind Ilja. We were soon riding through reclaimed land, or polders, that had been formed by building dikes, pumping out the water, then managing the water level to keep it dry. We rode through the village of Krommenie northward to the shores of Alkmaarder Meer and westward, skirting the town of Castricum, to forests and dunes on the west coast. We stopped for hot drinks and--what else--Dutch apple pie at a small restaurant. At my request to be served outside, the waiter said that those tables were not available at the moment, but when I commented on the heavy tobacco smoke inside, he relented. For the most part, Europeans still havent discovered the benefits of smokeless restaurants, but there is some progress, more in Britain than on the continent.
We rode thirty-three miles this day. It rained most of the day, but it was light and made the riding rather pleasant. Thank goodness for Gore-Tex. This was the longest Carol and I had ever ridden, and the tail bones were beginning to chafe. We had an unplanned stop this day when my bicycle seat fell off. Just fell off. Unfortunately, four guys knew how to put it back together, so eight hands were on the seat for an hour before it was replaced.
The ride ended at Alkmaar, where the Madeleine awaited us at her mooring. After dinner, Ilja took some of the group on a walk through the town, a traditional old Dutch village, well-known for its cheese market and weighing house, canals and neat, picturesque houses, hundreds of which are registered historic buildings.
The next day, we rode northward into the forests and high dunes beyond Schoorl and Bergenno, Dorothy, Holland is not completely flat. Ilja dropped back occasionally on inclines and helped Carol along with a hand on her back. The dunes are overgrown with pine trees, low brushy vegetation and grasses. We stopped at Uitkijkduin, the highest point for a 360º view and refreshment from our packs. The prominence had been used by the Germans in WWII as a radar site.
Biking farther northward in the center of the Dutch bulb industry, we saw fields of brilliant color, blue, purple and pink hyacinths, yellow daffodils, and tulips of all colors, red, pink, yellow, vari-colored. We rode along the Hondsbosse Sea Dike, an arrow-straight high dike. Here we had a tailwind that was just about equal to our forward speed, and it seemed that we were riding in a vacuum. We stopped today for coffee and chocolate at a seaside restaurant.
In the village of Anna Paulowna, named after the wife of a Russian czar, we strolled in a demonstration garden where each plot of flowers was labeled with the name of the flower and the grower. It was wonderful, a miniature Keukenhof.
The weather this day was dry and pleasant for the most part, almost warm. Forty-four miles today. Delightful, but painful to the posterior. The day ended at Den Helder where we boarded the Madeleine for the crossing to Oudeschild on the island of Texel. The warm shower in our snug little cabin felt awfully good.The next day, a few people opted to take a day off from cycling to relax. Some stayed on the boat to read and write. Carol and some others walked to Den Burg, the principal town in the center of the island. But most of us set out with Ilja for a circuit of the island. It seems we continually bucked a headwind this day, no matter in what direction we rode. Ilja explained that he had a little hidden switch that he would turn periodically to change the wind direction, just to make the ride more interesting.
I believed him. At that moment, it seemed the only plausible explanation. We saw more tulip fields, lots of dunes and sand, and many bikers and walkers. Texel is a popular holiday spot for the Dutch.
We stopped for lunch and drinks at a beach restaurant at Ecomare. We found seats behind a wind break and enjoyed the warm sunshine. Following lunch, the group splintered, some taking a long route, others taking a more direct route and my group with no definite route. We stopped in Den Burg for coffee and a stroll in the busy pedestrian district of small shops, then continued. From here, it was a straight flat road to Oudeschild and the Madeleine, but a young boy on the road convinced our group that we should take a shortcut, which we did. Immediately it started raining, the road turned upward and forked in three places. At the next turning, we headed toward the direct route and the Madeleine.Early the next day under leaden skies we sailed from Oudeschild to Den Oever. Here is the beginning of the Afsluitdijk which connects North Holland to Friesland. The dike, about twenty miles long, was closed in 1932, creating the Ijsselmeer, the largest freshwater lake in the Netherlands. Before the closing of the dike, this was the Zuiderzee. The Madeleine passed through the lock, and we walked out on the dike a short distance and enjoyed the sky and the sea. On the way back to the boat, we saw a biker from another boat try to ride down a 45º cobbled slope and tumble about twenty feet to the bottom. Never mind, his wife said, he knows how to fall. When we saw him latertheir boat was tied to ourshe was scraped and embarrassed.
We set off biking through the IJsselmeer polders, passing more colorful fields of tulips. In one field, we saw a machine just beginning to cut the tops off the flowers. The machine left a swath of decapitated stems. I understand that this massacre is necessary to encourage growth of the bulb. If we had been just a few days later, we would have seen fields of green stubs rather than riots of color.
We had lunch in the pretty little seaside town of Medemblik. The café looked out on a secluded harbor crowded with a forest of sailboat masts. The town at one time was an important seaport, but now is a pleasure boating center. We strolled around the quay to the thirteenth-century castle.
Leaving Medemblik, we cycled along narrow canals to the picturesque village of Twisk. We rode along the quiet lanes of neat old houses and shops. Carol and I stopped and watched an interesting procession. A man walked behind a horse, holding long reins, and another man followed, pulling a sulky. I wondered who was training whom. Further on, we stopped at a working windmill where the operator explained the process in operation, grinding grain to flour.
From here, Carol and I fell behind as we stopped frequently for pictures and rest. Another member of our group dropped behind to help keep us on the route, and we soon lost sight of the group. So the three of us rode together, unhurried, cycling to and fro, but always in the general direction of the sea and finally arrived in Enkhuizen, which is not to say at the Madeleine. We asked a half dozen people the direction to the waterfront, received conflicting directions, and after a few zigzags, found the quay. We saw some Cycletours bicycles at the folk museum at the waterfront, but we continued to the boat. We walked the last hundred yards or so, looking at the sights, stretching and easing our aching bones.
Enkhuizen is a pretty little seaside town dating from the fourteenth century. Its harbor was once one of Hollands busiest, and the houses and buildings are the result of that thriving international commerce. Today the town is a popular destination for Dutch and foreign visitors.
The next day the group rode along the IJsselmeer coast to Hoorn. Like other seaside towns on the old Zuiderzee, Hoorn was a flourishing seaport, sending out ships to the Dutch East Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Americas. The bikers continued down the coast to Schardam, then turned inland to ride around the huge Eilandspolder, en route visiting the seventeenth-century villages of Graft and De Rijp. Continuing, the group bicycled eastward to Edam, a pretty village whose round cheeses are known to cheese lovers the world over, and thence to Volendam.
Alas, I was not among the bikers on this day. An old eye problem, dating from the days when I wore contact lenses, erupted and I decided to find other entertainment. Carol was happy to keep me company.
We mapped out a day that would end in Volendam. Joined by two women who were not biking, we took the train from Enkhuizen to Hoorn. We walked through the busy but pleasant streets and had tea and pastries at an outside café. I also bought an eye bandage and medication at a pharmacy and was pleased to find an optician where I bought some clipon sunglasses. I had lost my sunglasses in England where we had spent a few days in Kent, en route to Holland. We were surprised to see a number of members of our group who were walking their bikes and sightseeing.
Leaving Hoorn, we took a bus to Edam. We walked about the town center, sampled some cheeses, and ate our sack lunches beside a canal. Afterward, we boarded another bus for Volendam. This is a picturesque little seaside town, marred only by the abundance of visitors. As that erudite philosopher Pogo once said, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We became part of the crowd and enjoyed it anyway. We found the Madeleine and deposited water bottles, purchases and other superfluous gear, then Carol and I walked back to a little seaside café I had spotted earlier. We took an outside table overlooking the harbor. We sat down, I ordered tea and exhaled. We watched the passing boats and people. This is the best part of traveling. Tea at a sidewalk café with a pleasant view at the end of a satisfying day.
The night was not so restful. Shortly after midnight, a piercing alarm sounded in the passageway. Everyone was out of their cabin in an instant. I rushed down the hall and up the ladder to the deck. I expected to see the crew and guide, but no one was in sight. I ran forward in the darkness to try to find the hatch to Iljas cabin, but could not locate it. I didnt know the location of the crews cabin. Returning to the ladder, I met Winfred who informed me that the fire alarm does not sound in his quarters, and apparently not in the guides quarters. This is a serious design flaw. The problem seemed to have something to do with a generator smoking.
On Friday, my eye was still bothering me a bit, but I was determined to ride this last day. We left the boat early and biked across the causeway road to Marken, a pretty village that is worth a visit in spite of its obvious tourist orientation. At least the inhabitants were not all dressed in ancient garb as they were when I visited many years ago.
Leaving the town, we rode a circuitous route on a path atop a dike, bound for the causeway. The narrow path dropped off sharply on each side. A misstep, or a mispedal in this case, gave one the option of rolling fifteen feet down the right side into a drainage canal, or on the left side into the sea. When the path narrowed to about twelve inches, I became a bit anxious. Carol later called it nerve-wracking. I breathed much easier when we reached the road.Now we were off for Amsterdam. The group rode back across the causeway, then inland through the Waterland region. We crossed a small canal in a small ferry, then set out on a path beside the canal. Carol and I were soon left behind, and the group vanished. We asked directions from a fisherman, who advised us to turn around and take a bike path along a major highway. We did, but I realized quickly that we were going in the wrong direction. We asked a walker on the path for directions and thereby found one of the few Dutch people who spoke no English. A jogger approached and stopped at my hail. He told us that we must go back to the canal and follow it all the way to Amsterdam, keeping the canal on our left. He said that the bike path would end at the ferry for Amsterdam Central station. His directions were excellent, the ride was pleasant, and we arrived eventually at the ferry. We were surprised to find that the passage was free.
We walked from the ferry landing through the train station to Eastern Dock where the Madeleine was moored, thus discovering the route that we should have taken that first day. We turned in our bikes, cleaned up, began packing, and enjoyed a nice farewell dinner. It was the end of a challenging, exhausting, and rewarding holiday.
The Madeleine was as expected and advertised. It was convenient, comfortable and, for a complement of twenty passengers, not cramped. The cabins were snug, but manageable. The dining area was airy, light and spacious. The food was ample and tasty. Els and Winfred did a commendable job, cooking and managing the barge.I heartily recommend the bike and boat experience. It was great fun. If you decide to consider a like holiday, be prepared. Get ready for biking by biking. Riding a few blocks two or three times a week wont do it. I speak from experience. Ride on a regular basis until you can do twenty miles without cardiac arrest. Take the right gear. Consult with serious riders and bike shops. If youre going to Holland, be sure to pack good rain gear. It will rain.
Be sure you understand the nature of the daily routine, that is, whether this is a bike ride in a region, or an exploration of a region by bike. There is a difference. If the former, you might as well bike at home. Will there be pauses for the view and photos, stops at pleasant cafés and tea rooms for refreshment, leisurely rides and walks through picturesque villages? I recommend this sort of experience. Be sure that the bike is part, not the end, of the experience.
Be sure you understand clearly the distances that will be covered each day. Talk with your group leader, and/or correspond with the company or guide to be sure you wont be surprised with a change to a more ambitious schedule. The guide can outline an optional more challenging route for the serious bikers who can go off on their own with a detailed map. Be sure the guide has a method for ensuring that no one in the group is left behind.
All members of the group need not bike. Three women in our group stayed aboard the Madeleine as it moved to our next destination. Individual bikers occasionally opted to sit out a day to recover from the ravages of a hard bicycle seat or other ailments, or simply to enjoy the cruising. On mooring, those remaining aboard usually debarked to visit the town. Occasionally some took a train or bus to a nearby attraction. And they simply enjoyed the leisure of reading and relaxing on board.
There are a number of companies, both American and foreign, that arrange biking holidays. I opted for Cycletours because it offered precisely the sort of experience that I wanted. Our cost was about US$650 land, Saturday to Saturday, which included accommodation and all meals, a Gazelle Medeo 21-speed hybrid bike, and a multilingual guide. In addition to a number of bike and boat itineraries in Holland, Cycletours offers biking tours throughout the world. For all of their tours, Holland and elsewhere, contact Cycletours International, Keizersgracht 181, 1016DR Amsterdam. Telephone 31 20 6262601, fax 31 20 6269024, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask for a brochure, or visit their web site at http://www.cycletours.com,.
If you need accommodation, I highly recommend the B&B where we stayed in Diemen. Book through Jim Kloos, email@example.com, a general booking agent based in Amsterdam, for accommodation and tours. Mick Halverss home is an easy five-minute walk from the small train station in Diemen, which is but ten minutes ride from Amsterdam Central station. The immaculate house is on a quiet street, and only about a ten-minute walk to cafes and shops. Ask for the upper room overlooking the back garden. The included breakfast is taken in a pleasant dining room overlooking the garden. Mick is welcoming and friendly and very helpful with suggestions. Our cost was NLG57.50 per person per night, about US$25.00. For me, this delightful B&B compares favorably to most accommodations in Amsterdam.
If you would prefer accommodation in central Amsterdam, I highly recommend the Canal House Hotel, a small seventeenth-century hotel in a quiet residential quarter, near the Anne Frank House, Dam Square, the West Church, and the Royal Palace. Furnishings are seventeenth century-style, and the atmosphere is informal. Private baths and all the modern conveniences, including laptop connections, but no television. Intimate lounge and elegant dining room. From US$122 double. Keizersgracht 148, 1015 CX, Amsterdam, NC. Tel. 31 20 6225182, fax 31 20 6241317, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.canalhouse.nl.