With a population of almost 17 million people owning close to 20 million bicycles, cycling is a way of life for people of all ages in the Netherlands. It’s the perfect country to enjoy a cycling vacation with Cycletours’ Netherlands by bike and barge.
The Dutch have been building dedicated bike paths (35,000 kilometres of them in fact) since the late 1800s. As a result, a bike-friendly infrastructure has been developed. There’s a continuous network of clearly signposted, well maintained and well lit cycle paths, cycle lanes, cycle bridges, cycle tunnels, cycle ferries, cycle parking stations and cycle traffic lights. There are even especially designed containers for cyclists to deposit garbage on the fly.
Combining cycling and travel means being out in the fresh air to not only enjoy the scenery, but benefit from several hours of low impact exercise. All that calorie-burning pedal power builds an appetite for the delectable array of European foods, and guilt-free enjoyment of the wide selection of inexpensive beer and wine. Add a barge to the mix and a perfect holiday starts to take shape. The Netherlands is laced with canals, making a bike-and-barge vacation an enjoyable and economical option.
In April and May, Holland explodes with displays of blooming tulips, hyacinths, irises, scillas, crocuses and muscari – the kind of visual fireworks everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime. Add residential and public gardens with lilacs, magnolias, wisterias, laburnums and hawthorns heralding the arrival of spring, it’s a landscape appealing to gardeners and non-gardeners alike. This is the perfect backdrop for special cycling tours through the legendary tulip fields, and many include a visit to the world-famous Keukenhof Park with its 32 hectares of brilliantly coloured flowering bulbs.
Advantages of a bike-and-boat tour
While staying in different types of accommodation each night might hold some appeal on other types of cycling trips, there’s something to be said for the familiarity of returning to the same floating hotel at the end of a cycling day. There’s also the convenience of unpacking once at the beginning of the tour, and giving wash-and-wear clothing the extra time it needs to dry before each new cycling day.
Another appealing aspect is the option to forego one or more days of cycling and remain on board the boat. A barge usually features common areas such as a lounge and sundeck, providing comfortable areas for non-cycling family members or friends to relax during the day. The option to remain on board is particularly useful in the event of illness or injury. This was an appreciated feature on our bike-and-boat tour of the Danube when one member of our group fell ill and a 50-kilometre ride in inclement weather was out of the question.
Cycletours’ Schiff Liza Marleen
After a most enjoyable four-country bike-and-boat tour of the Danube on the MV My Story in 2013 organized by Rad and Reisen/Eurocycle, we signed up with the same company for the Southern Relax Tulip Tour operated by Rad and Reisen’s local partner, Cycletours Holidays.
Our barge for the tour during the first week of May in 2014 was the Schiff Liza Marleen, built in 1918 as a fishing boat to harvest herring from the waters of the North Sea. Converted to a passenger craft in 1992, she can carry up to 34 passengers housed in 14 two- and three-person cabins. For our tour, we were 24. A crew of four – all Dutch – Skipper Nico, Chef Manfred, Host Titcia and Guide Annie rounded out the Liza Marleen’s entourage for the week.
The cabins provided all the amenities needed for a comfortable week on the water, including bunk beds with reading lights, and private bathrooms with plenty of glorious hot water. In the two cabins assigned to our group of four friends, the bottom beds were singles and the top ones doubles. Each top bunk enjoyed a window, and was accessed by a sloping ladder. Other cabins contained single bunk beds in a different configuration. All cabins contained shelves and several hooks and hangers for the contents of unpacked luggage. Luxury accommodation it wasn’t, but for us it was perfect.
Meals were excellent, food was plentiful and every effort was made to accommodate dietary needs. Coffee and tea were available throughout the day, as well as beer, wine and soft drinks on a self-serve honour system. Purchases were marked throughout the week and bills settled at the end of the trip. The 08:00 buffet-style breakfast consisted of cereal, yogurt, fruit, eggs, bacon, pancakes, cold cuts and cheese. Each person prepared a sandwich for a packed lunch, complemented by fruit, juice packs, and candy and protein bars to take out cycling. Three-course suppers at 18:30 were varied and by the second day assumed the atmosphere of boisterous family affairs. It was with eager anticipation we awaited the announcement of the menu with appreciative “oohs and aahs” as Titcia described each dish. When Manfred emerged from the kitchen after the meal, he was greeted with rousing applause. Everyone helped clear away dishes by passing plates and cutlery down to the end of the table to be stacked ready for pick up. Willing helpers cleared the tables of cups, glasses, placemats and napkins.
The 24 mostly retired and pre-retired participants came from Austria, Canada, United Kingdom and the United States. English was the language of announcements and itinerary descriptions, and conversations were conducted in Dutch, English, French and German.
For the Southern Relax Tulip Tour we travelled as one large group. This was different from our Danube bike-and-boat tour. For that trip we moved at our own pace in small groups following detailed maps and instructions, tour signposts and our written notes from briefing sessions. Sure, the option existed to go it alone but after having experienced so many twists and turns on the first day, it was not an alternative anyone took up. A key advantage was the security that came with travelling as part of a group. It meant remaining on the right paths, reaching the boat on time, getting help if needed and not having to expend all that mental and emotional energy on staying oriented and not getting lost.
Our guide Annie led the way, cycling back and forth to shepherd the group across busy intersections without traffic lights, or on a couple of occasions to retrieve lost cyclists. What an amazing accomplishment. At the back of the line were two “sweeps” who “swept up” stragglers and stayed in touch with Annie by phone as required. For the most part, the system worked well, especially with the appointment of a couple of riders in the middle of the pack who kept an eye on any widening gaps and the location of the sweeps, positioning themselves at turns when necessary. By the end of the week we were working like a well-oiled machine, with everyone watching out for the safety and well being of others in the group.
The height of each person was collected as part of the booking process. Therefore, the selection of bikes contained the appropriate mix of small, medium and large men’s and women’s bikes. There was also the option to rent an electric bike. The bikes were all assembled by the Dutch manufacturer Batavus, with Galibier and Comanche 24 models available. They were lightweight and performed very well. Each bike was outfitted with a built-in lock, water bottle cradle and double waterproof panniers. While the bikes had 24 speeds, about 18 of these were redundant given the topography of our route.
Day 1 (20 km)
The Liza Marleen was berthed at Oosterdock in the centre of Amsterdam near Nemo, the Science and Technology Museum nearby central station. We were greeted by the crew, shown to our cabins and provided with a short briefing before sailing out of the city in the direction of Vianen. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon on the water, shared with a variety of boats overflowing with people enjoying the canals of Amsterdam. After an hour or so, we disembarked for a short 20-km cycle. The countryside was sprinkled with grazing cattle and sheep, canal-side houseboats and charming villages. After a relatively mild winter, spring had come early to the Netherlands so the landscape flaunted every imaginable shade of green with splashes of colour provided by spring-flowering trees, shrubs and plants.
Day 2: Vianen to Gouda (39 km)
The Netherlands means “the low lands,” with approximately one third of the country below sea level. As a result, the Dutch have drained many lakes and parts of the sea, creating “polders” (reclaimed land) prompting the oft-quoted saying “God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”
This centuries-long struggle with water has resulted in a labyrinth of canals and drainage channels crisscrossing the landscape. Many of our cycle paths were formed of fill dredged from the adjacent channels, invariably placing us on slightly higher ground from which to enjoy views of the countryside. With waterways everywhere, waterfowl were our constant companions – geese and ducks, herons and hawks, storks, swans and nesting coots.
The route from Vianen took us to Schoonhoven, a town with a rich history in the traditional craft of silversmithing where we stopped for lunch. Later, we arrived in Gouda (pronounced “Howda”) to narrow streets, a picturesque town hall in a large central market square and a canal-side shop dedicated to Gouda’s world-famous cheese. It was May 4, when the Dutch hold “Dodenherdenking” or “Remembrance of the Dead” for citizens who have died in wars or peacekeeping missions since the outbreak of World War II. Throughout the country, two minutes of silence are observed at 20:00 when we attended a remembrance gathering in the Gouda town hall square.
Day 3: Gouda to Rotterdam to Delft (37 km)
It is like stepping back into medieval times visiting the 123-metre long St. Janskerk (St. John’s Church) dedicated to John the Baptist, patron saint of Gouda. The church is especially famous for its 400-year-old “Gouda Windows” removed prior to the outbreak of World War II, packed in crates and hidden for safe keeping in earthen bunkers. Fortunately, the church survived both the occupation and the liberation, and the stained-glass windows were restored to their original place in 1947.
No visit to Gouda would be complete without sampling the traditional stroopwafel (treacle waffles) first made in Gouda in the early nineteenth century.
From Gouda we set off in the direction of Kinderdijk, the only place in the world with so many windmills so close together in an authentic polder landscape. The 19 mills, pumping stations, low and high storage basins, ditches and sluices together form such an ingenious water management system that the complex was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997. Today, a large pumping station is responsible for controlling the water level in the polder.
A fast ferry took us from Alblasserdam to Rotterdam where we boarded the Liza Marleen and spent time on the sundeck for the sailing to Delft. Skipper Nico explained that a condition of our remaining on the sundeck was that when the wheelhouse lowered, we were to “hit the deck” by sitting on the floor as the barge passed under bridges with limited clearance. It was a beautiful evening and the sundeck was an ideal vantage point from which to enjoy the changing scenery.
Day 4: Delft to Leiden (48 km)
Delft is famous for its pottery, the ‘Delft blue.’ Our visit to De Delftse Pauw (Delft Pottery) was extremely well organized, with two guides seamlessly conducting a tour of the facility in English, French and German. From Delft, our cycle route took us to The Hague, where sharing the busy streets with cars, motorcyclists, trams, pedestrians and other cyclists proved very challenging. It was also exhilarating to experience a brief cultural immersion in the life of locals who cycle in busy cities on a daily basis. A short stop at the Peace Palace housing the International Court of Justice introduced us to the origins and functions of this magnificent institution. From there we cycled to the North Sea coast at Scheveningen with its sprawling sandy beach, restaurants, amusements and quirky beachfront sculptures.
Afterwards, cycling through the dunes was a peaceful contrast to the hectic streets of The Hague. A few gentle inclines and declines followed the contours of the dunes, and the trees provided ample protection from wind and blowing sand. The environment was conducive to reflecting on the gift of seeing Holland by bike and barge amid the serenity of the dunes. After a brief stop and stroll around the seaside town of Katweya we headed towards Leiden, the birthplace of Rembrandt (van Rijn) where we found the Liza Marleen moored near the Zijlpoort, a gate that once formed part of the city walls.
Day 5 – Keukenhof
The Southern Relax Tulip Tour includes a visit to Keukenhof. We travelled by bus from Leiden to the world-famous spring gardens in the town of Lisse, the centre of Holland’s bulb district. In this 32-hectare park, bulb growers display their best and newest wonders in blazing colours along pathways lined with acres of manicured gardens. With more than seven million tulip, daffodil, hyacinth and muscari bulbs planted and tended by Keukenhof gardeners each year, the park has to be one of the most photographed places on earth. While the thousands upon thousands of tulips in rich kaleidoscopic arrangements are without a doubt the stars of the show, there is so much more to enjoy at Keukenhof. Indoor areas showcase numerous floral arrangements and displays, changing regularly throughout the brief eight-week Keukenhof season. The Beatrix Pavillion with its Orchid, Bromeliad and Anthurium Shows was a stunning favourite.
Day 6: Leiden to Haarlem (59 km)
From Leiden, we cycled through Rijnsburg and soon after took the Veerpont ferry to Warmond. With a maximum capacity of 34 passengers and bicycles, the ferry needed to be perfectly balanced so people were asked by the ferry operator to move to one side or the other to achieve the desired distribution of weight. Our cooperation was rewarded with a tray of candies passed around the boat and a selection of lively music.
Much of our cycling route was through the heart of Bloembollenstreek, Holland’s bulb-growing region stretching from Haarlem to Leiden where bulbs have been grown since the end of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, we could only dream and drool over what the gardens would have looked like just a few short weeks earlier. Spring had come early to this part of Europe and we had missed the patchwork of tulip blooms in the fields by about two weeks.
At the seaside town of Noordwijk we paused by the system of underground military bunkers and tunnels built under the Noordwijk sand dunes by German troops occupying the town from 1940 to 1945. The Atlantikwall, stretching from the French-Spanish border up to Norway, was built as a barrier against an anticipated Allied invasion. After lunch on the beach, our cycling route took us in a northerly direction towards Haarlem.
We passed more fields where we could only imagine what a spectacular sight it must have been a few weeks earlier. We took solace in the fact that the billions of spent blooms were part of the natural cycle of building bulbs worthy of export to countries around the globe. The barely distinguishable brown and green hyacinths, tulips and daffodils were still enjoying their only spring beneath Dutch skies. Needless to say, our disappointment was harnessed into shaping plans to return to the region in a subsequent year around the third week of April.
At Haarlem, which rendered its name to Harlem, New York, the Haarlemmermeer (Haarlemmer Lake) is today a polder. Originally using windmills and later (between 1849 and 1852) employing three steam-powered pumping stations, the water was pumped into a circular canal around the polder before being transported to the sea. Eventually, the Haarlemmer was pumped dry of 831 cubic kilometres of water creating 18,300 hectares of fertile land. In fact, Schiphol Airport is situated here, approximately three metres below sea level. A visit to the Cruquiusgemaal (Cruquius Pumping Station), site of the largest steam engine in the world confirmed what had already been observed while cycling… that the Netherlands is an extraordinary country and an incredible example of what ingenuity, perseverance and ambitious engineering can accomplish.
Day 7: Haarlem to Amsterdam (51 km)
Our cycling day started with a leisurely ride through Spaarnwoude, a recreational area just outside Haarlem.
At Spaarndam (named after the dam built on the Spaarne River to limit the danger of flooding from the sea), we paused by the statue of Hansje Brinker on the IJdijk. He was a fictitious character who saved the country from flooding by putting his thumb in a leaking dyke. Today, the character symbolizes Holland’s perpetual struggle against floodwaters.
The Buitenhuizen ferry from Spaarndam to Assendelft across the Noordzeekanaal (North Sea Canal) put us within cycling distance of Zaanse Schans. This open-air cultural museum on the bank of the Zaan River consists of warehouses, workshops, traditional weatherboard houses and several working windmills. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were thousands of windmills along the dykes performing various functions – sawmills, dye mills and oil mills powering the Dutch economy. The Zaanse Schans village provides a picture of what it must have been like. One of the highlights was a visit to a klompermakerij (wooden shoe maker) and museum where regular demonstrations were conducted on the carving of wooden shoes.
A fierce headwind on the journey from Zaanse Schans to Amsterdam made the final two hours of our 250-km cycling week the most demanding. A short break at the Landsmeerderveld memorial provided a welcome respite from the blustery conditions. The memorial, constructed of parts of the plane found in the fields in Landsmeer, marks the crash on September 29, 1941, of a Vickers Wellington bomber plane on its way back to Britain after a successful bombing mission over Italy.
We arrived “home” to a special table setting prepared by Titcia, hinting at a more festive atmosphere for our last supper together. Manfred rose to the occasion by preparing a wonderful buffet of delicious Indonesian dishes and a fiery dessert.
With its multitude of bike paths and a cycling-positive culture, the Netherlands is a perfect destination for a cyclist’s vacation. We were constantly amazed at the patience and thoughtfulness of Dutch drivers, and felt a level of safety not experienced in Canada. On the Liza Marleen, we were treated as honoured guests. The crew bent over backwards to make our cycling tour all it could be… and more. They were amazing.
We often found ourselves comparing the Southern Relax Tulip Tour with the Danube boat-and-bike tour on the 174-passenger My Story we took the previous spring. We definitely preferred the more intimate interaction with passengers and crew that came with a smaller group. By the end of the second day we knew everyone’s name and where each person was from, and enjoyed feeling part of a group spirit that developed over the course of the seven days. At the end of the week a list of email addresses was compiled so we could exchange photographs and stay in touch.
If considering a spring bike-and-barge tour, make allowances for the unpredictability of nature. If feasting on the vibrant colours of the flowering field bulbs is part of the appeal, pitch to the middle of the season (e.g., the third week of April). Expect rain, and temperatures of anywhere between 10 and 30 degrees. Dress in layers and don’t skimp on good quality rain gear. Helmets aren’t mandatory in the Netherlands for this type of cycling, so bringing a helmet or renting one is optional. Assemble a small first-aid kit to take out cycling, and include a variety of band-aids, as well as antiseptic wipes and antiseptic cream. Bring a pocket shopping bag to carry gear to and from the panniers, so as not to delay the loading and unloading of the bikes. The process moves at lightning speed, especially if it’s raining. Wi-Fi on the barge was very slow and limited to one hour per day just before supper. Staying connected to the cellular network can be very useful. I used it to check the weather, stay in touch with home, research stops along the way and call a taxi and accommodation hosts before and after the tour. It is critical if volunteering as a “sweep” or travelling independently from the group. If arriving at Schiphol, there are several options… I chose Lebara and my 20-euro investment bought a SIM card, 1GB of data and 7,50 euro calling credit. I was not disappointed and very pleased with the service.
There are several companies offering cycling tours in the Netherlands. If they are as good as Cycletours, or as great as the crew on the Liza Marleen, expect a memorable experience.
For more photographs, check out the album below.
Have you taken a bike-and-barge tour? Please comment on your experience or share a link to your blog or photos in the comments.