What a great way to see a great country.
I just got back from an abbreviated bike and barge tour of Holland , a two and-a-half day, two night trip that took myself and 13 terrifically fun other folks to some of the most charming villages and small cities in The Netherlands.
The trip was sponsored by Visit Holland and put together by a company called Cycle Tours , which organizes all sorts of trips all over Europe. I was sampling their “Top of Amsterdam” tour, visiting such places as Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Edam (wow!) and Volendam.
We stayed at night on a ship called the Liza Marleen , an old herring boat (1906) that measures 38 metres and sleeps 25 for the bike and barge tours. It wasn’t fancy, but the main dining room/relaxation area was very nice and the food (dinner and breakfast is provided, and you pack your own lunch from what they provide, and it’s a lot) was very good and with huge portions to help restore all that energy from cycling. The rooms were small but more than sufficient. Mine had a single bunk below and a double bunk above, with a small but solid bathroom that featured a shower larger than I’ve seen in some European cities. Lots of storage areas, too.
Interior of the Liza Marleen.
There’s no TV. They have limited wi-fi for maybe a half hour before dinner, but there’s not enough bandwidth to allow sending or downloading photos. It sounds problematic for some, but there are plenty of places in Holland with free wi-fi that you can use, thus avoiding roaming charges on your phone and also not overloading the ship.
I arrived in Amsterdam Saturday afternoon and walked to the boat from the train station; maybe 10 minutes away. I had time to check in and unpack before heading into the city centre to see Amsterdam for the first time in 30 years. After that it was a fine spaghetti dinner on board with a couple of nice salads and bread and dessert, plus wines and beers and sodas to buy at very reasonable prices (a few bucks apiece).
We did a two-hour ride around north Amsterdam as a bit of a warm-up and to see if anyone would have trouble. Some folks were expert bikers but others didn’t even own a bicycle. But we all did fine, notwithstanding my tendency to lag behind and shoot photos (which they’ll thank me for later, assuming I don’t have my thumb in the pictures).
We did about 20 km that night, I think, taking a ferry from behind the central train station and quickly entering a lovely area with mixed usage. There were low-rise units housing immigrants as well as high-rises and condos and low-rise homes on beautiful canals. We passed leafy parks with canals and bridges, beautiful tennis courts, factories, community vegetable gardens, small shops selling donairs and pizza and wove our way through apartment complexes where folks were out playing soccer or even dancing to music on the radio as their chicken roasted on a fire.
The small homes along one of the canals were stunning, but it was only a taste of what was to come. What amazed me is that we were a two-minute ferry ride from the pandemonium of central Amsterdam. I love the city centre, but it’s great to get away and see how real people live and get some peace and quiet, too.
We slept on board, tied up at the dock in Amsterdam. After breakfast (not fancy but more than enough, including cereal, toast, fruit, pastry, yogurt and a hot egg dish whipped up by our friendly cook and his wife), we headed out on our bikes.
I can’t recall the name of the bikes we had, but they were quite nice and sturdy and were in excellent working order, each with I think about 15 or maybe even 24 speeds. Very sleek, and with generous panniers to hold our lunches or rain jackets.
We had very light rain the first hour or two of the day on Sunday, but it hardly mattered as we rolled past impossibly green fields with black and white cows and tiny, adorable black and white sheep and small, bouncing, brown rabbits and lots more. The canals were filled with wildlife, including ducks and giant blue herons and swans and the odd Canada goose, which seems to have established itself here along with Russian geese.
The homes were simply ravishing: mostly brick structures with the greenest grass I’ve ever seen and perfect pink hydrangeas about to burst into summer glory and a ton of other plants I can’t possibly name.
As we passed one small house, a man was outside his home digging up parts of plants from the water that carried alongside the house.
“That’s what you call a Dutch root canal,” I quipped. Someone actually laughed.
Pretty homes in Volendam.
We cruised north of Amsterdam through an area called Waterland. I, of course, had to stop and say to the person riding next to me, “Isn’t the whole COUNTRY Waterland? From there it was past more adorable villages up to the seaside town of Volendam, where we had lunch. The main part of the village is touristy as heck, with fish and chip shops and junky souvenir shops selling wooden shoes. But the cafes are nice and it’s fun to people watch. If you walk just a few feet down the alleyways that run perpendicular to the main “drag,” which is like an elevated boardwalk, you’ll find impossibly tiny streets and pretty canals and beautiful, tiny homes. I quite liked that part of town, even though I only had 15 or 20 minutes.
From there it was on to Edam, which is about as perfect a little Dutch town as you could hope for; crooked buildings, quiet canals, pretty shops and cafes and friendly locals. There’s a gorgeous church on the main square, and it’s got a ton of charm. Touristy, sure, but not overrun.
Part of the harbour in the town of Hoorn, a city once more prosperous than Amsterdam.
From there it was on to Hoorn, another very pretty town with a gorgeous town square and a provincial meeting house and an historic tower and a striking harbour, especially as the sun went down. We feasted on smoked salmon and a tuna salad appetizer, then polished off roast pork with mushroom sauce and massive amounts of local potatoes and red cabbage salad and broccoli with cheese and apple sauce and strawberries with thick whipped cream for dessert. It was all simple but great, and we followed up with some Elvis Presley on the dining room CD player. A few folks got up to dance while I typed up notes from the day and they even invited some German tourists from next door to take part, until Elvis finally left the building around 11 p.m.
Tons of fun.
The next day was fairly light, since we had gone further than normal on day one. We went along the Zuider Zee and fought a pretty serious headwind, then paused while the talented Silvio, an Italian businessman from Turin who was travelling with his wife and son of perhaps 11 years, repaired a bicycle that had some problems.
From there we went inland to a small village for apple pie and cake, then rolled into Enkhuizen. It’s a pretty town but was shut down for a national holiday so there weren’t many shops open. Still, it was great to watch the kids play and jump off the local bridges into the cool, green water on a 23 degree day in northern Holland; very nice by their standards.
Enjoying a day off from school in Enkhuizen, Holland.
I had to leave that afternoon, but managed an hour or so at the fine Zuider Zee Museum, an outdoor “living” museum where you can watch folks make rope or do all sorts of old-fashioned things; like Black Creek Pioneer Village on the water but a lot more lively I think.
(Oh, one suggestion. Bring bike shorts. Or a padded cushion for your bike seat. Or both. My butt was KILLING me after the first day and not so much better on day two. If you’re a regular rider, this is probably not an issue. But for casual riders like me, it was somewhat painful.)
I had to take off and missed saying goodbye to my fellow passengers, which I feel badly about. Because they were ALL top class folks. Every one of them was fun and friendly and interesting and chatty and just plain enjoyable to be around. We talked politics, but only a bit, and compared notes about biking and sports and our various countries.
There was a fellow from Mississauga, a woman from Yorkton, Saskatchewan who might have been the life of the party, and also several folks from Edmonton. Simply outstanding people, every one. So were the Italian family and the German couple and a couple from Michigan. Not to mention our absolutely marvellous guide, Dutch woman Annie Verhage. She was fun and interesting and flexible in our plans and always asked what we wanted to do. She’s a pretty fast cyclist and a fast walker and had to slow down for us, but I really enjoyed her company and will miss our little chats about the world and life and people.
Edam is a particularly lovely town in Holland. Buy a beer for a dollar or so at the local deli and watch the boats and stand-up paddleboarders roll past.
I could go and on. Suffice to say it’s an affordable (less than $200 a day per person, including all food and lodging and the bikes and tours around the various towns by Annie) and fun and social trip where you’ll really get up and close and personal with the people around you and learn so much more and see much more about your destination than on most trips.
Two very hearty thumbs up.