Lifestyle & Culture

‘A bicycle vacation in the Netherlands tailored just for me’

(Editor’s note: If you’re thinking about a bikes&tulips tour in the Netherlands, now is the time to make arrangements. Amsterdam City Tours already is seeing signs of a busy European travel season in part due to a strong dollar. Bookings for popular regional attractions such as flower and windmill tours are in high demand. The peak tourism season in the Netherlands starts on March 23 with the opening of the Keukenhof tulip gardens.)

By RITA STEPHENS

I love bicycles and I love the Netherlands. I also love flowers.

These loves culminated in the “perfect storm” vacation in Europe for me! I was living in Germany as a military spouse and had the fortune of traveling to many areas of the Netherlands. My husband likes to drive and I like to daydream while looking out the car window. My observations of the cycling culture in the Netherlands has always fascinated me and I longed to be a part of it.

unnamed-2The bike paths are well maintained, separate and safe from vehicular traffic on major thoroughfares as well as on the small streets through villages and cities. The bike lanes even have their own stoplights! Through the window, I saw people of all ages riding all kinds of bikes – comfort bikes, utility bikes, racing bikes, and often with all kinds of bike trailers.

The Dutch were utilizing these paths at all times of day, in all seasons, and in any kind of weather. Their bikes were sometimes loaded down with groceries and/or children – one in a seat in front of the rider and one or two in seats or trailers behind (all safely secured I will add)! Amazing and fascinating.

They made it look so easy!

I wanted to treat myself to a short vacation tailored just for me. I know myself well and I wasn’t interested in biking alone. I am not a very prudent packer, and I really didn’t want to have to worry about routes, lodging, flat tires and broken derailleurs. Finally, I will admit I wasn’t in the tip-top shape that would lend itself to a solo cycling adventure.

A quick search on the internet revealed the perfect, yes PERFECT, solution: a 5-day Bike and Barge Tulip Tour in April. I hit “add to cart” faster than a racing bike crossing a finish line!!!

I made my reservation without reservation and even coerced my cousin and her friend who were planning a visit from the states to join me. None of us knew what to expect, and we all hoped we could actually ride bikes every day for five days. We agreed if the trip was horrendous we would just bail and travel by train and stay in hotels.

Finally, in mid-April, the big day came to begin our trip and to meet the crew and fellow bike-and-
bargers. I will not keep you in suspense, the adventure was amazing and magical from first contact. It was love at first sight, sound, taste, and feel.

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BELOW DECK ON LA BELLE FLEUR

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LA BELLE FLEUR IN AMSTERDAM (All photos by Rita Stevens)

The adventure started in Amsterdam. We arrived at the dock to see the magnificent La Belle Fleur. She was built in 1929 and converted into a passenger ship in 1993. “The former inland freighter, which has been restored into a hotel barge, is 44-meters long. The boat features cabins for 19 guests, a tastefully designed lounge area, and an expansive sun deck complete with tables and benches”.

We were greeted by the captain, Sander, his wife, Els, and Arie our tour guide. The other passengers were from an array of countries (USA, Canada, France, and Germany) with ages from 40s-80s (school was in session so children were busy). I arrived with a roller style suitcase and a medium sized backpack. I was directed to my cabin, a single-occupancy with a private shower, where I unpacked all of my belongings which would stay effortlessly ensconced for the next five days. We had cake and coffee and when all 14 passengers arrived we set off on the barge for our first destination.

During our short excursion, Arie filled us in on the trip details.

We would ride about 25 miles per day. Breakfast and dinner would be freshly prepared for us by Els. Lunch supplies were available at breakfast, we would make our own lunches to pack in our pannier bags on the bikes. We could buy wine on the barge for dinner and there would be an optional walking tour every evening after dinner.

The bikes were multi-geared, sturdy, step-through, Dutch Gazelle comfort bikes, with large cozy seats. A few of the bikes were electric (which had to be specially ordered during registration). These bikes can be pedaled and switched to electric mode when needed, a very accommodating option!

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.22.10 AMArie  explained that we would leave the barge after breakfast or a quick sail, cycle to our destinations with the bright-orange vested Arie leading the way, have breaks whenever we needed, have a long lunch, and finish the day cycling to meet up for dinner on La Belle Fleur. Our barge traversed the Dutch canals while we pedaled. Passengers had the option of staying on the barge if, for whatever reason, they didn’t want to cycle on a given day. Arie would take care of any bicycle mechanical issues and would check our tires every morning.

Once again, a very accommodating option and attitude. We arrived at our first port without a worry in the world. Free to explore in the lap of luxury!

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.23.07 AMDAY 1 – AMSTERDAM TO ZAANDAM

After our short instructional sail, we docked and mounted our trusty Gazelles for the first time. The riding was smooth and glorious. It was like being a kid again. The bicycle paths were as wonderful as I had fantasized. They were wide, paved, and separated from car traffic. We rode behind our guide like a family of baby ducks. The primary destination of the day was an open air village museum of Zaanse Schans. We had time to explore and shop. We made our way to the boat now docked in Zaandam after riding 24 miles (35 kilometers). We were feeling fantastic, relaxed, and confident.  Els had shopped in town and prepared a fantastic and tasty dinner. We all had wine and enjoyed our first evening and night on La Belle Fleur.

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ZAANSE SCHANS

DAY 2 – ZANNDAM TO HAARLEM

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.33.32 AMAs promised breakfast was amazing. We made our lunches and started the day with a sail to Spaarndam. Our barge captain maneuvered us through the locks on the canal perfectly. We disembarked and headed out for the day. Our first destination was the North Sea dunes. These dunes are home to a protected herd of Przewalski’s horses from Mongolia and some long-haired Scottish Highland cattle. The ride was quiet and peaceful and we welcomed lunch with a view of the North Sea.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.34.09 AMAfter lunch, we left the dunes and encountered our first flower fields. We were ecstatic. However, we were informed by our guide that the tulip bloom came unusually early this year and most of the flowers had been cultivated and ready to be sent to market. Many of the fields would be empty. I will admit we were a little disappointed in hearing this news.

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PRZEWALKSKI’S HORSES ON THE DUNES

It was a lesson that Mother Nature has her ways and there was no sense in “crying over spilt milk.” Arie guaranteed we would see plenty of flowers, and we did! The serenity and beauty of riding through the Dutch countryside on our smooth bikes on those perfectly maintained bike paths soothed our woes! There was plenty of blissful scenery and we were never disappointed. We arrived in Haarlem, secured our bikes on La Belle Fleur, and again enjoyed a fabulous dinner with wine followed by a leisurely walking tour of the city.

Day 3 – HAARLEM TO LEIDEN BY WAY OF LISSA AND KEUKENHOF GARDENS

This day would be our longest ride of the trip at 27 miles (45 kilometers). We were not worried because we considered ourselves seasoned Dutch cyclists at this point! We arrived at Keukenhof Gardens, which was brimming with the most beautiful gardens of flowers I had ever seen. The colors were bright and the color and variety combinations were artistic and well planned.

This is definitely a ‘must see’ destination.

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LEIDEN

We headed out after 3 hours of walking in the gardens to the amazing city of Leiden, a UNESCO world heritage site, the city where Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt were born. Exhausted and hungry, we arrived ‘home’ to have all our needs met thanks to our hosts on our La Belle Fleur.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.53.09 AMDay 4 – LEIDEN TO KUDELSTAART

This day we visited a cheese farm. The farm was situated on an island surrounded by canals. We arrived on our own personal ferry operated by one of the owners and cheese makers. We toured the farm and the cheese making facility. We had an opportunity to taste and buy their award winning Boeren Goudse aged artisan Gouda cheeses.

unnamedWe were glad to have the panniers because everyone bought lots of cheese! When we arrived in Kudelstaart we were lucky enough to enjoy a festival. The center of town was converted to a carnival with booths and rides. What a festive way to spend the afternoon with just a short walk to our barge.

Day 5 – KUDLESTAAT TO AMSTERDAM

Our last day was busy. Our cycling route was only 13 miles (22 kilometers) and most of it was city riding. We had a scheduled tour at the Tulip Auction in Aalsmeer, one of the largest flower auctions in the world. The scene around the outside of the market was intensely frenetic. Lots of tourists and large semi-trucks, one after another after another, heading out with their wares. Inside, the market was even crazier.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 5.03.27 AMFortunately for the tourists, we toured on a catwalk above the enormous warehouse. In the center of the catwalk the auctioneers and buyers “wheeled and dealed” behind big glass windows. From the catwalk we could watch the highly choreographed “dance of the boxes flowers.”

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AALSMEER FLOWER MARKET

The boxes were organized and shuttled on small trains. Ultimately, the right combination of fresh flowers would end up in one of the semi-trucks waiting outside. These flowers would be shipped all over the world. It was a completely different side of the Netherlands than we had experienced the last few days.

After the market, we cycled to our La Belle Fleur for a leisurely last barge ride into Amsterdam. Our captain, Sander, dropped us off in the middle of the city and Arie accompanied us on an extensive walking tour of Amsterdam’s center. We stopped at cafes and enjoyed coffee and Dutch beer. It was delightful.

We walked back to the dock where our adventure started, picked up our luggage, said our farewells. Five days ago we were strangers and now we felt like family.

It doesn’t take long when you spend this kind of quality time together. We all went our separate ways feeling fresh, full of memories, and with even more love for bikes, the Netherlands, and flowers! The only regret is that I didn’t sign up for the 8-day tour!

Maybe next time.

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About the author: Rita Stephens is a native of Carmel, Indiana and a graduate of Indiana University in Bloomington. Rita first lived the expat life while working for Cook Medical and spent time in Denmark and Australia. After attending graduate school in Texas, she continued her expat lifestyle as a military spouse adding Japan, Turkey, and Germany to her list of “homes away from home.” Rita recently moved back to Bloomington where she enjoys life in a college town, birding, and cycling.

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