By James Raia

Pedaling In Holland: Land of Tulips and Windmills

The Netherlands is known for many things. Windmills, meandering canals, tulips, clogs and remarkable artwork are the tourist guide highlights.

But for those with recreating interests, the country features an elaborately intertwined transportation system of waterways and bicycle paths.

As many residents choose to view as daily commuters, touring the country on two wheels can be reduced to simple statistics: 16 million people, 15 million bicycles, 0 hills.

Business people in metropolitan cities and in small villages bicycle to work. Mothers often pedal two or more small children to school on one bike. Friends give each other lifts across town, with passengers often sitting sideways on the front or rear of the bike.

Few cyclists in The Netherlands wear helmets. It’s not that the citizenry doesn’t understand safety. Rather, cyclists in Holland are offered thousands of miles of special paths as well as preferred commuting rights. Likewise, the country’s cyclists are not viewed as adversaries to cars or pedestrians.

Therefore, as a nation of cyclists and of vast waterways, it was logical that nearly 25 years ago tourism companies began offering unique vacations – combining cycling with traveling on the country’s web of canals and waterways

The idea: As an alternative to hotel accommodations, visitors pedal through the countryside during the day and then stay on a boat that progresses each day along the waterways to a designated city. The program began in France in 1981, then in Holland in 1988.

For durations of several days to several weeks, cyclists sleep in private bunks (with bath/shower). Breakfast and dinner are served communal, and participants pack a sack lunch on the boat after breakfast to eat along the day’s journey.

As part of a longer trip to Holland, Gretchen Gaither and I were among a 20-plus person trip on the 38-meter boat Liza Marleen, a refurbished motorized barge that’s part of expanding fleet of Cycletours, the largest of the cycle-boat entrepreneurial outfits.

During our three-plus day journey, we bicycled about 35 miles per day at a casual pace. The accommodations, meals, snacks, bicycles and a guide are all included the price. The bikes, stored on the boat each night, are clean, 24-gear Gazelle Medeo hybrids. They are equipped with hand brakes, two “panniers,” (sidebags), a water bottle, lock and repair kit.

Our group included travelers from six countries – an Iranian physician and his family from Stockton, two couples from Australia, three French-Canadian women traveling together, and a retired couple from Germany. A solo traveler from Scotland, whose demeanor was reminiscent of John Belushi with an accent, later joined us.

Piet, our accommodating guide, was a Dutchman with an easy manner and refreshing sense of humor. On the evening of our arrival, he explained the rules. There were few.

The “peloton” (group), he reiterated, would progress as fast as the slowest cyclist. Traffic signals and signs were to be obeyed. Stops would be often and for important reasons – taking pictures, apple pie and coffee in quaint villages, watching ducks meander across tranquil streams, looking at windmills, watching workers build a thatched roof, visiting a stork farm or simply gazing into the pastoral countryside.

Our journey was the Southern Tour, and it took us to Utrecht and Schoonhoven, among other cities. As Piet instructed, we traveled as a group. If someone showcased their competitive nature, our tour leader was happy to oblige. He could provide a map and the cyclist was their own to get back to the boat.

Piet’s nickname was “Mother Duck,” an appropriate moniker considering his way of gathering his tour members for important times – boarding ferry boats, announcing meal breaks or gently scolding wayward cyclists when they didn’t follow proper etiquette on the pathways.

Prices for Cycletours’ array of trips vary depending upon length of stay, accommodations, season, etc. A week’s stay (seven nights, eight days), for example, ranges from $400 to $700 per person. Tours are scheduled April through October.

In addition to Holland, Cycletours has more than 200 excursions to more a dozen countries, Belgium to Italy, Denmark to Austria. Its trips are casual and appropriate for families, corporate retreats and for anyone who enjoys meeting people from around the world and living and cycling with them.

It is not a good vacation choice for those seeking a quiet, private time or anyone whose goal is to win each day’s journey.