As I looked blankly at the ticket kiosk, wondering how to get from Schiphol airport to Amsterdam Central, a young woman asked (with a Dutch accent) if she could help. Before I could say more than “Amsterdam” she deftly swiped her credit card and gave me a €4 ticket into the city. So much for going Dutch.
I thought it best to spend a few days in Amsterdam and get over jet lag before boarding a river barge with Cycletours International. I needed three days just to visit Amsterdam’s museums. The Stedelijk had reopened after a major renovation and both the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum are just minutes away.
Someone told me the food in Amsterdam is nothing to write home about. Fortunately, three restaurants proved her wrong. De Kas, “the greenhouse,” is definitely worth the taxi ride (I bused everywhere else). Its farm-to-table menu emphasizes vegetables grown on-site and the set three-course menu is based on the day’s harvest. After lunch, stroll their amazing gardens and greenhouse and check out the resident stork.
Because Indonesia was once a Dutch colony, The Netherlands is home to countless Indonesian restaurants. Go to Puri Mas Restaurant for the Rijsttafel, several dishes served all at once. Our charming server explained each item. More upscale, Restaurant D’Vijff Vlieghen takes you back a few centuries — the atmosphere makes up for the slow service. Opt for the five-course dinner, including wine, for €89.
Cycletours offers tulip-themed tours in the spring so I chose Southern Relax Tulip Trip. And Level 1 guaranteed there were no Lance Armstrong types — the only bike I sit on is stationary. Before leaving home Cycletours asks your height so your bike is the right size. And they have panniers over the rear wheels big enough to pack your lunch, camera and (heaven forbid) rainwear.
I took the train to Delft and met up with 14 passengers aboard The Wending — my floating hotel. While I was tooling around Amsterdam they had already cycled three days — four days to the finishing line were fine with me. And bonus: you unpack your bags once.
The food, thanks to chef Mateusz, and charming crew made up for the spartan rooms. One evening we had fresh artichokes followed by poached salmon. Before heading out one morning, I jokingly asked if we could have perogies (the chef is Polish) and they were on the menu that night — he made them from scratch in the tiny galley.
Fortunately, there weren’t any whiners in our group and we became instant buddies. There was an Irish family with two young boys; couples from the U.S. and France in their 60s; a single woman in her 40s and a Mexican father and son.
“We booked this trip because it’s flat land and easy for my eight-year-old to bike, and the barge is backup if he gets tired or the weather is bad,” said Marion Gaskin. Their five-year-old rode tandem with dad. “This is the first time our family has biked more than a day trip and it’s terrific, a great adventure.”
Raphael joined his son, who lives in Paris. “I chose this trip because I had open-heart surgery six months ago and can’t do anything too strenuous, and it is very affordable,” he said. “And it’s a great bonding experience.”
I can’t imagine how we could traverse a city without Piet de Joode, our exceptional tour guide.
We returned to the barge each night unscathed, thanks to de Joode explaining road signs and signals — it’s illegal to pass a Dutchman on his bike — and generally watching over us, like a collie herding sheep.
After dinner de Joode would detail and map our itinerary for the next day. We would leave the barge at 9 a.m., break for coffee a few hours later and a picnic lunch at 1 p.m. A well-deserved beer break around 4 p.m. (after cycling all day beer never tasted so good) and meet up with the barge for dinner.
De Joode has been guiding groups with Cycletours International for 15 years and he’s a wealth of knowledge. For instance, we stopped at a mobile fish eatery and he demonstrated how to eat raw herring, Dutch-style — from head to tail, down the hatch. He thoughtfully bought us paper plates of little maatjes, almost raw herring, and pickles. Delicious.
From Delft we headed for The Hague, through parks and the Bosch Palace and sand dunes and dipped our feet in the North Sea. De Joode had a surprise in store: he led us into a small museum where we climbed up a few flights of darkened stairs to The Panorama Mesdag, the largest circular canvas in Europe depicting beach, dunes and a fishing village circa 1880, so cleverly exhibited you don’t know where the illusion blends into reality.
Following the Old Rhine River we passed windmills and houseboats, backyard goats and chickens, bucolic landscapes and fairy tale villages. We passed farmhouses that looked like a Vermeer painting and on to Leiden, with its narrow streets and courtyards dating back to the 17th century.
Go early to the Keukenhof — the world’s largest flower gardens. By noon the tulip capital is jam-packed with tour buses. Leave plenty of time to stroll around Leiden or take a rondvaarten (canal cruise). Lunch at Annie’s by the canal — a good spot for people and boat watching. We biked from Leiden to Haarlem, past tulip fields blazing with colour, and stopped at hofjes, almshouses or inner courtyards built in the 17th century. Well worth a visit.
Only in the Netherlands could I cycle up to 50 km in three consecutive days — it was exhilarating. (So glad I brought padded bike shorts, or you can buy padded seat covers in Amsterdam.) If you’re saddle-sore or just feel like taking a day off from riding during your trip, that’s easy to do. One member of our group decided she wanted to explore Haarlem, the last stop on our trip before returning to Amsterdam. She left on foot when we headed off on our bikes and spent the day exploring art galleries, shops and brew pubs, then hopped a train to Amsterdam and arrived back at the boat in time for dinner.
I now believe the best way to see both city and countryside is from the seat of a bicycle. It makes you feel part of the culture — the Dutch seem to be born on bikes. I have one complaint: Nine days wasn’t long enough. The next visit has to be at least three weeks, time to revisit Haarlem and Leiden and another cycle through the tulips.
If You Go:
Book your bike and tour with www.cycletours.com
Getting There: Fly KLM for this reason alone: their trans-Atlantic flights run on used fat from fast food restaurants—recycled and refined into biofuel. Treat yourself to business class with 17-inch TV screens and 180-degree flat-bed seats. On my return flight I flew Economy Comfort–more leg room than regular economy and very affordable.
Where to Eat:
De Kas: www.restaurantdekas.nl
Puri Mas: www.purimas.nl
Restaurant D’Vijff Vlieghen: www.vijffvlieghen.nl
Where to Stay in Amsterdam: The Art ‘Otel is a few minutes walk from the train station. Great service and reasonably priced in a trendy space: www.artotelamsterdam.com
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