Dam It, Let’s Go to Holland!

With its heady mix of culture and history, Amsterdam may be intoxicating and enlightening. But it’s NOT the Netherlands. To see the “real” Holland, do it the Dutch way… on a bike.

As a long-time aficionado of Amsterdam–indeed, a wannabe expat contemplating buying a home in the Netherlands–I have spent nearly half of the past two years in Holland’s freewheeling capital, mesmerized by the trade city’s heady blend of cosmopolitan traditions and Old World charm. From its shimmering canals to its 17th century merchant houses as well as enclaves of art by great Dutch masters and the still intact hippie vibe with a spirit of laissez faire liberalism, A’dam has much to recommend it to tourists seeking culture, history and a tolerant, non-snooty attitude toward alternative lifestyles.

But Amsterdam is not for everyone, especially those not willing to confine their Puritanical sensibilities against her raw, in-your-face energy, open prostitution and easy availability of soft drugs. Neither is A’dam Holland–land of iconic windmills, plump chocolate and ivory cows, day-glow
tulip fields and families of swans gliding along the waterways of carefully constructed polders. To see the real Holland, the Holland of vast emerald plains and verdant meadows studded with manicured homes, dykes and dunes, consider doing it the Dutch way: on a bike.
A Land Made for Cycling with its small bit of remarkably flat, below
sea-level terrain, Holland seems to have been put on the planet to be a bike-friendly country. Indeed, by some estimates, there are now more than 18 million bicycles swarming around the Netherlands, a tiny nation of 17 million people. To join their ranks for a week, book an up-close-and-personal look at the serene countryside around Amsterdam on a bike-barge tour.

Given the Netherlands’ lush scenery and horizontal layout, most tours
offered by local companies are not designed for mileage junkies, hill
climbing fanatics or speed demons. If you’re an even somewhat in-shape parent or senior interested in vacationing with a child or grandchild age eight or older, touring Holland by bike could be a perfect, stress-free adventure without the hassle of packing and unpacking between destinations.
For all interested in viewing the fertile Dutch countryside at a leisurely pace, such options as the “Relaxing Southern Tour” are available. It’s the alternative I took when I embarked on a seven-night, eight-day guided adventure in May–the tail end of the tulip season, when the weather was mild and fields of flowers bloomed like Nature’s fireworks.

Priced at around 115 Euro ($172) a day including accommodations, meals, escort services by knowledgeable Dutch guides and bike rental, this tour and others like it are inclusive (save for alcoholic beverages) bargains for sightseers seeking comfort and convenience on a relaxing jaunt through neon bulb fields and historic town centers.

My relaxing Southern Tour Itinerary, led by intrepid Dutch marine biologist-turned-tour guide, Piet, stopped at such enclaves of Dutch culture as Schoonhoven, where silversmiths still practice their time-honored craft; St. John’s Church, where the “Gouda Windows” recount Biblical and Dutch history in stained glass; and De Delftse Pauw, Delft’s center of Chinese-inspired blue ceramics. In Den Haag, hub of Dutch government, we visited Mauritshuis–The Royal Picture Gallery–where Vermeer’s “Girl With the Pearl Earring,” Rembrandt’s self-portrait and other renowned works are displayed.

Other highlights included visits to Kinderdijk, Holland’s most impressive collection of polder mills, home to 19 eighteenth-century windmills used until 1950 to prevent the drained Alblasserwaard from flooding; Rotterdam, a Mecca for modern architecture fans and the world’s second largest port
(after Shanghai); and Keukenhof, reputedly the world’s largest flower garden, where seven million bulbs bloom in fluorescent splendor each spring.
At Huis ten Bosch, our band of 14 laid-back cyclists age 25 to 70-something checked out Queen Bea’s house near a forest midway between Delft and Leiden. Nature lovers appreciated our visit to Holland’s resort near Scheveningen, bordered by rolling sand dunes. Culture vultures sapped up Dutch customs at the Zaanse Schans Open-Air Museum, a re-created 17th-century town that showcases the Netherlands’ culture, from cheese-making to clog-crafting, in a sort of Dutch Disneyland minus the roller coasters.

Yet no listing of attractions in southwestern Holland can come close to capturing the real appeal my tour’s unhurried course through landscapes of carefully plotted-out fields and meadows laced with dykes, waterways, and colorful flora and fauna.

Beyond the charm of picture-postcard panoramas, the Netherlands boasts some of the world’s most impressive man-made terrain, parceled out like a manicured chessboard in land reclaimed from the sea. Even without an engineering background, I marveled at the water management technology
through which Dutchies have turned previously uninhabitable terrain into an orderly pastiche, demonstrating their cleverness at turning a wannabe foe into a pastoral friend.
For those not impressed by leafy pastures of happily grazing cows and sheep, a visit to the Museum de Cruquius, one of the world’s first technical museums and home of its largest steam engine, may hold more appeal. Toward our tour’s end, we stopped at this miracle of Victorian technology, where the former boiler rooms of the steam-pumping station that drained Haarlem Lake in three years provide an overview of a 2,000-year-old struggle against water. The feat launched the Industrial
Revolution in the Netherlands. In the 1930s, The Dutch Royal Institute of Engineers saved the pumping station from demolition by turning it into a museum.



A Sightseeing Junket

With an average daily mileage of 24, the “Relaxing Southern Tour” could be traversed in two or three days by cyclists who simply want to get from Point A to Point B. But that is clearly not the point of what is designed as a sightseeing junket on two wheels, not an endurance race. On my tour,
I pedaled along on a comfortable Gazelle touring bike equipped with 24 gears and yellow panniers, provided by the tour operator.
I needed few of these gears, for the Dutch countryside is as flat as cloggies’ delectable poffertjes-small, fluffy pancakes you might sample on board the modern Victorian-style Sailing Home. If you’re fortunate enough to have Guerdi, a no-nonsense Dutch chef known to spend all day in a ship’s kitchen preparing such exotic culinary imports as rijstaffel (literally, rice table), comprised of rice surrounded by well seasoned side dishes, you can be sure you’ll be well fed on your trip.

A Multicultural GroupOn board Sailing Home, I occupied a comfortable cabin with private bath, central heating and air-conditioning. Of course, I could have stayed all day here or in the ship’s cozy lounge if I chose, for no excuse is needed to stay indoors if the riding mood fails to set in or inclement weather threatens to dampen cycling pleasure.
Adding to the week’s fun was a multicultural tour roster; my fellow riders included three American couples from conservative Pennsylvania Dutch Country, a fourth from Germany, a fifth from Canada and a delightful mother-son duo from Argentina. Among the group was Tom from Minnesota, a
single like me, who had energy to spare after each day’s riding. Each evening, after I’d retired for the night, he went looking for life in such quiet towns as Delft, Leiden and Haarlem, but found little to amuse himself after the sun went down.

On the morning following our disembarkation from Sailing Home, I proudly shepherded Tom around Amsterdam, treating him to sights in the town where I yearn to live that are far different than what we’d uncovered in the Dutch countryside. And like me, he came to this conclusion: the Dutch landscape surrounding the Netherlands’ capital is not Amsterdam. But neither is A’dam representative of the charming countryside that envelopes it like a soft cushion around a pulsating hub.