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Holland, by Bike and Barge

Rolling leisurely through the Dutch lowlands by day, bunking down on a cozy canal boat at night.

August 27, 2000|By Susan Spano

AMSTERDAM -- On a bike tour through southern Holland in June, my group stopped at Madurodam, a popular theme park that replicates the country in miniature. There is a little Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam's repository of Dutch masters; the town hall of Gouda, the cheese center; and Schiphol Airport. In the theme park, Amsterdam lies about 25 feet from Rotterdam. In reality, 45 miles separate them--too far to walk but not too far to cycle in a day.

That's the way it is in the Netherlands, a country in miniature that, at 16,033 square miles, is just four times larger than L.A. County, give or take. Even at life size, nothing is far away, making it the perfect place for a biking vacation. That's especially true for cyclists like me, who want to see the sights but aren't training for the Tour de France.

There were other reasons to choose a bike tour in Holland. Above all, it's flat. These are Europe's lowlands, with farmland (called polder land) reclaimed from marshes and the sea. Bike paths abound, taking cyclists past windmills and canals surrounded by bucolic landscapes; those who travel by car along motor ways see much more urban sprawl. Everyone bikes here, and cyclists' rights are respected. When an accident occurs between a bicycle and an automobile, by Dutch law the motorist is always at fault.

I also found what turned out to be an excellent bike tour at a surprisingly low price, offered by a 19-year-old Dutch company called Cycletours International. Cycletours organizes group and independent biking vacations all over Europe, with luggage transfers and lodgings booked along the way. I was most attracted to its four- and seven-night trips--most of which begin in Amsterdam--on which travelers overnight on river barges. By day, groups of 15 to 30 participants, led by guides, head out on bikes as the barge floats to its evening destination. After the cyclists rendezvous with the boat, there's dinner on board, exploring the town, and the same bunk to tuck into, which, in a way, is nicer than staying in a different place every night.

Cycletours isn't into luxury, though. There's little hand-holding during the rides, which seldom cover more than 35 miles a day. The food is sustaining but a far cry from gourmet: breakfasts of granola, cheese, cold cuts and bread--out of which we made our packed lunches--and dinners of steamed salmon and mushy pasta, or not-very-Chinese cashew chicken. Nor were accommodations on the barges fancy. I had a small, plain cabin to myself, with two bunks covered by duvets, a sink, tiny closet, stool, porthole and private shower/toilet cabinet.

But you can't beat the price. For a four-night trip on the 86-mile southern route, with overnight stops in Utrecht, Schoonhoven, Delft and Leiden, I paid $500, including meals, accommodations, a single supplement, the services of a tour guide and a bike--but not, of course, including air fare. I booked the trip through Van Gogh Tours, a Massachusetts travel agency, but later discovered that prices are slightly cheaper if you make your arrangements directly with Cycletours in the Netherlands.

If you fly nonstop from L.A. to Amsterdam, as I did, it's best to see the city and get over jet lag before starting a cycling trip. I got in on a Friday afternoon and wasn't really ready for biking when the tour started the next day. Besides, as anyone who's been to Amsterdam knows, the city deserves much more than a day.

I did get a chance to buy my niece six wooden buttons painted to resemble ladybugs at a charming little button shop near the center of town and to visit the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht canal. There I learned that one of the first things the Germans did when they took over Amsterdam in World War II was to ban Jews from riding bikes.

I stayed at the intimate, refined Ambassade Hotel, overlooking another lovely, leafy canal, and dined on steamed trout and French fries at a pretty bistro called Proeverij (pronounced PRO-verray) nearby, with a huge bouquet of red and white roses on the bar.

But what impressed me most is that the city, with a population of 727,000, has about 400,000 bikes. Everyone from wedding guests to the mayor rides them, and all the train stations have bike rental and parking facilities. One fancies that the Dutch learn to bike right after they take their first steps. And as cyclists, they are extremely adept, able to ride while doing other things, like use cell phones, argue politics and kiss (as I saw two young lovers do on a canal bridge).

At a little bike shop near my hotel, for about $15 I bought a padded seat cover and biking gloves from a helpful clerk. I had been advised in advance to pack my biking helmet. In Holland, using helmets isn't mandatory, and most of the people in my group--17 of us, from Europe and North America--didn't wear them.

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