From there, we went south to Hoorn, which has a scenic old town and central square, and then to Edam, known for its savory circular cheeses, where we abandoned the car for rented bicycles.
Edam became my favorite stop in Holland. It's a storybook town of cobblestone streets, tidy little shops and rustic canals and bridges.
We rode through the village and countryside, then topped a dike along Lake IJsselmeer's edge. It was overcast and cold, and I could see sailboats straining again the wind on the lake and feel my face turning bright red in the chill.
"Imagine the sun is shining and the sky is blue," Zumpolle said, stopping for a moment to talk.
I could feel a proverb coming on.
"See how the water in the lake is higher than the land on the other side of the dike?" she said, pointing. "Holland is a very low country. Almost half is below sea level; the Dutch had to reclaim it.
"That is why we say, 'God made the world, but the Dutch created Holland,' " she said. We rode about a mile farther, visiting the intensely busy tourist town of Volendam, where giant buses squeeze through tiny lanes and street-side tourist shops hawk T-shirts and wooden shoes. It felt like Disneyland on a holiday weekend.
We pedaled back to slow-paced Edam, where we sipped hot chocolate in the restaurant of L'Auberge Damhotel Edam. The charming hotel, renovated by new owners, had opened only three weeks earlier. It was the best bargain I found in the Netherlands; doubles start at $140 a night.
The day's bike ride had been bracing and fun. As I cupped the steaming mug of chocolate, I thought about my trip. I hadn't pedaled past any tulips, but I'd cycled through fishing villages, along a rugged coastline and through fields of daffodils. I'd found big variety in this small country. And I'd found bicycle nirvana.
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From LAX, KLM offers nonstop service, United has direct service (stop, no change of plane) and Continental, Northwest, Lufthansa, Delta, United, British and Air France offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $880.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 31 (country code for the Netherlands) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Ibis Amsterdam Centre, 48 Stationsplein, 1012 AB, Amsterdam; 20-638-99-99, http://www.ibishotel.com . This centrally located high-rise has small but efficient rooms, most with harbor or city views. Good value, but the hot breakfast entrees are cold. Doubles from $160 per night, including breakfast.
L'Auberge Damhotel Edam, 1 Keizersgracht, 1135 AZ Edam; 299-37-40-31, http://www.damhotel.nl . Charming historic building in Edam was renovated and opened as a hotel in March. Restaurant and cafe. Doubles from $140, including breakfast.
Hotels van Oranje, 20 Koningin Wilhelmina Blvd., 312202 GV Noordwijk aan Zee; 71-367-68-69, http://www.hotelsvanoranje.nl . Luxury convention-style hotel in popular North Sea beach town. Close to dunes bike path. Doubles from $230, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
Humphreys Restaurant, 23 Nieuwezijdskolk, 1012 SB Amsterdam; 20-422-12-34, http://www.Humphreys.nl . Popular Netherlands chain. Three-course nightly specials, including salad or appetizer, entree and dessert, $24.
Moti Mahal Indian Restaurant, 34 N.Z. Voorburgwal, 1012 SB Amsterdam; 20-625-03-30. Colorful, centrally located restaurant has a large menu featuring Indian favorites. Entrees from $17.
Sea Palace, 8 Oosterdokskade, 1011 AE Amsterdam, 20-626-47-77, http://www.seapalace.nl . Pagoda-style, floating Chinese restaurant. Great city view from the water. Entrees from $21; set menu from $35.
Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer, 313 Legmeerdijk, 1430 BA Aalsmeer; 297-39-39-39, http://www.aalsmeer.com . The world's largest flower auction center. 7-11 a.m. Mondays-Fridays. Adults $5.75, children 6-11, $3.20.
Rembrandt 400. For a listing of special events in Amsterdam and Leiden, Rembrandt's birthplace, this year, see http://www.rembrandt400.com .
Yvonne Zumpolle, tour guide-manager, 17 Herman Colleniusstraat, 9718 KR Groningen, Netherlands, 50-31-13-177, e-mail email@example.com.
TO LEARN MORE:
Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions, (888) 464-6552, http://www.holland.com .
— Rosemary McClure
Easy riding in the Netherlands
Several companies offer bike-and-barge tours, which spend a week traveling along the country's canals, stopping for daily rides. Other tour groups offer organized weeklong rides. Or cyclers can use Amsterdam as a base. Here's a sampling of easy trips. (Detailed info on the routes is available from MacBike; see below.)
Waterland bicycle tour: By taking a ferry behind Central Station, hardy cyclers can see the countryside and bike as far as Marken (about 28 miles round trip).
Amstel-windmill tour: Cycle along the scenic Amstel River, seeing thatched-roof Dutch houses, windmills, dikes and houseboats. Begin at the Waterlooplein, cycling seven to 15 miles round trip.
Hans Brinker tour: This tour, named after the fictional boy who plugged a leak by putting his finger into a dike, rambles through green countryside, heading to Spaarndam. Begin at Central Station, cycling 22 miles round trip.
MacBike: T12 Stationsplein, 20-624-83-91, http://www.macbike.nl . This large bike rental and repair company has four locations in Amsterdam, including one in front of Central Station. Open 9 a.m.-5:45 p.m. daily.
Yellow Bike: 29 Nieuwezijds Kolk, 1012 PV Amsterdam, 20-620-69-40, http://www.yellowbike.nl . Bike rentals or organized city or countryside bike tours offered March-November. Open 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily.
— Rosemary McClure