Three years ago, Oli and I had a great time cycling the route of the Leeds Liverpool Canal and we’d planned to do another cycling holiday ever since. Apart from being fun, being a bit adventurous rather than just sitting by a pool for a week means there’s a sense of achievement and a lot of experiences to remember from the holiday. The Netherlands was an obvious choice for us as we’re not big fans of hill climbs on bikes and The Netherlands is famous for being bike friendly (for the rest of this blog I’ll refer to Holland as in fact our route only took us through North and South Holland and we didn’t get to the rest of The Netherlands). But we didn’t realise until we got there quite how bike friendly it was! The Randstad (literally “rim city”) route starts in the Hook of Holland, taking in The Hague and North Sea coast, then inland to Haarlem, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Gouda, Rotterdam and then back to Hook of Holland for the ferry home. Altogether about 200 miles, give or take and depending on precise route.
Our last trip was when Oli was 9 and I wasn’t entirely sure how well he would cope with cycling 30+ miles a day so I carried all our luggage. Now he was 12 he could carry panniers on his bike too! This was helpful as we were away for 9 days rather than just 4 so would need to carry more stuff. But it also meant that it was time to get him a new, bigger bike as a (very) early birthday present. His Trek Dual Sport 2 Hybrid was a very comfortable ride and did the trick – thanks to Matthew at All Terrain Cycles for his expert help in choosing the bike. It really helps to have someone who has been on a similar trip to advise what would be appropriate. While front suspension was not entirely necessary (my steel tourer has rigid forks and was fine), it helped with comfort and the weight penalty is insignificant when you’re already carrying 10-15kg of luggage.
When planning the trip I used Cycling in Amsterdam and The Netherlands by Eric van der Horst as a guide. This was useful for planning, understanding the rules of the road for cyclists and getting a feel for what there was to see and what could be done within each day, but in practice was unhelpful as a route map when actually on the bike. A large part of this is because the infrastructure for cycling within and between places in Holland is so good and so well signposted that a route guide which deliberately deviates from the clearly marked and signposted official direct and scenic routes is difficult to use without having it open all the time and trusting it over the natural routes. However, one very useful thing about the book was that it showed that if we took the Hull-Rotterdam ferry (which would have been most convenient for us living in Leeds) it would add about 10 miles to the beginning and end of our trip, all of which would be riding through the docks at Rotterdam. Instead we booked to go from Harwich to Hook of Holland, which was also quite a lot cheaper.
As for Dutch cycling infrastructure, it is almost unimaginable to someone used to cycling in Britain. It is not just because there are lots of cycle paths but because of how useful and well-constructed they are. Often in Britain, cycle paths in towns stop and start abruptly, taking you on detours to avoid main roads but irritating by being obviously long ways round and off road paths can be rudimentary and uncomfortable (eg much of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal “path” away from the main towns and cities is no more than a rut in the grass). In The Netherlands pretty much every road has a cycle path and even those that don’t, drivers give priority to cyclists. But that barely scratches the surface. The cycle paths themselves are well paved and exist between places as well as within towns and villages. They are as well signposted and direct as “ordinary roads” because they are considered ordinary roads. The most impressive are the paths at each roundabout. Even as a learner car driver, roundabouts in the UK can be somewhat daunting. Dutch roundabouts are an absolute breeze for cyclists with a whole concentric ring outside the one for drivers which drivers must stop to give way when crossing – cyclists just need to look left to make sure they don’t cut up other cyclists!
As we were on holiday, we weren’t planning on doing mammoth distances each day. Our longest day was 36.2 miles, which is comparable to our longest day on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal trip. But doing it on paths which Oli described as being like motorways for bikes was a lot easier and we realised at the end of the holiday that we could probably have done the whole trip (187.7 miles) in less than half the time quite comfortably. We were a lot faster than we were 3 years ago due to the better surfaces, which meant that we got a lot more time to explore the places we stopped at each day than I had expected. As we were enjoying the views we tended to average 10-11 miles an hour which we realised in towns when being effortlessly overtaken by OAPs and parents laden with one or more child on the standard Dutch sit up and beg bikes (and one man riding with his arm in a sling), was not too quick! We did feel a bit better about this when we worked out that many of those cycling in towns were on e-Bikes.
Cycling in the UK is still a lot about exercise as well as transport so using an electrically assisted bike seems like a bit of a cheat, but in Holland, where cycling is just the standard way in which almost everyone gets around even for short distances (the big trade off on road space is not so much taking away from drivers but from pedestrians and there were times when walking was a little fraught!), there’s no concept of it being cheating any more than taking a tram would be. This is also why people cycle in the clothes they need for where they are going rather than for how they’re getting there. Hardly anyone wears a helmet unless they are deliberately going extra fast for sport (the fastest routes often have 30kmh speed limit sections and speed cameras). Otherwise, as the risk of being knocked off by a car or van is so low, there’s no need. That said, it did take some getting used to cycle paths also being used by motor scooters, particularly near-silent electric ones which were a bit of a menace).
So, on to the trip itself (at last!). We took the overnight Stena ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland. Getting the bikes on and secured was very easy and the crew on the car deck were very helpful. Probably the steepest climb we had to do all trip was the ramp from the waiting area to the ferry! The ferry crossing was very comfortable and civilised in a cabin. A world away from the last time I took the Harwich ferry for a holiday with friends to Amsterdam 25 years ago as foot passengers when we tried and failed to sleep on the sofas when someone managed to get into the DJ booth and played the only record they could find over and over again (the 12″ of Livin’ Joy’s Dreamer). We landed at 8am local time and were out and on the road within minutes and 10 minutes later were on the scenic coastal cycle path heading towards The Hague. The weather was fine and sunny but not too hot (unlike the week before when temperatures locally had hit 39C). We very quickly realised that despite cycling quite sedately we had by 10am nearly reached the outskirts of The Hague but couldn’t get into our room until 3pm. So we stopped for a drink at a beach restaurant at Suider Strand, Kijkduin. But it seemed too early to drop anchor so we set off again and headed towards our hotel, hoping to be able to drop off our bags before exploring The Hague. There’d be more time for the seaside later. Or so we thought.
My dad worked in the Merchant Navy and when I was little we often used to travel with him on the ship. When I was about 2, we must have been on one of these trips while his ship was docked in Rotterdam and my mum took me to Madurodam. Madurodam is a park filled with miniature models of many of the most famous sights and buildings in The Netherlands. As a little boy, I was apparently captivated by the models and cried “I want to play with them” but was told I couldn’t. Unfortunately my mum couldn’t find the photos I remember we had of a tiny me in tears at the unfairness of being offered up an incredible set of toys I wasn’t allowed to play with. So, with more time in The Hague than I’d planned on, I persuaded Oli that we should go and visit 45 years on. I had rather expected it to be a bit of an anti-climax but in fact Madurodam was still amazing both to me as a 47 year old and to Oli who is on the verge of entering his teenage “meh” years.
We then cycled back to our room and put our bikes away in the free secure public bike park before going for a mooch around the city which was very pleasant. The only difficulty was getting used to avoiding trams and remembering to watch out for bikes!
When planning the trip, I noticed that midway between The Hague and our next hotel in Nordwijk aan Zee there was a theme park with a waterpark at Duinrell. So our itinerary for day was to break our journey and spend the day at the waterpark and rides. While resting in our room the previous evening Oli had been messaging his friends and, it being a small world discovered that one of his school friends who he knew was on holiday in The Netherlands was actually staying at Duinrell. So rather unexpectedly he managed to meet up. His friend’s mum happens to be the Leeds Councillor in charge of transport but I’m not sure she was impressed by my suggestion that she remodel Leeds to be as cycle friendly as Holland! The waterpark was great fun with some really good slides and one scary one where you entered a tube standing up and then the floor gave way to drop you straight down (I had a go, Oli wimped out sensibly). There were also some good rides but we didn’t fancy the most challenging rollercoasters and stuck to the more sedate ones.
After our day in Duinrell we set off for the early evening 11 miles to our hotel in Nordwijk. We cycled through the dunes and along the coast and were slightly disappointed not to have chosen to stay in the nearer resort of Katwijk which looked really lovely but the beach at Nordwijk was just as nice and we had a very good meal in a beach restaurant watching a dramatic sunset over the North Sea. It was so pleasant that we decided we would postpone setting off the next day for our ride ending in Haarlem until mid-afternoon as it was only 16.5 miles so that we could spend the morning on the beach.
Unfortunately, as we were having our breakfast, the skies opened and it started to rain. That put paid to the plan of mucking around on the beach for the day so we loaded the bikes back up and set off for Haarlem via Zandvoort. As we rode along it became evident that the rain was intensifying and showed no signs of stopping so we didn’t bother with stopping to look at the racing circuit at Zandvoort and just took the main road to Haarlem, first of our reminders of the Dutch origins of New York as the place Harlem is named after.
We arrived thoroughly drenched and went straight to our room to change and lay out our wet clothes to dry. Sightseeing was not an appealing option in the torrential rain so we sat in the cafe below our rooms, played cards and tried out Dutch finger food, which consists of various shapes of breadcrumbed deep fried mush. Ideal with a pint of lager but the meatier varieties ought not to be looked into too closely after taking a bite. Thankfully the skies cleared in the evening and we had a wander around the historic centre and a rather nicer burger in one of the many outdoor restaurants. Our hotel was coincidentally also on Grote Markt in Haarlem and would have been a good place to see the main square if it hadn’t been filled with a cordoned off set of stalls for the Haarlem food festival which was due to start the next day. Never mind, our soggy arrival had put us off hanging around too much anyway.
After two light days of cycling we had a longer day planned going further inland to the windmill museum at Zaanse Schans and then a scenic route into Amsterdam where we were going to spend the next 3 nights. Zaanse Schans is possibly the most twee place I’ve ever been to and was filled with “touristy” tourists hiring bikes to feel like they were doing a Dutch thing without actually going anywhere or experiencing a living place. It has a series of preserved windmills and museums of Dutch life and is very quaint. We spent a while there and took the opportunity to have an ice lolly to cool down after our ride but didn’t feel the need to join the queues to look at the mechanisms of the various windmills and instead headed off towards Amsterdam. Having already seen a lot of the local countryside we decided to go the direct route rather than further into the countryside.
One of the interesting things about Zaanse Schans, which we also experienced in Amsterdam and Utrecht was how, unlike in most of the UK today, there was heavy industry very close to historical and touristy sites. The other side of the river to the windmill museum had an enormous chocolate factory, but apart from filling the air with the smell of cocoa it was not really the stuff of Charlie Bucket’s dreams. Going towards Amsterdam, things remained very industrial, turning to offices as we approached our apartment in Sloterdijk.
Days 5 & 6
We’d booked three nights in Amsterdam to give us a chance to relax after cycling each of the first 4 days of our trip and to give us time to see the city. We weren’t staying far from the city centre and could have cycled in but as it was only one stop on the train from Sloterdijk we decided to use that instead.
The trains were very frequent but surprisingly expensive (€5.60 each for a day return the one stop) and unlike in London, not integrated with other public transport so you had to choose whether to travel by train or to get a combined ticket for trams, buses and metro. No wonder so many people cycle! That said, once we got into the city centre, we were glad to have left our bikes as the huge number of pedestrians and bikes as well as the trams meant that for the first time it didn’t feel too easy to get around by bike when we didn’t really know where we were going.
Both times I’d previously visited Amsterdam I’d been with other adults so it was interesting to see things from a different perspective travelling with Oli. Going with adult friends the places to stay, drink and go out were rather different and it was surprising that this time our natural routes round the city meant that I didn’t need to explain the infamous Red Light District to Oli because we simply didn’t need to go anywhere near it.
We had wanted to visit the Anne Frank House but knew before we set off that we couldn’t as it needs to be booked 2 months in advance, well before I’d booked the rest of the trip and set the dates. We instead visited NEMO, the science museum and had planned to go on to the maritime museum next door but the heavy rain that day meant we didn’t brave it. NEMO was good fun and interactive, but probably better suited to slightly younger children than Oli. On the way back to the station to avoid another downpour we visited the impressive new city library which had a fascinating exhibition about the future of half a dozen cities in the developing world. But we decided we were probably museumed out after that and I didn’t press Oli to visit any more.
One of the first things we were asked when checking into our apartment was whether we were planning to go into the City for its Pride festival. They even gave us a rather nice rainbow rose. Pride is unsurprisingly a very big deal in Amsterdam and was very well supported with a huge parade of literal floats (perhaps a floatilla?) on the main canals. It was quite a spectacle but unfortunately my photos (apart from a panorama which I can’t upload here) don’t quite do it justice.
You can’t really miss the canals in Amsterdam or indeed any of the other towns or cities we visited and they are very picturesque. We took a boat trip around them which turned out also to give the best view of the Pride parade.
Time to remember how to load up the panniers and get back onto our bikes. We set off after breakfast for our longest day’s riding, 36.2 miles from Amsterdam to Utrecht. This involved us braving central Amsterdam, albeit on a Sunday morning when many were probably still sleeping off Pride. The route we were taking started off after leaving the city to go along side the huge North Sea Canal. We could have followed this most of the way to Utrecht, which would have been the quickest way and perfectly pleasant if very straight.
Instead we headed a little away from the main canal to follow the path that ran alongside the River Vecht. This was very pretty and a popular route on a Sunday afternoon with local people. It felt like the posh bits of the Thames around Virginia Water where all the celebrities live.
Utrecht itself was a revelation as I’d really no particular idea about the place at all before going. The city centre is very quaint even after having had a lot of exposure to historical canalside cities over the previous few days. Unusually, the canals are some way below street level. There were a lot of things to see (including the Miffy Museum and statue) but unfortunately we were only there one evening. Sadly the most iconic attraction, the 460 feet tall Dom tower (which somewhat bizarrely our hotel in Gouda was named after) was like Big Ben, covered in scaffolding. But unlike Big Ben, they hadn’t silenced the bells and it played a variety of tunes in chimes every quarter hour. We were central enough that our hotel provided earplugs and warned us about it! However after a long day in the saddle we had no problem sleeping through it. In retrospect it would have been better to have cut our time in Amsterdam by a day and had another day in Utrecht.
Leaving Utrecht to cycle towards Gouda was a very different experience to arriving in Utrecht along the river. As soon as we left the historic centre and got to Utrecht station, the area was a huge building site as they were removing a motorway and replacing it with a new canal (not often it is that way round!). After that, we seemed to go straight into a large area of heavy industry, including the Douwe Egberts coffee factory and modern housing and office developments for quite a way until we reached De Haar. De Haar is described as The Netherlands’ largest castle, but really it is more of a folly as an early C20th millionaire’s house built in fairytale castle style. Curiously, the town of Woerden where we stopped for an (excellent) ice cream actually was once fortified massively as can be seen in its streetplan. The rest of the journey to Gouda was through pleasant countryside and some lakes on the outskirts of the town. Gouda unsurprisingly is very big on its eponymous cheese even to the extent of its bunting being plastic cheese wheels.
Oh no, our last day before catching the ferry back to Harwich at 10pm. Over dinner in Gouda, Oli and I reviewed our final day’s itinerary. The Randstad route would take us through largely urban areas via Rotterdam and through the docks to Hook of Holland. While there were lots of things to see and do in Rotterdam itself, it suddenly felt like a bit of a slog for the last day so Oli suggested instead that we go back to The Hague, which he had really liked and I agreed that would work and allow us to stop off for our evening meal on the beach so we could have a more scenic final day.
We took the most direct route we could and followed the motorway from Gouda to The Hague. Now, in the UK, the idea of cycling along a motorway for 15 miles would not only be illegal but in any case extremely unpleasant. However, this being Holland, alongside each main road but at a distance and well protected there’s a cycle motorway and it was a slightly dull but very easy hour or so’s journey. The only problem (and the reason for doing the trip clockwise) was that we found ourselves with a strong headwind. No wonder the first few days going up the coast had seemed so easy! But, after over a week’s cycling, we were surprised to find that we were actually quicker on the last day’s cycling into the wind than we were on the first day cycling with the wind behind us.
The Hague when we arrived seemed very familiar and we could make our way around without needing to consult our maps. After lunch we went and found the Paleistuin gardens and lazed about for a few hours in the sun. Then got back on our bikes to head back to the coast to Kijkduin and the beach cafe at Suider Strand where we’d stopped for a drink on our first day to have our tea and a bit of beach time before the last few miles back to the ferry home.
Oli and I can thoroughly recommend going on a cycling tour of Holland. Now, where next? Do leave your suggestions for future trips in the comments!