This spring I had an opportunity to spend a few days on a boat and bike tour in the Netherlands. It is not uncommon in the travel industry that people are offered a (partially) paid trip to a destination to experience the wonders of say, Colombia, a short cruise to a Carribean island or a city trip to Ottawa. It is no different from BMW organising its dealer days.
All aboard the ship
I do some writing, video editing and website stuff for a travel agency and while I was in the Netherlands, I thought it would be a great idea to visit one of those boat and bike ships that would touch on Utrecht when I happened to be there. We suggested a brief tour on the ship for some photos but instead we were invited to stay and bike along for a few days.
I know several people in Ottawa who absolutely love the concept of a boat and bike (also known as boat and barge) tour so we decided to accept the offer and boarded “the Amsterdam” in Utrecht on a cool Wednesday in May.
But what is a boat and bike tour?
Basically, you book a week on a river boat, which can be a small boat for 20 people or a much larger river cruise ship with 120 passengers. You’ll find them all over Europe, with routes from Paris to Brugge, down the Danube from Germany all the way to Romania, on the Rhine in Germany or up several rivers in the eastern Netherlands to name but a few options. You’ll eat and sleep on the ship, which usually sails to the next destination the next morning while you bike to that destination. Other times, the ship moves a few hours in the afternoon and early evening.
Guided and semi guided tours
There are guided and semi guided tours. On a guided tour the guide is with you all day. On a semi guided tour, the guides will explain the route at a briefing in the evening and then you bike on your own the next day. Our fellow guests had boarded days earlier already and had cycled through that typical landscape the western part of the Netherlands is known for: the extremely flat countryside with its canals and windmills. Thanks to a combination of a weatherproof map the tour operator provides, the GPS tracks that guests had received before they left home and the excellent node based wayfinding system in the Netherlands, finding your way is not difficult.
Windbreakers and shorts
No sooner had we arrived at the ship or around 60 people came from different directions: healthy looking people in windbreakers and shorts, on regular bikes and e-bikes: they had just arrived from their day tour that started in Gouda, southwest of Utrecht. Gouda, known for its cheese, candles, stroopwafels and, less known, for its dozens of stained glass windows from the late 1500’s in the local St Jans church, lies in the middle of a large green zone with that typical Dutch landscape.
Stuck in Amsterdam
As we boarded our ship in Utrecht at the end of the afternoon, coffee or tea with cake was waiting for us. Then it was off to the cabins to refresh and at around 6, we all showed up for the briefing for the next day: a day in Haarlem.
While we were being briefed, the ship, with all our bikes parked on the upper deck, already set sail to Haarlem, a few hours on the Amsterdam-Rijn canal passing the Daphne Schippersbrug, that famous cycling bridge built over the roof of a school. There was a serious wind and we learned we were not going to make it to Haarlem that night: the ship would be moored in Amsterdam, just west of the downtown core. The issue was that high winds prevent the ship to get out of the locks.
GPS for your boat and bike tour
On Thursday morning early, I felt, still in bed, a light shock when the ship left again (never call it a boat, I learned). We went through the locks north of Haarlem and moored around 9 am. Everyone was champing at the bit again to leave for today’s ride, which most people do on their own or in small groups of instant ship friends.
There is an option to book a guided tour for a day, but the vast majority of the guests does the ride on their own. While cycling away, I could hear the several GPS systems telling our fellow cyclists to turn right, left, right, straight ahead.
Boat and bike tour briefing
As it turns out, self guided or semi guided boat and bike tours are taken mostly by Germans, the guided tours by Canadians, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders. Perhaps oversees visitors are not sure what to expect and choose for the safety of a local to be with them. We were on a ship with mostly Germans, in fact all of them, except a couple from Australia who had decided to tag along with several Germans.
Every night we received a briefing, with photos and maps and in different languages. This is part of the semi guided tour. The guides explain briefly where the pit stops are (coffee, lunch, washrooms: there is always an abundance of choices in Europe) and go over some of the history. This happens before dinner. Afterwards the two Ozzies got their own briefing in English.
Don’t pee in the forest
We had a lovely day in the Haarlem area. Haarlem is an old town between Amsterdam and the coast of the North Sea. West of Haarlem you can find the Kennemer Duinen National Park, an attractive area to hike and bike through. Beaches galore for those who want to try a refreshing 13C plunge in the North Sea. The dunes also provide drinking water to Amsterdam so don’t pee in the forest.
At some point one can choose for a shorter or a longer version of the tour (35 vs 50 ish kilometers) to cater to the different levels of fitness. On the way back, we stopped in Haarlem for a refreshing beer at the car free main market square. We had biked into quite a tough wind along the coast and we certainly felt it in our legs.
Life on a boat and bike ship
Our ship had about 55 cabins, but only half were sold as it was still early in the season. Some cabins are on the lower deck and others on the upper deck (bigger windows). There are a few suites but we didn’t get to see those. The week after, we learned the ship would be nearly full.
A 3 course dinner is served in the dining room. Food is included but drinks are extra. Interestingly, the catering staff is not on the cruise ship payroll, but working for a separate company. That probably makes sense as river cruises don’t operate year round. The super friendly and very attentive staff was mostly from Romania, who would have thought.
Buffet style breakfast at our boat and barge tour
Our breakfast was extensive with yogurt and fruit, and sausages and fried potatoes and buns and cold cuts and Dutch and French cheese. I liked I could eat to my heart’s content, and had no problem mixing the several food offerings. At breakfast, bags are provided to bring your own lunch. Eager as I was, I brought some sandwiches for lunch, but the breakfast was so good, I hardly had lunch in the end.
At night the ship motored to Zaandam, North West of Amsterdam and known for its chocolate processing plants (you’ll smell it!) and its collection of windmills that have been brought over to a cental space along the Zaandam waterfront. As it turns out, the paint for the 17th century painters was ground at those mills.
We left the ship and followed the route to the windmills. The Zaanse Schans museum itself is freely accessible but you have to pay to get a tour inside the mills, which is definately worth doing. It is so impressive to see the wind being converted into sheer power to cut trees. After the museum we veered off the route a bit to see a wetland that wasn’t part of the tour and then we hooked up with the original tour again. During the day, you’d see several people from the ship: sometimes you pass them, sometimes they passed us.
Broek in Waterland
I wanted to see a few other places north of Amsterdam so we created a bit of our own tour that day. Thanks to the numbered junction system (knooppunten) this is really easy to do. We ended up having coffee and cake in a Dutch reformed church in ‘Broek in Waterland’ that also functions as a café (yes there were fried ‘bitterballen’ too) and it had a second hand book table.
Broek in Waterland (Broek means marsh) dates back to the 13th century and was destroyed by the Spanish troops in 1573 when the Northern Dutch provinces were at war with the Spanish king (who had both Spanish and Austrian Habsburg ancestors, who in turn had inherited the Burgundian lands through marriages. Several mostly southern Dutch provinces at some time were part of the Burgundian empire until the Burgundian dukes ran out of sons and ‘their’ lands went to the Habsburg empire through marriage. The Calvinist Dutch had no desire to revert to Catholicism which the Spanish king so desperately wanted them to do that they basically gave him the middle finger)
After Broek in Waterland, with its lovingly restored houses, we turned South towards Amsterdam where our ship would be waiting for our last night. We crossed the IJ river by foot ferry (one of the 5-6 operating) and got off the ferry right behind Amsterdam Central Station. Then it was just a short 15-20 minute ride to our rooms. That is the cool part of staying on a boat, err… ship: your hotel travels with you.
Boat and bike tours with family
Some people I know do these boat and bike tours with a group of friends and rent an entire smaller ship together. Others go with their parents as it is such a great way to move around when mobility becomes a bit of an issue.
Recently a Dutch friend of mine went with her mom and siblings on a river cruise through the eastern Netherlands and thoroughly enjoyed it. There is no need for a car, and if mom is too tired on day 4, she just stays at the ship reading a book while the rest of the family is cycling. In larger cities, the ship might moor sometimes away from downtown, but there is often a bus service or Uber or a taxi. One can not take the ship’s bicycles at night to go for an extra ride into town. Most people appeared too tired anyway I sensed.
It is probably not something you do when you are in your late 20’s, but what a great way to travel when you are getting older (or with your parents) and you don’t really feel like hanging out with Generation Z anymore.
The cost for a boat and bike trip
So how much does that cost? Depending on the season, you are paying somewhere starting around 699 Euros and up for a week for food and accomodation based on double occupancy. Prices vary all the time, so this is just a rough suggestion. Drinks are extra, museums etc are usually extra too. Bicycles are extra. Why? Because some people want to bring their own bikes. Every company has its own pricing depending on level of service, quality of the food, mooring rights etc.
Tickets to Europe vary greatly depending on the season and fuel prices so I am not even going to guess. As your ticket is a major expense, I would combine it with extra days, preferably before the trip so that you can recover from your jetlag. Be sure you bring stuff like converter plugs to charge your appliances.
I am learning that quite often there are several special offers for spring and fall tours, such as “pay for one, get the second one at half price”. Your travel agent receives those offers regularly. If you don’t care about somewhat cooler weather and if you are flexible, it will save you hundreds of Euros. Euros you can spend on Heineken beer, Champagne, cheese or salami instead. Who’s in? And if you need some training first, why not bike one of Ottawa’s multi use pathways?
There can be several reasons Europeans travel non-guided and Canadians and Australians prefer guided. We can be shy of different customs and languages that Europeans are more at home with. It is hard for a car-culture person to imagine the easiness of European cycling. But the biggest reason is distance … it is relatively easy to get a group of Europeans together for a bike boat trip as its an affordable train trip to get to the start point, suitable for annual vacation times or retirement recreation. But for non Europeans there is the financial and travel time hurdle of a trans world plane ticket, which makes it harder to gather together friends for a trip. With a western world increasingly dominated by singles, a group tour provides instant friends.