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5,4 22.05.2018 | Stephen M. Super Tulip Tour by Bike + Boat

Super Tulip, Super Tour!

Overall:
I loved this tour; it was a very happy experience.

Although March 2018 had been unusually cold, delaying the onset of spring colour, in the second week of April we still saw plenty of fields full of colourful flowers, though with a tendency for them to be hyacinths or daffodils rather than the tulips of the tour title. Added to this were the fascinating Dutch towns through which we passed or stayed overnight and the excellent crew of Anna Antal, attentive to every need.

Highlights:
The travel itinerary rightly mentions Keukenhof Gardens and Zaanse Schans as key components of this tour. The flower market at Alsmeer, though, is bonkers, an historical anachronism.

  • Leiden
  • Alkmaar
  • The visit to Egmond and its link to Goethe and Beethoven
  • Cycling through the dunes
  • Good company on the tour, from all involved, guests and crew.

Niggles:

  • The tour information had listed the visit to the Royal FloraHolland flower auction at Alsmeer as being included in the tour price. This is not so: we had to pay EUR 8.50 (group discount rate) admission separately.
  • Looking through the promotional photographs for many Netherlands tours, you will see pictures of the cheese market in Alkmaar (although, Rad & Reisen’s site, quite correctly, does NOT show any for this tour), so you might assume you will see this in Alkmaar. However, this event, which, apparently, is staged purely for tourists, takes place only on Fridays; the tour visits the town on Wednesday.

Regrets:

  • I originally applied (in October 2017) to book this tour starting on 21 April 2018, because I had seen the annual Flower Parade was on 21 April, ending in Haarlem. The itinerary of this tour involves sailing from Amsterdam to Haarlem on the first day, which would have been absolutely perfect for the Flower Parade. Unfortunately, it was already fully booked and I was offered a date two weeks earlier. Not my ideal, but better than nothing.
  • I feel I might have made better use of my time in the evenings when there was no official evening walk: at Kudelstaart, Wormerveer and (unplanned) Zaandam. They may be small places, but still worth exploring. (I have actually been to Zaandam before.)

Date of my Tour: 2018-04-07/14 (7 nights / 8 days)

Rad & Reisen’s local agent: Cycle Tours

Ship Operator: WRM

Options Chosen:

  • 1-bed-cabin Standard-Plus on Anna Antal.
  • Travel documents in English.
  • Bike without a coaster (“back-pedal”) brake.

Which Ship?
There are 3 different boats performing this tour and I chose the cheapest of them, Anna Antal. During the week of my tour, one of the other boats, Sailing Home, was on the same tour, essentially moored alongside every day, so it was inevitable that an assessment would be made of whether I had made the right choice. As a solo traveller, I find it hard to see how the tour operator can justify a huge difference between the tour price on Sailing Home compared to Anna Antal: EUR 1565 on Sailing Home compared to EUR 1080 on Anna Antal — that’s a premium of EUR 485, or 45%!

I asked our tour guide, Henk (VW) about the difference, and his efforts at “explanation” served only to convince me the difference is not justified (I suspect he actually agrees with me). He told me the cabins are larger on Sailing Home, and — wait for it! — the food is better and there’s more of it! Finally, there’s an extra crew member, for daily cleaning of cabins.

All this needs to be understood in context. No matter which boat you go on, your cabin will be small. Prior to booking, you will see terms like “Comfort”, “Comfort Plus” and “Comfort DeLuxe” to describe the cabins (the difference between them can be quite technical), but, when you receive your tour booklet a week or two before the start, you will find a section entitled “Honest Words” describing the smallness of the cabin and re-setting expectations. Why is this necessary if there has not been an element of mis-selling beforehand? So, the cabins on Sailing Home may be larger than on Anna Antal, but the difference will not be anything like enough to justify a 45% difference in tour price.

Next, the assertion of better food and more of it. This one was laughable. There was food a-plenty on Anna Antal, more than enough, and there were no complaints about quality: the only comments I heard were compliments about how delicious it was. Perhaps the people on Sailing Home were fed a diet of oysters and caviar all week, which I would have found entirely unsatisfactory. So, I consider this point about food completely specious. (I’ve recorded details of our evening meals below; I’ve no idea if the chef determines what s/he will prepare each day, or whether the shipping or tour company dictates the menu, so consider this to be nothing more than an indication of what might be served during the week.)

Now, the point about the extra crew member. This crew member performs daily cleaning of cabins. Nice, but not essential. An extra crew member does introduce additional cost to the operator, to be recouped across the passenger base, but an extra EUR 485 on the single person price does seem excessive.

In this discussion, I had a point to put to Henk: Sailing Home has a maximum capacity of 28 passengers, while Anna Antal’s maximum is 18 (we had 16 on our tour because of two single travellers); I asked if Sailing Home ever has two tour guides. His answer was that there’s always one, never two. It was noticeable that the cycling group that poured forth from Sailing Home every day was considerably longer than our own, with the attentions of the tour guide spread amongst that larger group. This, it seems to me, counters the so-called “advantages” of Sailing Home, making Anna Antal much better value for money.

For a couple sharing a cabin, the price differential is much less marked, though, frankly, I’d still book Anna Antal, booking two Standard-Plus cabins (bunk beds) for single use, which will cost exactly the same as a single cabin on Sailing Home (EUR 1080 each), giving you more space, separate bathrooms and a reduced load on your tour guide and other crew members. (A single Comfort-grade cabin (low beds) on Anna Antal was EUR 975 per person in 2018, a EUR 105 saving per person saving compared to the Comfort-Deluxe cabin on Sailing Home.)

Materials Supplied
A couple of weeks prior to the tour, I received documents from Rad & Reisen:

  • Travel Information Booklet.
  • Town Plan of Amsterdam
  • A leaflet about the Keukenhof Gardens, a tour of which is included in the itinerary.
  • Receipts.

On arrival, the tour Guide, Henk (VW) distributed the Route Book, which will be needed by anyone who decides to cycle independently. I didn’t refer to it at all during the entire tour. Perusing it at home after the trip, I noticed it contains a few pages of Dutch phrases of use to cycle-tourists, a couple of pages of the rules of the road in The Netherlands and a set of maps of the route together with the knouppunts (the cycle network system) comprising the route. I noticed on a couple of days the position of the boat shown on the map was not the actual position: in Leiden, for example, the map brought you down the wrong side of the Oude Rijn (Rhine), so you would have needed all your skills at walking/cycling on water to reach the boat on the opposite bank. My assumption is that, had people been cycling independently (no one did on our tour), Henk (VW) would have explained to them the boat would not be at the spot shown on the map and given instructions on how to reach it.

In the Lounge/Dining Room maps of some of the main towns visited were available (I distinctly remember Alkmaar).

Additional Maps
ANWB (the Dutch equivalent of Britain’s Automobile Association) and map publisher Falk both produce excellent sets of cycle maps (“Fietskaart“) at 1:50 000 scale (2 cm on the map represents 1 km on the ground). Both sets show the Knouppunts used in the Dutch/Belgian cycle network system and also used in the Route Book provided on the tour. If you plan to simply follow the tour guide, you will not need these maps, but if you decide to cycle independently (or are interested to see where you’ve been on a map), it is probably a good idea to have the maps from either of these sets which cover the area of the tour. The maps in the route book are very similar to these, but show only a strip close to the planned route.

ANWB Fietskaart:
12: Noord-Holland Noord and Texel
13: Noord-Holland Zuid, Amsterdam and Kennemerland
14: Zuid-Holland, Rotterdam & Den Haag

FalkPlan Fietskaart:
13: Kop van Holland, Met Kennemerland en de Zaanstreek
14: Zuid-Holland-Noord, Met het Groene Hart-West en Bollenstreek

Transfers:
I flew to Amsterdam’s Schipol airport (code AMS), then took the train from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal (just over EUR 5 — though, for the first time, I realised you can save EUR 1 if you have some sort of card, which visitors won’t have). From here it is a relatively short walk trundling your case to Oosterdok (East Dock), near the Nemo Science Centre, where the boat Anna Antal (and many others!) are moored. (Previous experience means I know the No. 48 bus, which leaves from stop F close by the Victoria Hotel, across from the station, passes along Prins Hendrikkade with a stop very close by, at the back of the Nemo Centre.)

Officially, the latest time for boarding the boat was 14:00 (2 pm), because the boat was due to set sail at 14:15 (2:15 pm), so this needs to be borne in mind when booking flights — you probably need to be on a train leaving the airport by 13:00 (1 pm) at the latest if you are to be on the boat in time.

At the end of the tour, I trundled my case in the opposite direction, from the mooring point in Oosterdok to Amsterdam Centraal station and then onwards (lucky me, to Schagen in North Holland for a few extra days exploring).

The boat
Anna Antal

Cabins are small, as is typical in these boats. On entering mine, through a sliding door, bunk beds (a feature of Standard-Plus accommodation) took up the entire left-hand wall. On the wall opposite the door was a set of shelves. A door in the middle of the right-hand wall led into the bathroom, and closer to the entrance door were a set of hooks with coat hangers. The bathroom was small, but not as cramped as on some other river boats I have been on.

Life on Board
Once everyone had arrived on board, an introductory session was held in the lounge/dining room before the boat set sail for the first time. The 3 crew members (employed by the ship operator, WRM), skipper Henk, chef Nicole and “assistant” Anneke (at the end of the tour, I told her she could have described her role more accurately as the “Service Delivery Manager” because she was the person who was making sure the efforts of her colleagues were being received by the guests) and a second Henk (Henk VW), our tour guide (employed by the tour operator, Cycle Tours) introduced themselves and described the safety features, evacuation procedures and other facilities of the ship. Then the guests were asked to briefly introduce themselves (a first for me on a boat tour).

On this tour, there were 16 guests (Anna Antal has a maximum capacity of 18): 7 “Australians”, all from a single extended family (Grandma and Grandad, their son and daughter, he with his British wife, she with her two daughters); 6 French (2 couples and 2 women travelling together), an American couple and myself. Of these, three did not cycle and one other took a day off from cycling in the middle of the week. Because of the backgrounds of the guests, although the official languages on board were English and German, for our group, the Dutch crew adopted English and French; and the guests tried a bit of Franglais as necessary.

The daily schedule was breakfast at 08:00; briefing 08:45; afternoon refreshments at “17:00”, or whenever the cyclists returned to the boat; evening meal at “18:30”, which I liked to tease Henk about, because he often changed this.

For meals, you are NOT assigned to a particular table, although, as the lounge/dining room has three 6-seat tables which are set for meals, on our tour it worked out as if you were, with the 6 French on one table, an extra place set at the head of another table to allow the 7 “Australians” to sit together, and the rest of us — the 2 Americans, myself and tour guide Henk — as a group of four on the third table.

Breakfasts are buffet meals. The extra tables in the lounge/dining room are used to set out an assortment of breads, cheeses, cold meats and various spreads. Along the bar are cereals, yoghurt, fruit (including delicious dates) and possibly some cooked food. Additionally, on each table, there’s a jug of orange juice and a basket containing a variety of small fruit juice packs, chocolate bars and snacks to take for the lunch pack, which you make up from the breakfast items. Plastic bags are provided for packing your lunch items.

Evening meals are sit-down meals consisting of three courses. I’m not sure if anyone on this tour asked for a vegetarian option; as far as I know, everyone was served the same. Before each meal, Nicole emerged from the galley to tell us, in English and best-efforts French, what each course would be. For main courses, dishes of vegetables were provided for each table and these were more than ample. I kept a record of each meal and have detailed them below. Between the main course and dessert, Henk (VW) would ask Nicole for “a minute” in which he would read off the ride statistics from his GPS, or announce an evening walking tour.

The boat has an automated vending machine in the lounge/dining room for teas (ie hot water — a selection of tea bags is available), coffee, drinking chocolate, etc., all of which are free at any time, though the machine does not work at night from 23:00 (11 pm), when the boat is switched to battery power. For alcoholic drinks, an honesty system is in operation: for each cabin there’s a sheet on which you place an entry each time you take a can or bottle from the chilled cabinet in the lounge; at the end of the week, this is totted-up and you settle (in cash) before you depart.

The boat obtains electrical power by three different means: direct power from a line provided at the mooring point, generator power and battery power. If a supply is not available at the mooring, the boat uses its generators until 23:00 (11 pm) after which it uses its batteries (until 07:00). My cabin had a single electrical outlet and I found, when on battery power, my mains-USB charging device would not work. However, outlets in the lounge/dining room did work and a number of people connected their devices there. The crew has a variety of chargers for charging small devices, but the demand for these is high so the sensible thing is to bring your own.

People generally complain about the lamentable Wi-Fi signal available on these river boats. Normally, I have no interest in such things when on holiday, but this time, I brought a laptop and I found the Wi-Fi excellent. I didn’t hear anyone complain about it on this tour and I know the two teenagers were giving it a good workout with their mobile phones. Although the signal was only supposed to be available in the lounge/dining room, I found I could get a reduced but adequate signal in my cabin (immediately below).

The system for indicating your whereabouts (are you on or off the boat?) is slightly different from most boats. During the cycle rides, you leave your cabin key on the key rack in the lounge/dining room. However, if you go ashore independently, you are asked to take your key with you, especially if you are likely to be back after 23:00 (11 pm), when the boat is locked-up for the night, as you will need the key to get back in. (The normal rule on other boats — those with a night watchman — is that you place your key on the rack whenever you leave the boat, whether cycling or not.) I didn’t bother with my key at all: it stayed on its hook for the entire tour.

Bike
My booking had included an option for a standard bicycle without a coaster brake (“back-pedal” brake) and this was honoured; the bike provided was a Batavus Boulevard 24 (retailing at EUR 714, I see online), which appeared to be brand new (it was the opening week of the season).

Gearing was provided by a 24-speed derailleur system. My bike had battery lights (which I didn’t use); a few people had bikes with a hub-generator-powered front light. A Cycle Tours-branded over-the-rack pannier bag set provided plenty of completely waterproof storage space, but was also the cause of the only small niggles about the bike: I had to be careful to pull the bags back on the rack as far as I could get them to go to avoid my heels striking them as I peddled. Also, there was a tendancy for a strap used to attach them to the rack to catch in the spokes — ding ding ding ding ding ding ding as the wheel turned — until it was identified and tucked out of the way.

Navigating the Daily Routes
This was a group tour, with Henk (VW), the Tour Guide, leading each day’s ride. No one chose to cycle independently (although anyone is free to do so, if that’s what they prefer). At the Introduction on the boat before the first sailing someone (me) volunteered to be the back-marker (the American term, “sweeper”, was used). I think Henk was a little surprised at how readily I’d volunteered and immediately asked if I would do so for all the rides. I suspect that on most tours, there’s reluctance to be the back-marker, so a different person takes the role for each ride. Henk had spotted a chance to settle the matter for the entire week at a single stroke. Anyway, as I like to stop to take photographs, the back is my natural position and I thought little of it. What did surprise me, though, was how seriously the role was taken, for I was issued with a hi-vis jacket and a walkie-talkie (lots of amusement to discover the French call them talkie-walkies), which, frankly, was an irritant because of the constant breakthrough on the channel we had chosen. After a few days, though, Henk decided the group was too small to merit the walkie-talkie and we rode with them switched off.

Theoretically, for the last day, there’s a choice of two different routes. I did ask Henk what happens as far as the Guide is concerned, to which he replied that we do the longer one, because the shorter one “is not worth doing” and that anyone wanting to do the shorter route would have to navigate themselves. As it happened, exceptional circumstances meant the boat could not be in position for the standard last day, so all this became academic.

The Tour Guide: Henk (VW)
Henk was at his best when he was being what he is: a very courteous and considerate gentleman with a kindly sense of humour to match. He’s retired from his regular profession and considers his tour guide role to be his hobby. He takes this hobby seriously, preparing meticulously, but does just four tours a year, different ones for variety (his next was Brugge to Amsterdam) and this leads to his weakest point: whereas some tour guides, such as Marcel, have built up years of experience, know the routes and subject matter inside-out and present it in an entertaining style, Henk has to refer to notes, which then comes across as a little stilted. But this is a very minor criticism of an otherwise admirable guide.

Cycle Clothing
It’s a “Tulip Tour”, so it’s spring, and it’s The Netherlands, so it can be sunny and warm and it can be windy, cold and wet ... pretty much all on the same day. I took a few baselayers, a number of short-sleeved cycle shirts plus armwarmers and a few long-sleeved jerseys, plus a selection of cycle tights of varying thicknesses; some people brought 3/4-length tights. Three layers plus rainproof jacket just about sufficed for the coldest, windiest days. Although, on the warm, sunny days, shorts would have been nice, tights are not a completely dreadful option at this time of year.

Day 1 (Saturday 2018-04-07): Amsterdam to Haarlem, cycling from Spaarndam
I arrived at the boat at about 11:00, to find it was moored outboard of sister ship Sailing Home. I was allowed to go aboard, where the cleaning staff were busy preparing the boat. I met Henk (VW), who offered me a hot drink and said I could leave my luggage in the lounge until my cabin was ready. I wanted to do some sight-seeing (Henk suggested good views could be had from the observation area [7th floor?] of the Amsterdam Public Library — the OBA building I had passed on the way to the boat) and Henk asked that I return to the boat by around 13:00 (1 pm) to allow for timely departure of the boat.

Following the introductory session in the lounge/dining room, Henk (VW) suggested we go onto the outside sitting area while the boat left its dock and made its way to the IJ river and along the back of Amsterdam Centraal railway station. Here, the A’DAM Toren, with its swings at the top which come out over the edge of the building, and the EYE film institute building next door were subjects of interest.

Then it was time to prepare for cycling. Once through the bridge at Spaarndam, the boat tied-up and the bikes were taken off. Only a hundred metres or so along the road is a statue of the entirely fictional character from the American classic children’s novel, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, who holds back the sea by putting his finger in the dike.

Just round the corner from here, I spotted Marianne, one of the tour guides from my 2017 tour, Northern Holland, leading a group of riders. I stopped to chat for a minute, then had to engage in my first catching-up sprint of the tour to get back with the pack. We soon reached a large WW1-era fortress building, one of many built in a ring round Amsterdam. Henk told us The Netherlands took no part in WW1, but the fortresses were completely useless by the time of WW2 because the invasion came from the air.

On the outskirts of Haarlem we came across our first windmill, then, not much further on we arrived at the boat. In the evening, by which time it was dark, Henk led a walking tour into the city.

Dinner, at 18:45:
Mushroom Soup
Chicken with mango sauce; broccoli; coleslaw; rice
Yoghurt, cream, raspberries.

Day 2 (Sunday 2018-04-08): Haarlem to Leiden, via Keukenhof Gardens (near Lisse)
After about an hour’s cycling, we arrived at the town of Zandvoort on the North Sea coast, where we locked up our bikes and took a break at one of the restaurants down on the beach below.

Resuming our ride, our route passed through the grassy sand dunes along the coast. Being a Sunday, there were a fair number of recreational cyclists making the most of a bright spring day, including small groups of helmeted individuals belting along at furious pace.

Then all of a sudden, we came across a field awash with blue and a fragrance wafted through the air. It was our first bulb field of the tour, hyacinths rather than tulips, but a delight all the same. As we progressed, we came across more colourful fields and verges packed full of yellow daffodils.

By lunch time, we had reached the Keukenhof Gardens and Henk distributed a ticket to each person. I decided to eat my packed lunch outside, then enter the Gardens for a completely uninterrupted viewing session. I had been to the Keukenhof Gardens before, in 2015 (on the “Southern Relax Tulip Tour”) about two weeks later in the season, by which point the tulips had been in full bloom. This year (2018) a cold March across all of Europe had delayed the production of flower and the Keukenhof Gardens reflected this, with the main colours coming from earlier flowering bulbs than had been the case 3 years previously. But there was still colour to be seen and the gardens are undoubtedly magnificent. The theme for 2018 was “Romance in Flowers” and I suppose where that was most evident was in the Beatrix Pavilion, which I visited after bumping in to the French contingent, full of praise for the displays there.

(Not surprisingly, the non-cyclists also wanted to visit Keukenhof Gardens and Henk gave them advice to travel with the boat to Leiden, then come to Keukenhof Gardens from there. The Keukenhof admission fee is included in the tour price, so I assume Henk would have handed each of them a ticket in the morning.)

Henk had allowed us around two and a half hours for visiting the gardens (it would not be difficult to spend more time there) and, our time up, we reassembled for the ride to Leiden. We passed more bulb fields and then a parkland area where the main attraction was another windmill. Finally, we entered one of the gates of Leiden and found the boat moored a short distance away. After dinner, Henk led a night time walk into the town, which has a significant place in Dutch history.

Dinner, at 19:00:
Guinea Fowl salad
Salmon, sauce, potato au gratin
Chocolate Mousse

Day 3 (Monday 2018-04-09): Leiden to Kudelstaart
After pleasant sunny days so far, it came as a shock at breakfast to realise it was raining. By the time we took to our bikes it had pretty much abated, but, even so, an assortment of rainwear was on display as we set off. For about half the morning, up until our refreshement break, we experienced rain on and off, giving me an opportunity to try out a rain cape I had bought recently; for decades these have been almost extinct in the UK, but after seeing some Germans using them on a previous tour, I’d thought perhaps it was time to try a modern incarnation.

After just a few minutes’ cycling, Henk stopped to point out we were at an aquaduct where the Oude Rijn (ie Rhine) was carried across a major road. Then, a short while later we entered the polderland of the Haarlemmermeer Polder, the so-called Groene Hart of The Netherlands, stopping to take photographs of the windmills.

By mid-morning, we had reached the little town of Woubrugge, where we found the larger cycling group from Sailing Home dominating the small bakery — we crossed the bridge (from which I assume the town derives its name) to the larger restaurant the other side. As we arrived, a small group of cyclists with “Cycle Tours” panniers — presumably an independent group from Sailing Home — asked us for directions, before heading-off the wrong way (we saw them come back a few minutes later). Basically, at Woubrugge, you cross the bridge then cycle back along the other bank.

Our lunch time stop was, at first sight, an unimposing venue. “Welkom De Straat-Hof” read a sign. It turned out to be an agritourism location, a working farm, but with a shop, in which you could buy hot drinks and cakes, with a covered seating area outside. In the yard were donkeys and other animals of interest to younger persons (and cycle-tourists), while, round the corner, alpaca could be seen. In the cowshed you could watch the cows entering an automated milking station and across the other side were bales of hay with a rope from which a few of our number took to swinging.

After lunch, we crossed a section of the Amstel river near the village of Leimuiden. From here, rather than proceeding directly to Kudelstaart, we took a route, said to be more pretty, going south and then approaching Kudelstaart from the north east, passing another of the forts circling Amsterdam. A highlight, in the vicinity of De Kwakel, was a smallholding with a tree house and some livestock roaming free, including two highland cows with their enormous horns. We saw our boat on the right, but turned off left into a driveway. Here we locked up: I’d forgotten about this — it was a visit to a home-based soap maker. There were a few goats in the paddock outside and we had been told some of the soap is made using goat’s milk. Inside, we were given an outline of how the soaps are made and the different ingredients, some completely ill-conceived, in my opinion; then it was time to see what was on offer and start buying. Not my thing, I’m afraid — I’m quite content to have a large research and development department look into the science behind what is and what is not beneficial, so my money stayed in my pocket.

During his “one minute” slot before the dessert was served at dinner, Henk (VW) explained what would happen the following morning, involving an early start to the flower auction. Kudelstaart is small, so there was no organised evening walk.

Dinner, at 18:30:
Parsnip Soup
Pork cutlet, sauerkraut, salad, potato wedges
Almond dessert

Day 4 (Tuesday 2018-04-10): Kudelstaart to Wormerveer, via Aalsmeer and Zaanse Schans
Henk had asked us to assemble in the lounge/dining room at 06:30 for pastries and hot drinks prior to a 07:00 start for our 4 km cycle ride to the Royal FloraHolland flower auction at Aalsmeer. The 3 non-cyclists were also up and about: Henk had arranged a taxi so they could meet us at the entrance, enabling them to take advantage of the group discount admission fee.

At the auction house, members of the public walk along a gantry above what is essentially a giant warehouse, with crates of flowers being moved about beneath you. At the end of the gantry you see an auction room, with the famous clock and then you return the opposite side. The scale of the operation is impressive, but I was left with the feeling the whole thing is antithetical to the modern ethos: what is the point of shipping vast quantities of flowers from Africa to The Netherlands to sell them, only to ship them somewhere else? It seemed to me it was an operation that should have had its day.

After the visit, we had another ride of about the same distance. The boat had sailed while we had been away so the rendezvous point was not our overnight mooring spot. Across the water was the test centre of a boat manufacturer, with one boat hoisted aloft giving the impression it could be launched rather dramatically from about 10 metres above the water (because we can?).

Warm croissants awaited us on the breakfast table as the boat sailed, taking us closer to Amsterdam. After passing Schipol Airport, the bikes were offloaded and we were on our way, travelling in a big loop south to cut across from Nieuwe Meer, on which the boat had been sailing, to the left bank of the Amstel river, reaching it just south of Amstelpark, where we stopped to photograph a windmill behind a sea of daffodils.

We stayed on the left bank of the Amstel until reaching the Amstel Intercontinental Hotel. We were now getting close to the centre of Amsterdam and landmarks were becoming apparent. As was the heat: it was turning into a spring scorcher and, outside the Opera House, a general discarding of layers took place which would not have gone amiss in a performance of Strauss’s Salome.

Progress along the cycle path now became slow, for the size of the group meant it took more than one change of traffic lights for the entire group to pass through (the larger Sailing Home group must have taken even longer). Eventually, though, we had worked our way round to the back of Amsterdam Centraal station where we arrived in the nick of time to take one of the free ferries across to Amsterdam’s north bank.

After cycling a bit further we reached a point in the polderland where a monument had been erected to a Wellington bomber which had crashed here during WW2, its crew members having come from across the Commonwealth. For a while, Henk had been concerned about a suitable point for our lunch break and, seeing a couple of benches in the area, decided this would be our spot.

After lunch, we continued through the polder for a while longer before reaching Zaanse Schans. Here, we locked our bikes and went off exploring in separate groups. I’ve been here a few times now and visited some of my regular haunts (such as the clog-maker) as well as some new places. A few months ago I had read about the various windmills on Wikipedia, noticing for the first time that they weren’t just “windmills”, but each had an individual name — The Cat (a dyemill), The Young Sheep (a sawmill; see the piles of sawn timber outside), The Spotted Hen (an oilmill) and so forth — and each with its own purpose quite distinct from lifting water. There’s an admission charge (generally around EUR 4 - 5) for each one, so you will probably want to spend enough time at each one you visit to make it worth paying a fee, which means you probably will not go inside all of them in a single visit to Zaanse Schans.

From Zaanse Schans, it was only about a 30-minute ride, along the path beside the windmills, to the boat’s mooring place in Wormerveer.

As we were unwinding on the boat, word came round that “something” was to happen at 17:30 (5:30 pm) so we should be in the lounge/dining room at that time; also dinner would be at 19:00 (7:00 pm) because of this. In case this is a standard “surprise”, I won’s say anything more about it.

Dinner, at 19:00:
Goat’s Cheese salad
Beef Stew, mashed potato, red cabbage, salad
Pear tart

Day 5 (Wednesday 2018-04-11): Wormerveer to Alkmaar
Our first stop was at Hervormde Reformed Church Rijksmonument in Krommenie, where the graveyard contains several whimsical plots. Henk had explained how, in earlier times, the wealthy had purchased the right to burial places within the church building itself, their decomposing bodies producing bad smells, which gave rise to the term “the stinking rich”.

We entered the municipality of Castricum and passed through its districts, Bakkum and then Duin en Bosch. This district dates back to the early 20th Century with the establishment of a psychiatric hospital, which pioneered the idea of care in the community: instead of a single hospital building, dozens of smaller buildings were scattered around the estate. In 2010, the council decided to redeveloop the eastern part into a green living environment. Here, we found a café, De Oude Keuken, arriving, fortunately, a few minutes prior to a very large group of mountain bikers. The place is clearly a popular stopping-off point for cyclists.

Within a few minutes of leaving De Oude Keuken we arrived at Bezoekerscentrum De Hoep, a visitor and education centre run by PWN, the area’s local water supplier and nature conservation company. From here, they provide organised tours onto the dunes, especially for children, or, as in our case, you can just look around the exhibits to find out about water management and the varieties of wildlife on the dunes. (I found one exhibit with an English translation.)

Soon after leaving the visitor centre we entered the dunes ourselves. Almost immediately, the group came to an abrupt halt, for a few metres off the pathway was another of those huge highland cows with its imposing horns, apparently quite unperturbed by cyclists passing nearby. It was too good a photo-oportunity to pass by. Then, a few minutes later again, we came across wild horses grazing. While we watched, they came past our bikes and made their way to a water-hole a short distance away.

We arrived at the seaside resort of Egmond aan Zee, where we took our lunch stop. There are three separate villages with the name Egmond, all now amalgamated into a single municipality called Bergen. After lunch, we cycled the short distance to Egmond aan den Hoef, the location of a church and ruins of the castle of the House of Egmond. In 1568, the execution of Lamoral, Count of Egmond, helped spark the uprising which led to the Netherlands gaining independence from Spain. Henk had told us the previous evening that Goethe had written a play based on these events, and, subsequently, for a revival of the play in Vienna, Beethoven had been commissioned to write incidental music, which included his famous overture Egmont.

By now we were close to our destination of Alkmaar, so Henk proposed that we continue at a steady pace in order to arrive early, take a little time for refreshments and then have the guided walking tour of Alkmaar in the afternoon, before dinner, which would enable us to see the town during daylight. It was a good plan, handing me another opportunity to tease Henk for changing the time for dinner.

Dinner, at 19:00:
[This is obviously wrong, as I’ve recorded the same as yesterday, but I can’t remember what we actually had!]
Goats Cheese salad
Beef Stew, mashed potato, red cabbage, salad
Pear tart

Day 6 (Thursday 2018-04-12): Alkmaar to Purmerend, via De Rijp
It was an overcast day, but dry. Very soon after leaving the boat, we entered an area of windmills. In fact there were windmills all along the route until we arrived close to the village of Schermerhorn where there are three windmills, one of which, De Museummolen, is open to the public and still runs for tourism purposes. Here, we took a break from cycling, watched a film (in English) about land reclamation and went up into the working windmill to see its operational parts and typical living quarters of the families who ran them.

A short distance further on, we reached Grootschermer, where Henk had arranged for his friend, Wieger, to show us round the former town hall, built in 1639. We were shown several rooms, including the meeting room of the town officials. The stained glass windows were of interest, depicting various scenes, windmills and local houses. We were also shown a painting of a map of the Schermer area and the polderland which had been reclaimed.

Our next stop took us to De Rijp, the birthplace of Jan Adriaanzoon “Leeghwater”, the man history has credited with the schemes for reclaiming land, including the Beemster polder, which we were just about to enter and the Schermer, which we had just crossed. Leeghwater is also credited with the design of the weighing house/town hall of De Rijp, which is now the tourist office. Adjacent to it is the restaurant Oudejans, where we were allowed to eat our packed lunches, as long as we bought something from them (the soup was a very good choice). It was noted the Sailing Home group packed into a restaurant the other side of the river, though their tour guide popped into our restaurant for a while.

The last stretch, from De Rijp to Purmerend, proved to be quite difficult cycling as we faced a cold headwind much of the way, against which the avenue of trees along the path seemed to offer little protection.

Having boarded the boat at Purmerend, we were told we would sail immediately for Zaandam. An inoperative bridge between Purmerend and Amsterdam meant the boat could not adhere to the normal schedule. In order to refuel for the following week’s tour, the boat needed to be in Amsterdam by mid-afternoon, which would not be possible if it started from Purmerend the following morning, so it was necessary to travel some of the way today. We pulled into Zaandam during our evening meal, having recognised some of the places, Wormerveer and Zaanse Schans amongst them, we passed on our journey.

This meant our final day’s ride was not the one scheduled, and Henk was up until 23:00 planning a route. I know, because I was in the lounge, too, making good use of the on-board Wi-Fi.

18:30 Salmon, trout and tuna salad with avocado
Cod with potato wedges, carrots and mange tout, beetroot and apple salad, white sauce
Cherry cheesecake

Day 7 (Friday 2018-04-13): Purmerend to Amsterdam, via Zunderdorp and Ransdorp or Edam and Volendam
Or, in our case, Zaandam to Amsterdam, by an indirect route, taking in Broek in Waterland and the former island of Marken.

Tour Guides speak in glowing terms of Broek in Waterland; it’s a nice enough village, but I have to say, it’s failed to impress me more than any number of other Dutch villages which go unsung, but yet seem at least as attractive. I suppose the legend of De Witte Swaen has something to do with it, but, when we arrived, the pancake restaurant which bears that name was closed and, initially, it looked as if we would find nowhere for a morning break.

That is, until we took the underpass to the other side of the main road, where we found the IJscafe Antonio cheerfully taking the tourist euro and relishing its Italian connection. Here, another Cycle Tours group arrived, led by Margriet, who recognised me from a previous tour, and, seeing the Cycle Tours jacket I had been issued as back-marker, mistakenly thought I was now a Cycle Tours employee. (Yes, Cycle Tours: where’s my payment!)

We arrived at the former island of Marken, making our way to the harbour, where, next to the tourist office, we found an area to lock our bikes so we could explore individually on foot. Here we also took our lunch break, with plenty of choice in waterside cafés for those who wanted to supplement their packed lunches.

Regrouping, we crossed the island to the lighthouse, then took the rather bumpy coastal path back to the causeway which leads to the mainland from where we continued along a coastal path atop a dyke into the outskirts of Amsterdam. Again, we timed it perfectly for a departing ferry to the north of Amsterdam Centraal station, from where everyone must have known the route to the boat.

Before dinner, I took a walk around the dock and up onto the Nemo Centre, which, at this time of year, has tubs of tulips on display and is good at any time of year for views over the docks to the centre of Amsterdam beyond.

Dinner, at 18:30:
A Dutch East India Company (spices)-inspired Indonesian buffet:
Noodles, rice, beef, chicken, eggs, beans
Rum and Raisen ice cream with cream and wafer

Day 8 (Saturday 2018-04-14): Amsterdam
My American dining companions had left the boat at some godless hour (for which Henk insisted on making special breakfast arrangements) in order to catch an early flight home, leaving Henk and myself the sole occupants of our table, sitting opposite for the first time. “At last, Henk, you face me like a man!” I declared, to which he responded, “You’ve handed-in your feedback form, so, at last, I can say what I really think about you!” All of which, of course, is man-speak for “I’ve really enjoyed the week; thanks for your part in making it such a good time.” Then, sadly, it was time to leave the boat and be off to the station.

Which week-long Tulip Tour?
Rad and Reisen offers several “Tulip” tours, some taking 5 days and a couple of them, the “Super Tulip Tour” and the “Southern Tulip Tour” each having a duration of a week. Of course, it’s also possible to book a number of other bike and boat tours during the spring period and you will, inevitably, see and cycle past bulb fields. The key thing is the “Tulip” tours are expressly designed for this purpose and each of them includes the common ingredient of a visit to Keukenhof Gardens, which are only open to the public for a few weeks during spring.

A comparison of the two week-long tours shows they have many things in common: Keukenhof, Zaanse Schans, Amsterdam, Spaarndam, Haarlem and Leiden. The “Southern Tulip Tour” seems to be a bulb-time adaptation of the more general “Southern Tour” which runs across the summer months and is the only one of the “Tulip” Tours which does not include a visit to the Royal FloraHolland flower market in Alsmeer.

In keeping with its name, the “Southern Tulip Tour” goes no further north than Zaanse Schans, but extends somewhat further south, visiting Gouda, the windmills at Kinderdijk, passing through Rotterdam and into Delft, where you visit a pottery (something of a tourist trap, to be honest). In its “Tulip” guise, it travels the opposite way round, so, when I did the tour in 2015, it was some days before we encountered bulb fields and the visit to Keukenhof comes later in the course of the week.

The “Super Tulip Tour” includes the Royal FloraHolland flower auction, but omits Gouda (cheese town), Kinderdijk (working windmills) and Delft (pottery). Instead there’s Alkmaar (cheese town, though you don’t visit on Friday, when they hold the cheese market), Schermerhorn (working windmill) and you may visit Edam, Volendam (its harbour street a very definite tourist trap) and the former island of Marken.

In reality, the two tours are closely matched and you won’t go wrong with either tour. Of course, it’s pot-luck with the weather and you can’t determine who your tour guide is going to be, so these cannot be deciding factors in choosing the tour. Whichever you choose, you will see bulb fields, visit Keukenhof Gardens, working windmills, you will cycle through polderland and across sand dunes, and visit cheese towns and charming Dutch villages.

Photographs
It’s always difficult to select just two photographs to illustrate a tour, but, because it’s the “Super Tulip Tour” I’ve realised Super Tulips must be featured.

  • So, my first photograph comes from Keukenhof Gardens (an easy choice!), but not from the rows and rows of formal planting or the displays in the pavilions; instead, a delightful little informal patch of flowers at the base of a tree.
  • My second comes from later the same day, in the bulb fields (hyacinths in this case) in the vicinity of Lisse, which we reached a few minutes after leaving the Keukenhof Gardens. A couple of girls were walking their dogs (Pomeranian?), which our two young Australians were quite taken by, while their aunt and uncle watch on.
  • Overall satisfaction 6
    Booking handling 6
    Travel documents 5
    Information at the beginning of the tour 5
    Accomodation 5
    Board 6
    Route description 5
    On-site assistance 6
    Route-character 5
    Bicycle + equipment 5
  • Comment of your RAD+REISEN-Eurocycle-Team

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