Bikes, boats and bastions: Set course around Holland's inland sea

The Zuider Zee may have lost its salt, but it provides the perfect platform for an active family holiday around the historic heart of the Netherlands, says Simon Calder

On the scale of parental recklessness, could it rate alongside leaving the children in charge of the ingredients of a thermonuclear device or at the controls of a 747? Eight days ago, a wobbly parade of youngsters, ranging from seven to 13, were instructed – along with their parents – to cycle 15 miles into the centre of a leading European capital at the height of the rush hour.

Not only did all three dozen of us make it, but the journey into Amsterdam proved the crowning achievement of a barge-and-bike holiday that unlocked the sub-sea-level secrets of Holland.

The journey ended, as it began, aboard the Amsterdam in the middle of Amsterdam. The latter is Europe's most engaging capital; the former is a former cargo barge, built in 1924 and converted 70 years later into a hotel ship. She spends the winter helping to soak up the surplus demand for accommodation in the city, moored handily between an old East Indiaman, a floating Chinese restaurant and the copper-burnished hulk of the New Metropolis. But between March and October she meanders around the maritime highways of the Low Countries, conveying three dozen people – and their bicycles – around the wild heart of the Netherlands.

The IJsselmeer Family Cruise, the holiday I bought, is a procession around the periphery of the body of water that you and I probably know as the Zuider Zee – the "South Sea". Since the completion of the Afsluitdijk in 1932 to heal the broken shoulder of the Netherlands and seal off the North Sea, it has effectively been an artificial lake, known mostly as the IJsselmeer.

The first day set the scene for the rest of the week: sailing, cycling, exploring. The Amsterdam quickly shrugged off the suburbs, and emerged into a world dominated by a huge sky, punctured by slender masts reaching for the heavens. The clouds jostling in the west rippled Impressionistically on the water surface of the Markermeer (the hydrology is complex hereabouts). The narrow band of land visible on either side is enlivened by the odd church spire, and the knowledge that some of the reclaimed shoreline had not existed for as long as I have.

The first port of call, Hoorn, has evidently existed even longer than me: a 16th-century tower with defensive pretensions stands between the harbour and the town. On a warm summer's evening the citizens spill out onto the streets: either to loll on deck-chairs and gossip outside their houses (front gardens are a rarity in Dutch towns) or to converge on the cafés on the main square. Like most of the ports visited, Hoorn comes with an impressive pedigree. It was once a port for the Dutch East India Company, the world's first multinational.

The first group cycle ride was a mere 10-mile circuit, evidently designed to allow the two guides (Gwen, a teacher, and Louisa, a student) to assess levels of skill and stamina. Happily for young or untoned limbs, the Netherlands does not require mountain bikes. (Its highest point, in the far south-east of the country, is a peak of barely 1,000ft that is shared with Germany and Belgium.)

The IJsselmeer itinerary circles the soggy pancake at the nation's centre, so brows are never furrowed at the prospect of gradients. Nor are parental nerves strained at the prospect of collisions on the relatively rare occasions where gentle, well-surfaced bike paths intersect with busy roads. You soon learn to look out for shark's teeth. Not the fearsome fish, but the triangular white markings that signify who has to give way: see "vvv" and it's you. But usually it's the car drivers who must wait, patiently. And they do. Holland has an even lower road fatality rate than the gratifyingly safe UK. It shares that honour with Iceland and Malta, but unlike those islands it has a huge population of cyclists.

A steady 10mph on the flat leaves you free to feel the breeze brushing your cheeks. You let your eyes rest on the scenery: avenues of beech or oak carving through meadows populated by contented cattle or posturing herons. Your ears tune in to a soundtrack where birdsong is usually more prevalent than motor transport, except on a few rare occasions when the procession strays near a rowdy highway – such as the Houtribdijk, a 20-mile-long dyke that begins at the port of Enkhuisen. We were quickly whisked away by boat into a tourist attraction that celebrates Dutch pragmatism: when they didn't like the lie of the land, they redrew the map.

Everything you need to know about Holland is contained in the Zuiderzee Museum: activities from sailmaking to worshipping are celebrated in buildings rescued from the region and reconstructed as a village devoted to livelihoods – and lives – lost in the remarkable history of the Netherlands. A single timber building on the edge of the complex reveals much. Even though it does not even make the official guide, it is a repository of innovation. It was a hut for drying seaweed, which was used variously as medicine, stuffing for mattresses – and building dykes. Now, it is a gallery, full of dazzling light. And the building material? Every timber was salvaged from wrecked ships.

While adults ponder the strange way in which tragedy fuels creativity, their offspring are more interested in the austere classroom, the freshly smoked herrings and the sweet shop, dispensing liquorice as salty as the Zuider Zee used to be.

Later, we sailed across the Zee to Urk – a port that, on a Sunday evening, is about as far as you can get from the fleshpots and "coffee shops" of Amsterdam, even though the Dutch capital is less than 40 miles away as the marijuana smoke drifts. Until the tide went out, permanently, in 1932, it was an island – and a deeply religious one at that, rather like the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The ultimate lock-in was inevitably going to irk Urk's inhabitants, particularly when the North-East Polder was created beyond the crumpled skirts of the town. Today, a line of 21st-century windmills flutters northwards, beneath the monument of a mother mourning a lost sailor.

"Daddy, don't kill the duck." Fortunately for the mallard in question, he had plenty of time to waft out of range of my flailing paddles, and seven-year-old Poppy found other navigational issues on which to heckle me. Water was a prominent feature throughout the trip: the Amsterdam glided through much of it, and provided a springboard for an impromptu mass leap into the lake with the exhilaration of summer as the barge was moored at the town of Zwartsluis (no, I hadn't heard of it, either). Bikes also enable you to get much closer to the water than the motorist can manage, deep into the heart of the Weerribben National Park. And when the path finally trails off, you swap wheels for paddles for an hour or two in a kayak, to explore the mysteries of the largest freshwater wetland in north-west Europe.

We paddled amid (and often into) the reeds and lilies; smelled the sweet, earthy aroma of the swamp; and (as my losing battle with the fundamentals of hydrodynamics continued), failed to identify most of the flowers and butterflies and birds that clog this corner of Europe's most crowded major nation.

The Netherlands is a complex, compact mix of nature and artifice. The trip gives you plenty of time to discover towns that are notable by their absence from the indexes of guidebooks. As we cycled to the barge at the end of the duck-stalking day, Daisy, aged nine, wearily asked: "Is this the same town as last night?" It wasn't, but I understood her uncertainty at seeing yet another pretty assemblage of cottages ranged around a petite port, with the church tower risingV Vabove. There were some great urban treats, though: in Elburg, the entire population was on the streets; not demonstrating, but buying and selling in the annual municipal flea market. The list of Dutch towns I had hitherto overlooked continued to the last day. Naarden, off my map until eight days ago, is a bastion town as entrancing as any in Aquitaine, with a Grote Kerk that is indeed a great church in at least two respects: the amazing Biblical scenes on the vaulting, and the clean, free loos.

Muiden – a 20-minute train ride from Amsterdam – turns out to be the home of Holland's most-visited castle. By this stage the guides' energy was fading: "There's the toilets," (points right). "There's the town," (points straight ahead). "There's the castle," (points left).

On the basis that I had 28 minutes and counting to inspect the fortifications, I negotiated a deal with the helpful lady for cut-price admission to this handsome fortress, where the Dutch interpretation of heritage is to provide video games where the aim is to drop rocks on invaders.

As a stream of Airbuses and Boeings invaded the airspace above the castle on their final approach to Schiphol airport, the final approach to Amsterdam began: across the middle of a golf course here, threading through perfumed pine woods there. The narrower your field of vision, the more joy you find in the detail – though the 21st century is never far away. Beneath a motorway, across the main Amsterdam-to-Hamburg railway line, and, ooh look, a beach. Splash.

We lined up beside a canal. Gwen stood on a concrete platform and lectured us on how to survive the final assault on Amsterdam. "Keep right. These drivers have had a hard day and don't like a bunch of tourists getting in their way."

The last ride was a study in man-made miracles: the mighty earthworks that the Dutch use to overcome the design flaw of living below sea level, the giant canals that carve up the country, and the spectacular bridges that leap across them.

The straggle of cyclists caught up with itself in a car park alongside the derelict Café West-Indeë. The graffiti on the wall read "Not a dime in my pocket, but a dream in my head." With all the children counted back in, we weaved for the last few hundred yards along quaysides and across bridges, and trickled to a halt beside the Amsterdam, in Amsterdam.

I ended the trip amazed how, a couple of miles from the centre of a European capital, you can drift through dreamy farmland and pretty cottages; how, in just a week, people from disparate lives and nations become so firmly bonded; and how, in the course of 5,000 cyclist-miles, no-one had got a puncture. Perhaps God is a Dutchman.

The package

* The Dutch company HAT Tours operates this and similar trips in Holland. In the UK it sells through Freedom Treks (0845 612 6106; freedomtreks.co.uk).

* The minimum age for cycling is seven, and the recommended upper age for children is 13 (there is no upper age limit for parents, nor indeed grandparents). Trips leave from Oosterdok in central Amsterdam, 10 minutes' walk from Centraal Station.

* Bookings are heavy for family cruises this year, though there are some remaining spaces on Dutch-Belgian departures.

* Similar trips are offered by HAT Tours' rival, Cycle Tours (cycletours.com).

The price

* Simon Calder paid a total of £1,585 for four, which included full-board accommodation from lunchtime on Saturday to breakfast the following Saturday; bike rental (£15 supplement for a tandem); transport aboard the barge Amsterdam ; admission to the Zuider Zee Museum; an hour or two of kayaking in Weerribben nature reserve; and two guides. This works out at £49 per person per day.

* Together with flights (£107 each return from Heathrow on BA), local transport in Amsterdam (€25.60/£21.30), admission fees and extra refreshments, the total cost for a family of four was £2,425: £75 per person per day.

Getting there

* By rail, the journey from London St Pancras via Brussels to Amsterdam takes just over four hours with a good connection in the Belgian capital from Eurostar to Thalys.

* By rail and sea, tickets are available for £35 each way from any National Express East Anglia station to any Dutch station, using the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry operated by Stena Line (08445 762 762; stenaline.co.uk). *Amsterdam's Schiphol airport has flights from airports across Britain. A train to Centraal Station takes 20 minutes from the airport (€3.40 each way).

More information

* Netherlands Board of Tourism: 020-7539 7950; holland.com/uk.

Aboard the 'Amsterdam' Life below deck

* Home for a week is a cabin (one sleeping four, the others for two). As on any vessel, space is at a premium, but anyone accustomed to sleeper compartments on trains – or youth hostels – will not feel constrained aboard the Amsterdam . Four toilets and four hot showers are shared by 36 passengers (one after the other, not all at once).

Breakfast, at 8am on the dot, and dinner (6.30pm) are convivial affairs, with no set places and a cheerful mingling of nationality. The food is excellent in quantity and quality. In most establishments the management tries to prevent holidaymakers making off with the makings of lunch purloined from the breakfast buffet. But aboard the Amsterdam , the opposite applies: sandwich bags, fruit and chocolate are provided to help you prepare a picnic.

The on-board language is English, even when there are no British, Irish or American passengers aboard, and each evening at dinner the guides give an informal briefing to the following day's activities.

The restaurant also serves as the main communal area, with all kinds of games provided (be warned that the Continental rules for Uno are baffling). Organised entertainment takes the form of a Eurovision song contest that follows the customary voting patterns, with the Spanish colluding with the Italians, the Germans teaming up with plucky Belgium, and the British coming last.

Staying in touch is easy: mains electricity, for recharging mobile phones, laptops and cameras, is available in cabins except between 10pm and 7.15am (the generator is switched off overnight). Mobile phones mostly work above deck. There is no television, but a half-decent long wave radio will pick up BBC Radio 4 (198kHz).

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