For a tonic of fresh air, exercise and art, Richard Colbey took the slow boat from Harwich and hired a bicycle

From next Monday the Netherlands will seem twice as close, when a new high-speed ferry sets off from Harwich. I, however, caught one of the last slow boats when I set off with my family for a short break of exercise and art.

There is nowhere that combines possibilities for serious art viewing and gentle exercise quite like the Hoge Veluwe National Park near Arnhem. Set in the centre of this 14,000-acre park is one of Europe's finest art galleries. You feel you could spend hours there. The Rijksmuseum Kroller- Muller contains a vast collection of European art. It's a little short on old masters, perhaps, but it compensates for this with an impressive range of Impressionists. Van Gogh is its speciality. The Night Cafe, Bridge at Arles, The Potato Eaters and many of the 285 of his other works shown are bound to be familiar to even the most casual visitor.

Wherever you go in the gallery, windows are designed to provide views of the woods and more. This is just as the founder, Helene Kroller-Muller, intended when in the Thirties she made a bequest to create a centre combining art and nature. And when visitors have had a surfeit of culture, they can use one of the park's 900 bicycles to explore the surroundings.

You wheel your way around the central buildings and plunge deep into the woods where there are (in descending order of concentration, though not necessarily of quality) a sculpture garden, a sculpture park and a sculpture forest. A 90-ft-high contraption in the sculpture park - made up of rods held together by wire springs - appeared to be defying gravity when I was there. It was swaying alarmingly in the wind, but the park's keepers evidently had huge confidence in its tenacity, for the radius of the rope cordoning it off was a lot smaller than the area over which the contraption would have spread had it indeed fallen. It didn't.

In an effort to make the park more attractive to children, what claims to be the world's first underground museum has just opened in the park. For those of us who have to take the Tube every day there is little excitement in going underground, and the museum itself, containing little more than stuffed animals, is a sad contrast to the airy grandeur of the gallery.

I couldn't help feeling, in any case, that children are far more likely to be drawn by the opportunities to cycle in safety. The park bikes are themselves something of a novelty, even for those used to regular two- wheel travel. They operate with a fixed-wheel system - in other words, no brakes. You slow down simply by back-pedalling. While this is reasonably effective, even after three days I would not have had the confidence to ride one of these bikes in traffic.

That, though, is not a worry in the park, where most visitors elect to leave their cars outside the gates, despite the fact that there's only a small extra charge if you drive in. The bikes are well maintained and easily adjustable, and many come equipped with child or baby seats, much to the delight of our 10-month-old, who spent her first day on the bike in a constant state of giggles.

Although the park boasts of being a nature reserve, on this score it is much less impressive. On our excursions along the cycle lanes we did see a few deer hidden behind the distant trees, but other than that, our fauna-viewing was limited to a few sparrows.

The landscape is varied enough, though, to provide an incentive to travel away from the wooded north of the park, where the museum visitor centre and bike hire are concentrated. Much of the rest of the park has an almost Mediterranean barrenness, a consequence of the sandy soil with which this part of the country is afflicted. As I cycled along I kept an optimistic lookout for the wild boar said to live here. No such luck.

However, a big benefit for those wanting to get right away from home is that so far the park seems to have escaped the attention of British (and indeed all non-Dutch) travellers, despite being only 70 miles from the ferry at Hook of Holland. Among the hundred or so cars in the car park, we spotted only one other from Britain and a few from France, Germany and Belgium.

Such preoccupations, though, were short-lived. Who needs cars in the quiet world of art and nature combined?n


Getting there: From next Monday, Stena Line (0990 707070 and press 3 for bookings and information) is dropping the conventional ship that has operated for decades between Harwich and Hook of Holland. The replacement is a high-speed vessel that will make the crossing twice a day, each way, in 3 hours 40 minutes. For a five-day trip in June, foot passengers pay pounds 40 return while a car, driver and passenger costs pounds 88.

Eurostar (0345 303030 and press 4 for the enquiry line) has a special fare of pounds 77 return from London Waterloo to any station in the Netherlands. You have to stay away for at least three nights or a Saturday night.

The Hoge Veluwe national park is close to Arnhem, with a bus connection from the station.

More information: Netherlands Board of Tourism, PO Box 523, London SW1T 6NE (0891 200277).

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