The low country on wheels

The Netherlands is perfect for a half-term cycling holiday. By Christian Wolmar
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The Independent Travel
'You must be mad," we were told several times when we said we were taking the whole family, including the three children - Molly, 16, Pascoe, 12, and Misha, six - off for a week's cycling holiday. The sceptics were proved utterly wrong.

A cycling touring holiday is not unlike a skiing one, without the potential for much apres-cycle activities. You spend all day on a relatively strenuous activity and you slump down in the evening too exhausted to do anything other than eat, drink and play cards.

There is, of course, one big difference. For skiing, you look for the steepest mountains. For cycling, particularly with kids and unfit urban dwellers, you look for the flattest land. And that really means the Netherlands, apart from a few bits of Belgium and Denmark.

We took the ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland, which is conveniently placed to give access to any part of the country. Arranging this was not as easy as might have been expected. When I rang up Stena to book the five of us, they tried to charge us a total of pounds 272, nearly a third more than if we had just taken a car, although they stressed that "the bicycles are free, sir". It was only when I phoned British Rail that I discovered there was a pounds 49 Apex return fare to anywhere on the Dutch rail network using the boat train from Liverpool Street to Harwich.

Conventional wisdom has it that cycling holidays have to be done on the cheap, carrying lots of kit between campsites or spartan youth hostels. We eschewed that approach, deciding we would stay in two- and three-star hotels with good breakfasts to fortify us for the day's exertions and take the absolute minimum of baggage, one cycle bag each, with the six- year-old carrying nothing.

At Hook, there was a choice of directions, either to head inland past Rotterdam towards the centre of the country, or to go up the coast, which is signposted as the Nordzee route. We chose the latter. The cycle path to The Hague takes you straightaway from the main road through the dunes and the market gardens where vast greenhouses, some heated by natural gas, produce the flowers and vegetables that contribute much to the country's prosperity.

Our holiday proved that cycling with relatively young children is feasible - and in any case Misha is a toughie with a lot of stamina. On the freestanding paths away from the roads, we let the kids go first, and then flexed our muscles a bit to catch them up. Again, it was just like skiing, except that the adults were faster than the kids rather than the other way round.

The first day, we made a bad mistake by having an ice-cream too many. As we licked our way through it watching the thunderous rollers on the deserted beach at Katwijk aan Zee, an ominous black cloud appeared over the sea. We had planned to stay three miles down the road at Noordwijk aan Zee, and jumped on our bikes hoping to beat the storm. We failed, getting drenched, despite our wet weather gear, in a storm of tropical proportions.

The next morning we discovered from my little cycle computer that we had done 38 miles, rather than the 15 or 20 we had expected that Misha could manage. Moreover, she was loving it and raring to go. The older kids, too, really began to enjoy the physical exercise of cycling and we spent the next couple of days buzzing through the dunes - where the paths are quite hilly, but with the wind fortunately behind us - covering the whole of the coast up to Den Helder. It is a very attractive landscape and far more varied than we had expected, with some extensive forests. We made occasional forays inland, where the flat land is anything but boring as it is broken up by canals, lakes, fields of flowers and neat thatched cottages. The most exhilarating part was cycling along the huge concrete dikes, where for several miles there was space for us to cycle five abreast beside the sea without fear of getting in anyone's way.

At Den Helder, we left our bags behind for a day's touring round Texel, the biggest of the islands of the northern coast, with an extensive network of cycle paths. It was a bit like a classy version of Southend, but somehow the fact that there are more people on bicycles than in cars adds to the feeling that this is a country which is just that bit more civilised than our own.

However, we had a few causes of complaint. First, while the cycle routes are, of course, wonderful by British standards, they have a tendency to give out in parts of towns. Secondly, the famous VVVs - the local tourist boards - are not as helpful as expected, being staffed mainly by sullen young women with something better to do than give you advice or book hotels in neighbouring towns. Thirdly, and surprisingly, it is extremely pricey to take your bike on a train.

These objections aside, Holland is a perfect place for a cycling holiday en famille. Flat it may be, but the country is anything but boring - and cycling is undoubtedly the best way to see it.

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