What happens when four friends bike for six days in Europe?
Let’s find out! Joined by my friends Rachel, Shira and Neeraja, I recently completed the Amsterdam to Bruges on Wheels trip through Natural Adventures.
Day 1: Amsterdam to Bodegraven
After a hearty breakfast, we rolled out from Amsterdam. While the trip was booked through Natural Adventures, it was fulfilled by Dutch Bike Tours who provided hefty Juun bikes that we would come to know far too well. Each bike had a handlebar bag and a side pannier. The bikes had wheel locks and chain locks.
Bike touring is hugely popular in the Netherlands. At our hotel, we met some Canadians who were doing the same trip we were doing. We’d see them over the next six days, hopscotching each other as we rode. There was also an Italian couple who we met that first day, all of us paused at a crossroad trying to decipher directions.
Biking in the Netherlands is easy and safe. Dutch Bike Tours provided us a printed guide for each day. On the back of the guide was a series of numbers: 85, 17, 23, 44. These corresponded with the bike routes that we had to take. We had also loaded the routes into Ride with GPS and Strava to ensure that we stayed on track.
Dutch Bike Tours transported our luggage from hotel to hotel; all we had to do was bike.
Once we got out of Amsterdam, cars disappeared. We were in a quiet, serene world of canals, windmills and farms. It was how quiet everything was that I would remember most from this trip.
We had our first little splash of rain (a recurring theme of this trip), went over our first ferry and were entranced by a hand-operated bridge over a canal, the four of us filming as a young family got off the boat, raised the bridge (it had a massive counterweight), motored forward, and then lowered the bridge.
Day 2: Bodegraven to Dordrecht
The next day was the worst day.
We awoke to pouring rain. My handlebars had gotten progressively wobblier the first day. I thought we could fix it ourselves (Rachel brought a bike tool) but we couldn’t seem to tighten the stem. After calling Dutch Bike Tours, we rode to Gouda (pronounced Gow-da) where they said we could find a bike shop to fix it.
I rode through the rain, my handlebars loose and floppy. I had to be careful turning because my front wheel would go one way and the handlebars the other. When we got to Gouda, I had to jump off my bike as the wheel went sideways.
After stopping at two bike shops, neither of which could fix the Juun, we called the company: they’d bring a replacement at 1.
We passed the time wandering through the beautiful medieval streets of Gouda and visiting the Gouda Cheese Experience.
My bike was delayed so it wasn’t until near 4 PM that we got on the road again. We had thirty more miles to do. While in Gouda, we had all purchased new rain gear to cope with the steady Dutch downpour.
I was glad to be rolling again but the weather was a miserable mix of rain and wind. All of us got cranky. At one point, I thought we were close to the hotel. When I was told it was another six miles, I almost lost it. Only finding a half-eaten stroopwaffle in my raincoat kept me going. I ate it under a bridge as the rain poured down.
To add insult to injury, the sun came out once we reached the hotel.
Day 3: Dordrecht to Willemstad
In retrospect, I’m glad the worst day was the second day. After that, I was thankful for any non-raining moment and confident I could handle anything that the Netherlands could serve up.
It was a dreamy bike day. After biking through the tranquil green spaces of De Biesbosch National Park, we stopped for lunch in the cute market town of Zevenbergen. Like nearly all Dutch towns, it has a car-free city center full of shops and historic churches. We bought more clothes (it was in low 60s for much of the trip) and lingered over coffee.
After lunch, we biked to Willemstad, a fortified town built inside a seven-pointed fort with thick walls and a harbor filled with pleasure craft.
We went to a creperie for dinner, virtually the only customers. All of the Netherlands seemed to be on holiday in August. A lot of places were closed and finding open restaurants was a challenge.
Day 4: Willemstad to Schuddebeurs
This was the day of wind.
The country had been growing steadily more remote as we traveled south and then east from Amsterdam. We rode into hefty winds blowing off the North Sea as we traversed narrow causeways lined with massive windmills spinning in the stiff breeze.
But it was not raining. I was happy to pound away into the wind as long it was sunny and dry.
We were now in Zeeland, land that the Dutch had wrested from the ocean, much of which was below sea level and protected by massive dikes.
During the trip, we stayed in all kinds of hotels, from self-service modern places along the highway to historic inns with winding spiral staircases.
The Hostellerie Schuddebeurs was the most interesting of all. Surrounded by farmland, the hotel is secluded among trees that form a barrier against the constant wind. A historic manor (it is more than three hundred years old), it is renowned for its restaurant. I had the best piece of salmon I have ever had in my life – and that was just the appetizer! It was a tranquil respite from the tour.
Day 5: Schuddebeurs to Vlissingen
By this point, we were seasoned bike travelers with a steady routine. The four of us would meet for breakfast at eight, where we would eat as much as possible (the breakfasts were all delicious on the tour). On the first day, I had laughed at Rachel for packing herself a little sandwich from the breakfast buffet for later but now I was a devotee of the idea. I had an emergency cheese supply in my handlebar bag. You really can’t eat enough on a tour.
We’d roll out at nine. By now, we were unfazed by the rain and stopped in the village of Zierikzee for pictures of the historic port.
Then we had the 5k long Zeeland Bridge to cross, which the guidebook described as having “stunning views over the Oosterschelde on both sides.”
When we reached the bridge, it seemed to stretch out into the open ocean, with swirling whitecaps below.
An ambulance crew was parked at the foot of the bridge, removing a cyclist who had been knocked over by the howling gale that was blowing perpendicular to the span.
We decided to walk but then, halfway across, threw caution to the wind (literally) and biked the rest of the way.
The great thing about the Netherlands is that all the bike routes are safe. Even average bike infrastructure there is nicer than anything we have in the United States. We changed our route to get away from the foaming sea.
After a ferry ride (and an encounter with the Canadians, who looked refreshed since they were on e-bikes), we reached the charming village of Veere, which was once home to Scottish wool traders. We also initiated a new tradition: the afternoon waffle.
This was a really interesting day for outside of Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland, we rolled through housing developments which looked like American “new town” suburbs but without the crushing weight of cars and innumerable parking lots. Instead, people used bikes, buses and trains. And it was so quiet.
Then it was an easy roll down a canal to Vlissingen, a town that looked rough and industrial until we got to the beach. It was Florida on the North Sea, with people playing volleyball and a few hardy swimmers wading into the ocean. We had dinner on the beach under glorious skies.
Day 6: Vlissingen to Bruges
The day began with a minor mechanical issue on Neeraja’s bike. I stood around and watched as Shira and Rachel fixed it.
After some confusion (we couldn’t figure out how to get across a canal), we rolled our bikes onto the ferry to Breskens. Bikes were kept on the lower deck and secured by a clever little knotted rope.
We were all anxious to get to Bruges so we ignored the meandering directions along the coast for a more direct route, stopping in Sluis for lunch and Damme for the requisite waffle break, leaving the Netherlands and crossing into Belgium. Only a slight difference in the road signs told us that we had entered a new country.
After donning our rain gear for one final shower, we pedaled into Bruges, arriving in glorious sunshine.
An ancient market town (home to the world’s first stock exchange), it had its golden age in the 14th century as a trading center. Known as the Venice of the North, it is criss-crossed by canals.
And it is absolutely beautiful, like rolling into a Medieval dream as we reached the market square at the heart of the city.
We were all very, very ready to get off the bikes.
So, we decided to climb some stairs, going to the top of the Historium Tower for a photo opp.
After dropping off the bikes at the bike-themed Hotel Velotel, we went back into the heart of Bruges for a delicious dinner (and chocolate) to celebrate.
Every great adventure has its challenges, if only to make the reward that much sweeter. I will never complain about the rain again. Here’s what I took away from the experience:
- The Netherlands is a heaven for cyclists but it’s also paradise for walkers, runners, kids, families – everyone. It’s a country that didn’t pave every square inch but made the conscious decision to use buses, trains and bikes instead. This makes Dutch towns safe, quiet and pleasant. We could bike side by side and talk, not worrying about cars.
- I pictured leisurely rides through the European countryside; this was much more difficult, due to the wind and the rain. Rachel, Sheera, Neeraja and myself are regular cyclists used to doing distances but this was a challenge. 30 miles doesn’t sound like much until you bike against 30-mph winds.
- It was a remarkably affordable trip, averaging around $200/day, including hotels, luggage transfers, the bikes and meals.
- I had never been on an overnight bike trip with other people but the Bike 2 Belgium crew got along really well. There’s something about a shared adventure that brings people together.
- On the last day, I wanted to get rid of those hefty Juun bikes but I also wanted to keep going into France. I’m already thinking about my next bike adventure.