What better way to see a country than on a bike? Navigating a new town, stopping at cafes frequented by locals, and having the leisure to pause anytime a vista grabs you – a truly immersive trip. Combine that with the fun and convenience of staying on a canal barge boat and you’re guaranteed a great travel experience. So if you’re a cyclist and want to try a new way of traveling, look into touring by bike and barge in Holland! The Netherlands are a great place to try a cycling tour for the first time. The land is flat, the bike lanes well maintained, and the scenery beyond beautiful.
We’ve taken advantage of one day cycling tours when we’ve traveled in Europe before, but have never taken an extended bike trip. We’re members of a Sunday morning bike group that organizes an overseas cycling trip every year but we have never been able to sign up fast enough for the coveted 16 or so spots. When we got a call late one evening telling us they’d been a cancellation, we jumped at the opportunity for a week in the Netherlands. We went online, made a deposit, and only later checked our calendar to see if we had any conflicts!
Booking a Cycling Vacation- About a Canal Barge
The trip, Highlights of Holland, was booked through TripSite, a well-reviewed agency offering bike and barge tours in Europe. The company provides bikes, canal boat lodging, all meals, and a cycling guide. The tour groups are small, somewhere from 14-30 guests on board. Prices range from very affordable to affordable, with each trip classified as to the difficulty of the cycling. (for info on difficulty levels, see below)
The itinerary we chose began and ended in Amsterdam, with 7 days accommodations on the barge Jelmar. This boat was described as a “comfort plus” barge – a step up from a basic accommodation but far from luxury. Our group of 16 occupied the whole barge.
The Jelmar was staffed by the captain, first mate/cook, and our guide. Our room was basic: two bunks, a tiny closet, a private bath, and a transom window which opened. We quickly learned that it was best if one person waited up on deck while the other showered, as there was little room for two people moving around the room at the same time! Note: on the Jelmar, access to the sleeping quarters involve descending steep, narrow stairs – basically a ladder.
The canal barge trip differs from other cruises in that the barge travels during the day, while we cycle, and docks in a different town every night. This was great as it allowed us to head out on foot after dinner for a drink, shopping, or just a walk through town. It was also fun for us to realize that every mile we traveled was on our bikes! No speeding to a new port while we slept, as happens on cruise ships.
What’s a typical day like on a bike and barge Holland trip?
Each barge is unique and the schedule on board varies according to the captain, but the basics remain the same:
Meals are family style on the upper deck
8:00 a.m. Breakfast is put out around , though the coffee machine is always available. Fruit, juices, protein, and a variety of breads are placed on each table. Also on the table are plastic sandwich bags for packing lunch. You are responsible for making your own sandwiches and filling water bottles for the day. It’s fun putting together a picnic lunch each morning not knowing where you’ll stop to eat it.
6 p.m. – Dinner is served. The food is good and you are hungry. It’s possible to leave the barge for a dinner in town, but we were usually tired and stayed with the group. The captain has a selection of wines available for purchase. You buy a bottle, write your name on the label, and enjoy it whenever you wish.
An average day on a bike and barge Holland trip
9 a.m. – All cyclists on deck to offload the bikes. In Holland these are usually 7-speed hybrids bikes, with built in locking mechanisms. Panniers attached to the bikes carry lunches, and any extra clothing you anticipate needing. Everything else was carried in the fanny packs we’d been advised to bring with us. Any concerns of looking touristy or dorky wearing fanny packs was dispelled when we realized we would be wearing bike pants, neon windbreakers, and helmets everywhere we went. The helmets alone marked us as tourists. The Dutch don’t wear helmets…
Note: helmets are not included in the cost of Tripsite’s tour, but are available for rent. Most people bring their own helmet for reasons of fit and hygiene.
The most difficult part of each day was the morning departure and the evening arrival at our next destination. Navigating a unfamiliar bike out of and into a busy town can be a bit harrowing. But once in the countryside the cycling is easy. The Netherlands maintains extraordinary cycling infrastructure for its commuters and its tourists. There are Well-paved bike paths everywhere, traffic signals for bikes, and even bike rotaries around every car rotary. It’s possible to travel from town to town without ever cycling on a road.
Stop for coffee mid-morning, picnic lunch at some gorgeous spot and another rest stop mid-afternoon. In addition to these stops, your tour will include stops at quaint towns, windmills, and interesting museums.
As this was designated an easy cycling trip, we only rode from 15-30 per day – all flat terrain – and met up with the barge around 5 pm.
Why tour Holland on a bike and barge trip?
Just getting a bit outside of Amsterdam allows you to see the ‘real’ Holland. You leave the tourist destinations behind and cycle through neighborhoods, farms, and villages. You will stop at small cafes for hot chocolate and find yourself chatting with the locals.
And you will tour some of the prettiest towns, and most interesting destinations in Holland in a way that most tourists are unlikely to see.
Each day our route took us to some wonderful spots to explore – the cheese towns of Edam and Alkmaar, the windmills of Zaanse Schans, and the dunes on the North Sea. Our guide was knowledgeable and shared history of the area as well as showing us the engineering marvels of water management in Holland. We experienced the UNESCO world heritage site of Pumerand on our bikes – with cows on the right grazing in the field below us as on our left boats sailed past above us.
But in addition to these charming tourist destinations we toured the … windmill where the paper for the Declaration of Independence was made. We stumbled upon the Director of the Leiden 400 committee – a group celebrating the Pilgrims in Holland. This was extraordinary as several of us as were from Plymouth, MA, and on the committee celebrating the same anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in America. He was delighted to meet us and took us to a private room where the town kept memorabilia from past celebrations.
A day with plans for cycling the Kennemer dunes became much more meaningful when one in our group realized how close we were to the Bloemendaal cemetery, the honorary cemetery for resistance fighters in WW2. Our guide didn’t hesitate in taking this side trip as he himself had never visited the cemetery. This is the site, and the memorial, for the nearly 350 men and women who were killed, and their bodies dumped, in the dunes during the war. We were all moved to be able to visit this lonely site and honor the bravery of the Dutch resistance fighters.
When the week was over, we felt we’d had a chance to experience Holland, its history and its culture, in a way we hadn’t anticipated. A way that a week in Amsterdam, or a week on a tour bus, wouldn’t have allowed us to.
How to prepare for a week long cycling vacation
Our trip was rated as easy. We biked on flat terrain with multiple stops each day. But it is still difficult to be in a bike all day. Prepare for this trip by cycling regularly for at least two month before you go. No need for 8 hours in the saddle, but getting out three times a week, for an hour at a time, will prepare you for this trip.
If you are planning a more difficult cycling vacation, increase your mileage and add hill work to your weekly schedule.
FYI – electric assist bikes are available for most cycling trips, but may be limited in number, and at an additional charge. Look into this before you book your trip.
FAQs – answers to the most asked questions regarding cycling vacations
Does everyone have to cycle every day?
No. Passengers can stay on the canal boat as it travels to the next destination. There’s not much to do while the boat is in transit, but it usually docks mid afternoon allowing guests to get off and explore before the bikers get back, On our trip a couple of people chose not to bike everyday and enjoyed a quiet day on the barge as it journeyed to the next destination.
Can the cycling tour be done on our own?
Yes. The Netherlands would be an easy area to navigate by yourself on a bike. There are well marked bike routes all over the area. For more information, as well as route suggestions and maps, get Cycling in Amsterdam and the Netherlands.
How do they classify difficulty in a Bike and Barge Europe trip
Holland is a flat country, so all tours will be Easy or Easy to Moderate.
For general cycling Europe insight, here is Tripsite bike and barge Europe’s guide to difficulty levels:
Easy: Flat terrain. Average daily distances approx. 16-30 miles
Easy to Moderate: Terrain is mainly flat with some sloping hills. A daily distance can sometimes exceed 30 miles.
Moderate: Terrain is made of rolling hills with some climbing involved. Itineraries frequently include two or more days with mileage more than 30 miles.
Moderate to difficult: Climbs are more frequent and strenuous, such as you would find in the Tuscany region of Italy.
Difficult: Very hilly terrain such as you will find with our Road Bike Tours or some of the tours in Croatia. Daily distances normally exceed 40 miles, but not always. A very mountainous terrain but shorter daily mileage will often times warrant the designation of Difficult.
Very Difficult: Road Bike Tours with longer daily distances and strenuous climbs.
Taking a bike and barge Holland trip? Read What to do in Amsterdam – 8 Must Sees
We’ve booked a bike and barge Germany trip for next year! Where shall we go next?