Cycling, Simple and Serene: Bike through Northern Holland

When the architects of the Netherlands created their country, laboriously pumping water and manipulating the region into a series of water-repellent dikes, they must have had visions of two-wheeled travelers perpetually pedaling in their heads. Once partly submerged beneath the North Sea, the country is now a world rife with windmills, tulips, and an armada of bicycles (much of Holland's population owns two bikes). Given the country's geographical situation, this cycling obsession is understandable: distances between cities are short; the countryside is flat; most roads, whether urban or rural, have bike lanes; and the nationwide system of well-marked cycle paths extends into a landscape that sent Vermmer and van Gogh rushing to their canvases. Two-wheeled bliss, pure and simple.
After indulging in Amsterdam's hedonistic distractions, mount a bike to set off into Holland's flatlands. A vast network of bike trails, unmolested by traffic and interrupted only by quaint cobblestone villages, some as old as 500 B.C., weaves throughout the country. Warm up on the popular 13-mile route from the capital to Haarlem, located close to the dune-fringed North Sea coastline. First settled in the tenth century, Haarlem has evolved into an artistic center that rivals Amsterdam. Holland's oldest museum, the Teylers, the art nouveau train station, St. Bavokerk, an awe-inspiring 15th-century Gothic church, and a slew of art galleries will give you plenty to gawk at. From March through May, the world-renowned open-air flower show at Keukenhof, a few miles south of Haarlem, captures the attentions of botanists, flower traders, and the admiring petal lover.
When you're ready to get back into the saddle, head northeast to the freshwater Lake Ijsselmeer, which had been the South Sea until 1932. You can complete the 250-mile loop round the lake in four to six moderately paced days, but the scenic sojourns throughout the countryside will provide weeks of remote distraction, if you let the roads take you where they will.
The famous cheese town of Edam, northeast of Amsterdam on the banks of Lake Ijsselmeer, makes for a must-stop grub spot. Continue north to Hoorn for beautiful views of the steep-gabled merchant homes along the harbor. Seventy-two miles east of Amsterdam is Giethoorn—Holland's version of Venice—a cluster of narrow waterways, thatched cottages, and nary a car in sight. Groningen, sugar capital of Western Europe and considered by many as the best cycling city in the world, is another notable side-trip, especially if you're up for a night out. But the most intoxicating part of cycling northern Holland is not knowing where you're going; simply round the next bend and discover the untrammeled beauty of another small village and the flat, open expanse of its countryside.
Bikes can be hired from all main train stations throughout Holland, but outfitters usually guarantee high-end bikes and assistance with the otherwise time-consuming hassles of flats and mechanical failures. If you want to go it alone, know that most rental agencies require that you return the rentals at the place you purchase, making anything other than day-long loops a practical impossibility.

Published: 3 Jan 2003 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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