Tan Chung Lee
Cruising in a barge along canals from city to city and hopping onto the saddle of a bicycle to go sightseeing is a novel and relaxing way to explore a destination.
And if it is the Netherlands, which is threaded by an intricate web of beautiful waterways and a mostly flat landscape, it is the perfect way to get to know the country.
Travelling in barges has long been a traditional mode of getting around for the Dutch, who also relied on them for the transportation of goods.
Theirs is a country uniquely criss-crossed by numerous canals, which were originally dug to keep out sea water in a low-lying landscape, using the iconic windmills as pumps.
As for cycling in a country where the bicycle is king, it is a real pleasure, thanks to an extensive network of dedicated cycle paths, well-signposted routes and having the right of way.
It is spring and I arrive in Amsterdam in mid-April to catch the country's tulips in full bloom.
In eight days, I enjoy the best of a biking and boating holiday - good old-fashioned exercise and a leisurely cruise on rivers and canals past scenes of the Dutch countryside.
When I board the Anna Maria Agnes (https://boatbiketours.com/barge/anna-maria-agnes), a mid-sized, 72m-long barge, it looks, at first glance, like a typical narrow canal boat. But surprisingly, it is spacious inside, with 34 en suite cabins spread out across an upper and lower deck.
Each cabin has two beds, a window and heating/air-conditioning facilities. The main deck houses a dining room and salon with picture windows.
A rooftop sun-deck with tables and chairs is perfect for lounging with a drink in hand while taking in the passing scenery. At the bow, the boat's fleet of bicycles is neatly parked.
It is a no-frills barge, but comfortable enough. With towels changed daily and a varied and well-thought-out menu, we tuck into a healthy substantial breakfast each day and a hearty three-course dinner every night, such as traditional pea soup, grilled salmon with potatoes and poffertjes or pancakes topped with syrup.
For the picnic lunch, to be consumed at any scenic spot we fancy en route, we pack our own from the breakfast buffet.
The itinerary I sign up for is the Southern Tour, covering the most important sites in the water-rich part of South Holland.
They include the historic city of Dordrecht, the windmills of the World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk and some of the Netherland's best-known canal cities: Utrecht, Gouda, Delft and Haarlem. And because it is tulip season, there is one day dedicated to taking in the gorgeous bulbs in the Keukenhof Gardens.
CYCLE AT YOUR OWN PACE
Although the main thrust of the trip is biking, there is no pressure to cycle every day and one can remain on board the barge and sail to the next destination.
But what catches me off-guard is that the cycling is self-guided. What this means is that we will be on our own.
At the start of the week, we are given a detailed country map. Each night, we get a thorough briefing and itinerary for the next day's ride, a set of directions and numbered cycling routes. We get a sense of what to see along the way (perhaps a castle, an ancient church or a cheese farm) and, most importantly, how to reach our barge at the end of the ride before it sets sail for the next destination.
I am the only solo cyclist. There are a few couples, while the rest have registered as cycling club members from Norway and Germany, so they ride as a pack.
We often set off together, but soon part ways because of our different paces. It sounds daunting to cycle alone at first, but once I master how to decipher the numbered routes and interpret the directions, I am able to follow the itinerary.
Whenever I am unsure of where to go, the ever-helpful and friendly Dutch I approach are happy to point me in the right direction.
Although there is sufficient time to stop and visit an attraction and enjoy my surroundings, it is sometimes quite a task to cover the daily average distance of 50km and reach the barge in good time before it sails off.
This is especially when there are headwinds blowing in from the Atlantic or when there are hailstorms (twice during the week), which make peddling an upright bike - typically used by the Dutch - a bit of a slog.
But cycling alone allows me to ride at my own pace without worrying about holding up others. What is more, I can stop whenever I like to take pictures and explore any place that catches my interest.
Each destination has its own character and highlights. There is Dordrecht - the oldest Dutch city and one of the most attractive, thanks to three interlacing canals.
Its strategic position at the heart of three rivers enabled Dordrecht to grow into a prosperous trading centre.
It is pleasant to wander through its bustling inner-city harbours to admire the old merchant houses and warehouses lining the waterfront and to look at the amazing array of boats huddled together.
From Dordrecht, we take a water bus to the cycling trail and head towards Gouda, which is reached after a long blustery ride through heavy rain via picturesque Kinderdijk, with its 19 windmills, preserved from the 18th century.
These windmills were built to keep out the water from the polder (low-lying area) and to prevent floods. The rain at Kinderdijk drives most of our group to cut their cycling short and return to the barge. However, I plod on.
CHEESE AND WITCHES
Fortunately, the sun starts shining to show Gouda at its best by the time I arrive.
Its vast square makes for a delightful stroll. At its centre is its magnificent 15th-century Stadhuis (Town Hall) surrounded by the Waag (tinyurl.com/y7jg86gf), a cheese-weighing house, now a museum, where Gouda's famous cheese was weighed for tax purposes.
If I had visited on a Thursday, its traditional cheese market with vendors in Dutch costumes would have been in full swing.
Delft and Utrecht are two of the Netherlands' most charming canal-ringed cities dating from the Middle Ages. Among the surviving landmarks in Utrecht, a religious hub, are its cathedral (Domkerk) and tower (Domtoren).
Our cycling route also takes us to nearby Oudewater, where suspected witches, up till the 17th century, would be weighed to prove their innocence. (Witches were said to be light, hence their ability to fly). At The Witches' Weigh House (www.visit-oudewater.nl/en/witches-weighhouse), our cycling group learn more of the country's witchcraft history. We also get to step on giant weighing scales to find out if we are witches and get a certificate as testimony.
While Delft also has a striking mediaeval church (Nieuwe Kerk), it is better known for its Delftware - hand-painted, blue-and-white pottery inspired by the 17th-century Chinese porcelain brought back by the Dutch East India Company.
We have time to take a tour of Porceleyne Fles, one of three porcelain factories, which makes Royal Delft (www.royaldelft.com), for a fascinating insight into the production process.
Just as quaint, though with fewer canals, is Haarlem, where celebrations to mark King's Day on April 27 (the birthday of Dutch King Willem-Alexander) are ramping up at noon when we arrive.
Cycling on the city's cobblestoned streets and dodging the crowds is a bit of a challenge.
However, the festive mood is infectious despite the amusement park in the massive main square blocking out full views of the decorative Town Hall.
It also hides the Gothic St Bavo cathedral, famed for its elaborately gilded 30m-high Muller organ played by the composer Handel in special performances in 1740 and 1750, and a young Mozart in 1766.
The route to Haarlem is a surprise as we cycle uphill over sand dunes through the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park (www.vvvzandvoort.com/national-park-zuid-kennemerland) that leads us to the North Sea. The sea is bordered by long stretches of sandy beaches that are a popular weekend playground for the Dutch.
A PHOTOGRAPHER'S DREAM
Close to Haarlem is the colourful Keukenhof Gardens (www.keukenhof.nl) in the town of Lisse - a horticultural wonder and a photographer's dream.
Here, every year since 1949, seven million flower bulbs ranging from hyacinths and daffodils to crocuses and 800 varieties of tulips are in full bloom in 32ha of parkland dotted with lakes, fountains and trees. The gardens attracted 1.4 million visitors last year.
The viewing season, however, is short - from mid-March to mid-May - as planting is done in October to ensure blossoming in spring.
Rounding up our itinerary before cycling back to Amsterdam is the village of Zaanse Schans (www.dezaanseschans.nl/en), with its traditional green houses, showcasing a slice of Dutch life as it was in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In Zaanse Schans, there is an old-style grocery store as well as a cheese factory, clog-maker and bakery, where one can see how these ancient crafts are still being practised.
There are also windmills and, unlike those in Kinderdijk, a handful of them are still operating - as a grain mill, in the sawing of timber and crushing of pigments to make paints for artists' palettes.
In contrast to all these heritage cities is the port of Rotterdam, with its stunning modern skyline and vibrant social scene.
Avant-garde, quirky and futuristic best describe the city's architectural style - from the ultra-modern Eramus bridge with its signature swan-like curve to the all-glass facade of the horseshoe-shaped Markthall, an office and residential complex that also houses a market hall. There are also the tilted apartment units of the Cube House.
However, best of all is the fact that the route we cycle through wends through what is known as the Green Heart (Groene Hart) of Holland, home to nature reserves, pretty villages, meadows of grazing cows, cheese farms, fields of flowers, lakes and streams populated with swans, ducks and other wading birds - like a painting of a Dutch rural landscape come alive.
• Tan Chung Lee is a freelance travel writer.
I fly to Amsterdam on Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) via Istanbul. The airline has four connecting flights a day to Amsterdam, while KLM (www.klm.com) flies direct.
BIKING AND BOATING
The Southern Tour, an exploration of historic Dutch cities and the picturesque backwaters of the country's Green Heart, is run by Bike Boat Tours, which also offers a wide range of cycling and boating trips on a variety of barges in Europe. For more information, go to www.boatbiketours.com or e-mail info@boatbiketours. com. Prices for a seven-night/ eight-day cycling package start at €739 (S$1,200) a person for a twin-sharing cabin.
This covers full board on the barge, detailed cycling maps, daily route briefings and city walks. You can take along your own bicycle or hire one for €70. E-bikes are also available.
The Dutch do not wear helmets when cycling as it is not mandatory, so you should take along your own as well as cycling gloves. Panniers are provided.
No special cycling gear is required, but a fleece jacket comes in handy on cooler days. A waterproof jacket and waterproof over-trousers are also recommended in the event of inclement weather.
As the terrain is mostly flat, most recreational cyclists should be able to manage. If one does not cycle regularly, it would be helpful to condition oneself prior to the tour by cycling once a week for two months.
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