Cycling through Tulips – Butterfield & Robinson’s Holland Biking Journey

The reality is my bike has been hanging in my garage for the past couple of years gathering dust.  But I have always wanted to do a cycling holiday.  The opportunity to join a cycle trip arose last year when I decided to attend Virtuoso Symposium in Berlin in April.  With Butterfield & Robinson’s cycling adventure in nearby Netherlands at the ideal tulip blooming time of year, I finally had my chance and I seized it with vigor.  Who would have thought that in the end, my husband Allan and I would be the only two riders to take the ‘century challenge’…But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Here’s the story.

Who better to experience a bike sojourn with than Butterfield & Robinson?  The best and the longest in the upmarket cycle holiday business, B & R really know how to create the most memorable, easy and stress-free cycling and walking holidays.  As cycling virgins, we decided upon their 5 night Holland trip as we thought this was a perfect introductory biking holiday given Holland’s terrain is primarily flat and therefore should be doable for us non-riders.  

The starting point for the B&R cycling trip was Amsterdam, so we added a few days prior to the cycling venture to explore this gorgeous small city.  What a beautifully manicured and captivating little city – small enough to walk everywhere, along the canals, past quaint little shops, restaurants and cafes, with a choice of museums, boat rides through the canals, a red light district which intrigued me to no end… And, of course, there are the plentiful “coffee shops” that all produce the same sort of smell as you walk past – one of the few cities in the world where smoking marijuana is legal! Amsterdam really feels like a university town as everyone is cycling on the many bike paths, so you must keep your eyes open at all times for both cars AND bikes!

Day 1
On the first day we met our group at the Hotel Pullitzer, a hotel with over 100 years of history made up of 25 canal houses joined together in the very cool Jordaan district. Right in the heart of “Negen Straatjes,” translated as “nine streets,” the hotel was located just one block from the very moving and popular Anne Frank’s House. Tip: Book your tickets online a month in advance to avoid the huge queues.

I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about the whole cycle trip as I was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the group of avid cyclists.  This group was one of their bigger ones, as there were 17 people total.  After the introduction my initial trepidation was confirmed when I found out that Allan and I were one of two couples who were B&R first timers! In fact, our group included a group of 10 people who have now done a few B&R trips together and for one of the ladies, Patsy, this was to be her 16th B&R trip. Talk about a fan!

My husband Allan and I had bought our first pair of Knicks at the beginning of February and had been training for the big trip every Saturday and Sunday since to build up the number of km’s we rode per day. The most we had reached before we flew out was 62 kms, so we were hoping that we would cope with a few of the B&R days as there were options that could be longer than that.

Our lucky group were the first group for the year in Europe, so we were handed over shiny new bikes – of which the seat was going to be my very close companion for the next five days.  Helmets, bikes, bike bags, water bottles all labelled and handed over to us together with the directions for the first day’s cycle route. Day 1 consisted of 44 kms – cycling through fields of brightly coloured tulips that only flower for about four weeks of the year…what a treat.  This day included a guided tour of the magnificent Keukenhof Gardens which is only open for 8 weeks each year. So garden lovers must head to Holland in Spring, between third week of March to third week in May.

Since our group was such a large one, B&R had supplied us with three guides, all of whom were amazing. You could see how much they loved their jobs and the passion they have for guiding cycle holidays.  Alice, our “Carrie Bradshaw” look alike, was born in Holland and gave us a quirky insight into “her” superb country.  Her two counterparts were Marya, who has been with B&R for 15 years now which is testament to what a great company they are.  She was the trip planner and on one occasion even stripped down to jump into a canal to retrieve a floating bike bag that fell in from one of the bridges in Leiden.  Now that’s dedication to the job! And lastly, but not least, was our very exuberant and encouraging Portugese guide, Telmo.

B&R really do it in style, with meals in special places, including special highlights, or “events” as they call it, offering a perfect mix of cycling, touring and eating which is enhanced by very good drinking!

Lunch on Day 1 was in one of the few fortresses left in Holland which was opened up only for our group. They catered a superb lunch with wine and local beer – what a way to start.  I knew at that point we were truly in for a treat.  The remainder of the day we cycled through tulip fields, along the coast and then through the Duines heading to the capital of Holland, de Haag. 

One of the beauties about B&R is that you can really do what you want.  There is no pressure to keep up with the group or to even stay with the group.  If you wanted to head off ahead of the group, or skip a coffee break, you could do just that as the trip notes given every morning were so clear that anyone could follow them.  In fact, all of my initial concerns of not keeping up with the group were alleviated when we reached the stunning Hotel des Indes, in de Haag ahead of everyone.  

I actually loved having time on our own as we navigated in a country we had never been to before.  I almost felt like we were kids on a treasure hunt.  It was so invigorating when we arrived at the hotel in good time which allowed us a couple hours to walk through the quaint city before we met for our first night’s welcome cocktails and dinner.

Day 2 
We all headed off together as a group for the 19 km morning ride to Rembrandt’s birthplace, the university town of Leiden which is a gorgeous Dutch town situated on a branch of the Rhine River.  The morning ride had us cycling through the magnificent parklands of de Haag and then following the many bicycle tracks that run throughout Holland.  After our guided tour of Leiden, we had a very typical Dutch lunch at a restaurant that specialises in pancakes…not the three tiered American sweet pancakes but a rather huge thin crepe which could be either savoury or sweet.  Our favourite was the bacon and apple pancake which is a complex mix of salt and sweet and a very unexpected taste sensation.  Allan and I didn’t allow time for a long, relaxed lunch as we were keen to take up the offer of the extension on Day 2. The extension was an additional 32 km loop through rural countryside and farmland, along canals, riding past windmills and a few more tulip fields, then arriving back to Leiden to rejoin the standard for the 19km ride back to De Haag.  That made 70 kms on Day 2 which was the most we had ever ridden!  The event for the evening was a Jenever tasting session – a lesson on the variety of the Dutch version of gin, accompanied with a few local delicacies.

Day 3 
Today we departed de Haag and rode to our next destination, Gouda.  Yes, the famous city known for their cheese.  On this trip I have learnt that the Dutch don’t pronounce the G as a g, but rather as a strong HHHH…so the correct way to pronounce Gouda is HHHouda – the HHHH coming from deep in your throat.   Once again we all headed out together for the 56 km ride to Gouda, stopping en route at a gorgeous lake for a coffee and piece of local apple pie –  just what we needed to keep us going.  Lunch included a tour of the medieval town of Gouda with its church well known for striking stain glass windows.  Once again an alternative was offered for the ongoing journey to the hotel. You could either do an extra 6, 12 or 19 kms and, of course, we chose the longest route, which had us travelling through a few extra tiny Dutch villages.  By day’s end, we once again topped our previous record.  Now we had done 75 kms in one day.

Day 4 
Day 4 had us travelling from Gouda to Zeeland which is deep in southern Holland towards the Belgium border.  Zeeland is made up of many islands, inlets, long stretches of beaches, canals, dykes (to save the towns from flooding), oyster farms and more quaint villages.  This was our shortest riding day which suited us perfectly after our 70 and 75 km days.  The day began with a tour of a local cheese making farm in Gouda, then we rode along beautiful rivers, canals and then on a ferry to cross one of the larger canals. After a visit to a local windmill museum, we were picked up in a huge bus (actually more like a large limousine) with plush leather seats, espressos and snacks served on our one hour journey to the old port town of Zierikzee.  From there, we boarded the Vrolijke Vischer, a fishing boat sailing across the ocean to Zeeland where we were served, yet again, with a lovely lunch on board preparing us for the last 20 km ride of our 38 km day.

Destination was the fantastic Relais & Chateux property in Southern Holland, Manoir Inter Scaldes with the 2-star michelin restaurant.  Owned by Jannes and Claudia Brevet, what a stunning property to use as a base for our last two nights enjoying sumptuous gourmet food and wine at the end of our busy touring and cycling days.  

A topic of conversation over this dinner was who was game to try for the ‘century ride.’ B&R always include an option to give their travellers the ability to ride 100 kms in a day at some point during their trip.  The challenge works well for those keen riders who want to push themselves to the limit.  I am ALWAYS up for a challenge so, of course, Allan and I raised our hands to attempt The Century.  

Day 5
We were the only 2 from the group who decided to take on this longest ride for the trip, so we headed off earlier than anyone else with our guide, Telmo.  The other members of our group were not keen to miss out on the special event for that day which was a private tour of the shellfish auction, mussel pits and a taste of fresh oysters.  However, our sights were set on exploring deeper into this part of the country so we opted out of the excursion enabling us to take on The Century ride.  B&R don’t allow people to take on the 100+ ks without a guide, so we got to enjoy Telmo’s expertise and spunky personality for the entire day all to ourselves!

Yes, Holland is flat, but nevertheless I can attest that riding on flat roads is not always so easy since you are riding constantly with no opportunity to coast downhill.  Lucky us, I say with absolute sarcasm, we hit the wind on our return making the ride back even harder.  BUT we made it!!  How good did we feel?!  Not only was the scenery simply stunning…riding up on dykes, along the canals, over bridges, across lochs, through gorgeous towns, passing farms with horses, cows and sheep, through orchards… but we did all of this from the seat of a bike, exercising all day in the fresh air.  Best way to see this country, I’m convinced. And then to celebrate at the end of the day with another delicious meal (and a tour of the kitchen) which was heaven.

With B&R, the options are endless, and the guides are there to help you with your choice providing direction as needed.  I was amazed at how well organized and flexible the 5 day trip was.  The attention to detail was exemplary.  Here’s just one example…  After a guided tour of the Keukenhof gardens in drizzling rain, to our surprise when we returned to our bikes, shower caps had been placed over our seats to keep them dry.

I was very pleased to discover that the large group size was no issue at all as there were many alternatives on offer and everyone was happy to go their own pace.  The events included also provided insight into the area visited.  So it’s not just about packing as many kms into the day as possible but rather also about learning about the country visited, while enjoying good food and wine. The company is usually great as you are mixing with like-minded people. A perfect option when looking for an active holiday.

B&R’s motto is ‘slow down to see the world.’  Now that we have experienced a bike riding holiday with B&R, I know I want to slow down more often to see the world B&R style once again.  The hardest question now…which one will we choose next?

by Director Yvonne Verstandig