Sunday, December 20, 2009

Zihuatanejo, Mexico as Mexico Was.

November, 2009, we abandoned the gray skies of Seattle and jetted off to sunny Zihautanejo on the sunny west coast of Mexico. Zihua shares an airport with the nearby resort town of Ixtapa.

“Zihau” is what Mexico was; still retaining its fishing village charm without the high rise hotels that mark other coastal resorts. While cruise ships make stops at Zihau only the shops along the waterfront reflect their impact. Even there the small town flavor prevails as the shops compete for space with local fishermen who bring their catch to the beach and sell their product to restaurants and locals in an open air market.

We arrived at the modern airport, passed through an efficient customs and grabbed a cab for the 20 minute ride to the Intrawest Club on the Playa la Ropa, one of three beaches facing the Zihau harbor. The cabs must be well controlled for all were white, well maintained and most had cards explaining the set price to get to and from most of the key tourist places. Such order is comforting for wary travelers who are fearful of taxi scams.

The Intrawest Club, while four star in every way, was designed to blend into rather than dominate the scene. Setting on a steep hillside above the beach the club steps up the hill from the water in a series of small, low rise buildings of stucco with thatched or tile roofs. Trees along the beach and among the buildings further reduce the impact of the club.

The Club offers all the features you might expect from a resort hotel; a fine dining restaurant, pool side dining, adult and kids swimming pools, the list goes on. The staff is as good as you could hope for, typical of an Intrawest property. They went out of their way to learn our names. Stephen and Kathy became Estabon and Katarina and were easy for them to retain. Sterling and Nadine, without Spanish alternatives, were more challenging. They finally gave up and Sterling became Spanish for silver and Nadine became Spanish for queen. We were happy and so were they.

We experienced a Goldilocks and the three bears situation with our assigned rooms. The first room was too noisy, the second was too hot and the third was just right. Our first suite was midway up the hill from the beach. It had a good view and was close to the restaurant but was further from the beach and pool. Work on the unit directly below ours subjected us to noise and dust seven days a week.

At our request we were moved to a second unit closer to the beach with less view due to the lush trees on the grounds. That was fine until the AC unit failed. With 90 degree temperatures and high humidity the AC was most appreciated.

Our third unit was just right. It was quiet, everything worked and we were just four steps up from the pool with access directly from our deck. The staff had been most accommodating. Life was good.

The Beaches:
There are three major beach areas in Zihua harbor, what I will call the City Beach, the Playa la Ropa (where the Intrawest Club is located) and the smaller Playa las Gatos. Each has a character of its own.

The City Beach is home to some of the older small hotels in the area. Portions of the beach disappear at high tide so it’s less inviting as a “lay around beach.” A paved path runs the length of the beach and provides a connection with the downtown area and a way around some of the small rocky headlands.

The best recreation beach is the Playa la Ropa. It’s long, sandy and most inviting. Low rise hotels and condos line the length of the beach and eight to ten small restaurants are located on or just back from the water’s edge. The Jet Ski and para sail rental businesses set up on this beach on busy days but they are nicely spaced out and you are not subjected to high pressure sales pitchs.

Because there are more tourists on Playa la Ropa there are more vendors working the beach. If you wanted jewelry, baskets, clothing or other small items they were available but we were never hassled by the vendors. The same could be said for the entrepreneurs brokering fishing trips and other tours. They were certainly there and would ask if you were interested but never pressured and left us alone once we said “no.”

Playa las Gatos is the smallest beach and can be described as funky. Access is a challenge; by water taxi from the downtown or by hiking a rough beach trail from Playa la Ropa. There may be a road that reaches the beach as well but we didn’t see it. The small restaurants that line the short beach were less inviting than others in town though their food offerings might have been just fine. We did sample their beverage selection and shared a plate of fresh fish with a couple that had just caught the fish on a charter and returned to the beach where a restaurant agreed to cook their catch.

We were disappointed with the cleanliness of the beach at Playa las Gatos; there was enough broken glass in the sand to discourage a return visit.

The conclusion; the Playa La Ropa offers the best beach for sunning, swimming and eating.

While we certainly didn’t visit every place in town we did sample food at a number of places.

Intrawest Club has a wonderful restaurant that is open to the public for morning and evening meals. The view from the open air restaurant was spectacular and the food was always good and well presented. They serve breakfast and supper. Lunch is available at a pool side restaurant.

There are a number of small restaurants along the beach. Their menus were similar with an emphasis on seafood, often locally caught. We had good meals at three.
• Elvira’s was our favorite. We enjoyed bantering with Nahum Reyes, the guy that worked the beach and tried to attract customers to the restaurant. Their margaritas were the biggest and best on the beach. All the staff worked hard to please.
• Paty’s had the biggest menu and the food was good. They didn’t take credit cards which was an inconvenience.
• La Perla offered good food in a nice atmosphere. But the staff didn’t engage and was a bit inattentive.
• Il Mare, an Italian seafood restaurant, is a short walk from the Intrawest club, perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the city and harbor. We were attracted by the view but the meal was excellent as well.
• Banditos is a “Red Robin” type place right in the downtown area. The food was casual and very good.

Finally, during a visit to the nearby resort town of Ixtapa, we had dinner at Ruben’s, a highly recommended place famous for its hamburgers. It was an average burger with below average service.

All of the places we visited seemed targeted to tourist and we had no concerns about cleanliness. We did drink bottled water and avoided salads everywhere but at the Intrawest Club. You can easily gain weight in Zihua!

If your unit has a full kitchen, like ours did, you can also shop locally and eat in. We found a gigantic “Super Walmart” type of place (it was not a Walmart, however) a short taxi ride into town. It had everything you might need in the way of groceries and drink along with beach toys, clothes and refrigerators. I don’t recall the name but it has “commercial” in it and the hotel staff and taxi drivers all knew what we wanted.

If you are truly adventurous you can try the public market in Zihua with its fresh items.

Things to Do:
While we tried to do as little as possible during our visit there are many activities available for tourists.

Snorkeling: Rental gear is available from some hotels and beach vendors in the area. You could find fish in the rocks in front of the Intrawest Club and off a small reef in front of Playa las Gatos. It was interesting but not spectacular.

Fishing: We did not fish but those that did had good success. Many restaurants will cook your catch adding to the experience. Vendors on the beach can arrange trips but most hotels recommend using their concierge service to avoid scam artists who charge but don’t show up.

Party Barge, the Picante: The Picante is a large catamaran that carries 40 people, lunch, liquor and snorkel gear on tours down the coast. It was great fun and worth the $80 cost. We sailed down the coast about 45 minutes to a small bay for snorkeling. Returning to Zihua bay we dropped a stern anchor, they rigged a spinnaker and let people “fly” from a bosun’s chair suspended from the sail. Most on board, young and old, took a ride.

Swim with the Dolphins: The aquarium in Ixtapa offers an opportunity to swim with trained dolphins. It was fun. The price varied depending on how long you were in the water with the delightful creatures.

There are also offerings that take you away from the beach:
• Horseback riding,
• Visit to an wetland area
• Jeep and other types of off-road riding.
We heard good reports but didn’t try any of them. When considering a tour it is always a good idea to ask around. You often will find someone on the beach or in the pool who has done it and can offer advice or counsel and help you avoid a bad experience.

The Bottom Line: Zihuatanejo is a great place to visit.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cycling the Idaho Mountains; The Hiawatha and Coeur d'Alene Trails

This Journal recounts a three day fall trip to the Idaho Panhandle to peddle two magnificent though very different bike trails.

The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The Route of the Hiawatha Trail. Both of these Idaho bike trails had been beckoning us for many years. Finally, in September of 2009, we loaded our bikes on the van, picked up our cycle friends, the Behses, and headed east to Wallace Idaho, five and a half hours away. We arrived at the Wallace Inn after dark and were pleased to find large, well appointed rooms waiting for us. It is clearly the best place to stay in Wallace.

Wallace, tucked in a narrow I-90 canyon surrounded by the rugged Bitterroot Mountains on the Montana border, would seem an unlikely place for “civilized cycling.” But in the 1800’s the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road railroads chose this area for their transcontinental rail routes and, when they later abandoned them, left behind two paths through the mountains that are ideal for cycling.

The two trails offer very different cycling experiences. The Hiawatha Trail is the less refined of the two. Unpaved, it clings to steep slopes, passes through ten tunnels and over seven high trestles as it descends 1000 feet over the most popular 15 mile portion of the trip.

The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is very civilized. Beginning on Lake Coeur d’Alene, about 20 miles south of the city of the same name, the paved 73 mile trail heads east eventually joining I-90 in a narrow canyon that takes it through Wallace to it’s terminus beyond the small mining town of Mullan.

Day One: The Hiawatha Trail
For our first day of travel we chose the Hiawatha trail. Due to its elevation and remote location the trail is only open during the warmer months. Before venturing there it is a good idea to check the web site. There are a few things to know about the trail:
· Lights and helmets are required. The longest tunnel is over one mile in length. Lights are a must.
· You must pay a trail use fee ($9 in 2009.) It is worth it as the trail is well maintained with informative historical markers along the way.
· Fat tires are recommended. It is a good recommendation. Narrow road tires would be trouble for the rider and those around them on many portions of the unpaved roadway.
· Warm clothes are a good idea. The day we cycled it was 75 degrees outside and 42 degrees in the long tunnel. Brrrrrrrrrrr.

Mountain bikes can be rented at Lookout Pass ski area on I-90, just five miles from the turn off to the trailhead. The bikes come with helmets and lights. You can also purchase your trail pass at this location. For those who prefer to ride just one way, a shuttle service is available to pick you up at the west trail head and bring you and your bike back to the starting point. On busy weekends bike and shuttle reservations are recommended.

We rented bikes, purchased our passes and then headed to the east trail head at about 10:00 am on a Sunday, one week before the end of the season. There was a steady stream of riders entering the first tunnel but it didn’t have a “crowded” feel. We were greeted by a trail volunteer who provided a safety briefing and, we suspect, was insuring we had out passes.

The trail begins at the 1.7 mile long St Paul Pass tunnel. It is quite an experience. After riding about 50 yards the trail bends slightly and begins a straight run to the west portal which appears as a small dot of light in the far distance. It is a long, dark, damp tunnel. Water drips from the roof and walls and is picked up by a narrow gutter on each side of the trail. We were warned not to bike into the gutter! The surface is compact gravel and dirt with an occasional puddle. There is no way to avoid getting a little wet and a little muddy.

The tunnel seems to go on forever but, eventually, the light at the end of the tunnel grows larger and you emerge from the darkness into the bright sunshine. Continuing on, the trail passes through nine more tunnels of varying length. You soon find that your required headlight not only lets you see where you are going but helps you see on coming cycle traffic. In addition to my handlebar light I wore my headlamp over my helmet and found that additional light helpful.
After a few tunnels you encounter the first of seven major trestles, each of which seems to span a major chasm in the rugged mountains. Handrails make them quite safe but you can still get an eerie feeling looking over the edge to the rock strewn streams below.

Reaching tunnel 28, at about the ten mile mark, we called a halt. Our plan was to go out and back and we’d been advised that the last third of the trail, though still in beautiful country, was free of tunnels and trestles and, in portions, was shared with cars.

It seemed as if we were riding a different trail on the way back. The views were all different and we knew what to anticipate as we entered each tunnel. We paused on one trestle to enjoy the sun and have lunch before concluding the trip back to the east trailhead.

We had cycled the Hiawatha trail and can recommend the experience. The trail was well maintained, the grades were moderate and you get a sense of adventure without too much adventure thrown in. It is suitable for the entire family.

We returned our rented bikes and headed back to Wallace.

Wallace is not a big town and, since it was an off season Sunday evening. our dinner choices were limited. But we found the Historic Smokehouse BBQ and Saloon just right and had a good dinner surrounded by memorabilia evoking the spirit of this former silver mining town.

Day Two: Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes
Wallace sits at mile 64 of the 73 mile trail. The paved portion of the trail ends beyond Mullan, nine miles to the east. We were told that the Wallace to Mullan portion of the trail offers some of the best riding and scenery but we elected to instead head west reserving the last portion of the trail for those who still had energy left at the end of the day.

While the trail shares the canyon with I-90 much of the tree lined trail still offers a semi-tranquil experience. Miles 55 to 48 pass by relics of the industrial and mining past of Kellogg and Smelterville. But the entire ride is pleasant and old Kellogg, just south of the trail, is worth a stop. The Kellogg Chamber of Commerce is housed in the old train station next to the trail. They offer information on the area and, perhaps most importantly, a restroom.

A Word About Facilities on the Trail: Planners of both the Hiawatha Trail and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes considered rider comfort and spotted well maintained restrooms along both routes. Picnic tables are also available. Both are well marked on trail maps available at motels, restaurants and the web.

At mile 48 the trail and I-90 part ways and the trail meanders beside a lazy river on a very scenic stretch.

We chose to stop at mile 42, the Cataldo trail head. But before we turned around for the trip home we headed down a country road to see the historic Cataldo Mission at the Old Mission State Park. We were told it was “about two miles down the road” by a local who either didn’t know or was out to josh a tourist. In any case, after riding four miles down a road past a gravel pit, sawmill and superfund cleanup site we arrived at the park. It is a nice park with a new in 2009 visitors center but I would suggest you take exit 39 while driving I-90 and see the park that way. It wasn’t worth the ride.

We returned to the trail at Cataldo and began our trip back to Wallace with no incidents and a pleasant stop at the Silver Mountain Ski Area base in Kellogg for some refreshment. While the grades were gentle we were still glad to make it back to Wallace. With our side trip to the mission and some wandering around Kellogg our planned 44 mile trail ride (22 miles each way) had grown to about 55 miles total. The weather had been great and the entire day met everyone’s best expectations.

No one showed any interest in peddling the last eight miles to Mullan.

That evening we dined at the 1313 Club, Historic Saloon and Grill in downtown Wallace. It can be recommended for food and atmosphere. A perfect ending to a good day of riding.

Day Three: Cataldo to Harrison on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene.
Our plan for the day was to drive to Cataldo, the Day Two stopping point, and then continue west to cover more of the trail. But first, on the advice of a local, we headed for the Silverspoon Restaurant, just off exit 49 in Kellogg. The advice included:
· They have great breakfasts
· Their cinnamon rolls are fantastic; plan to share one. Don’t try to eat one alone.
The advice was sound, though incomplete. The breakfasts were great. But we assumed each cinnamon roll was enough for two so each couple ordered one; big mistake. Four could have lived on a single roll for several days. And, while sometimes quality is sacrificed for size, in this case the rolls were both giant sized and delicious. (They were also good when we ate the second half of them the following day.) If you like a good breakfast and/or cinnamon rolls the Silverspoon is not to be missed.

We lumbered out of breakfast and drove the last distance to the Cataldo trailhead, Mile 42. I dropped off three riders and then drove nearly an hour to their destination at Mile 15 in Harrison. The weather was cloudy, a little windy and rain was threatening so driving the car seemed like a sensible thing to do.

The rain never came so I unloaded my bike in Harrison and headed out on the trail to meet the others. About ten miles out we met and I was placed in the front of our small peloton to lead them in through a moderate headwind.

The Cataldo to Harrison segment turned out to be a flat wander along the banks of the meandering Coeur d’Alene river as it headed down a wide valley spotted with farms and pastures. The river enters the lake of the same name at Harrison.

The last 15 miles of the trail, down to Plummer, will have to await another trip. We had covered the middle 50 miles of the 73 mile trail. It is a wonderful place to cycle. The pavement is in “new” condition, there are multiple trail heads for start and finish legs and it is suitable for cyclists of all ages and skill levels. It is truly a gem of a trail in one of the most scenic areas of the country.

It is to be recommended.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Kampen, Hoorn, Amsterdam; The Holland Trip Winds Down

Thursday, August 20: Kampen to Hoorn
Today the morning routine was disrupted by a 7:00 AM Lena departure. We are heading west across the Ijssel Lake, formerly the South Sea. It will be a three hour cruise.

The Ijssel Lake was once the open ocean of the Zieder Zee. In the 1930’s a 20 mile long dam was constructed across the entrance and it became a 470 square mile lake, with the salt water replaced by fresh. Former trading towns were cut off and fishermen were put out of business. It is hard to imagine a change of that environmental magnitude taking place today but that is how Holland grew over the years.

In the 1970’s a second dam was built cutting off the south half of Ijssel Lake. The plan called for draining that area and reclaiming the land. But the citizens said “stop” and the massive pumping operation never took place.

We arrived at the old trading town of Enkhuizen where the two groups split and the bike riding began. Plans for the “short ride” group to visit a wonderful local museum were tabled by the threat of thunder and lightening. Instead we did a quick ride around the town before an easy ride to Hoorn.

The Lena was moored near the harbor entrance in a not too charming part of town. The former prison nearby was being redeveloped and the contractor was busy all afternoon. But the wonderful and historic downtown was just a short walk and everyone made it to town to visit one of the better shopping streets we have encountered.

The town square was the scene of a giant art project made up of begonia blooms arranged artfully on the cobblestones. Teams of young people worked on their knees to place the thousands of multicolored blooms while other shuttled back and forth with bins of petals. We passed the work site several times and Kath climbed the viewing scaffold each time to record the progress.

The brunt of the predicted storm held off until dinner time and then unloaded with a noisy vengeance. Wind, thunder and lightening accompanied the downpour. But, by the end of dinner, the storm was over and several people joined Lia for a city walk.

A Word About Pumping Stations: Since much of Holland is below the level of the surrounding lake, canals and the north sea, the country depends on an elaborate system of massive pumping stations for it’s very existence. In the old days the pumping was provided by wind mills which turned paddle wheels. Since a paddle wheel could only efficiently lift water about 1.5 meters, higher lifts, of say 6 meters, would require a “flight” of four windmills close to one another to raise the water the full height.

In the 1800’s the paddle wheel gave way to the screw mill using a more efficient (5 meter lift per pump) “Archimedes” screw to raise the water. Wind power gave way to steam power and ultimately to the massive electric pump system they now use. The entire system of pumps, canals and dams is controlled by a national water board.

Given how close to the dikes people build they clearly have confidence in the system that keeps them dry.

Friday, August 21; Hoorn to Amsterdam
The last day of cycling offered a “long” with Klaas and a “short” with Lia. Daggetts took the train to the “cheese” market in Alkmaar, Kathy, Keith, Mary and Sherm stayed with Lia and the rest followed Klaas.

In the end the Lia a group took the longest time arriving at the Lena with many stops at “Dam” cities across North Holland. Refreshment and shopping stops kept them out until nearly 5:30.

The long group passed through Klaas’ home country and he generously shared memories of his early years in the area. We visited an excellent water mill exhibit and many small towns before we reached the industrial suburbs of Amsterdam and the grand city itself. The ride through urban spaces, without the familiar sheep and cattle, kept all on their toes but we made it without a problem and arrived at the busy dock area about 4:00.

The area is home to dozens of barges, all engaged in moving bikes and passengers off and on their boats in preparation for their next trip.

The final dinner, with comments from the guides and guests, was followed by an evening stroll through the vibrant downtown area of town. On a Friday evening it was filled with gawking tourists and gyrating young people. The relative quiet of the Lena’s back deck offered a welcome respite.
Saturday, August 22, Departure Day
Saturday we went our separate ways. Linda St Clair left early to fly home. Mike packed off for more touring of Holland before heading to Canada. Geoff and Viv headed for London. The others will scatter with most flying out on Sunday morning.

The trip is over and it seems all had a wonderful time. Guides, boat, weather, group and the Dutch culture meshed better than one could hope. It was a happy band from start to finish.

The 2009 Tour of the Delta is now history.

Final Words

Downtown Amsterdam is an electric place, laced with canals and an urban vibrancy. Our time was spent within a mile of the central train station so we did not see all of the city but we saw the core of the old town with its polyglot collection of residents and tourists. Crowds of people mingle on the more popular streets, dodging bikes, buses and streetcars. It seems as if every third person is clutching a tourist map in some language, alternatively staring at the map, the street or the canalscape around them.

We spent two days wandering the inner city and each time welcomed the escape to the quiet of our hotel. Cafes and coffee shops abound, offering a place to sit and watch the throngs pass by. Museums of all types are available within easy walking distance. Boat and canal tours are available. We stumbled onto a Saturday evening classical concert taking place on a barge in a canal surrounded by boats and listeners clinging to balconies and canal banks on either side. It was an urban experience.

With so many people, many of them young, the place became a trash heap each day but, each morning, a street cleaning crew came through washing down the cobblestones and gathering up the paper and debris of the previous day.

Visiting Amsterdam was an unforgettable experience. I preferred the countryside.

Interesting facts about Holland:
· There are around 16 million bicycles in Holland, which supposedly means one for every inhabitant.
· The highest point in Holland is called the ‘mountain;’ 323 meters high.
· Holland has the highest museum density in the world, with almost 1000 museums; there are 42 in Amsterdam alone.
· The lowest point in Holland is a polder near Rotterdam, which is about seven meters below sea level.
· Holland roughly makes 13 percent of Netherlands.
· Holland has over 4,400 km of navigable rivers, canals and lakes.
· Holland was one of the six founding members of the European Community.
· The Van Gogh Museum and the Kröller-Müller Museum houses the largest Van Gogh collections in the world.
· One-quarter of Holland is below sea level.
· The International Court of Justice (at the Peace Palace) and the International Criminal Court are both in The Hague.
· Holland still has around a thousand old-fashioned working windmills.
· Holland has no less than 15,000 km of cycle paths.
· Every Dutch person has a bike and there are twice as many bikes as cars.
· Amsterdam is the capital, but the government is in The Hague.
· Most Dutch people speak a foreign language as well as Dutch.
· Rotterdam is the second largest port in the world.
· Amsterdam has 1,281 bridges.
· When you arrive at Schiphol Airport, you are four meters below sea level.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Doesburg, Hattum and Points North on the Bike

Tuesday, August 18; Doesburg to Hattum
Tuesday morning dawned with blue skies along the River Ijssel. A hardy band of five were slated for the long course so we put them on the quay and cast off. No sooner than we had left the mooring they discovered a flat tire in the group. Those on the Lena got a good laugh, took their photo and headed down river to Deventer.

On an historical note, the Rhine bridge at Deventer was the stand-in for the Arnhem bridge during the filming of “The Bridge Too Far.”

After nearly three hours on the winding river we were dropped off and paused, after cycling about 200 yards, for a look around the town which was famous for its gingerbread. As we cycled from town we met the “long” group sitting by the fountain in the main square.

We took a foot ferry to the west bank of the Ijssel and spent the afternoon on the curving dike west of the river. In this area the towns are on the opposite side of the river so we were surrounded by farms and contented cows and experienced very little auto traffic. The dike, in most places, is several hundred yards from the river and the potential flood zone is used for cattle and crops.

A Word About the Name: Are we in the Netherlands or Holland?
The Netherlands is often called Holland, because of the role the two western provinces North and South Holland played in its history. This region encompasses Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and other well-known Dutch cities such as Delft, Leiden and Haarlem. However, officially, it is the Kingdom of the Netherlands, consisting of three parts: the Netherlands itself in Western Europe and the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba in the Caribbean. Many people refer to all of the Netherlands as Holland. Both names work just fine! In any case, all the people are Dutch.

The Lena was backed into a smaller, quiet canal at the town of Hattum. The canal is still used for recreation but no longer for commercial transport. We arrived at about 4:00 pm, dropped the bikes at the boat and headed for town. In most towns we arrive too late to enjoy the shops, which close at 6:00. While it saves Euros it is fun to see what is available.

Following dinner Lea put us on our bikes and led a “water themed” group 2 km. out of town for a photo opportunity. Clad in life preservers, life rings and other water related paraphernalia we posed for photos taken by a passing Dutchman who, as it turned out, didn’t know how to use a camera. But all ended well.

A Word About Dutch-German Relations: The Dutch and the Germans are neighbors. Both are in the EU and citizens travel freely between the two countries. But rivalries and history linger just below the surface.

Near the end of the war fleeing German soldiers “borrowed” horses, carts, cars and, most importantly, bicycles from the local population. The Dutch remember that time.

Now the battle has moved to the soccer field. Both countries watch closely when the Netherlands plays Germany in World Cup competition. Fans bring signs of all sorts to urge their teams on. According to our guides you will often see the following sign in the Dutch stands as a reminder of the past.

“Send Grandpa’s Bicycle Back!”

Wednesday, August 19: Hattum to Kampen
Hattum and Kampen are just a short distance apart on the Ijssel River. Not to be deterred, however, the guides put together long and short trips to keep us occupied exploring new sights.

The short ride spent more time in Hattum and points along the way for a ride of about 20 miles (with multiple coffee stops!)

The long ride, with Lea, was a long ride! Under sunny skies we headed north and east, with morning coffee in Hasselt, where mannequins along the street marked an upcoming city celebration.

Aimed north again we headed to “peat” country and the town of Giethoorn. In ancient times local residents harvested peat from the boggy flatlands, dried it and sold it in Amsterdam for fuel. The peat logs, about 12” x 4” x 4” were dried and then burned. The harvest activity left a series of canals in a grid like pattern throughout the area.

Now Geithoorn is thought of as “Venice of the North” with its web of canals. It is a summer recreation area dotted with homes, docks and bridges. The narrow (about 18 inch) one way bridges range from 10 to 20 feet in length and the crowds of bicycles and walkers make movement a challenge. A sign at the edge of town urges cyclists to walk their bikes but Lea advised that since we didn’t read Dutch we could claim ignorance!

After crossing bridge after bridge (Sherm counted 122 for the day) we escaped to open country. The place is flatter than flat. As we continued east and north I began to despair of ever heading south and west toward the Lena. But finally the turn was made and we began our trip back “home.”

Beer and ice cream in Blokzijl charged us for the final segment. After eight hours on the road and about 60 miles of travel we were delighted to see signs for Kampan where the Lena was waiting.

The final bridge was an artful affair with bright yellow cable wheels high in the air to lift the driving surface vertically allowing ships to pass.

The Lena was moored inboard to another “bike-barge” ship. The guests on that boat were quite envious of our accommodations and guides.

Following dinner we were led on a tour of town before settling down for the evening.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Bridge Too Far and other Tales from Holland

Monday, August 17; Nijmegen to Doesburg via Arnham

A Word About Morning on the Lena: After a week on the boat a casual pattern has developed. Guests begin wandering into the lounge around 7:00ish and head for the automatic coffee machine that offers all types of coffee plus chocolate and hot water. Thus charged they read or visit until the 8:00 bell announces breakfast.

Breakfast typically offers some hot item (eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc) along with fruit, meat, cheese and cold cereals. Before leaving the area everyone fills a small plastic box with a lunch of some sort (breads, meats, cheeses, fruit) and then returns to their cabins to pack their panniers and prepare for the day on the bike.

At 9:00 bikes are off loaded and the ride begins.

Monday began with a hazy fog in the air that blocked the sun and made distant scenes appear out of focus. It would continue until Arnhem and, while not warm, offered good biking weather. We climbed a looping road to the main street above the quay where we paused at the Monday market. (Most shops are closed on Sunday and Monday mornings.) Then Lea, Mike and Geoff headed out on the “long” course and the rest of the groups followed Klaas on the “short.”

We passed over the Nijmegen bridge then dropped down to the north dike and headed east along the river. I could almost picture Robert Redford leading his troops in an assault across the river and up this very dike to attack the north side of the bridge in the movie “A Bridge Too Far.”

We passed through flat farmlands and near a series of massive greenhouses, used by the flower industry, before arriving at Arnhem. We crossed the Rhine River on the “new” John Frost bridge, named for the British officer who took and held the bridge for four hard fought days during Market Garden. The bridge and the buildings on the Arnhem side of the bridge are all new since the war; the others were destroyed during the fighting.

After an hour break for lunch and one flat tire we climbed a considerable hill north of town before descending once more to the more comfortable rolling farmland on the way to Doesburg. Along the route we stopped at a beautiful formal garden for coffee, crossed the Ijssel on a foot and bike ferry and paused to go wading at a lake beside the path.

Doesburg is a well preserved, charming town on the banks of the Ijssel. The quay where we found the Lena, appears to have been redeveloped in recent years as six to ten story apartment buildings line the quay looking down on our mooring and the open land across the river.

For the first time we are moored on an active river bank and the current and passing boats keep the Lena in motion much of the time. Half the width of the Waal at Nijmegen, the Ijssel is a busy commercial corridor with bulk carriers moving up and down the river during daylight hours.

Doesburg is known for two things, its mustard and the Elvis Presley bar. We sampled and enjoyed the mustard on board the Lena. We didn’t discover the bar until too late. Klaas said the owner was disappointed to learn there were Americans nearby as he would have greeted them warmly. The bar is loaded with Elvis memorabilia. There are two clocks on the wall; one set to Dutch time and one set to Memphis time. The bar would be worth a visit if passing through the area!

A Word About the Rhine River: Historically, as the Rhine headed to the north sea, it spread out to form a delta. But unlike the Mississippi the land between the fingers of the Rhine have been reclaimed channeling the waters in a manner that created a series of waterways that are rivers in themselves. So as the Rhine approaches the north sea it becomes the Waal, the Ijssel, the little Rhine and many other lesser waterways.

A Word About World War II in Holland
Holland fell to the Germans in May of 1940. It was not liberated until May of 1945. Kloss and Lea have not forgotten the war as it was very much a part of the parents lives and signs of the battles dot the landscape. They remember:
The wanton bombing of Rotterdam at the start of the war (the Dutch were told to surrender or the bombing would move on to other historic cities one by one.)
The conscription of Dutch men to work in German plants.
The elimination of the Jews (Anne Frank)
The hunger and starvation in 1944-45.
The destruction of dikes, dams, farmlands and historic buildings.

Two major battles stand out, the battle for Antwerp and operation Market Garden.

Antwerp was a major port and key to supplying the allied army in Europe. The Canadians took the city but the Germans still controlled Walcheren Island, on the channel to Antwerp. (It would be like controlling Bremerton without controlling Bainbridge Island.) German guns and mines held up allied shipping for months until the Canadians could root out the Germans one dike and flooded field at a time.

Market Garden, in September of 1944, promised a quick end to the war. Rather than slug it out with the Germans along a broad front the plan was to punch a hole in the defense line, seize bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and, finally, the Rhine River at Arnhem. With the Rhine crossed Germany would be open to attack. The attack failed. Eindhoven, Nijmegen and much of South Holland was liberated but Arnham and north Holland suffered many more months of battle before liberation following the German surrender in May of 1945

The Dutch remember.

Holland, Market Garden and Wind Mills

Saturday, August 15; Geertruidenberg to Den Bosch
Our day began with an hour ride on the Lena, to cross a main channel and move to a starting point. Then we were put ashore where we bid goodbye to Nena, the daughter of Hans the skipper. She had been our cook for the first week and was scheduled to leave for university later that day.

We traveled as one group of 18 for the first 8 miles before splitting into a long course (about 42 miles) and a short course group (about 30 miles.)

A Word About Distance:
The distances the group travels each day are estimates at best. With the twists and turns along paths of varying widths measuring distance is more an art than science. This is the first time the guides have done this particular two week trip so it is a bit of a beta test. Add to the mix road closures, ferry breakdowns and other diversions and the miles traveled each day may vary significantly. But the group peddles on, enjoying the Dutch scenery.

The short course group reported a good day of travel with beautiful scenery and comfortable breaks in small towns. Only a single “out of service” ferry impacted their course.

The long course turned north and added a loop by a castle to the trip. They too had a ferry trip; a one hundred meter ride in an open boat of about 25 feet in length. Powered by a 10 horse outboard it was a simple but effective way to travel. Later, passing an active wind mill, Geoff was invited to assist the operator in removing the sails and shutting it down for the day.

At one point we were met by a stampede of wild horses (three of them, about four feet high). They had escaped their enclosure and were wandering down the street of a small village. A wrangler on a motorbike appeared and “rounded” them up, herding them back down the driveway to their corral.

A Word About Wind Mills:
We are told that Saturday is the day many wind mills are operated by volunteers just to keep them tuned and to maintain a bit of Dutch culture. Sitting, unmoved, for long periods is not good for the wooden parts. The large wooden blades are actually covered with a sail like cloth when they are moving. When the sail is removed they can be tied down and secured.

The trails were busy with Saturday cyclists out to enjoy the sunny weather and holiday spirit.

The Lena was found late in the day moored on a canal in a small village several miles from Don Bosch. It was a most peaceful setting. Some of the group peddled into town after dinner to join in a festival. We stayed on board and took a brief walk through the quiet village. The highlight was a collection of very friendly pigmy goats that rushed to the fence to greet us and unsuccessfully try to pick our pockets.

The lowlight was the report that Jerry’s bike was stolen in town!

Sunday, August 16th; Den Bosch to Nijmegen
Today we have a long distance to travel so we have three choices.
A 45 mile ride
A train ride
Stay on the boat

Kath will stay on the boat with four others while I plan to ride. The view from the boat was ever changing. They particularly likes the local cows sitting on a sandy riverbank, enjoying their Sunday off.

The day’s routine was like the others; a mid morning coffee stop, lunch in a small town, this time near a cemetery (which contained the remains of four British flyers who died nearby) and a mid afternoon break, this time for ice cream rather than beer.

Since it was a Sunday the paths were alive with bike club peletons in bright colored jerseys trying to relive their youths. The motorbikes, which also share the path, were also out in abundance.

In mid afternoon we passed though Grave, a small town southwest of Nijmegen, which lies on the river Maas. The 82nd Airborne dropped a company nearby to take the bridge at Grave, which they did successfully. A monument marks the spot and the bridge has been renamed for the young lieutenant who led the charge.

Grave was alive with activity as a “water festival” was in progress. Lea paused to wash her feet in a washtub near a restaurant. We were not sure what it all meant but the locals seemed to enjoy the moment.

To avoid congestion west of Nijmegen our path carried us south and east of the town into the hills of Gertsmen. These low hills, which abut the German border, were also objectives of the US Army as they wanted to deny the Germans the high ground and prevent them from attacking from the east. This operation was also successful.

We climbed through thin woods to the top of a rounded ridge, entered the outer edge of the city and began our decent to the old town center on the fast moving river Waal.

We found the Lena against the quay below the town, just 100 yards downriver from the Nijmegen bridge, which was one of the main objectives of the 82nd Airborne during Market Garden. Not much of the bridge has changed in the past 60 plus years.

The Waal river is bigger than the waterways we have been sailing in for the past week and the ships have grown to match the river. The boats are wider and deeper and must struggle against the considerable current to make their way up river and under the famous span. The Lena is tucked behind a short breakwater out of the main current.

This is one of the bigger towns we have visited and the restaurants are alive with college students who have arrived for a week of “orientation.” A few of our group faded fast after dinner but a few hardy souls are still abroad in the city as the last of the light fades behind a downstream rail bridge. It is a lovely sight and excellent way to end a successful day of cruising and cycling.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Willemstad Holland

Friday, August 14: Antwerp to Locks of Kreekrak to Willemstad
Friday was blessed with good weather and fair winds. To avoid riding though industrial areas of the city the Lena was to carry us north from town and drop us on the edge of a canal near the locks of Kreekrak. Our Antwerp departure, at 8:30, was controlled by the opening schedule of a draw bridge at the entry to our boat harbor. From there it was two hours of sailing through a series of bustling channels filled with cargo ships and lined by industrial operations of all types.

Once on our bikes we found ourselves on a long curving earthen dam with salt water on our left and fresh, or sweet water on our right. This is one of the last major protective dams we will see as our course now takes us to more inland locations.

A Word About the Sheep: The miles and miles of levees in this country are either hardened with rock or concrete on the “storm” side and covered with low grass on the top and back, or more protected sides. That creates a monumental mowing challenge. That is where the sheep come in. Farmers contract to “mow” assigned portions of the levees with their flocks of sheep. It is a happy partnership; well maintained levees and fat sheep.

Late morning we crossed a bridge to the island of Tholen and stopped for lunch at a village of the same name. A sign pointing the way to a library raised my hopes that I might gain an internet connection but I soon learned it was some distance away; to far to reach during our lunch break.

We lunched in a quiet square, walked up into the small shopping area. Mary was pleased to find a bright colored Dutch fly swatter to attack the mosquitoes that favored her room. Then, following coffee and coke at the café on the square we were back on the bikes.

It was a day of big country; big levees, big farms and big vistas. These were linked by compact towns at the edge of the well maintained farms. At Oud Vossemeer (Old Fox Lake) we learned that this was the home of the Roosevelt clan prior to their American journey.

Our path came to a halt at an old lock at one point. The lock was crossed by a sliding pedestrian bridge that normally was left open to allow boats to pass. But every twenty minutes or so and operator in a remote location pressed a button closing the bridge so pedestrians and cyclists could cross over. Very quaint!

A Word About Remote Controlled Locks: Operating the hundreds of locks, scattered around the country, would require an army of operators. The Dutch have addressed the problem by creating a central control system for many of the locks. Approaching a lock the ship operator calls the “control tower.” The operator, at some remote location who can observe the lock with a system of sensors and camera, can operate the lock. This way a single operator can operate several locks without leaving the comfort of the control room.

With less than 8 miles to go we stopped in Dinteloord for our afternoon refreshment, arriving in Willemstad by 4:30.

Willemstad is a delightful place; perhaps the best stop to date.

Some of us passed through the town several days ago when the Lena dropped us at the city quay after a passage from Dordrecht. The town sits at a strategic spot on the main passage to the Waal River which, in turn, connects to the Rhein. A four hundred year old “star fort,” surrounds the old town. It appears the fort has been updated many times to reflect changes in battle strategy over the ages. The Germans were the most recent active warriors.

The boat harbor (which is all recreation, not industrial) is reached via a 100 meter channel where the Lena is now docked. Since it is holiday time, the inner harbor is packed five deep with boats of all price, shape and size. Some are quite fancy.

After leaving the bikes we wandered through the busy streets of town along the yacht basin. The place was alive with people and the many street side cafes were bustling. Above the harbor, on the grass covered fortifications, a noisy flock of sheep was busy mowing. Their presence added to the fun atmosphere of the place.

Following dinner I took the computer to town in a successful attempt to capture an wi-fi signal.

Through the night freight barges continued to pass up and down the nearby waterway, sending gentle wakes up the channel where the Lena rested. It was a pleasant stay at Willemstad.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Amsterdam , Antwerp, Brussels and Willemstad

Saturday August 8th; Amsterdam to Vianen
The day dawned cloudy but mild. The sun would come out later and warm things up for “shorts weather.

We wandered back into town and found a hotel with a good buffet breakfast to start our day. Then we packed up and walked to our boat, the Lena Maria. Arriving at 9:30 we were permitted to drop off our luggage but could not board the boat because the previous group had just departed and cleaning was in progress.

Once again we were off on a city walk. This time we visited the Jewish quarter and a lively street market. Kath found a shawl and a coin purse to hold her Euros and then we settled down at a street café for a coffee. On our way back to the boat we stopped at the beautiful city library where we would find an incredible building and free internet. It was a modern, vibrant place and, on the top floor, Kath discovered a modern café with views of the harbor and city. We grabbed a quick lunch and then headed for our great adventure.

The cycling group consists of
Jerry and Linda Cufley
Keith and Kathy Simmons
Linda St. Clair
Mike DeLange
Geoff Tilford and Viv Hawkey
Steve and Kathy Dennis
Jeff and Lorena Daggett
Sherm and Mary Williamson
Bill Denzel and Colleen McKee

They are an adventurous lot and should provide good cycling companionship. Klaas Otter and Lia Van Zaal will be our guides and Hans and daughter Nina provide the crew.

After lunch we eased from our downtown moorage and made our way under a bridge and into a wider ship channel. Once past the cruise ship terminal we sailed into a wide and busy canal that headed south toward the Rhine River. It’s impossible to keep track of the rivers and canals we pass through as they seem to go in all directions and most don’t appear on the map. But we trust the skipper knows where he is so sit back and enjoy the ride.

After about an hour we pulled to the channel edge and hauled our bikes to the shore for our first big (10 mile?) warm up ride. After a brief “fitting out” we followed Lia down a series of bike trails and roads. Since it was our first day in the Dutch countryside our heads were on full swivel. I suspect we will grow used to the beautiful, flat fields, bordered by narrow canals and even narrower drainage channels.

Saw our first windmills. They are real, not just photos captured on tourist postcards and china bowls. We are told some are used to pump water and some to grind grain.

The “bike paths” vary. Some are narrow paved roads, some are striped lanes on both sides of narrow roads and some are just paths. But the bike is respected by drivers and bikes are everywhere. Even pleasure boats on the canals have bikes on board and, in one case, on a bike rack on the stern. There may be more bikes than people; it wouldn’t surprise me.

After going in many directions, through countryside and small towns, we ended up in “Breukelen” the namesake for Brooklyn New York. The main street was lined with street cafes so we settled in for a local beverage and relaxed after our arduous ride. It was quite pleasant in the sunny square.

The Lena Maria was nearby so we finished our ride, reboarded and prepared for dinner as the boat resumed its run to Vianen where we would spend the night. We tied to a metal catwalk on a small side channel off the main canal.

Following dinner the guides gave us an outline of our riding plans for the next few days followed by a walk through the small town. Since it was after 9:00 the city was quiet but clean and pleasant. As opposed to Amsterdam, the buildings were all two story giving the city a nice scale. Then it was off to bed on a darkened Lena Maria.

Sunday August 9; Vianen to Dordrecht
I’m not sure if we spent the night on the banks of a river, a canal or open water. The various waterways crisscross the countryside passing through locks and under bridges of all shapes and sizes. We only did a single lock the first day of travel and Klaas indicates we are now in “fresh” water. Fresh it might be but I would not relish swimming in it. Both the salt and fresh water have a coffee color that does not invite swimmers.

Since Sunday was the first “real” day of cycling the group was eager to begin. After a good Dutch breakfast the bikes were moved from the boat to the narrow metal causeway, where we were moored, and then up the dike to a gathering place on a grassy knoll. The plan for the day was to bike as a group about eight miles to a decision point. There the cyclists could decide on either a long (48 mile) or short (30 mile) option. As it turned out, when the time came, Klaas discouraged the long option and the group stayed together for the entire day.

The cycling took on a pattern that is likely to continue for the balance of the trip. We followed city streets, bike paths, both wide and narrow, and paths along the edge of roads. In all cases we received preferential treatment from the auto drivers. There were several long sections Lia described as “cart paths” that consisted of two strips of pavement the width of a cars wheelbase. While the pavement strips were perhaps 18 inches in width, they felt narrower and kept us on alert lest we wander off into the grass on either side.

The trail side scene changed constantly. We cycled through neighborhoods of all types, apartment areas and, most often, farm country. Some paths were on top of levees or beside canals or drainage channels of varying widths. The big challenge in Holland is too much water and the network of channels, canals, rivers and ditches seems to do the trick.

I read that God created the earth, but the Dutch created Holland. That seems to be the case.

A Word About Water in Holland: Waterways are important for commerce, recreation and reclamation.

Rivers and canals link the world to Holland and the rest of Europe. Ships can sail from the North Sea to the Rhine River and central Europe along the larger waterways. A steady stream of cargo vessels was at work on every large waterway we passed. Smaller vessels ply the narrower canals as well.

Recreational boaters make use of all the water ways they can fit into. Since it was holiday time in Holland, the waters were alive with yachts of all shapes and sizes. The frequent winds make this a sailor’s paradise.

The dikes along the waterways provide a built-in bike trail system that weaves its way around the country.

But perhaps the most important role of the waterways is drainage. Much of Holland has been reclaimed from the sea by diking and then pumping the water out of the low areas. That water makes its way to the sea via the labyrinth of channels, canals and other waterways in this low lying country.

Since it was Sunday, everything but a few restaurants was closed for the day. While the Sunday closures can be a hassle for travelers there is something pleasant about suspending active life for one day a week.

Late in the morning we approached what I believe was a river where we paused for coffee at the Hotel Belvedere. We could observe the river traffic and the ferries shuttling up and down the river. The “work” traffic was limited by the Sunday religious traditions but there were still a few boats around.

Following coffee it was back on the bikes, down to the ferry and across the river.

We stopped at a picnic spot in the yard of a couple that restores used bicycles for shipment to third world countries. The setting was pleasant beside a small canal with a farmland vista across the way. We finished the day passing through the World Heritage site of Kinderdijk. While I didn’t fully understand how it all worked, the area consisted of a series of windmills in a row that were used to lift water from the area and dump it into the sea. From there it was a short run to a second ferry that took us across another body of water to Dordrecht.

We found the Lena Maria tucked in a narrow canal in the heart of the small town. We shared the canal with a group of beautifully restored old river and steam boats. We were now in salt water with minor tides taking us up or down three or four feet.

A Word about the Lena Maria: The Lena is a long, low slung boat with twelve, two person cabins below, near the water line, and a spacious salon on the upper level. We gather, eat and read on the upper level. The large windows give us an excellent view of the world passing by. The statistics, according to Hans the captain, are:
Length: 45 meters
Beam: 6.6 meters
Draft astern: 1.4 meters
Draft forward: .6 meters
Cruising speed: 16 km/hr

About six years ago Hans purchased the vessel as an old freighter and converted it to passenger duty. He also removed 15 meters amidships to get to the 45 meter length. Ships over 45 meters require a crew of four; the Lena only requires two.

The cabins have two bunks and bath. Small windows bring in a dribble of fresh air. It seems the windows are so low that we could ship water if we encountered a large wake. So far no cabin flooding! Hans is proud of the fact that the water system on board can deliver hot water to all showers at once. That is a feature we appreciate as well.

Monday, August 10: Dordrecht to Zirikzee
The group split in two this morning. Seven chose a short course of 30 miles that began with a boat ride. The others left at 8:15 on a long course of about 60 miles. We chose the short course.

The long course group was headed north and west beginning with a pass through Rotterdam. From there they hit the coast, passed through a large area of dunes, visited a huge flood control project and, eventually, arrived at the Lena. They were on the road from 8:15 am to nearly 7:00 pm.

After the long group departed we had a relaxing time on the boat while the captain and crew did a bit of grocery shopping in town. Leaving at around 9:30 we passed under a small draw bridge and joined the flow of industrial traffic on a series of large waterways, ending up at the beautiful little town of Willemstad. Its small boat harbor was bustling with holiday activity with sail and power boats of all sizes. It looked very much like Friday Harbor on a summer weekend.

Klaas led the group on a series of narrow paths around a fortress in the city and then we began our journey to Zirikzee. The first leg of the trip was on a frontage road next to a busy motorway. This was far different from the narrow lanes and canals we had seen the first day. But soon we were able to escape the busy road and move to smaller roads and paths that skirted farm fields.

The area is much less developed. The fields are large and houses less frequent. This area was devastated by the great flood of 1953 which might account for the lack of more intense development.

We lunched in the town square of Oude Tonge and then visited a street side restaurant for a cup of coffee. Our afternoon path took us over Grevelingendam Dam, one of many massive waterworks in this country. The dam not only controls flooding but connects two large islands. Since this is holiday time for much of Holland the beaches before, on and after the dam were busy with clam and mussel gatherers. Once across the dam we stopped in Bruinesse at a large lock to watch the holiday boaters pass through. To date we have seen several large locks, most of which dwarf the Government Locks in Seattle.

About ten miles from Zirikzee we passed the “flood museum.” It is located at the site of the first major breach in the dike that precipitated the great flood of 1953. To quickly plug the dike before the next flood season arrived, the Dutch imported huge concrete floats from England. They had been constructed for use as artificial harbors during the invasion of France. They were floated to Holland, put in place, and sunk to create the new levee. Some are still in evidence and the museum itself is located in one of the old pontoons.

Zirikzee is a busy yacht harbor, like Willemstad, packed four and five deep with pleasure boats. We found the Lena at mid-dock with several small craft tied to her port side. This is a lovely little town and we wish we could be here when town was open. (Things close at 6:00 pm)

Fair weather held the entire day. Clouds grew as the day went on but it was warm and no sprinkles were encountered until near the end. The long group received a bigger dousing as they arrived later.

A Word About Guidespeak: We have begun to understand the guidespeak. Here are some examples
Q: How far are we?
Guide: About half way.

Q: How far are we going today?
Guide: About 30 miles.

Q: May we do (fill in the blank)?
Guide: No problem or
We shall see or
We will tell you about that later.

Guide: Go, go, go!

Viv, our friend from the UK has added a few lines as well
It was quite nice, really

Tuesday, August 11; Zierikzee to Middelburg, about 27 miles.
The weather turned sour overnight and rain carried over to daylight. Sitting at breakfast we were not sure if we wanted to commit to a day in the wet. But the rain stopped before we left and the rest of the day was dry.

Leaving at 9:00 we wheeled into town, by the outdoor market and stopped at a hotel where we sampled a local specialty, the “bolus.” It is best described as a compact cinnamon pastry; very good. We took extra time to walk through the market before heading out.

The morning was spent slogging into a steady headwind as we peddled west across Zeeland on top of and beside levees and dikes. Like yesterday the land is pasture or open wetlands, preserved for wildlife.

Before crossing the Stormvloed Sea Dike, one of the last and greatest of the sea barriers, we stopped in a sheltered little resort area for lunch. The sea barrier was an 8 km ride that included a dam and several small islands. The sandy beaches on our right, or sea side, attracted summer tourists and kite boarders. With the wind abeam the ride was very pleasant and less work than in the morning.

Now on Walcheren Island, with the wind at our back, we flew through more developed countryside to the town of Veere. The place was alive with a market, tourist boats and crowds of people. The market offered local foods and crafts and the vendors were dressed in traditional attire.

A final half hour brought us to Middelburg, the capital of the province of Zeeland. The Lena was in a wide channel with modern buildings on both sides; not nearly as charming as Zierikzee. The train ran along the far bank but it was quiet and did not impact sleeping. We skipped the evening walk into the old town but those that went reported a beautiful, vibrant place complete with a festival.

Wednesday, August 12; Middelburg to Antwerp
Today we travel to Belgium. After considerable research by the guides we were offered three options for travel.
Long Course: travel with Klaas about 60 miles, west then south then east to Antwerp.
Short Course: stay on the Lena traveling though canals to a point closer to Antwerp and then riding the last 30 miles into Antwerp.
Train Course: board the train in Middelburg and arrive in Antwerp mid morning.

We opted for the Short Course. Breakfast was early (7:00 am) for the long course and train people. We sent them on their way and then cast off for our trip north, east and then south down a canal to Hansweert. A lazy morning on the boat is a welcome diversion. We will get our riding in during the afternoon.

Linda, Linda, Mary, Viv, Kathy and Steve will join Lia for the ride. After a late breakfast we took a tour of the wheelhouse and saw the world from that elevated position. The boat looks very long from that vantage point.

We arrived in Hansweert at 11:30 with enough time to catch the noon ferry across the Schelde. This allowed us to avoid the north shore industrial approach to Antwerp. The Lena deposited us on the canal bank above the town and we hurried across the levee, past the locks and found our small ferry waiting. The ferry is for passengers and bikes only and carried only three other passengers, all with bikes, on this run. It was a charming little vessel and the crew was very friendly.

After an hour of travel we left the ferry and began our move south and east. Along the way we visited the home town of Lia’s grandmother, I was bitten by a cute little donkey and we wandered along country roads toward Hulst.

Arriving in the Hulst town square we ran into the five men of the “long course” who were having coffee at a café. Following a brief shopping respite the combined group of 12 began what I called a “make believe” trip the last 20 miles to Antwerp. The guides pretended they knew where we were and we pretended to believe them. But, in the end, we found our way along narrow dirt tracks in the forest, paved city streets, down elevators and though tunnels to the berth of Lena in the Willemdoc harbor of downtown Antwerp. The six train travelers had just arrived so all could tell tales of their days adventures.

A Word About The Dutch Bike: For our travels in Holland we rode “Dutch” bikes. Nearly everyone in the country rides Dutch bikes. Bikes are everywhere. When kids are too young to ride a bike they enjoy small seats in front or back of their parents. Some use the wheelbarrow style bike with a wooden bin for small children up front. Old and young ride Dutch bikes.

Ours are new quality bikes; Klaas says they would cost around $1,000. They are built for flat, wet country and for carrying good loads. They include lights, fenders, racks for panniers and cushy seats. Some local bikes have but a single speed, ours have seven. They are well built, heavy rigs. In a conflict with a small car I do believe the bike would win. I tried to pick up my bike the first day and thought it was fastened to the pavement; the stern was quite a lift. But they are a time tested machine and serve well in this relatively flat country.

The big cities are a cycle jam. Train stations sport multilevel bike parking garages to handle the volume and provide some level of security.

Our bikes are equipped with a rear wheel lock. As we later found out, that will only slow a thief, not stop them. Locals carry a massive chain and lock for strapping their bikes to something permanent; a rail, post, etc. Klaas says there are 16 million bikes in Holland and one million are stolen each year. Some are kept and some are just ridden and then dumped.

According to the guides Amstermdam canals are three meters deep; the first meter is water, the second mud and the third is stolen bicycles.

Thursday, August 13: A Day off in Antwerp
Suspicious clouds greeted us on our first day off of the bikes. With the Lena safely tucked in the Willemdok boat harbor, near downtown, we were free to roam Antwerp or any other Belgian city within reach of the train system. We elected to go south and visit Brussels with the Daggetts. We walked about a mile through a still waking old city and boarded our train at central station. Less than one hour later we were on the rainy streets of Brussels.

After days of no hills we found ourselves doing a bit of climbing. The train station, many of the older government buildings and the palace are on higher ground. It is not a hilly city by Seattle standards, but somewhat less “bikeable” than the cities to the north. We spent the time in town gawking at old buildings, visiting the palace and cathedral and just enjoying the sights.

By 5:00 pm we were back in Antwerp where the Daggett’s gave us a tour of the city based on their Thursday visit. It is a beautiful old city with handsome squares and people places. Following a delicious Italian dinner we headed for the Lena on a route that took us through the “red light” district. Some of the early shift girls were on display in their streetside windows but, seeing none to our liking, we were soon back at the quiet Lena in the gentrifying Willemdok area.

Part of the group, which had been out celebrating Bill’s birthday, returned and, after a very brief “catching up” time, all retired.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Wandering Amsterdam, Netherlands

Delta Airines delivered us to Amsterdam without incident at 8:00am Friday morning. After a $100 cab ride from the airport (shared with the Daggetts) we dropped our luggage and began enjoying this exciting, flat and sunny old city. We wandered and wandered up and down the narrow streets and beside the many canals. While the streets seem to go everyway we never were lost for long and made it back to the hotel by noon to rest our sleep deprived bodies.

Refreshed we headed out again around 4:00pm and found a shopping street, more restaurants and canals.

Saturday morning we found a nearby hotel where the breakfast buffet was more reasonable ($21 vs $42 at our hotel) and enjoyed watching the early morning activity on the nearby street. We have run into street bazaars and other assorted big city activities. Haven't made many purchases yet so the Mastercard is still working.

This is truly a city of bicycles and canals. There are bikes everywhere enjoying the lanes and traffic signals set up just for them. There are few of the fancy bikes so common in Seattle. Rather the heavy duty, fender clad Dutch bike is most prevalent. Some have wheel barrow like carriers on the front for groceries or kids. Helmets are unheard of. Our taxi driver said that was because the drivers here are so careful!

Our gear is now on our boat for a 1:30 departure. The bike/barge vessels are all very similar since they need to fit under the many bridges and in the narrow canals. The rooms are on a lower level, near the waterline. The upper or main deck is for the lounge, dining and other daytime activities. There is an ample rear deck on our barge, the Lena Maria, where the bicycles and deck chairs are stored.

I am writing in a huge library here near our barge so I don't know how to upload photos. Maybe later or maybe I will not have internet access for the next two weeks. We shall see.

In the meantime, best to all. We must get back to the barge and "cast off soon."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Holland Bike Barge; Here We Come

Kathy and Steve Dennis are about to board a big (and French made) Northwest Airlines plane that will take us to Amsterdam and the start of a two week barge/cycle cruise on the inland waterways of Holland. It should be fun.
The trip is organized by Cycle Cruise Holland. Each day we will have an opportunity to cycle what is suppose to be a “flat” country or stay on the barge. Since biking is the reason for the trip and we plan to eat too much, we will likely opt for the cycle option, weather permitting. We understand the wind can blow a bit. We will see.
The first night will be spent in Amsterdam which, by all accounts, is a wonderful place to visit. Steve had some difficulty finding a hotel however. Using the internet he found some that were small and sold out. They he found one that looked good; near the rail station, near the barge moorage and reasonably priced.
After reading reviews on he changed his mind, however. Visitor comments were mostly positive but:
“Wonderful if you are into S and M…”
“The rooms are a surprise and ideal for S and M…”
“Gays welcome with open arms….”
That sounded interesting and all that but we were more interested in a place where we could buy some wooden shoes and tulip bulbs.
For now we are booked in a more conventional “Park Central Victoria.” The reviews were tamer and that is ok with us.
So now it’s packing and planning for the flight. More later.