I’ve always liked the idea of a bike and barge trip. I imagined floating along narrow canals somewhere in Europe, getting off and riding to the nearest local bakery or café, then getting back on (with a bottle of inexpensive but good red wine in my bike basket) and reading peacefully on the deck. This year I finally took a bike and barge trip, though I have to admit it was much more strenuous than I’d imagined.
My life partner, Cindy Heath, and I signed on with a Canadian company called Utracks (www.utracks.com) for an eight-day trip. We met the group in Amsterdam airport and took a private bus to Ghent, Belgium, where we boarded our boat, De Tijdgeest, and got settled in. We had a nice little cabin with a double bed, a small private bath with shower, and enough room in our cabin to stand up to change clothes — but not much more. The room had two portholes that did not open, and air conditioning just until 10 p.m. — which in summer might be a problem.
There were just 12 of us on the trip, not counting the crew — though the boat was rated to hold up to 40 passengers in bunks or a total of 100 for day trips. The others were not American, but spoke good English and were from all over the world — an interesting bunch. We traveled in September, and I imagine in high season the boat trip would have more people aboard. The boat was 120 feet long with a nice dining room, lounge area and a small bar. There were chairs outside fore and aft for relaxing outdoors.
Our barge was, essentially, a floating, mobile hotel. Each day we biked and met the boat at a new mooring 50 kilometers (30 miles) away in the afternoon. In Belgium we weren’t allowed to ride the moving boat, though in Holland we could, and did one nice afternoon going through locks and a section of open water with no bike paths.
So there was no lollygagging about on board drinking wine in the sun while we floated along — we had to meet the boat in time for dinner, and never saw it all day. Of course, Belgium and Holland are flat, but a good headwind can create enough drag to make you feel like you were going uphill.
The bikes we used were provided to us: good sturdy Dutch bikes with seven gears. They were heavy, much heavier than our bikes at home, and provided with paniers for our lunch, raincoat, camera, maps and more. We had done a little training before leaving home and both of us do a lot of gardening and consider ourselves fit. Still, 50 km is a good workout for a guy in his seventies.
We had a delightful tour guide, a 62-year old Dutchman with excellent English. He loved telling us about the architecture and history of whatever town — big or small — we were traveling through. Not only that, every night after supper he led a walking tour that took two to three hours. So we slept well.
After the first day, Cindy and I decided that we would not bike with the group, but putter along at our own pace. So our leader gave us a map and directions, and we stopped often to take pictures or stop for bakeries, swans, windmills and gardens. Once, in Holland, we even found a museum dedicated to the history of the plant industry — and the tradition of growing perennials, trees and bulbs. It was just half an hour to tour it, but we would have zoomed by if we were in the group.
I was amazed at the number of canals, particularly in Holland. They are everywhere, and very much a part of their agricultural tradition. Canals were dug not just for transportation, but also to drain fields to provide enough arable land to feed the country. And those old wooden windmills? They are common, and some are still in use. They move water up and out of canals into rivers and bigger canals. The canals were full of bird life, too — including some birds I didn’t know.
Little barges or ferries are everywhere, too. Instead of building bridges, the Dutch often provide ferries that will carry a car or two — or a whole lot of bikes. Once we were on a tiny barge with 35 other bikers!
Unlike America, where separated pathways for bikes and pedestrians are rare, in Holland and Belgium they are everywhere. Even in cities, there are bike paths and traffic lights for bikes. And in the countryside all bike routes are numbered, so bikers like us taking long rides can just bring a list of the numbers to follow. Slick!
Since everyone, young and old, rides a bike, motorists are very respectful of bikers and I never felt in danger, even in Amsterdam. Parents put their babies and children in carriers of various sorts and bring them along.
The food on the boat was superb. Our cook was a trained chef who provided us with something new and tasty every night — an appetizer, main course and dessert. We had a hot breakfast each morning, and we made our sandwiches for lunch on the road. Dinner was served promptly at 6 p.m. Our server also served as a deck hand, and one night in Holland when we were traveling through a series of locks, she wore a life jacket throughout dinner, as she had to be ready to lean out of the barge and toss lines to tie us up or set the boat free.
The cost of all this was quite reasonable. Our eight nights on the boat with three meals a day, bikes, and a guide cost us about $1,300 each. The company did insist everyone have medical insurance, including emergency evacuation if necessary, which added a couple of hundred dollars, depending on age. And of course, airfare to Amsterdam was not included. The season is about over, but starts up again in the spring.
The trip is a good deal for anyone who is fit, likes to bike and enjoys the company of others. I never did get to read all five of those paperback books I brought along, but I lost five pounds, despite those bakery stops.
Henry Homeyer is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine.