Cycling on Terschelling

Dutch Treat

18th February 2011

Planning ahead for a summer break?
Holland is probably not the first destination that springs to mind if you’re considering a beach holiday, but it has its merits, says Phil Wall...

BEACHES? HOLLAND? It’s not as mad as it sounds.

Firstly, it’s not too hot. Secondly, it’s not too far. Thirdly, the locals nearly all speak English and don’t mind doing so; they have no illusion that you are likely to know any Dutch. Fourthly, crucially, Holland has some magnificent beaches. The west coast is almost one long beach, in fact – and once you’re out of sight of the cargo ports and refineries of the south, much of it is worth a visit… but it’s the Frisian Islands just off the north coast that are the real gems, combining miles of golden sand with a rural architectural charm that most of the Netherlands, never mind Britain, has now lost.

It has to be said that Holland’s north coast, in general, is not pretty; dykes and mudflats are the dominant features. Wading birds find it ideal, but tourists prefer to stay inland or go offshore. The countryside of the northern province of Friesland is pretty much all man-made, having been largely dug out of the sea over the centuries. There are plenty of trees and hedges, as well as many picturesque old windmills (and even more numerous modern turbines), but it lacks the variety of British countryside. Wooded areas are all small, and the novelty of uniform flatness can wear off. It’s true there are some appealing towns and villages (including Friesland’s capital, Leeuwarden, home town of Gertrud Margarete Zelle, better known as legendary spy Mata Hari), and – for added interest – Friesland even has its own language. Signage is normally written in both Frisian and Dutch, and, although it’s often hard to see the resemblance, Frisian’s closest linguistic relative is said to be English. To British eyes the whole area also seems remarkably clean, but even so, unless you’re a dedicated touring cyclist, it’s perhaps not the ideal place to spend more than a few days – which is why most tourists end up offshore…

The five main Frisian islands (also known as the Wadden Islands) are Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland, Schiermonnikoog and Texel. Really, they’re little more than large built-up sandbanks, but the Dutch are masters of remaking the landscape, and the islands have been stabilised with pine trees, grasses and dykes, while the interiors are similar to most of the Dutch mainland: intensely agricultural. Creating your country with picks and shovels tends to ensure you make full use of your assets.

Between the mainland and the islands there is – of course – the sea. But it is difficult to know exactly where Holland stops and the sea starts, because at low tide mudflats stretch out to the horizon and hardy locals indulge in ‘wadlopen’, or mudflat-walking. You can even walk the ten miles or so from the mainland to some of the islands. The ferries that transport the less adventurous stick to channels that have to be regularly dredged.

With mud to the south, the best beaches on the islands are all on the northern side, and every island has literally miles of them. They’re wide as well as long – in some cases the sea can be a kilometre or more away from the dunes, which leaves plenty of room for everyone and every kind of activity. Being on the North Sea, it can get breezy, but the powerful waves make it far more exciting than the Med; surfers and windsurfers are common.

Beaches aside, another area where the islands score over the mainland is in their lack of motorised traffic. On Schiermonnikoog and Vlieland only the residents may take cars. Both these islands have permanent populations of around a thousand people, but there are far fewer vehicles. Tourists are allowed to drive on the other islands, but taking a car across on the ferry is expensive, and as bikes are well-catered for on roads and free on ferries, most people prefer the two-wheeled option. All the islands are small enough to make cycling a realistic choice.

You can go to Holland and not cycle, but frankly, what’s the point? Everyone else is doing it and it’s the perfect climate and landscape – temperate and barely a hill anywhere. The country as a whole has 20,000km of cycle paths and more bikes than people. All the major roads except motorways have separate cycle lanes provided, and everyone from pre-schoolers to pensioners cycles. The islands generally have cycle paths that circumnavigate in the shelter of dunes and dykes. These ‘ring roads’ are the cycle motorways for tourists, while other paths criss-cross the landscape through woods, fields and villages.

For families on holiday, tandems are a great way to transport smaller children around the islands. There are machines with a lower seat and handlebars at the front, which the kids love as they can join in the pedalling as much as they’re comfortable with, can see everything and can also urge the puffing parent behind them on to greater efforts in a bid to stay in front of the other half of the family. Cycles are fairly cheap to hire, with solo bikes from about seven euros a day and tandems around double that.

As you would expect for islands that are only a few miles off the coast, the temperatures are not much different from the mainland, but the weather is often clearer. Although sunshine in the summer is never guaranteed, sea breezes mean that there’s a good chance of some clear skies most days. Sheltered spots in the dunes are easy to find, too – though when looking for one you do need to beware of that section of European tourists who like to sunbathe au naturel.

What else can you do here other than cycling or beach activities? Not a great deal, to be fair, but if you need to do too much else, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. There are a few other attractions, though. Nature lovers are particularly well catered for (it’s said that over half of all Dutch plant species can be found in the Schiermonnikoog National Park), and there are lighthouses to climb, pitch-black World War II bunkers to explore and even pairs of blue whale ribs used as arches to marvel at. Or you can just sit outside any of the dozens of cafes and bars enjoying a pancake and a local beer.

Holland for a beach holiday? Try it – you might just like it…

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