05 – Netherlands and Belgium 2016

Last year (2015) we took our first real vacation trip since I had entered Grad school in 1981, when we spend a week Ireland. And as a result we decided that we wanted to do a real vacation trip every year. Things seemed to line up for us. Just as we were getting ready to leave for the Ireland trip I was hired by Ford as a permanent employee instead of as a contractor, with a raise in pay and paid vacation days. And Cheryl was now self-employed and could make her own schedule. So there wasn’t any reason to hold back on travel.

We had already been riding bicycles around town for exercise purposes and enjoyed doing it. Then, at the New Year’s Day party held by our friends Brynn and Paul Raupagh, we got into a conversation with another guest who had just come back from something called a Boat and Bike Tour, which they loved. And as we heard them talk about, we started to get interested. So we decided to look into booking one for ourselves. Now if you do a Web search for “boat and bike tours” you will find there are lots of companies doing it. If you want to do this, pay attention to the specifics of the tour. We are seniors and not about to do extremely difficult routes on a bike, and some of the tours are just too much. We went through Tripsite and booked a 7-day Amsterdam to Bruges tour on the Gandalf. Cost for the 7 days for two people was $2156, and covered our cabin on the boat, meals, bikes, and a tour guide we cycled with us and showed us the way.

Then we needed to get in shape. I started using the bike machines at the County Rec during the winter months, and worked up to where I could do 10 miles at a time without any trouble. And as the weather got better we both went for longer bike rides outdoors, particularly in the Metro Parks around where we live. And we picked up some accessories, like padded bike shorts. And the payment we made for the tour only covered that; we also had to get airfare and travel insurance separately. (We never travel outside the U.S. without insurance). Finally we were ready to go.

Thursday 20160707

Our trip would start from Amsterdam on July 9, 2016, around noon. So we planned our airline reservation to get in the day before. We would leave home on July 7, fly to Chicago, and from there catch an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin, change planes, and arrive in Amsterdam late afternoon of July 8. You never want to arrive the same day as your trip is leaving, you always plan for the day before because sometimes things go wrong and this way you have a chance to recover. And this time it happened. Our flight from Detroit to Chicago was delayed because of storms in Chicago, so we were sitting in the plane watching the minutes tick by. Eventually the plane took off, but when we arrived in Chicago our flight to Dublin had already left. We had no idea what to do next, but we found an airline employee (for British Air) that we could ask a question of. And she told us that the airline that brought us to Chicago had a responsibility to get us to our destination. I had never heard this before, but the flight from Detroit was on United, so we went to a United desk and explained the situation, and they agreed they needed to get us where we were going. They initally looked for flights to Dublin, but we explained that we were really going to Amsterdam, and were worried about missing our boat there. So they found as a direct flight from Chicago, but it would leave in the afternoon tomorrow. So we went to a hotel for the night.

Friday 20160708

We had all morning to kill, so after breakfast we went for a walk. Nothing to see, really, we just needed to get up and move. Finally went back to the airport and got on our flight to Amsterdam. I spent most of the flight reading a book on the history of the Low Countries just to get some background.

Saturday 20160709

We landed at Schiphol Airport, cleared customs, and then took a train into the city. We got a map and figured out where we were supposed to meet the Gandalf. We had no time to spare, and were quick-walking along the Amsterdam streets to get there. As we got closer we ran into some other people hauling suitcases, and it turned out they were on our trip. We found the Gandalf, got to our cabin, and dropped our bags. The cabin is pretty Spartan, a couple of beds that were basically thin mattresses on wooden planks, but it had a toilet, sink, and shower, so we had all we really needed. These cabins were only places to go when you wanted to sleep. The Dining Room and the top deck were the social areas where people hung out, and during the day you were out on your bike. As it happened, we still had some time before the boat would cast off, so we got lunch at a nearby restaurant. Back on the boat we started to get to know our fellow tourists. There were several women from Germany, a couple from the Netherlands, a large contingent from an extended family from America, and Cheryl and I. It was a very friendly group, and as it turned out Cheryl and I were the least experienced at biking. We were joined by our guide Fred, and off we went.

We had to get out of Amsterdam first. This meant getting out on the canals initially, and as went we passed signs for places like Haarlem and Breukelen, which reminded us that the Dutch had first settled what is now New York. It was cool and peaceful cruising along the canals. As we had not started until the afternoon, this was not a terribly long cruise, only to Vianen. After dinner, Fred took us out for a short bike ride around town. Afterwards, we were free, and everyone walked into the center of this town to sightsee and find refreshment. And so ended day 1.


Sunday 20160710

We cruised to Schoonhoven in the morning, where we got off the boat and started riding. We started by a quick tour of Schoonhoven, then set out for Kinderdijk. We crossed the river on a ferry, then arrived at Kinderdijk. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that preserves the largest concentration of windmills in Holland. We saw a movie about the windmills, then toured inside one where we got to see how people lived in them, since they were occupied by the families of the millers usually. From there we set out again, and this is a good time to mention that you see water everywhere in the Netherlands. Every field is bordered by drainage ditches, which feed water into canals and rivers. And of course the Windmills are primarily to pump our water and keep dry land. Much of the Netherlands is below sea level, and water control is the Dutch specialty. They create what they call polders, which are pieces of dry land surrounded by dikes to keep out the water so that they can farm them, and then windmills pump out any water that trickles in. It is quite amazing.

Fred knew some good stops along the way, and we stopped in front of a house that was exquisite. Surrounded by iron fencing with gilded features, it had beautiful gardens leading to a picturesque house. We continued on and met the boat then cruised to Dordrecht. After dinner we explored the town before turning in.


Monday 20160711

The routine every day is that we get up and have breakfast on the boat, which is coffee, pastries, fruit, cold cuts, cheese, and vegetables. We had a talk with the cook about our dietary needs, so she makes sure we have enough vegetables since we more of them than most people. And out of the breakfast spread we also pack enough for lunch on the road. That will hold us until we get back on the boat for dinner. The food was always very good, and we tipped the cook extra at the end of the trip. She took good care of us.

We passed through a lock, always an interesting experience, and then got off the boat and on our bikes. Fred once again had a surprise for us. He knew of a roadside vending machine for fresh strawberries! I’ve never seen the like before or since. Then we stopped at the Bergen-op-Zoom War Cemetary, for Allied soldiers from WWII. From there we hit the border between The Netherlands and Belgium, and got some photos of Cheryl and I in two different coutries. As both countries are EU members, the border is not a big deal. You wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t see the sign. We continued on and anchored near Antwerp. After dinner, we went into the city for a little sight-seeing.


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