Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

Cycling in Zeeland

Posted in: Me

Holland is cycling uptopia to many cyclists. A country built with bikes in mind. There are cycle lanes literally everywhere, meaning most of the country is accessible by bike and getting around is very safe. And of course it is almost completely flat. So with a young family keen on cycling it seemed like the ideal choice for a cycling holiday.

I had read an article in the Independent about holidays in Zeeland, a coastal region in the south of Holland. It’s popular with Dutch and German tourists but not really known to Brits. It looked beautiful and the attraction of a new, untapped area was very exciting; so I started researching and came across a few blog posts about cycling there which really whetted my appetite.

A few years ago I had read about a Dutch organisation called Vrienden op de Fiets (Friends of the bike), which is a non-profit organisation that puts cyclists in touch with cycle-friendly B&Bs at discounted rates. It seemed like a great, cheap way to see the country. It costs just €10 to join and you get a book of all of the places to stay plus a map of where they are.  Currently there are around 5,000 places and there is a wide range of properties: we stayed in a vineyard one night and a tee pee on our last night. Part of the charm of Vrienden op de Fiets is also getting to see a part of everyday Dutch life – the people we stayed with were very friendly and really happy to be part of Vrienden. The guide book is in Dutch but it is fairly easy to understand especially with the help of Google translate. I also bought a cycle map of Zeeland from the excellent Map Shop and armed with both maps, I set about planning a route. I knew from previous cycle rides that my little boy could easily do 20 miles so I set that as a rough limit for each day: I didn’t want it to be too strenuous and tiring for him as it was supposed to be a holiday afterall! The plan was for me, Holly and Z to cycle and for my daughter K to to be towed along in our bike trailer, along with our luggage.


View Cycling in Zeeland 2012 in a larger map

Vlissingen at the bottom of Zeeland seemed like a good starting point, it’s a reasonable sized town and easy to drive to. I used Google Maps to draw a rough route from here, separating each day into approximately 20 mile segments. We all wanted to go along the coast but I had read in the Rough Guide that the North Sea winds can be very strong making cycling here pretty miserable: we thought we’d risk it and if it turned out to be too hard, we could easily head inland on a different route. There certainly are no shortage of cycle routes.

Once I had a rough idea of where we’d end up, I was able to sort out accommodation. From previous trips to Holland, I knew that everyone speaks embarrassingly good English so I suspected booking would be straightforward – and thankfully it was. The only downside to Vrienden op de Fiets is you don’t really know what you are going to get, even with some snooping on Google Street View to check places out. So I booked a hotel in Vlissingen as our starting place as I thought it would be good to start off from somewhere we knew to be nice. The drive to Holland was easy (thanks to our TomTom) and it took just 8 hours door to door via the Channel Tunnel.

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Cycling day 1: Vlissingen to Vrouwenpolder

Distance: 23 miles
Vlissingen is a small resort town, popular with tourists. It has lots of hotels and restaurants and made a good base to start from. The route along the coast is really nice with plenty of beaches and cafés to stop at along the way but in high summer, the beaches and resort towns are pretty busy. We stopped off in Zoutelande for some pizza before going further up the coast. We took it pretty easy and stopped for ice creams before heading inland to Oostkapelle for tea. After that it was time to find our first Vrienden op de Fiets place to stop. That’s when we got a bit lost. There are just too many cycle routes with signs pointing in opposite directions to the same place: red routes, green routes and several other types of routes. Some are long distance routes, some are scenic routes and some are just other ways to get there. It was a bit confusing but thankfully my trusty iPhone and Google Maps saved the day. We rolled up to be greeted by the vineyard owner who gave us some lovely, homemade apple juice. The next morning we breakfasted with an elderly guy from Belgium who was cycling around Zeeland too.

The mighty Oosterscheldekering

Cycling day 2: Vrouwenpolder to Zierikzee

Distance: 23 miles
This was the day I was most excited about. This route takes in the mighty Oosterscheldekering: a surge barrier that is 9km long. Setting out from Vrouwenpolder the kids immediately wanted to stop at the first beach we  saw. Breezand beach is a lovely and very long stretch of sand just south of the Oosterscheldekering and we spent an hour or so there before cycling the bridge. It really is an impressive sight and it was a joy to cycle across. On the other side we stopped for some food: it became quickly apparent that as veggies without a phrase book we were going to struggle. Still beer and chips was a safe choice and a good reward for some hard cycling. After a rest we cycled along the coast of the Oosterschelde estuary towards Zierikzee arriving late afternoon. We’d arranged to stay in the elegant Hibernaculum B&B and it was truly luxurious with possibly the most delicious breakfast I’ve ever had anywhere. Zierikzee is a beautiful town and we wished we’d had more time there.

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Cycling day 3: Zierikzee to Wolphaartsdijk

Distance: 26 miles
Another day, another long bridge, this time the Zeelandbrug which is the longest bridge in the Netherlands. Leaving picturesque Zierikzee we were quickly onto the bridge which at just over 5km takes a little while to cross partly because the cycle lane is narrow and very busy. It was a great ride above the water watching boats, windsurfers and the like messing about in the estuary. On the other side we stopped at Colijnsplaat for some lunch (yes it did take that long to cross). Then we detoured around the coast a bit before criss-crossing inland across some typically beautiful tree-lined fietspads (cycleways). Before long we were in Wolphaartsdijk where we discovered that there are no places to eat or drink. However just up the road there is a marina and lots of restaurants as this part of Zeeland is really popular for camping and watersports. A quick refreshingly cold beer and we were off to our last Vrienden op de Fiets stop: an ‘alternative’ artist’s retreat in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived our host gave us the option of staying in a tee-pee which of course the kids were really excited about. We were the only people staying on-site and the place had something of a magical air and was a great end to a great experience.

Tired cyclists

Cycling day 4: Wolphaartsdijk to Vlissingen

Distance: 16 miles
We’d deliberately made the last day a short cycling route just to make sure we had enough time to get to Vlissingen, get sorted and set-off to meet our Channel Tunnel train. We didn’t want this last part to be stressful and luckily it was just about the right distance. The heat of the past few days had taken it’s toll and a nice relaxing ride was just perfect. More lovely fietspads and great scenery before we could see the wind turbines that mark the port side of Vlissingen. Once we got there it became a bit tricky to find cycle ways perhaps because we’d been so used to country cycling with obvious routes, and we quickly ended up on a major road. Some helpful Dutch drivers pointed us in the right direction but it wasn’t long before I had to cross a railway track just as the gates came down. I managed to make it in time but it was a bit hairy with my daughter in the trailer at the back! Then we were back at the car and it was time to pack up and head home.

Fietspad

Some tips

This was one of the best holidays I’d ever had and even Holly, who isn’t a keen cyclist said the same. It was easy to organise, everything generally went really well and we’ll definitely do it again. The weather in the week we were there was fabulous and this definitely helped – I’m not sure cycling into a head wind and rain on the Oosterscheldekering would be much fun.

For anyone looking to do something similar, I’d suggest the following tips:

  • Parking: this was probably the most stressful bit of the holiday. Trying to find a long-stay car-park proved fruitless but the hotel people pointed me in the direction of an area in the docks of Vlissingen that had no restrictions. It looked pretty dodgy but there wasn’t anywhere else. It turned out fine in the end but I ended up wasting an hour trying to find something that looked safer. I had emailed the local tourist office beforehand but they didn’t reply. It might be possible to find something on Google Maps but I’d suggest allowing some time to find somewhere to park before you set off.
  • Take a phrase book. Even though everyone speaks excellent English, you don’t really want to ask people to translate a whole menu for you. And because not many Brits go to Zeeland menus are not usually in English.
  • Pack light. We took far too much stuff and ended up lugging it around unnecessarily. The bike trailer became pretty rammed with stuff that we bought (or more accurately the kids bought) and there wasn’t much room for K in the end.
  • Allow a day or so to chill out and explore. This holiday was a bit of fact-finding mission and I’d tried to cram in as much as possible. But when we came across Zierikzee we didn’t have any extra time to explore which was a real shame. The upside is we really want to go back there!
  • Know what you want to get out of it and think about limits. We took things easy but when we were there it was 27C most days so a 20 mile route each day was tough on the little ones.
  • Consider using an iPhone app such as EveryTrail which has the Open Street Map data cycling routes included. You can download these to your phone as well so you don’t pay data roaming charges (you can’t do this with Google Maps). You can also share your routes with others. Our cycling trip route for EveryTrail can be found here.

Update

Vrienden op de Fiets have just released their new guide for 2013 along with a much improved new website. The guide is much better and clearer and thankfully the website now has much more information in English than before.