- The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. Marcel Proust
Visit the Netherlands
This is the thing. Cycling is civilised in the Netherlands. You can go off-road without worrying about getting a flat tyre because the cycle paths are surfaced. This also means more speed. Neither do you need to worry about being knocked off your bike by a lorry, sprayed by a car on a rainy day, deafened by traffic or choked by exhaust fumes. And where there are no cycle paths, the roads are quiet. Plus the cyclist has priority.
Wide, white beaches that stretch out for miles – the Netherlands has some of the best beaches in Europe. I’ve not been in summer yet, but even in autumn and winter the beaches are busy with walkers, kite flyers and land yachters. The Dutch love the outdoors and a bit of cold weather doesn’t put them off.
Beach café culture – the strandpaviljoen
From the land, the beaches are hidden from sight because of the soaring dykes, so opening a café with a view isn’t easy. The solution? Build the café right out on the beach. Almost every beach in the Netherlands has the ubiquitous ‘strandpaviljoen’. Built into the dunes or right out on the sand on stilts, the beach pavilions have shabby-chic sophistication, beach-hut cool and New England style, combining casual soft furnishings, distressed furniture and decorations of candles, pebbles, shells and driftwood.
The Wadden Sea islands stretch out a trail of droplets above the mainland: Texel (pronounced Tezel by the locals), Vieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog (with a few sandbars in between). In the summer the boats venture across to the islands from the mainland, and from one island to the next.
On this trip, I only visited Texel, but I can’t wait to return in the summer so I can island-hop with my bicycle. Texel is a mini Netherlands, with the best of the Dutch landscape compacted into a small area: shoreline and seawall, coastal woodland, mountainous dunes, long, golden beaches and wetlands packed cheek-to-jowl with waders.
Black storks, gannets, spoonbills, oystercatchers, ducks of all descriptions; northern lapwings, greenshanks and redshanks. I’d never seen so many birds packed into one small area as I did on Texel. And the large number of over-wintering birds was striking on the mainland as well.
Because of the flatness of the land, your eye is level with the sky – and the birds that inhabit it. I’m not a twitcher, but because the birds in the Netherlands are always in your line of vision, you become more aware of them – crossing in front of you, swooping and curving into constantly changing patterns; migrating to feeding grounds.