Hop on your bikes and head for the hills—of California's Lost Coast, Ontario's Forest Trails, or the carraige roads of Mount Desert Island
A family fiets through the Dutch Countryside
My husband and I had worked up a rich, excellently developed Summer Bicycling Through Europe with Children fantasy, but we were having trouble with the part where roaring Fiats and BMWs careened by and flung us off the road. Our kids were 12 and 16, old enough to stay upright but not quite large enough to fend off drivers trained on the autobahn. Besides, the 12-year-old tended to go grim and breathless on long hills. What we wanted was Europe flattened, tranquil, bucolic, and paved.
Suzanne & Nick Gear/Tony Stone Images
What we wanted, as it turned out, was Holland: bicycle lanes, bicycle roadways, bicycle parking lots, special traffic lights just for bicycles. Elaborate Dutch maps lay out highways in yellow, waterways in blue, bicycle routes in purple: Here's the route that led us to Oudewater, where the weekly farmer's market stretched out under makeshift canopies in the summer rain; or to Uitdam, where we followed the top of a dike that looked out to the sea; or to Texel, where a North Sea ferry deposited the four of us onto an island with a dunes-to-forest- to-open-countryside bike path that had us whooping and clanging our handlebar bells just because we'd never ridden anyplace so gorgeous in our lives.
Handlebar bells come attached to all Dutch bikes--unlike gears and hand brakes, which seem to be regarded as something of an affectation. These are the bicycles of your childhood--beaten-up coaster-brake one-speeds, with a rack on the back and a headlight that's about to fall off--and everybody has one. We had wondered momentarily about bringing our own bikes with us to Holland, but as we began making travel plans, we were assured that American 21-speeds would be dumb overkill in the Lowlands. We'd arranged a European summer home exchange once before, trading our Northern California house for three weeks in England; now we got hold of a new exchange catalog and began making phone calls to Dutch people, all of whom were offering homes in which bicycles appeared to be as standard a part of the equipment as flush toilets. "Of course we all have bicycles," the first man we talked to said cheerfully. "The whole country is flat as a pancake."
As promised, our Amsterdam exchange apartment--which we had decided to use as a nightly home base, since so many fine countryside destinations lay within a single day's ride--came with three black clunkers. We dropped the suitcases on the stairs, settled the 12-year-old on her dad's handlebars in good Dutch fashion, and rode her over to the train station bike shop to rent a fourth for the duration of our stay.
I'm trying to remember whether we ever walked farther than a block in Holland. The first Dutch word we learned was fiets, for bicycle, and we never left the house without unlocking our fietsen and setting out into Amsterdam or the countryside just beyond--which was in fact flat as a pancake, and tranquil, and paved, and just bucolic as hell, with actual windmills materializing every so often as we'd round a bend along a canal. The windmills no longer lift water out of the sodden land--they're tourist attractions--but they look so great anyhow, rising up high and elegant with those enormous sails raised against the sky, that my children learned to watch for their demented mother, on the lead bicycle, suddenly bouncing up and down and pointing and making giant circles with one arm. Windmill ahead! Being teenagers, they'd roll their eyes. Then they'd sprint, clanging the handlebar bells, and beat me to it.
-- Cynthia Gorney
For tourist information, including advice on cycling, contact the Netherlands Board of Tourism at 888-464-6552 or www.goholland.com. House exchanges can be arranged through several international organizations, including Intervac (contact 800-756-4663; www.intervac.com) and Trading Homes International (contact 800-877-8723; www.trading-homes.com).
MORE GREAT BIKING TRIPS
Northern California's Lost Coast, home to the world's largest remaining stands of redwoods, is one of the least inhabited and most remote sections of coastline in the country. Here's a four- to six-day tour along the area's coastal roads and forest trails. You'll need a car to negotiate the steep Coastal Range and busy Highway 101.
If you haven't brought bikes with you, start by renting them at Lifecycle (707-822-7755) in Arcata, eight miles north of Eureka (mountain bikes are $25 per day or $75 per week; bike racks cost $10 per day). Drive on to Ferndale, 20 minutes south of Eureka. Kids will enjoy staying at Grandmother's House, a pretty Victorian bed-and-breakfast where milk and cookies are served every afternoon (707-786-9704; doubles, $75–$125). Spend a day cycling the farm roads through rolling pastureland around Ferndale. It's a seven-mile ride along Grizzly Bluff Road and Blue Slide Road to the banks of the Eel River, and another five to tiny Rio Dell.
From Ferndale, there's a twisting climb to the Lost Coast itself--drive it, and take the two-room suite at the Lost Inn in Petrolia (707-629-3394; $95 for two with breakfast, $25 for each additional person over ten). From Petrolia, ride your bikes north on coastal Mattole Road to Cape Mendocino, a 24-mile round trip. Scan the surf for porpoises, killer whales, and gray whales. The next morning, ride six miles south along Lighthouse Road to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse.
Next, drive over the hill and south to Garberville. En route, you might want to spend an extra day riding the extensive forest trails of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Stay at the Dean Creek Resort (707-923-2555; www.campgrounds.com/deancreek; doubles, $80–$125), where you can swim in the Eel River. On your last day, pedal along the narrow 33-mile stretch of old highway known as the Avenue of the Giants, which begins six miles north of Redway, and winds though an impressive stand of coastal redwoods.
Another approach to the Lost Coast region is a fully supported bicycle trip, such as Bicycle Adventures's six-day California Redwoods tour (800-443-6060; www.bicycleadventures.com; $1,688 plus $118 bike rental per person; monthly from May 21 to September 17; no tours in July).
MOUNT DESERT ISLAND
Acadia National Park spreads over 46,000 acres, or about half of Maine's Mount Desert Island, with 50 miles of car-free gravel carriage roads winding past lakes, forests, wetlands, and rocky shoreline.
Start your tour in Bar Harbor at Morgan House, a kid-friendly bed-and-breakfast (207-288-4325; doubles, $100–$140). Proprietor Richard Rechholtz is an Acadia National Park ranger and a great resource for all things outdoors. The family-oriented Hanscom's Motel, with a private beach, is another good bet (207-288-3744 or 207-288-0039; www.hanscomsmotel.com; doubles, $68–$110).
From the park's visitor center in Hull's Cove (207-288-3338), take the 26-mile Park Loop Road to explore the island's eastern shore. The next day, pedal 12 miles along Acadia's carriage roads to Northeast Harbor on the southern side of the island. When you get saddle-sore, check out the park's daily naturalist-led programs and hikes; kids will especially enjoy the Shoreline Discovery Program.
Outside the park, try rock climbing (Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School, 888-232-9559; www.acadiamountainguides.com) or sea kayaking. Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop offers kayak tours to some of the smaller islands and islets off Mount Desert Island. The shop also rents bicycles (800-824-2453; www.acadia.net/bhbike; $15 a day, with a 20 percent discount for more than four days).
To make sure you're getting it all in, sign up for VBT's six-day, fully supported Purely Acadia tour. The package combines Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park cycling with hiking, kayaking, sailing, and island-hopping (800-245-3868; www.vbt.com; $1,245–$1,395 per person).
RIDEAU CANAL SYSTEM/HALIBURTON FOREST
The Rideau Canal, snaking for 123 miles from Ottawa to Kingston, was built after the War of 1812 to keep military supplies safe from invading Americans. Today thousands of Americans invade eastern Ontario every summer to ride along the 22 lock stations of the Rideau. Canadian Trails Adventure Tours offers a six-day, 250-mile bicycle tour of the canal in the early summer. Roads and dirt trails take riders through rolling birch-covered country, from Merrick-ville to the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands, then up the other side, from Kings-ton back to Merrickville. If you're tired of pedaling at any point, jump into a canoe and make the journey through the locks of the canal.
Along the way, you either camp or stay at inns. Both options are fully supported: Canadian Trails operates a sag wagon and lugs your gear (800-668-2453; www.canadiantrails.com; $847 per person at inns, $427 camping; minimum age ten; all prices are in U.S. dollars).
If you have a few extra days, you can head for wilder family cycling four hours northwest of Kingston at the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve. With 50,000 acres of pine forest, 50 lakes, and 190 miles of bikeable trails--from logging roads to technical singletrack--you can spend days riding the many trail loops from the Base Camp. There's also a 70-foot-high Canopy Walk, which takes hikers on a short stroll through the treetops.
Contact Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve (705-754-2198; www.haliburtonforest.com). You can rent 21-speed mountain bikes for $14.50 per day; a $6.50 trail pass is required. The Base Camp offers lodge-style accommodations and three-bedroom house-keeping cottages ($19–$26 per person; half-price for children 4–18) as well as 15 campsites ($8 per night).
-- Douglas Gorney
We talked with Kathy Stewart, director of family trips at Butterfield & Robinson:
What ages are your youngest clients? Can they handle any serious mileage?
"Nestled into a Burley trailer, kids as young as three can easily and safely be pulled along for hours. These little trailers are virtually roll-proof and attach to the rear of an adult's bike. Preteens can usually pedal ten to 15 miles per day--unless they're totally gung ho--while reasonably fit adults tend to ride 30 to 40 miles a day. But after too many hours on a bike, even the best riders are accidents waiting to happen. We quit with plenty of time to relax and enjoy the evening."
What do kids find most difficult about riding?
"Riding in a straight line can be a challenge for the curious, playful young. To keep an eye on them, we make sure that solo-riding kids are sandwiched between adults."
What are your greatest safety concerns when riding with kids?
"That they slow down and stay in control. To keep from skidding or slipping, they need to remember to pump their brakes in rain, and on gravel, and to brake before beginning a turn."
Any general safety tips for riding in a group?
"Ride single file but not too close, because if someone hits the brakes, you want room to maneuver. Kids will be more safety-conscious if given responsibilities like map-reading or looking after a day partner. You'll be doing yourself a favor if, before setting out on a longer trip, you ride as a family and log some miles."
What about reflective clothing and lights?
"We never ride after sunset, because with the relative speed of cars and nighttime's limited visibility, bicyclists are at much greater risk than during the day." --P.D.A.
Illustration by Calef Brown