Art museums and cathedrals are all very well, but if you really want to get a true feel for the Netherlands, take to a bike. North Sea breezes will bring a flush to your cheeks, the sun is never too hot, and big billowing clouds are reflected in water like Impressionist paintings come to life. Pedalling through this country brings you vignettes of village life: a woman polishing her brass door knocker; a shop selling smoked eels; cows harrumphing in fields. You flash past dollhouse-sized homes with gleaming windows and get a peek into people's living rooms, full of tulip bowls and televisions that look as if they ought to be in a museum.
This is exactly my experience in Veere, a delightful Dutch town afloat in water where I join other passengers from Scenic Pearl on a guided tour by e-bike. We pedal through town, where visitors tuck into slabs of apple pie in cafes, and on past a domed church and windmill. Then we take to cycle paths along dyke tops shaded by poplar trees, drifting sedately at roof level past tidy farms and cottages. Our guide Jos stops every now and then, showing us a dairy farm where newborn calves squeak; a wayside shop selling rubbery Dutch cheeses; herons strutting in the mud like catwalk models.
The e-bikes that Scenic carries on its ship make our 15-kilometre route surprisingly easy. The fitter among us pedal all the way, while the rest adjust their gears and allow the bikes' batteries to supply additional thrust. At times I zip along, scarcely pedalling at all. It helps that Holland is almost entirely flat. On several rides over the following days, both guided and on my own, I find beautiful scenery unfolding from my vantage point on dyke-topping pathways that look over rivers and canals, flower-filled gardens and church-hugging villages. The Netherlands is so tidy and downsized that at times it feels like cycling through a Hobbit movie set.
Scenic Pearl, on which I journey between Amsterdam and Basel, carries 20 e-bikes, so passengers have to sign up in advance for the organised cycling tours. E-bikes can be borrowed at any other time while in port, however. It's hard to get lost if you stick to the riverbanks, whose cycleways are generally only gently inclined. The good thing about Europe, too, is that both towns and countryside are well geared to cycling. Many have dedicated cycle paths with good signage to indicate directions and distances.
Not surprisingly, several cruise companies supply complimentary bikes for their passengers. Scenic has gone one further this year, launching two dedicated cycling cruises during which shore excursions will be accompanied by cycling guides, a bike mechanic and support vehicle. The first takes in routes around Arcachon Bay and Saint-Emilion wine country on a 11-day Bordeaux Cycling Endeavour, the other a pedal along a section of the Danube Path during an eight-day Gems of the Danube Cycling Discovery. This cycling track is one of the best on the continent, part of which takes in the vineyard-draped hills and baroque towns of Austria's Wachau region.
The Moselle Valley, next section on my Scenic Pearl cruise, is another brilliant example of why visitors should take to Europe's outstanding cycling trails. Cycle paths on both sides of the river run its entire length. Do yourself a favour and borrow an e-bike while docked in Cochem, from which you can pedal 10 kilometres upriver to Beilstein and back – or further, if you wish. The scenery is lovely, and Beilstein one of those ridiculously pretty German towns laden with geraniums and gargoyles and well provided with cafes, in which a cream cake will restore your energy for the return to the ship.
Scenic Pearl sails up the same stretch of river and beyond next day, providing a different angle on the passing vineyards and villages from its expansive rooftop deck. A technical stop at a lock further upriver allows passengers to disembark and cycle the remainder of the journey to the ship's evening dock at Bernkastel-Kues. This is a group guided tour with a stop halfway at a cafe for walnut ice cream or a cold drink. It's a gorgeous three hours in the saddle, and you can knock off a few calories before tucking into a four-course dinner back on the ship. If you don't finish the day enormously satisfied, then surely you're impossible to please.
The writer travelled on Scenic's 15-day Romantic Rhine & Moselle cruise between Amsterdam and Basel, which has frequent departures between April and October 2017. Prices from $8195 per person including meals, beverages, shore excursions and Wi-Fi. Phone 13 81 28. See www.scenic.com.au
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Scenic.
ON YER BIKE IN FIVE MORE RIVER PORTS
Head off on a three-hour, 12-kilometre cycle during Scenic's Enchanting Rhone cruise that takes you along the riverbanks into sprawling Parc de la Tete d'Or, which incorporates a zoo, botanic garden and rose garden. It's a lovely, leisurely cycle that enables you to stickybeak on locals at play, with an exotic backdrop of looming giraffes.
On Scenic's Jewels of Europe itinerary, guests can do a guided cycle on e-bikes through vineyards between baroque Melk Abbey and the village of Durnstein via cycle paths that largely stick to the Danube's riverbanks. It's best suited to confident riders, since there are some narrow tracks, cobblestones and 35 kilometres of pedalling.
This is a six-kilometre, 1.5-hour flat ride using regular pedal bikes around Kopacevo near the cruise port of Osijek on Scenic's Black Sea Explorer itinerary. The guide takes you through former fishing villages with their distinctive regional architecture and rooftop storks' nests, then into Kopacki Rit Nature Park for cormorant spotting.
This three-hour, 20-kilometre ride on Scenic's Breathtaking Bordeaux cruise will propel you from the fabulous old-town Chartons district, where the ship docks, into trendy, redeveloped districts Bastide and Bacalan. The pedal also passes sights of the old city, including the town hall and cathedral.
If you don't want a group cycle, use your GPS-guided Scenic Tailormade device and an e-bike to explore Bamberg yourself on a Jewels of Europe cruise. The 12 kilometres takes about two hours. The town is crammed with a thousand years of architecture, and the device provides all the details.