Cycling the North Sea Coast (IV)

The Dutch North Sea Coast is a place of extraordinary beauty. Vast stretches of wide sandy beaches are backed by rolling dunes, large parts of which are protected areas or national parks. On a bad day, with wind and rain sweeping inland from the dull greyness of the North Sea, this can be one of the most inhospitable places imaginable; on a warm sunny day though it is transformed and makes for fantastic cycling.

I’ve slowly been exploring the coast north and south of The Hague by bike. The extensive network of cycle paths along this coastline takes you away from roads, traffic and towns, plunging you into nature. I got the train to Heemstede and headed through typical rural landscapes that slowly changed into a landscape of sand dunes near the coast close to Bloemendaal aan Zee, the last town before entering the truly wonderful Zuid-Kennemerland National Park.

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

My plan was to explore the park and the beaches before going onwards to the North Sea Canal, which connects Amsterdam with the open sea. Oceangoing ships of up to 90,000 tons sail down the canal to the Port of Amsterdam, and the locks that control the access are huge. After that the lovely city of Haarlem was my final destination for a well deserved glass of beer from Haarlem’s local Jopenkerk brewery.

I’d wanted to visit Zuid-Kennemerland National Park for a while. The remarkable mix of woods, dunes and lagoons are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, much of which is quite rare in the Netherlands. As well as over a hundred varieties of birds are joined by more than twenty types of butterfly. The park is also home to deer, red foxes, squirrels and, most excitingly, Highland Cattle, semi-feral Konik ponies and a small population of Wisents, the European Bison.

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I didn’t get to see any Wisents, but I did get up close and personal with some Highland Cattle and Konik ponies. I have to admit it’s quite unnerving to have to cycle through a group of Highland Cattle that have wandered onto the cycle path. Those horns could do a lot of damage, even unintentionally; after a close run-in with a bull on a railway platform in India a few years ago I’ve become a little cautious around horned creatures.

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Passing through a landscape of shrub-topped golden dunes, I cycled through a large group of Konik ponies on my way to the beach. When I came off the beach a while later the ponies had migrated to the bike park so I could get a close look at them. The Konik come from Poland and are one of the surviving descendants of Eastern European wild horses. They are lovely and inquisitive creatures, you have to remember that they are semi-feral. Don’t feed the animals!

Ship on the North Sea Canal, Netherlands

Ship on the North Sea Canal, Netherlands

Ship on the North Sea Canal, Netherlands

Ship on the North Sea Canal, Netherlands

Heading north I arrived at the North Sea Canal where it passes through the deeply uninspiring town of IJmuiden. It is quite an amazing sight, the giant locks allowing passage for even larger ships between Amsterdam and the North Sea. I cycled round the docks and locks, observing ships loading huge amounts of coal on the far shore of the canal, and then I was lucky enough to see a big ship arriving into one of the locks. I love this sort of thing, but time was getting on and a cold Jopen awaited me in Haarlem.

Cycling the North Sea Coast (III)

The difference a week makes.

August moved effortlessly into September and the hoards of tourists who had been inhabiting the North Sea Coast of the Netherlands suddenly, without fanfare, vanished. One day the cycle tracks, beaches and beach-side bars were buzzing with activity along this coastline, the next an eerie quietness descended. Where did everyone go? Alien abduction? Where is Sherlock Holmes when you need a ginormous know-it-all?

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Not that I’m complaining, fewer people is rarely a bad thing when you’re trying to enjoy nature. This is my first summer in the Netherlands so everything is still a little new. I hadn’t realised that such wondrous beaches existed in Northern Europe, let alone that hundreds of thousands of people would make their way here from across Europe to enjoy them.

Now though, the long decline into autumn and winter has begun; like birds heading south the North Sea’s summer visitors have migrated. The cycle tracks and beaches on the coast between The Hague and Haarlem to the north are much quieter; the beach-side bars that were host to a party crowd are closing, deconstructed and packed away until next year. Once again the coast is the preserve of local cyclists and dog walkers.

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Razor clam shells on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Razor clam shells on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I picked up my earlier route at Noordwijk and cycled towards Zandvoort on the coast, then inland to the city of Haarlem. The journey is, to say the least, picturesque. Passing through kilometre after kilometre of rolling sand dunes, I occasionally stopped to walk over the dunes onto wide sandy beaches with hardly any people on them. I imagine in winter, with a gale blowing, these beaches will be inhospitable places. On a sunny September day, they are glorious.

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Jellyfish on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Jellyfish on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Arriving in Zandvoort is something of an anticlimax after the beauty of the journey. This is as close as the Netherlands gets to imitating the horrors of Torremolinos in the 1980s. At the height of the tourist season the beach can look like a seal colony, with thousands of people packed close together. Then there is the architecture.

There is a near universal truth that architects seem to lose their reason and sense of aesthetics when given the job of building by the sea. Almost every seaside town I’ve ever visited has been home to some of the most bizarre and fearfully ugly architecture known to humankind. My general theory is that architects, inspired by the liberating views of the ocean, do their drawing blindfolded. Zandvoort has not escaped this fate.

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

This isn’t entirely Zandvoort’s own fault. During World War II this area was considered strategically important, so the German Army built a series of fortifications here as part of the Atlantic Wall sea defences. To do so they first levelled around three kilometres of the town along the waterfront. Zandvoort had once been an upmarket resort with grand hotels and a wealth of beautiful buildings. By the time the German Army had finished, it had been devastated.

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Crossing from South Holland into North Holand en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Crossing from South Holland into North Holand en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

The beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands

The beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands

Amidst the general destruction of Zandvoort, the most iconic moment came when the the town’s ornate water tower was blown up. There is a grainy black and white photo capturing this moment on the town’s official website. Leaving Zandvoort behind I headed inland towards my final destination, Haarlem, which, as Harlem, has given its name famously to part of New York and numerous other places.

Snowman in summer, between Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Snowman in summer, between Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem train station, Netherlands

Haarlem train station, Netherlands

I often sing the praises of the Dutch cycling system, but the journey into the centre of Haarlem was poorly signposted and once in the town I did several circuits trying to find the train station. This at least gave me the opportunity to see quite a lot of this historic town, whetting my appetite to return and explore more thoroughly.

Cycling the North Sea Coast (II)

The weather in The Hague, and all along the North Sea coastline that stretches to the north and south, can change in the blink of an eye. I’ve often looked out of the front window of my apartment and the weather is blue skies and sunshine; meanwhile, a peek out of the back window reveals dark and foreboding rain clouds. Its not so much that you can have four seasons in one day; more that you can have four seasons several times a day.

Run aground ship at the start of the cycle route leaving The Hague, Netherlands

Run aground ship at the start of the cycle route leaving The Hague, Netherlands

Beach near The Hague, Netherlands

Beach near The Hague, Netherlands

Beach mural, The Hague, Netherlands

Beach mural, The Hague, Netherlands

When the weather is changeable (when isn’t it?), timing and a slice of luck are all important to stay dry should you step outdoors. This was illustrated for me on my recent cycle south along the North Sea Coast to the Hook of Holland or Hoek van Holland (Dutch often seems like badly spelled English). The Hook is the spot where the mighty River Rhine emerges from deep inside Europe’s interior and empties into the ocean.

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I set off in windy but sunny conditions. It only takes an hour to reach the Hook of Holland, but riding high on the dunes path into a stiff wind with little protection is still a struggle. I kept telling myself that at least I’d have the wind at my back on the return journey, little knowing that I’d also be racing a tempestuous storm in a desperate bid to avoid a soaking. Amazing how motivational massive rain clouds prove to be.

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Kite surfers on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Cycle route and lighthouse, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and lighthouse, Hook of Holland, Netherlands

The journey down this stretch of coast is wonderful. Often you can cycle along the tops of the dunes with views over the beach and North Sea. While the journey takes you through beautiful sand dunes, the view to the south is dominated by the silhouette of the vast industrial complex at the massive port on the Hook of Holland. Giant cranes and wind turbines tower over the landscape like a metal forest; huge cargo ships can be seen from miles away.

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

On the beach close to The Hague there are plenty of people walking, sailing and kite surfing. Further away from urban centres the people thin out and often the beach is empty but for the crashing waves and wailing seagulls. All the while I travelled along basking in the sun, but could see trouble brewing out to sea.

Despite being one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, once outside the city limits you can find yourself alone for longish periods of time. This is a car free route, but when you think it’s just you and the seagulls a party of enthusiastic and swift moving Dutch cyclists will inevitably hove into view. They do love to cycle in these parts.

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Ships at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

At the Hook of Holland itself you can stand on a white sand beach and watch enormous container ships sail out into the ocean bound for distant parts of the globe. It’s a mesmerising experience, one I enjoyed in the company of several dozen other people. The number and size of the ships coming and going along this section of river is amazing; sail a little further up river and you arrive in Rotterdam, still one of the world’s largest and busiest ports.

Beach and North Sea at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Beach and North Sea at the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

I cycled a little further along and discovered a series ofWorld War II military installations. This was an important area to defend for the occupying German forces, and the vast Atlantic Wall defensive fortifications that stretched from Norway to Spain are visible here. I was lucky that many of the fortifications were open to visit…but more of that next time.

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Cycle route and weather returning from the Hook of Holland, Netherlands

Deciding that the weather was going to become rough I set off back to The Hague. When I stopped to look backwards it was barely credible that I would remain dry. Terrifyingly large rain clouds loomed, while up ahead I could see the sun illuminating the golden sand of the beach and sand dunes. I cycled in a netherworld between the two and managed to reach home just before a tremendous storm hit. The rain was bouncing off the streets.

Cycling the North Sea Coast

Life is full of surprises. The beauty and tranquility of the Dutch coastline near The Hague is one of those surprises. Rolling sand dunes stretch for kilometres north and south; wide, sandy beaches run as far as the eye can see; and colourful sailing boats flit across the grey-blue waters of the North Sea. You can see why this coastline has attracted artists over the centuries, including Vincent van Gogh who lived in The Hague for a year or so in 1882-3 and painted seascapes on this same bit of coast.

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

Cycling through The Hague to the former fishing village of Scheveningen – now a slightly tacky seaside resort stuffed full of casinos, friet and mayo concessions and a bizarre mix of architecture – I joined the LF1 long-distance cycle route which runs for 310km along the Dutch North Sea coast and headed towards another former fishing village, Katwijk.

Lighthouse in Noordwijk, North Sea Coast cycle route, Netherlands

Lighthouse in Noordwijk, North Sea Coast cycle route, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

This stretch of coast is known as the Meijendel Dunes and is one of the most important coastal areas in the Netherlands. On a hot, sunny day it is breathtakingly beautiful. The rolling dunes topped with brushwood and wooded inland valleys are home to over 250 bird species and a variety of other wildlife, including roe deer, foxes, toads, frogs and the elusive Sand Lizard. Protected from the wind coming off the North Sea, the silence of the dunes is wonderful.

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Meijendel Dunes, North Sea Coast, Netherlands

The most unexpected sight amongst the dunes are numerous small lakes. Remarkably, these are a natural water purification system operated by Dunea, the water company which supplies The Hague. Water is pumped into these ponds from the Maas river and is allowed to filter through the sand for around two months. This cleans and purifies the water, which is then pumped from underground to provide drinking water to around 1.2 million people.

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

North Sea Coast beaches, Netherlands

From Katwijk I continued alongside the North Sea towards Noordwijk, making occasional excursions on foot over the dunes and onto the beach before looping back towards The Hague. This area is hugely popular, and not just with cyclists. Over a million people visit the coast here every year, lots of them from Germany and Belgium. Despite the numbers, these seaside towns still have a pretty laid-back feel.

North Sea Coast cycle route, Netherlands

North Sea Coast cycle route, Netherlands

As you’d expect in a country renowned for being the world’s most cycle friendly, the LF-1 route is brilliant. Everything is well maintained, there are shelters, maps, signposts with distances and benches to rest on dotted along the entire route. Best of all though, the majority of the route is only accessible by bike or on foot – no cars are allowed – creating an unexpected tranquility. The Dutch know how to do cycling.