Amsterdam”Wil je een dropje?” asked the cheerful captain's assistant as we crossed the Princess Margaret Canal, an inland Dutch waterway that carries both recreational boats and freight barges.
Yes, please, I answered, despite thinking how it was a little early to be chewing on the pungent, black Dutch licorice. But we had a long day ahead, so best to accept an energy boost when it's offered.
The “Dropje Ferry” as it is called - which, it turned out, is famous for sharing candies as well as for being solar-powered - was the first ride of our five-ferry, 45-mile bike route. The following day, we mapped out a 20-mile ride incorporating three more ferries (and a few windmills).
The multiple water crossings were not accidental. Since moving to the Netherlands two years ago with my wife, Selina, who is Dutch, I'd become smitten with “voetveren,” or foot ferries - small boats specifically for foot passengers and cyclists. (There are car/bike ferries throughout the country as well.) Some small ferries are run by municipalities, others by private operators, and still others by volunteers, with costs usually ranging from free to $2 (about R30) a person. The most charming ones are the hand-cranked do-it-yourselfers.
I figured that in this country promoting hundreds of bicycle routes, there must be some that are ferry-centric. Who best to turn to than Vrienden van de Voetveren - Friends of the Foot Ferries, a volunteer association with about 2 000 members devoted to preserving this quaint mode of transportation. The group started in 1982, spurred by a growth of motor traffic and bridge building, which caused the number of small ferries to shrink. Thanks to members' efforts, the number has tripled, and now totals nearly 170.
On the Friends' website (in Dutch), you can find many bike trips incorporating ferries, but only one is nicknamed “the ferry route,” and that's “De 8 van Grou,” or “The 8 of Grou.” Wherever Grou was, I was going.
Fortunately for us, Grou turned out to be a lively (at least in the summer) historic town of about 5,700 in the province of Friesland, a region known for having almost as much water as land. Because Grou is situated along a lake, Pikmeer, and the Princess Margaret Canal, summer boaters easily can reach its busy harbours.
I'd assumed the “8” in the route name was the number of ferries, but it refers to its shape when it was first mapped in 1995. Back then, it included only six ferries, but has since grown to 10, with a couple more expected to join in 2017. Most of the ferries are seasonal and run by volunteers, with the nonprofit group Grou Aktief coordinating the system and making sure schedules are in sync. Individual ferries report up to 15 000 users from April through September.
Because of the 8's expansion, there is no one route. Instead, there are five suggested loops ranging from 20 to 40 miles, all laid out in a booklet available at the Grou tourist information office. (We mixed and matched to custom design our own routes.) Though the text is in Dutch, the directions follow the country's “knooppunten” system of marked, numbered routes at intersection points and are generally easy to follow by number. (Grou Aktief is considering publishing an English guide, especially since its municipality of Leeuwarden will take the spotlight as a European Cultural Capital in 2018.)
The “dropje” ride, our longest, lasted about 10 minutes, as the flat-bottom boat took us from a harbour in the village of Warten, up a river and across the canal to the shore of Alde Feanen National Park, a peaceful area of wetlands, forest meadows and peat bogs, crisscrossed with waterways and bicycle paths.
Before heading into the park, we detoured to one more solar ferry a few miles north along a narrow trail flanked by tall marsh grasses waltzing in the wind. We spied the boat on the other side of the channel and summoned it over by ringing an old-fashioned, earsplitting bell hanging from a pole along the path.
The captain, Eelke de Jong, zipped across the canal and took us over to the village of Suwald, where he lives. In 1997, he and other volunteers started carrying passengers on what they claim is the world's first completely solar-powered ferry. Two years ago, the group built a snack bar and small campground with a harbour and fishing pier and welcomes visitors to sit and enjoy the view.
My ferry fanaticism amused de Jong.
“In Holland, it's totally normal to use a ferry, but people in other countries think it's really special,” he said. “There are small ferries like this, but also big ones, of course. But the small ones are more fun.”
From Earnewald, our third small ferry, a commercial one, deposited us on the other side of a waterway at the park's visitor centre. Next door was the endearing Friesland Agricultural Museum, where we saw a surprisingly creative array of cow art, learned about the history of American windmills in the Netherlands, and studied up on the folksy wooden swan carvings we had seen on farmhouses.
As we cycled south through the park, we passed a small herd of ponies, flowering meadows and peat bogs, feeling thankful we didn't meet too many other cyclists on the narrow, crushed-shell path.
Our next ferry, also a small commercial one, took us over a wide body of water apparently popular among sailing schools as we passed clusters of identical small sailboats helmed by youngsters practicing techniques.
The park led us to another nature area, this one along “petgatten,” a group of canals initially dug for removing and transporting peat, but now part of a restored wetlands area.
For some time, our route overlapped Domela's Path, a bicycle and walking route with landmarks to honour the 19th-century folk hero Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis. Called the founder of Dutch socialism, he fought for labor rights and was beloved by peat workers.
Our fifth ferry - a bright yellow hand-crank model - proved a fabulous finale. Not much more than a small platform with railings on each side, the ferry, which could hold 10 people and their bikes, moved between the canal banks along an underwater cable. The fuller the load, the more resistance, but with just the two of us, operating the crank was fun and easy.
From there, we followed a path flanked by a canal and the intoxicatingly beautiful nature reserve De Deelen, a landscape of marshy inland lakes with walking paths to the water. Once used for peat extraction, the area is an ideal spot for nature worship, or a happy hour, evidenced by the foursome we encountered sitting by the trail. One of the men, a local who wore beat-up wooden clogs, a rare sight despite the Dutch stereotypes, offered us a beer. But with another hour of cycling still to go, we regretfully declined.
That evening, feeling fit and well-ferried, we toasted with our own brews from a cafe patio in the centre of Grou. Just as we walked to the harbour to watch the sunset, yet another “8 van Grou” ferry motored by, this one taking passengers to the other side of the lake - offering us a new idea for the next day's ride.
If you go...
Where to stay
A beautiful 17th-century home in the historic Grou village that sits across from a medieval church. Rooms from $110.
ATboot B&B Hotel
This hotel is located on a lakeside harbour and has rooms and apartments overlooking the waterfront. Rooms from $92.
Where to eat
Restaurant de Vrijheid
Take a short ferry ride from Grou centre to this waterfront restaurant with a French flair. Lunch from $10, dinner entrees from $26.
Trije Hûs 1. Located on a canal island northeast of Grou.
No boat, no worries - the restaurant taxi will pick you up. Sandwiches from $6, dinner entrees from $20. Open April through late October.
Restaurant 't Kofschip
A casual restaurant in town that is perfect for people-watching. Dinner from $16.
What to do
“De 8 van Grou”
The group offers varying routes that encompass up to 10 small ferries. A guide (in Dutch) sells for $3.50 at different points in town, including the tourist information office at Halbertsma's Plein 12. Information is online (also in Dutch) at grouaktief.nl.
The bike shop rents regular bikes for $9 a day, and tandem and electric bikes for $22 a day.
De Stripe 12, Earnewald
Museum offers a primer on traditional Frisian sailing vessels. Open late April to late September. Ages 13 and older, $3; younger, $1.
Frisian Agricultural Museum
Koaidyk 8b, Earnewald
The museum's exhibits demonstrate how nature and humans shaped the region's history and agriculture. Open April through October. Ages 12 and older $6.50; ages 6 through 12 $3; younger free.
Alde Feanen National Park and Visitor centre
Koaidyk 8a, Earnewald
Walking and biking trails crisscross this 2,683-acre peat bog. Park is open year-round, Visitor centre open April through October. Park entrance is free. Visitor centre ages 13 and older $2; ages 5 through 12, $1; younger, free.