Cycling through the dunes in the national park on Texel, one of Holland’s North Sea Wadden Islands
By Bob Berwyn
My son and I are flip-flopping along the cobblestones, trying to catch the streetcar headed to Linz Hauptbahnhof on the last day of our Euro-trek together.
“Did you remember to grab the tram tickets?” I ask, jogging the last few meters.
Dylan sprints behind me, toggling his pack, and says, “No, Dad, I forgot. I’m so sorry, Dad,” casting a dejected look down the tracks.
It’s a truckin’-it kind of day, and we’re trying to make every second count. Just that morning, we talked about how each of us had duties, divvied up to make everything go smoothly. The tram tickets were Dylan’s job. I’d make sure we had our passports and other important items, like the iPod and crispy bakery snacks.
The trolley leaves without us. As we fish around for a few Euros to plunk into the ticket-vending machine, I stifle the impulse to give a stern rebuke. Instead, I opt for the patient approach: “it’s important to be organized when you’re traveling abroad. You have to make a list, and double-check it before you go. Sometimes, you don’t get a second chance when you’re traveling.”
He takes it all in stride, and when we arrive at the Frankfurt airport, we discover that I’ve made the bigger blunder. Somehow, I misread the time on the ticket for what was to be his first-ever solo flight, a quick one-hour trip to Dublin to meet his mom.
But we’re an hour late. I can see Dylan fighting back both a grin and tears, thinking about my morning lecture on being organized. Luckily, there’s an evening flight, and with the help of a friendly Lufthansa ticket agent, we re-book.
Settling in at the terminal, we chew Gummi Bears, play video games and watch the world stream past. I’m probably more nervous than he is about his solo trip. At age 10, Dylan takes flying for granted. He’s been across the Atlantic more times than he can remember.
You don’t know lucky you are, boy!
My girlfriend, Leigh, has been traveling in the Middle East, and her flight is scheduled to arrive in Frankfurt just before Dylan’s departure. Once he’s safely in the air, Leigh and I will cash in our 14-day Eurail voucher and head for Amsterdam and then the Wadden Islands off the coast of Holland.
After a good night’s sleep and a hot shower on the train, we stumble into a wet Amsterdam daybreak and ramble on foot most of the day, past the floating flower market and houseboats with grapevines and veggie gardens.
Stocked with a few goodies, we jump on a northbound commuter train to Den Halder. Between the train station and the Texel ferry, we wander past a mile-long dockhouse, now home to a maritime museum. The windows offer glimpses of the country’s ship-building tradition, crowned during the East Indian trading era.
On the ferry, I look for the most exotic snack in the vending machine. It’s a travel hobby of mine, so I choose the mysteriously labeled Red Band packet. From the outside it looks like it could be a powerful laxative, but it turns out to be a delicious chocolate-mint. I duly note the discovery in a journal, alongside scribbles about a kid clutching a toy dinosaur, as his dad, clad in a sailor-striped sweater, lifts him from the back of their bike.
Pocket-size Texel is at the southwestern end of the Wadden Islands (Frisian Islands), a patchy swath of dune barriers that shelter the mainland from the open sea. The island sits at the end of the Waddenzee, a 10,000-square-kilometer tidal mudflat and wetlands ecosystem stretching 500 kilometers northeast to Denmark. The vast patchwork of sea gullies, tidal channels and salt marshes nurtures millions of sea and shore birds.
We want to explore the coastal dunes of the national park, and we’re also looking for possible ancestral roots: Leigh’s last name is Wadden, so, who knows, we might find a long-lost relative. As she walks off the ferry in Horntje, her golden hair streams in the Atlantic breeze. I sense some Viking blood in her veins, knowing that the sea-faring warriors from the north settled some of these coastal towns.
The bus circles the island and drops us at De Koog, where we check into a comfy beachfront inn. The resort town is a hub for cycling and hiking around the island and in the national park. Mid-summer light lingers late this far north, drawing us to the broad beach, where sunset afterglow shines orange-colored against a backdrop of purple clouds mounding over the sea.
At that point, we’re thinking about a deluxe seafood meal. But among a few other Dutch quirks, we learn that restaurants mostly shut down at 8 or 9 p.m. That leaves Happy Burger, a native fast-food joint, where glaring neon lights from the adjacent bowling alley, along with a techno-pop rendition of Do-Re-Mi, jar us back to the 21st century. We munch on a plate of ubiquitous krokets: Breaded, deep-fried packets of what we skeptically view as mystery meat in a creamy sauce. It’s Holland’s own national fast food, easily washed down with a draft Heineken.
Our plan the next morning is to cycle a leisurely lap around the island. Bike shops dot the roadside and the pancake-flat countryside is threaded with dedicated trails and a simple road grid.
Holland has a rich bike culture, expressed through the ease by which parents often carry two youngsters, along with a load of groceries and a bottle of wine in a handlebar basket. Juggling a meter-long loaf of bread and carrying on a cell phone conversation, they casually dismount while rolling up to their stop.
I venture out early in the morning, stopping for a cup of coffee with froth so thick that the little cookie served on the side floats for more than a minute while I scan yesterday’s Herald Tribune. At the bike shop, I ask about the weather.
‘Keen dribble!” the owner says with a smile, guaranteeing a nice day for our tour. “There’s no bad weather, as the Germans say, only bad clothes,” he reassures me.
We mount the late-model Gazelles, admiring the nifty and super-comfortable touring bikes with components integrated into the frame and sheltered by lightweight housing. Leading the way, Leigh heads north on the coastal path, toward the lighthouse at De Cocksdorp, where an opening to the sea allows tides to flood the coastal plain behind the dunes. On the beach, we munch olives, feta, flat crackers and more mystery meat, this time packaged as a creamy salad.
In a sheltered spot in the dunes, bees buzz around soft pink flowers. We settle down for a nap, laughing with sheer happiness at having discovering this serene spot. A few inches away, one of the bees stops, doffs a tiny top hat and says “Guten Tag” in flawless German. “I’m so happy to be here, collecting pollen on this gorgeous day. My Queen is going to be so happy,” he buzzes at me before flying away.
Flabbergasted, I call to Leigh, but her delicately freckled nose is buried deep in her favorite reading material — a guidebook.
“That does it,” I say to myself. “I need to be a travel writer. That’ll get her attention!”
Near the lighthouse, the air is abuzz with the sound of kites in the wind. It’s another small wonder on this magical island, a place where the breeze is so steady that people come from all over to pace their paper and plastic contraptions through swirling loops and dizzying dives. The atmosphere vibrates with the electric buzz of kite strings taut against the wind.
On the east side of the island, along dikes and past ancient windmills, the roads are so flat and straight that we often hold hands while gliding along, even leaning in for a kiss — at the risk of a crash.
At Oosterend, we duck into a lively harbor bar for a thick slice of apple cake, coffee and a shot of the local liquor, brewed with a mix of island herbs. Our route takes us across the center of the island through Den Burg, the largest town, and back to the coast for the final leg. A strong southwest tailwind makes the last few kilometers easy. We miss out on the restaurants once again but tumble into bed tired and happy, dreaming about that big seafood platter.