Europe Cycling - My Family Travels

Avid bicyclists pack up the kids and the Burley trailers for an escorted ride across Denmark that gives new meeting to the word "deluxe."

When I was a child, my mother rode me around on the back of her bicycle and regaled me with tales of a bicycle trip she'd taken through Holland and England. Once I was old enough, I rode my own bicycle, and then went on a number of cycling trips. These were bare-bones affairs, with my gear stowed in panniers; we slept in tents or at hostels.

My husband and I always planned to take a more luxurious bike trip together, but never got around to it. Then, in the summer of 2001, we took our three children, then 3, 8 and 10, on a deluxe Backroads family bicycling trip in Denmark. It was even better than we could ever have imagined.

[Editor's Note: This trip is currently only available as a Private Trip, not as a group tour. Call 800-462-2848 to speak with a Trip Consultant.

New Focus on Family

Backroads (800/GOACTIVE), which began offering cycling trips over 20 years ago, has recently gotten into family trips in a big way. For 2002, Europe-bound families can choose between eight countries, including Denmark, France, Italy, Holland and Switzerland (Backroads also offers trips through Africa, Asia, and Latin and North America). The expertly planned trips include plenty of sightseeing to entice children. We had three leaders for our group of 26: one was always available to entertain the children, with games, books, or a lap to sit on, and one had dinner with all the kids each night. Much to our delight, we could carry on adult conversations with other parents, while keeping an eye on our children.

Backroads also rents bicycles to ensure easier travel. Before the trip, a coordinator checks with you on sizes for adults and children. We had very comfortable hybrid Cannondale bikes, with fat tires and lots of gears. There were extra bicycles and seats when we picked up the rentals; some riders want a padded seat, while others prefer leather. For the youngest 'riders,' there are Burley trailers (which we used) and Piccolos, which convert a bicycle to a tandem for parent and child (best for ages 4-7). Helmets, safety triangles, water bottles and small front bicycle bags (for holding maps and snacks) are also provided.

Preparation all around was the key to success. Our family made a few trial long rides, to make sure that both Sela (8) and Hallie (10) felt comfortable riding such a distance. We also had to ensure that Nora (3) could entertain herself for long stretches in a bike trailer. Since Denmark is relatively flat, and our children are enthusiastic bikers, the distance was never a problem. On Backroads' Europe trips, the family rides range from 17 to 30 miles per day (it sounds even more impressive when you figure it in kilometers, 27 to 48 kms).

Making New Friends

Our group had three 8-year-olds, three 10-year-olds, and several teens. Our two older daughters were thrilled that they each had a girl exactly the same age, and they made fast friends. All the kids — and adults — were friendly with each other; in such an intimate setting, you bond quickly. Nora was the only one without a young playmate, but she took to hanging out with the teenage girls.

Like most toddlers, Nora found many ways to amuse herself. One was to select a treat from the snack table before each ride. There were energy bars, little chocolate bars, fresh and dried fruit, nuts and thrilling Danish style fruit roll-ups. We had learned that being towed along with her books, a Walkman playing her favorite long cassettes, or doodling with crayons and paper, could also amuse her. Daily, Nora kept up a running commentary on the passing scenery, pointing out animals we passed, and thatched roof houses, stopping only to sing a song.

Cycling Denmark's Back Roads

The Denmark family biking trip originates in Nyborg on the island of Funen. The first day, we toured a water mill (always a hit with kids), had a picnic lunch, got fitted for our bikes, and then waited out a sudden downpour. After a day in Denmark, we realized that storms are not unexpected; they come with great regularity, generally about the time your foot hits the pedal. Just as quickly, the rain stopped and we were off.

Each day, one leader rode along the route, moving from group to group. My kids enjoyed chatting with them. We often set off with another family, but since the kids needed frequent stops, we found it easier to ride with just our family. The adult in front was responsible for turns and the one behind for keeping tabs on the girls. Kids have a tendency to weave, so when we cycled on roads with traffic, especially Europe's narrow roads, we had to make sure they stayed to the right.

Denmark, like many European countries, has mapped bicycle routes. We often followed them, some on bike and pedestrian-only paths, some on country roads, and some along what constitutes heavily trafficked roads in this sparsely populated country. The gracious Danish drivers gave bicyclists an unusually wide berth, and we were highly visible with our orange Backroads safety triangles. We cycled through a couple of small towns, and once had to cross a busy road where there was no traffic light, but we always felt the kids were safe.

Storybook Hotels and Formal Meals

Backroads selects its hotels with an eye towards child-friendly amenities. Our first hotel, Falsled Kro (+45 6268 1111), had thatched roofs that the children adored. All rooms had fireplaces, and kids could feed apples to the wild horses. The next hotel, Hotel Hesselet (+45 6531 3029), was a typical Danish resort with an indoor pool, on the beach. It was way too cold to swim at the beach, though we spent time digging in the sand. And although Danes apparently have not adopted the American concept of heating pools, the entire group spent hours in it together.

Only the last hotel was a disappointment. Hotel Skjoldenaesholm (+45 5753 8750) a converted manor home, had an idyllic setting on a lake with rowboats available for kids to use. However, the rooms were so minuscule, that our family of five had to stay in three rooms. I only recently accepted the notion of adjacent rooms, and having our 10-year-old stay by herself was upsetting.

[Editor's Note: The Backroads tours does occasionally alter its itinerary. Recently, the Hotel Skjoldenaesholm has been replaced on the lodge circuit with Broholm Gods (+45 6225 1055) in Gudme. With magnificent rooms and amazing views, this hotel rests on over 1,500 acres of parkland. It is a historic location with an authentic moat and equestrian center for the kids to take a break from bike riding and horseback ride.]

As often happens with kids, the meals were challenging. The charming Falsled Kro had a plodding pace at dinner. Although we had pre-ordered, it took over two hours for the children's dinner to be served. However, the food was delicious and our kids loved the quail eggs that were served hard-boiled at the bar and fried for breakfast. Another misstep was the "on their own" meal. For lunch in Roskilde, we were given three suggestions: one restaurant was closed, another had no child- or vegetarian-friendly choices, and the third, where the entire group wound up, was so overwhelmed that half of us never got our food. In contrast, at night the kids were thrilled to have one quick "on their own" dinner rather than the elaborate multi-course meals we were having.

For most families, the picnic lunches set out by the Backroads leaders in the morning were the best. At other times, leaders tried to cope with the European pace. One brought lanyard, books, markers and diaries to entertain the children at mealtime. Another time at the Hotel Hesselet, we stayed at dinner chatting with our new adult friends while the kids curled up with a leader by the fireplace, reading Hans Christian Andersen tales.


Adaptable Guides Enhance Sightseeing

Our Backroads leaders were always highly adaptable. When heavy rain prevented our ride to Egeskov Castle (+45 6227 1016), they arranged for a bus to take us and then ferried our bikes and gear over by van. The 66-room castle, built in 1554, was open for self-guided tours. There was also an antique car museum, filled with interesting cars, a hedge maze, gardens and elaborate playgrounds that the children were able to fully enjoy. We all also took a "Tree Top Walk" on high rope bridges.

The Fjord and Belt Center (+45 6532 4200) was a hands-on aquarium where kids could touch fish and shells. Nora loved the recreated marine environment, where the floor had projections of light and sound to resemble the sea. After we toured this, a researcher took us out on a small boat; a diver brought crabs, shrimp and algae on board for the children to hold. That afternoon, heavy rains and wind changed our plans, so one leader offered to take the children bowling.

Another day, we toured the Viking Ship Museum (+47 2213 5280), which had recreated Viking ships in the harbor. We also had a short stop one day at an ostrich farm, where my kids perfected their ostrich walk. On other days, I recall all of us riding past horses, chickens, cows, and lots of baby pigs. Unfortunately, since we did not travel in mid- August, we missed the annual Hamlet Festival (+45 4921 6979) in Kronberg Castle. Every year the Kronberg grounds (which were Shakespeare's orginal influence for Elsinore, Hamlet's Danish Castle) hosts new performances that provide entertainment and fun for the family.

Though it's been such an eventful year since, there is one sign that our kids loved the bicycling trip as much as we did: they greeted the arrival of the new Backroads trip catalog with the enthusiasm I used to reserve for the Sears Wish Catalog. Nora may outgrow a bike trailer when she turns 4 – but the Piccolo still beckons.

Family Biking Resources

Backroads (800/GO-ACTIVE) has over 30 family trips in Europe, North America and Latin America during school breaks and summer. Some trips are for ages 3 and up; others are for ages 8 and up. The 2007 6D/5N Denmark biking trip costs $3,998/2 adults, with significant discounts for young children, and programs are always being revised and updated. .

Butterfield & Robinson (866/551-9090; 416/864-1354) offers the most elaborate and luxurious family trips, supported by up to four leaders and two vans. Europe itineraries with special, separate activities for children include the Breton coast of France, rural Ireland, Italy and Holland. This service comes with a price; the 2008 6D/5N Holland bike trip for ages 5 and up is $5,000+/person; 10% less for those under 18, with greater discounts if sharing a room. New trips have recently been added to include "uncruises," which explore the Black Sea, the Dalmatian Coast, and the Greek Isles. Each Mediterranean "uncruise' begins aboard the small ship "Callisto" and includes daily walks or bike rides with each stop. The trip through the Black Sea even includes a wine tasting with Eastern European wine expert Zoltan Szabo.

Ciclismo Classico (800/866-7314) offers family biking trips in Italy. For example, their 8D Tuscan Fantasy includes a farm stay, sightseeing, and a cooking lesson, plus supervised activities for kids ages 2-10. In a comparison of 2007 prices, reasonable rates began at $3,395/adult and children are considerable less.

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