North Coast 500

Day 101: Stromness to Bettyhill, Saturday July 29th

We opted for the cooked breakfast at our hotel, then made the short ride to the ferry dock. The cruise back to the Scottish mainland turned out to be full of wonderful views of cliffs and mountainous islands. It was, thankfully, a much smoother crossing than our last.

We landed at Scrabster around lunchtime and immediately climbed the hill and started heading west along the coast on the A836, which wasn’t too busy. Much of the traffic seemed to be mostly people doing the North Coast 500, though some seemed to think the beautiful scenery meant they were in an idiotic car commercial showing amazing “handling” on corners. Considering the number of sheep, and even cows, we encountered on the road, I was surprised not to see some wrecks.

There were a lot of challenging climbs and thrilling descents. The views were fantastic.

Again, we were just a little late arriving to avoid the rain, but it paused long enough for us to set up our tent at a charming little campground. The location was amazing, and we were quite happy with it, despite the fact that it had a toilet/shower block that looked, in the words of one reviewer, like it was built fifty years ago by the Dharma Initiative.

In the campground we met a riding couple from Holland who had some advice for us regarding our route. Strangely, it seemed that every rider was going in the opposite direction to us.

Up the hill, into town, we found the home of the elderly woman who collects the fees for the campsite. It’s pretty much an honour system, as she was not likely to be hiking down to count the tents. We had a nice chat with her about the unseasonably cool weather and she helped us find the pub where we went for dinner.

 

Distance: 53 km (ride)

$

Shetland

Day 94: Lerwick, July 22nd

I didn’t sleep very well in my “pod”. I know I slept some because I had a dream, but the dream was about a flight attendant (cruise attendant?) who walked around the room waking people up to prevent snoring. Deb was more successful.

Our Airbnb hosts said it would be fine for us to check in as soon as we arrived, so it wasn’t long before we were getting comfortable in our digs for the next three nights. I’m writing this in the dining room with a fridge, microwave and a TV that we have all to ourselves. There are five cats. We get amazing breakfasts. It’s stretching our budget, but not destroying it. We were lucky to get this place, Deb hunted the web for days trying to get us accommodations. As it is, we have to move across town for our last night before we catch the ferry to the Orkneys.

Low on energy, but feeling much better after a shower and some porridge our host whipped up, Deb and I walked into Lerwick. We went to the Visitor Centre, which was a bit of a bust, but we met some very helpful locals at a bar. They offered lots of advice on what to see and how to see it.

We also saw a guy walking his goat.

Distance: 3 km (from ferry to Airbnb)

$162

 

Pod People

Day 93: Johnshaven to Aberdeen (ferry to Lerwick), July 21st

A day with a deadline; we had to be at the Aberdeen ferry by 6:30. It wasn’t a particularly long ride, but we knew there were a lot of hills to conquer.

Getting out of Johnshaven involved riding along a rather rocky seaside track. We crisscrossed over the A92, and rode on it briefly, then climbed a long way up for a spectacular view over Stonehaven. The ride down into the port town was nice, but the ride up and out was not. Construction of a new highway has added a lot of traffic and confusion to the roads up the coast. Climbing a busy, steep and long hill is not a lot of fun.

 

We stopped to rest and eat by a cenotaph and who should come riding up the hill but our new friend, John. We formed up our little convoy again and he helped us negotiate some of the construction mess.

At one point we met a young Dutch guy who was on a huge tour. He’d already been to Iran and Mauritius (which I had to look up).

When we were only a few miles from Aberdeen, Cycle Route 1 seemed to get bogged in construction again, following a gravel road which appeared to be closed. John elected to ride the A90, warning us that Aberdeen drivers were crazy, but saying he’d ridden it safely many times when working in the area. We followed him up the on-ramp. But it was an on-ramp. The closer we got, the more the A90 looked like the Don Valley Parkway. We bailed. John disappeared into the throng of traffic and we rolled the wrong way back down the ramp. Google Maps helped us find a slower, safer route into the city.

Riding into Aberdeen felt a lot like riding in Toronto. There were a few half-assed cycle paths, but mostly it was riding on busy roads. Too many potholes, too many cars and people. We were happy to finally reach the port.

We were early, so we had time to go into the giant mall across from the port and get me a new, unlocked, phone. We walked into the city a bit, took some pictures and picked up supplies. At a bank, Deb also managed to trade in a £5 note that had been taken out of circulation.

Boarding the ferry was straightforward, and we discovered that the “Sleeping Pods” that we’d booked were really just glorified reclining chairs. Still, they had USB plugs and were in a room with no blaring TV. We also received blankets, eye masks, and tokens for the showers, which were actually really good.

Distance: 60 km

$223 plus a new phone

Blimey

Day 87: Newcastle-on-Tyne (North Shields) to Alnwick, July 14th

Deb and I both love sleeping on boats, and the pitch dark of our interior cabin also contributed to a good night. We did need earplugs, however, as the walls were thin, and we had a neighbour who snored.

The ferry docked just after 10 am, which was 9 am local time. National Cycle Route 1, which happens to be the North Sea Cycle Route, goes right past the port, so we were on it right away. There were only two other cyclists on the whole ship (another couple), and they were headed our way, but not very chatty.

The route got a little messed up by construction, but we managed to find our way to Tynemouth, with it’s impressive castle/priory and fantastic view of the sea. After that it was all beaches and touristy towns for a long time. We stopped for a snack at a bench by the sea and a man with a dog stopped to ask us about our journey. He was the first English person we spoke to, and it seemed like he’d been hired to entertain tourists: walking stick, Wellies, cap, and a tendency to say things like ‘blimey’.

As we neared Alnwick, we spotted a bird with an unusual profile hunting the fields around us. It was an owl, and we stopped to watch it swoop around.

The day finished with a few challenging hills, and we were very glad to finally reach our Inn for the night. While Debbie checked us in I waited with the bikes. A gentleman came out of the pub (our room was upstairs) for a smoke and struck up a conversation with me, beginning with, as is often the case, the question:

“If you don’t mind me askin’, what’s ‘Tidy Cats?'”

Charles and I talked for a bit, and I couldn’t help but notice that he’d had maybe a drink too many. When the pub manager came out to help with our gear, he gave Charles a look and warned him to behave himself. Charles later said to me, “Andy knows that sometimes I’m a bit of a bugger, but I’m all right tonight.” And he was.

Obviously we had a couple of real ales in the pub after freshening up. I finally got over my slight dose of depression: one phase of our trip had ended, but the next was just beginning.

Distance: 70 km

$100

BrEnter

Day 86: Haarlem to Newcastle-on-Tyne, July 13th

Our Airbnb host, Dorien, provided us with an excellent breakfast including espresso and those chocolate flakes that the Dutch love to put on peanut butter. I thought it was interesting that the Dutch were really into peanut butter, whereas we rarely even saw a single jar of it in other European grocery stores (it’s all about hazelnut spreads).

We talked more to Kate, the girl from New Zealand, and as we packed up we exchanged info. Now we have a place to stay if we want to go to Middle Earth.

It was a short and pleasant ride to the ferry docks in IJmuiden, and we had time to stop for a traditional Dutch lunch: Herring with pickles and onions.

The boarding process was really efficient, and we discovered that our little cabin had an ensuite shower/toilet (which we had not expected).

I felt a little melancholy as we sailed away; it was a feeling that I couldn’t shake for about twenty-four hours.

Distance: 15 km (plus overnight ferry)

$306

Hobbit Hut

Day 49: June 6th, Gothenburg, Sweden to Brønden, Denmark

We got up very early, giving ourselves plenty of time to ride to the ferry dock. That didn’t stop me from freaking out when we hit construction and got turned around. We made it with 17 minutes to spare, and boarded with about eight other cycle tourers. The ferry between Gothenburg and Frederikshavn is pretty big, and sometimes the crossing can be a little rough. For us, it was sunny and smooth. I was stunned by the number of people I saw buying draft beer and drinking in the sun before the ship left port: it wasn’t even 10 a.m. Impressive.

We’d planned a short ride south along the coast to a campground, but with the free WiFi on the ferry, we looked at other options and decided to take a more direct route towards Aalborg (our planned 2nd night) taking Denmark’s National Cycle Route 3: The Ancient Road.

The docks in Frederikshavn were right by the Tourist Info building, so Deb ran in and got us a good map of the cycle route.

A word about National Cycle Routes. We’ve learned that a National Route does not mean that it is direct, or that the terrain will be suitable for loaded touring bicycles. In fact, whoever lays out these routes seems determined to get bikes off of roads with any cars at all. You’ll be happily rolling along a quiet highway with an excellent surface and a good, wide shoulder, and the route will suddenly turn you onto a muddy logging road with steep hills and loose gravel. It’s always a gamble, because the route often takes these annoying turns to get you to something fabulous: like an incredible view, or a cycle path next to a lake. Other times, it winds through the muck for 8 km and then you meet up with that nice road again, which has gone in a nice straight line for 3 km.

The Ancient Road Hærvejen basically follows the track used by medieval ox traders. I thought that meant it would wander around a lot to avoid hills. Nope.

It’s not that bad though, Denmark isn’t exactly mountainous. Denmark is windy though, and we got some of that on our first day back.

We stopped in Brønden, at something the locals call a “Nature Camp”. There are simple shelters and a covered place to eat. Also firepits and wood. There’s an outhouse, and there’s supposed to be a water tap. This place had a busted top, and a sign that read Vand (water) with a vague arrow, pointing at nothing in particular. We went on a water hunt through the nothing town, and found a tap at the soccer field.

We ate and got into our hobbity shelter just before the rain hit. We were very glad we weren’t in a tent like we’d planned, for we woke in the middle of the night to a serious downpour. The structure was small and simple, but it was water-tight. We really enjoyed our little taste of wild camping, and the fact that it was free was nice after the extravagance of Oslo.

Distance: 50 km (plus ferry between Sweden and Denmark)

$76

To Thine Own Self be True

Day 37: May 25th, Copenhagen, Denmark to Påarp, Sweden

We booked an Airbnb near Helsingborg, Sweden. As in Meissen, we were to be the first guests. To get to Sweden we finished off Danish Cycle Route 9, continuing along the coast of the Øresund (one of the Danish straits connecting the North Sea to the Baltic) up to Helsingør.

Helsingør is better known to English Majors as Elsinore. You get great views of Castle Kronberg when taking the ferry; and that is where Shakespeare set Hamlet. We walked the pedestrian shopping street, picked up groceries, and got on the ferry.

It’s only about a twenty-minute ferry ride, barely enough time to snap a few pictures, or, in the case of many of our fellow passengers, snag a case of duty-free Tuborg.

There were only two other cyclists onboard. We followed them out of the port, then figured out how to get to our Airbnb. It turned out to be a pleasant 9 km ride into the countryside. Our host was Ola, whose wife just happened to be from Toronto. The apartment was a small building in their spacious backyard. Ola has a renovation company, and they built their house themselves. It was a very nice introduction to Sweden.

Distance: 60 km, plus ferry

$93

Baltic Break

Day 31: May 19th, Rostock, Germany to Gedser, Denmark

Herr Singer had good wifi, and he made us a fantastic cup of coffee in the morning. We found a relatively cheap room in Gedser, Denmark, so we booked our ferry tickets for the afternoon and set out.

We had time to stop at stores and lay in supplies in anticipation of expensive Scandinavian days ahead. We also could not resist hitting a brewpub patio for a very hobbity break before the ride to the port.

Rostock’s ferry port is several kilometres away from the city centre, but it’s a fairly nice ride. The five other cycle tourists there ahead of us were all at picnic tables around a snackbar. We sat and chatted with a young German couple from Nuremberg on a week-long ride.

Standing at the railing of the ferry leaving Rostock, Germany

The ferry itself was very new and impressive. Lots of comfortable seating with plugs and even USB ports. Duty-free shops, and (my favourite part) self-cleaning toilet seats. About two hours later we rode off into Denmark.

And about 400m later we were at our room. It was a simple setup, but we had a private washroom, and even a small kitchen. Sadly, we were never able to get on their wifi. Gedser, the southernmost place in Denmark, is very small; we walked around, washed some clothes, had a hot meal, and even watched one of the DVDs the hosts thoughtfully left for us to enjoy.

A small apartment interior

Distance: 15 km (plus the ferry crossing)

$159

Hamburg

And so, after fifteen days of overeating we finally arrived in Germany.

There were a few port stops on the way: the Azores, Le Havre, Zeebrugge, and Rotterdam, but those had nothing to do with the tour, really, so I’m leaving them out of this blog.

Disembarking was very simple compared to boarding. We loaded up, only had to wait a minute for an empty elevator to show up, and walked the bikes right off the ship. There was no wait for a customs agent, and he asked us precisely zero questions before stamping our passports.

We also confirmed that this was our first of the allowed ninety days in the Schengen Zone. This is a bonus, because technically they could’ve started counting when we visited Ponta Delgada (the Azores are part of Portugal). This gives us more time in Europe, if we want it, before we ferry to the UK.

We rode Hobbit-style (slow) and found our way to the St. Pauli-Elbtunnel: the amazing tunnel built in 1911 that connects the docks to Hamburg-proper.

It was a pleasant forty-five minute ride to our Air B&B in the Stellingen neighbourhood. Hamburg has good bike lanes, usually in the form of a red paving stone path next to the sidewalk. There are bike signals at a lot of the lights, and we found drivers to be very respectful and courteous.

It was cool, but mostly sunny. The rain, and hail, came later.

After checking in we got out and walked for hours. Hamburg is beautiful, with many amazing neighbourhoods. The city is wrapped around the Inner- and Outer-Alster lakes. Instead of central park they have water with tour and sailboats.

It was Easter Monday, so pretty much everything was closed, but that was fine because it’s not like we’re going to be doing a lot of shopping. We had lunch at a cafe, which also had buns, so we had something to take back for dinner.

If we had walked just a tiny bit faster we would’ve missed the hailstorm on our way back.

Distance: 13 km (port to Airbnb)

$56 / $123

Sailing

The car return was straightforward and, it being in a multi-level parking garage, there was plenty of room and shade for the tricky bike re-assembly. We got some bemused looks, but nobody questioned what were doing. In fact, I’d guess we weren’t the first people to pull bikes out of a rental car at the airport.

Deb with the bikes in the car rental return lot at the Ft. Lauderdale airport.

We had a fairly good idea about how we could ride to the port, and the weather was clear and hot. We did have to tramp across a patch of grass which turned out to be  bit of a swamp, so Deb started out with soggy shoes.

I actually quite enjoyed the ride. It was shorter than we’d anticipated, and we had no trouble getting through the security gate at the port.

Waddling about the boarding area on our bikes was a chore. We annoyed some other passengers, and several security people. “This is a first,” one gentleman told us. Some expressed doubt we would be allowed through. More than once we were told that our bikes would not be allowed out of our cabin. Finally we were waddling through the ship’s huge atrium. I stopped to get a bit of video of Deb, and a couple stopped to ask me many questions. Deb got ahead of me and (of course) ran into the one and only Princess crew member to give us a hard time. He shouted at her about how she was breaking the rules. He refused to believe that we had contacted Princess to get permission. He said she should not have been allowed to board. By the time I caught up to her, it was all over. It’s probably a good thing I missed the excitement, because I likely would have lost my temper. And, as it turns out, the rude officer was the Captain. 

The bikes are safely stored in our “closet area”, more or less out of the way. It’s now our fifth full “at sea” day. I’ve spotted one cargo ship, a couple of birds, and what might have been a whale. Otherwise, it’s lots of sky and water. We’ve had no trouble filling our days: taking full advantage of our drink package and packing on some extra belly weight that I’ll probably regret when we’re riding.

Tomorrow we finally reach our first port: Ponta Delgado, the Azores.

Distance: 7 km (car return to the ship)