Hand-cranked 'voetveren' is a fabulous finale to a day of criss-crossing waterways, writes Diane Daniel

"Wil je een dropje?" asked the cheerful captain's assistant as we crossed the Princess Margaret Canal, an inland Dutch waterway that carries recreational boats and freight barges.

Yes, please, I answered, despite thinking 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 the energy boost.

The "Dropje Ferry", which is famous for sharing candies as well as for being solar-powered, was the first ride of our five-ferry, 72km bike route. The following day, we mapped out a 32km ride incorporating three more ferries (and a few windmills).

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The multiple water crossings were not accidental. Since moving to the Netherlands two years ago with my Dutch wife, Selina, I'd become smitten with "voetveren" (foot ferries) — small boats for foot passengers and cyclists.

The small ferries are run by municipalities, private operators, or volunteers, with costs ranging from free to $2 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 2000 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 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" (The 8 of Grou).

Wherever Grou was, I was going.

Grou turned out to be a historic town of about 5700 in the province of Friesland, a region known for having almost as much water as land.

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 six ferries, but has grown to 10, with a couple more expected to join.

Most of the ferries are seasonal and run by volunteers. 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 32km to 64km, all laid out in a booklet available at the Grou tourist information office. (We mixed and matched to custom-design our own routes.) The text is in Dutch but the directions follow the country's "knooppunten" system of numbered routes at intersection points and are easy to follow.

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, an area of wetlands, forest meadows and peat bogs, crossed with waterways and bicycle paths.

Before heading into the park, we detoured to one more solar ferry a few kilometres north along a narrow trail flanked by tall marsh grasses. We spied the boat on the other side of the channel and summoned it over by ringing an ear-splitting bell hanging from a pole along the path.

The captain, Eelke de Jong, zipped over and took us to his village of Suwald. In 1997, he and other volunteers started carrying passengers on what they claim is the world's first completely solar-powered ferry. The group has 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.

He transports up to 12 people and bikes at a time and said that on warm, sunny days (ours was neither), people can have to wait for a boat.

After De Jong took us back across the channel, we headed south towards the national park, making a quick stop in Earnewald at the Skutsje Museum for a primer on the history and craftsmanship of the skutsje (pronounced SKOOT-shuh), a traditional Frisian flat-bottom sailing vessel. The boats were first used in the 1800s to transport peat and manure to farms. These days, they're celebrated at the Skutsjesilen, a well-attended summer racing series.

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 herd of ponies, flowering meadows and peat bogs, feeling thankful we didn't meet many other cyclists on the narrow, crushed-shell path.

Our next ferry took us over a wide body of water, apparently popular among sailing schools as we passed clusters of identical small sailboats helmed by youngsters practising techniques.

The park led us to another nature area, this one along "petgatten", a group of canals 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 Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, the founder of Dutch socialism.

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, the crank was easy.

From there, we followed a path flanked by a canal and the intoxicatingly beautiful nature reserve De Deelen. 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, fit and well-ferried, we toasted with our own brews from a cafe patio.

Just as we walked to the harbour to watch the sunset, yet another "8 van Grou" ferry motored by, taking passengers to the other side of the lake and offering us a new idea for the next day's ride.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Amsterdam via their hub in Dubai.

Further information: Le Boat's 2018 brochure features waterways across the Netherlands and Europe.