A bicycle pointing the way to Edam’s famous cheese // © 2016 Valerie Chen
Feature image (above): Sheep roaming Holland’s countryside // © 2016 Toms Travel Tours
While traveling with Toms Travel Tours, a local operator based in Amsterdam, the thought “this woman cannot be stumped” crossed my mind more than once.
There were four of us seated in a sedan winding its way through stretches of quaint villages, and the woman in question was Karen, our tour guide and driver for the day. In addition to me, the passengers included my friend Linda and another Toms Travel Tours guide named Simon. Save for fleeting pauses when something outside the car window captured our attention, there was rarely a moment of silence. If Karen wasn’t providing an impressively detailed history lesson on what landmark we passed last or were to spot soon, I — ever the curious traveler — was chiming in with question after question.
It’s one thing for a guide to have a script exhaustively memorized and recited for tour-goers. It’s another for a guide such as Karen to confidently tackle an informal pop quiz with enthusiasm. The latter, however, is the standard for Toms Travel Tours. As a company that specializes in private, customizable tours, its formula for success hinges on having outstanding guides.
Tom van der Leij, who co-founded Toms Travel Tours with his wife, Ana van der Leij, in June 2013, stresses that a “quality over quantity” approach to growth is what sets the company’s tours apart from others in Amsterdam and nearby areas.
“We work with a very small and solid team of reliable guides,” Tom said. “We select our guides very carefully and choose professional, well-traveled and fun guides with a great vibe.”
And Karen fits the bill, especially the well-traveled aspect: Not only was she born in Curacao, but she also has lived everywhere from Africa and the Middle East to France and is currently based in the Netherlands (where her family originates). Not to mention, she can speak German, French, Spanish, some Greek, Dutch and English. Meanwhile, Simon — who would be leading the same tour the following week for a large group of Chinese travelers — has a comparable itinerant background and is fluent in Mandarin, Dutch and English.
While team members are paramount to what makes Toms Travel Tours tick, the actual itineraries are superb, too. Tom is a voracious traveler and a travel editor by trade, and Ana holds a doctorate in history and works as a professor in European Modern studies. With their combined knowledge and experience, the two pore over itineraries to guarantee every detail is up to par.
On our particular tour, the roughly five-hour-long Holland Countryside Excursion — which is one of Toms Travel Tours’ most popular offerings — early March weather wasn’t quite on our side. The afternoon began with heavy rain and continued with erratic bouts of wind and snow. Yet, the show still went on — and it was a fantastic one at that.
Clutching umbrellas provided by the tour, we wandered on foot through bucolic Dutch fishing towns that are part of the aptly named Waterland municipality. Our first stop was Volendam, a small fishing village by Ijsselmeer lake only about a 30-minute drive from Amsterdam. Authentic Dutch homes line Volendam’s cobblestone streets, and its picturesque harbor is replete with old fishing boats. Situated on a peninsula accessible only via a dike (an embankment built to prevent flooding), Marken is also a tiny fishing village, one full of idyllic green-and-white houses reinforced on stilts and mounds. Quite frankly, the entire scene looks straight out of a sweetly familiar storybook.
Back in the car, we continued on to Edam, which — as we learned from Karen — earned its city rights in 1357 from the then-count of Holland. Once prosperous due to a thriving shipbuilding and trade industry, the village later became better known for its cheese, which, of course, we tasted. We visited Echte Edammer Kaas, a cheese shop and warehouse, where we giddily enjoyed samples of the town’s namesake Edam cheese, along with various Gouda cheeses that even included flavors such as pesto and wasabi. Then, we strolled through the quiet village at leisure, stopping whenever Linda and I indicated interest or whenever Karen had a tidbit of information to share or a friend to introduce.
Our last stop before heading back to Amsterdam proved to be the most special of them all. Because the Schermerhorn village’s Mill Museum was closed until April, Karen took us inside an actual working “moen,” or windmill, that also serves as the home of a miller, Peter, and his wife — a true testament to Toms Travel Tours’ promise of flexibility and insider access. After touring their charming home, our newly expanded group of six gathered on couches like old friends, recounting the day and exchanging stories between more bites of Edam cheese.