Spectators and crew members stroll past boats waiting to begin last year's Ronde om Texel race.

Spectators and crew members stroll past boats waiting to begin last year's Ronde om Texel race. (Gayle Smith Padgett / Special to Stars and Stripes)

One of the two-man teams steers its catamaran through the surf during the Ronde om Texel race in 2003.

One of the two-man teams steers its catamaran through the surf during the Ronde om Texel race in 2003. (Gayle Smith Padgett / Special to Stars and Stripes)

A local resident selects some cheese at the Monday market in Den Burg.

A local resident selects some cheese at the Monday market in Den Burg. (Gayle Smith Padgett / Special to Stars and Stripes)

The pink lighthouse is at the northern tip of the island, near Den Hoog. The cyclists went there to watch the catamaran race.

The pink lighthouse is at the northern tip of the island, near Den Hoog. The cyclists went there to watch the catamaran race. (Gayle Smith Padgett / Special to Stars and Stripes)

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice boomed through the loudspeaker, “take to the water!”

With that, hundreds of wet-suited sailors heaved against their catamarans and forced them down the sandy banks. Bystanders, toddlers and hounds hustled to dodge the stampede.

At the water’s edge the cat crews wrestled their boats from a set of wheels, slid them into a feisty surf and hopped aboard. The world’s biggest catamaran race had begun.

Ronde om Texel — or Round Texel — is an annual event off the Dutch island of Texel, a 20-minute ferry ride from Den Helder, north of Amsterdam. This year’s race, the 27th, is June 5.

Last year, my husband and I witnessed the race. In the morning, we drove to the starting point on the western side of the island and walked through a nature park to the crest of a large dune near the shore. When we reached the top, we gasped.

Hundreds of vibrantly colored cats were positioned at the shoreline as far as the eye could see in either direction. A throng of parents pushing strollers, excited children, pets and photographers mingled among the sailors, who were not just young hunks but also mature types — both men and women — all fit and astonishingly robust.

Once the race began, the crowds jostled around trying to spot their favorite team. Helicopters hovered overhead, the Dutch coast guard observed from nearby, dogs yelped and babies squealed. Even if you’re not a sailor type, you couldn’t help getting caught up in the excitement.

Last year, about 600 catamarans participated, including sailors from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. This year, a team from Israel is expected.

Typically 15,000 spectators watch the cats sail the 100 kilometers around the island, according to Edwin Lodder, coordinator of the event for the last three years. The winners usually take between 2½ and 3½ hours, depending on the weather and surf conditions. Prizes are awarded at a ceremony the evening of the event, followed by a festive celebration open to the public at no charge.

Beyond the race

Though Texel is the largest of the West Fresian Islands, it is downright dinky — only 25-by-8 miles. But there is plenty to do here: The island is home to seven charming villages, beautiful rural scenery and about 20 miles of pristine sandy beaches. It has inviting restaurants, attractive shops, museums, cheese and chocolate factories, nearly 75 miles of smooth, wide bike paths, a nature center and preserves.

It also has 16,000 sheep, an alpaca farm and terrific bird-watching. Each year hundreds of species fly by Texel and thousands of bird watchers flock to the island.

One of those birders is my husband, who steered us toward Texel to celebrate his birthday. The best time for birding is May, but there’s still great birding in June because Texel has so many different habitats that attract a wide variety of birds. Some of the most interesting species you can expect are sandwich terns, avocets, spoonbills, eider ducks, black-tailed godwits, Montagu’s harriers, common terns, oystercatchers, ruffs, and long- and short-eared owls.

After the catamaran race, my husband went searching for some of these flighty creatures and I hopped on my bike to tour the villages.

Oudeshild, is a delightful fishing port, with some inviting shops and fish restaurants. One shop, Skiler Kaai, stocks pretty much every type of nautical clothing you’d want, including attractive and durable fishermen sweaters made of cotton and recycled wool. Next door at Veronica’s fish stand, you can get a heap of incredibly fresh, decadent deep-fried fish “nuggets” for 3.50 euros. You can wolf them down right there at the wharf picnic tables amid the hubbub of the tourist and fishing boats.

Another village, Den Hoorn, is known primarily for its picturesque church and a restaurant that purportedly serves every conceivable type of Scotch. De Koog, on the western coast, protected from the sea by a large dune, is very touristy. The walking zone is jammed with sun worshipers and cafés are filled to the brim.

De Cocksdorp, in the north, is famous for its lighthouse. In all the postcards, it’s red but somewhere along the way it morphed to pink. Red or pink, it’s still a majestic sight.

During nice weather, booking a room on Texel can be challenging. However, with help from the tourist office Web site and the accommodating English-speaking agents, we found a delightful bed and breakfast in Den Burg. Our little home-away-from-home was spic and span. The proprietress was a charmingly enthusiastic lady who hugged and kissed me upon on arrival as if I were her long-lost daughter.

She escorted us to our room and then led us back downstairs where she rummaged in her armoire for a little glass jar filled with unmarked keys. She gave us one for the front door and one for the bedroom. She made us practice on both until she was satisfied that we were key-competent. She even gave us the key to her garage so we could store our bikes.

Our hostess didn’t speak English and her German sounded like Dutch, which made communication interesting if not always completely successful. Regardless of how things were going, periodically she’d fling her arms about like a schizophrenic windmill and then collapse forward like a rag doll, arch back up, slap her hands on both cheeks and grin, eyes wide open.

If our hostess was a bit eccentric, it only enhanced the experience and besides, the house was immaculate, the breakfast abundant — coffee, breads, jams, cheese and sliced meat — and the price was right at 40 euros per night for two (bathroom down the hall).

In terms of food, Texel’s offerings run the gamut from streetside eats to upscale dining. In the center of Den Burg is a great people-watching spot, Bruint Je Beer. There you can watch the world go by under huge shade trees while downing a beer (1.90 euros) or house wine (2.20 euros), delivered by young, belly-button-bare waitresses.

Julena, a restaurant recommended by a local antiques dealer, was packed and offered a very tempting menu but it was booked so we tried upscale Het Vierspan. The halibut with a Serrano ham crust with a white wine basil sauce, and cod with a beurre blanc sauce were outstanding. Both fish dishes arrived piled on a fan of unrecognizable but delicious dark green vegetables shaped like miniature asparagus, accompanied by a large cube of gloriously rich potato au gratin. After the meal, the cozy nook by a circular free-standing fireplace beckoned for an after-dinner drink.

For more casual dining Het Schoutenhuys is a good choice. The specialty is — surprisingly — spareribs. They’re usually served with corn on the cob and a salad. The young couple next to us was scarffing down a huge pile of the sticky ribs, which admittedly looked divine. We enjoyed the stuffed eggplant and gyros at Nikos de Griek, but the big hit was the hospitality. First the waitress surprised us with a complimentary ouzo while we pondered the menu and then before our wineglasses were empty, she topped them off as if they were water glasses. Now that’s service.

After the birding and biking, shopping and snapshot-taking, dining and discovering a top-notch sporting event, there's still more — EcoMare, a visitor center run by the State Forestry.

In addition to providing information on the area’s flora and fauna, nature reserves, dunes and walking paths, EcoMare also houses a museum, and a seal and bird rehabilitation center that sponsors a variety of education and nature support programs.

If you’re around at 11 a.m. or 3 p.m., you’ll witness one of the center's highlights — seal-feeding. If you take a liking to one of the slippery, whiskered creatures at EcoMare you can even adopt it.

— Gayle Smith Padgett lives and works in Heidelberg, Germany.

If you go to Texel, the Netherlands

Getting there: There are train and bus connections to Texel, but the easiest way is by car. It’s about an hour from Amsterdam to the port of Den Helder, then a 20-minute ferry ride to ’t Horntje on Texel. The two double-decker car ferries hold about 200 cars each and depending on the season, cost about 26.50 euros to 38 euros round trip, including up to nine passengers. The ferries usually run about twice an hour and reservations are not required. Check the ferry service Web site for details:

Texel Tourist Information at Emmalaan 66 in Den Burg, provides a wealth of travel brochures, books, maps and gifts. Visit the English language Web site, or call (+31) (0) 222-312847 for assistance (agents usually speak English).

Accommodations: Texel has a wide variety of hotels, holiday rentals, and B&Bs. We stayed at Ann Marie Kikkert-Joukman’s Bed and Breakfast, Bernhardlaan 1, 1791 XA, Den Burg; telephone (+31) (0)222-317694. For a complete listing, visit the tourist information Web site.

Shopping: Den Burg has an attractive pedestrian zone offering a wide variety of clothes, gift and antique shops. Be sure to roam the Monday market in the center of Den Burg, beginning around 9 a.m. You’ll find beautiful veggies and fruit and a huge assortment of cheeses. A wide assortment of household goods and clothing are also sold, including colorful straw purses and sheep products — the creamy sheep soap is wonderful (about 2 euros each).

’t Lant van Texsel & de Galanterie is an artful boutique offering housewares, gifts and watercolors. Waalderstraat 23, Den Burg; telephone (0) 222- 32203. Skiler Kaai sells a tasteful assortment of nautical and beach gear. Haven 12, Oudenschild; telephone 0-222- 312254.

Dining: Here are some places I sampled.

• Het Vierspan — Gravenstraat 3, Den Burg; telephone 022-313176; (moderate-expensive).• Het Schoutenhuys — Greneplasts 14, Den Burg; telephone (0) 222-321032; (moderate).• Nikos de Griek — Weverstraat 44, Den Burg; telephone (0) 222-322036 (inexpensive-moderate).• Bruint Je Beer — Stenplaats 2, Den Burg; telephone (0) 222-320164 (inexpensive).• Veronica’s (fish stand): Haven 13, Oudeschild; telephone (0) 222-315-328 (very inexpensive).• Activities: Ronde om Texel Catamaran Event: June 5, 2004, no entrance free. Web site has an English version.

Birding: Grab your binoculars and head to the shore.

EcoMare: Ruyslaan 92, De Koog; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; adults, 7 euros (about $8.50) and children 4-13 years, 3.50 euros. telephone (0) 222-317741, Web site

Biking: We brought our own, but there’s a bike rental shop in each village, costs are about 4 euros a day.

Useful guides: “A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe” by Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Mountfort, and P.A.D. Hollom; and “Day Trips: Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg” by Earl Steinbicker.

— Gayle Smith Padgett

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