The next morning we docked at Tiel and had a choice of sightseeing: Arnhem and the Hartenstein Airborne Museum or the world famous Kroller-Muller museum to view the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh paintings outside Amsterdam. Most of us opted for Arnhem. We drove over the famous reconstructed bridge to Oosterbeek and Villa Hartenstein, the British headquarters during the doomed battle for the Arnhem Bridge which is, apparently, very accurately depicted in the Hollywood film, A Bridge Too Far. The museum was excellent, with one floor devoted to a realistic reconstruction of house to house fighting that was both terrifying and fascinating and offered a real insight of the horrors of war for those of us lucky enough never to have experienced it. We also visited the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. Surrounded by woods, viewed through mist and rain it was deeply moving. After a communal minute’s silence we walked around, lost in our own thoughts and later learned through the guide many heartbreaking stories about the effects of the battle on the local people as well as the Allies. A really interesting morning and another must-see.
After lunch we sailed a short distance to Willemstad, a small picturesque historical town with well-preserved fortifications and a lovely octagonal church. We were treated to an organ recital and then strolled around the quaint town complete with small harbour and windmill. Back to the ship for another memorable supper and a great night’s entertainment from a local group The Swingers. With a nod to ‘50s style the trio played all the old dance favourites that had everyone tapping and clapping and yours truly on the dance floor.
During one of The Swingers music breaks, the ship’s Godmother, Katharine Grainger, arrived on the ship and after a short introduction gave a Q&A session. Often such events can be a tad embarrassing with a few key people primed to ask questions to generate some interest. Not so on this occasion. A natural and engaging speaker Katharine easily held our interest, was tireless and gracious with her time, chatted to everyone as well as signed copies of her autobiography ‘Dreams Do Come True’, which I highly recommend.
Overnight we sailed to Dordecht and next morning had the choice of two excursions: the world-famous Keukenhof tulip gardens or the Kinderdijk Dutch windmill heritage site. Like the vast majority I opted for the Keukenhof Gardens, about an hour’s drive from the ship. Open for only 7 or 8 weeks each year, the gardens offer one of the world’s most stunning horticultural displays: 7 million spring-time flowers within a wooded landscaped park with up to 700 varieties of tulips. The gardeners amongst you probably know the tulip isn’t Dutch at all, but was brought over from Turkey around 1630. However, the sandy soil in the area around the Keukenhof is perfect for tulip cultivation and the rest, as they say, is history. The Gardens had only been open for a week at the time of our visit so not all the flowers were in bloom, however, it was still very impressive and definitely worth visiting.
Back on the ship, I requested a guided tour of all the facilities for a good nosey round. Accompanied by the Cruise Director, Erik, he delighted in pointing out its many technical wonders and sleek design, including some subtle but nevertheless important ones: “slightly higher chairs and tables, perfect for those guests who can no longer touch their toes” he said giving me a knowing look. Coffee tables that can be raised to dining table height to allow guests in-room dining, should they prefer, another thoughtful design feature. Even more impressive was the sky deck and wheelhouse which can be temporarily lowered to go under bridges to give as little as 1” clearance (apparently the bridges on the Danube are quite low so the sky deck is occasionally out of action on cruises on this stretch of water). As well as offering a tremendous space for sunbathing and watching the world go by the sky deck also has a hot-tub, loungers, tables and chairs and a bistro area for lunchtime barbecue grills.
Certainly, for someone like me who suffers from seasickness one of the joys of this cruise was its stability and the gentle, relaxing, motion of the ship – I didn’t feel queasy at all. Also, on an ocean cruise ship with no horizon not only is there often nothing to look at it, it is impossible to tell how quickly the ship is moving; on a river cruise with scenery to view on both banks the ship seemed to move at quite a pace. For any mariners reading this, the ship has a maximum speed of 28km downstream and 17km upstream but tends to go at a slower pace to avoid vibrations. Certainly I rarely felt any vibrations and in the superbly comfortable beds (complete with memory foam mattress topper – I ordered one as soon as I returned home) I slept very well. Soundproofed cabins, Avalon’s state of the art design, quiet engines and generators no doubt helped, though the wine probably played its part too!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Avalon Waterways