Cruising through the waterways of southern Holland, my school geography lessons of polders and drainage channels, windmills and dairy farming sprung vividly to life. The Low Countries may be flat, but they certainly aren’t dull, as I was finding out on a 4-night cruise between the Belgian and Dutch diamond capitals of Antwerp and Amsterdam.
Many Silver Travellers have already discovered the delights of river cruising, a holiday that offers changing scenery on both sides of the ship at every hour of the day. But a holiday on inland waterways is a very different experience from ocean cruising. So if you’re wondering if this is the holiday for you, a short taster trip is the way to test the proverbial water.
On my spring voyage with Silver Travel Advisor partner, CroisiEurope, I met a number of people doing just that. Our ‘Holland and its Tulips’ itinerary included an optional excursion to the famous Keukenhof floral park, open only between mid-March and mid-May, as well as an overnight stay moored up in the heart of Rotterdam. The company offers other short itineraries through Belgium and Holland, as well as taster trips from Paris.
If you want to be independent and tack on a land-based city stay, you can book the cruise element through CroisiEurope’s UK office or online. My husband and I booked rail transport from London through www.voyages-sncf.com and stayed overnight in Antwerp at the Rubens Hotel. Next day we visited Rubens’ grand house and studio; the UNESCO-listed Plantin-Moretus house, home to Europe’s oldest commercial printers; and the excellent MAS port museum. Alternatively, book a complete package with transport from the UK. A number of tour operators work with CrosiEurope, such as Silver Travel Advisor partner, Great Rail Journeys.
The fun kicked off in Antwerp with dinner on board the Modigliani and an optional walking tour into the city centre to see the fabulous floodlit cathedral and gabled architecture. This was our third CroisiEurope experience and the food was well up to standard – hardly surprising from a French company, of course, but always amazing when you consider the size of the kitchen.
There’s no choice of menu, although special diets can be catered for if advised when booking, but the food was always beautifully cooked and presented with customary French flair by friendly European staff. House wines and spirits are included; prestige brands cost extra.
Diners are allocated a table for the journey at the first meal, so table companions are luck of the draw. Friends who book together, sit together, and independent couples are usually put with other couples. On this occasion however, we were the only independents, and had our own table, a companiable distance from a friendly group of British guests. The passengers were split fairly equally into British and French or Belgian guests, which makes for a good international atmosphere.
CroisiEurope cruises are informal so the dress is smart casual even for the gala dinner and crew show. Whilst longer cruises offer evenings of locally themed song and dance, passengers who didn’t take the optional post-prandial walk, mostly sat in the Modigliani’s lounge bar with optional dancing to the resident keyboard player.
As for the age profile, well, CroisiEurope guests are people like us, the Silver Travellers. River cruising is still firmly in the older age group, but CroisiEurope have introduced some more energetic discovery elements such as a bike tour of Amsterdam to cater for more active guests.
Whatever you chose to do in port, I’d recommend heading up to the sundeck periodically whilst cruising for a 360 degrees view, especially as you go through locks. The Dutch waterways are busy with huge barges as well as cruise boats and it was fascinating to see how the Modigliani fitted snugly into a lock beside a barge laden with containers. And if you’re a birdwatcher, bring your binoculars – ducks, geese and swans were ever present as we glided past fields split with drainage channels.
The Modigliani is one of CroisiEurope’s older ships that has yet to be refurbished. Our cabin was comfortable but compact so if you are of larger-than-average dimensions, you may find the single beds and shower room a tad challenging. But the beds were extraordinarily comfortable and we slept well throughout. Boats don’t navigate at night and there was little noise after dark.
Apart from three short evening walking tours which were free of charge, excursions have to be paid for. The hour-long cruise through Amsterdam canals at night was magical and perfectly complemented the guided visit next morning which took us by coach beyond the city centre as well as to a diamond factory and flower market. After lunch on board, we headed out into the country to visit a cheese and clog maker, followed by the fishing village of Volendam, and the Zaanse Schans open air museum with its heritage windmills and houses.
At the fabulous Keukenhof Garden, we were left to explore independently through its technicolour flowerbeds and spectacular plantings, not only tulips but hyacinths, daffodils, and – in the glass pavilions – orchids, roses and much, much more. Hay fever sufferers should build up their antihistamine intake before they come, but take it from me, it’s worth the scratchy eyes and sniffles to tour this unique floral park.
Every day brought some new delight as we slipped from Belgium into Holland between two of Europe’s busiest ports. And every evening, another delicious dinner with a front row view on the harbour. But don’t just take my word for it. Try river cruising for yourself.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends CroisiEurope.