Outside the window of my stateroom on the Amadeus Elegant, a 360-foot river cruiser with a pointed bow, the view mirrors my image of the Netherlands: resplendent with green pastures, swans and geese, sheep, cottages with steep-pitched roofs bursting with flowers, sturdy horses, bicycles, canals and dikes, windmills, and villages outlined by church steeples or even a fortress or a castle.
In April, I traveled with a group from Evansville on a nine-day Tulip River Cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium, offered by Lifestyle Tours and Collette Vacations. We flew to Amsterdam, where we boarded the ship, built in 2010. Collette Vacations contracted with Lüftner Cruises, an Austria-based operator of river cruises on European waterways.
River cruising, especially in Europe, has become the fastest-growing segment of the cruise industry. Many storied civilizations developed along the waterways of Europe, and cruise travelers now relish the opportunity to sail through the historical heart of these destinations on luxury riverboats.
Our ship, docked in a prominent position at Amsterdam’s port, was as impressive as any of the dozens of river cruisers there for the same reason: tulips. It makes April the most popular month to cruise the rivers of Holland and Belgium.
Tracy Wilson, director of group air tours for Lifestyle Tours, organized the cruise for the Evansville passengers. “The demand for the Springtime Tulip River Cruise is like nothing I’ve encountered before,” Wilson says. “It’s not like taking a tour to say, Italy or California, where anyone can, and does, go whenever they want. If you want to experience The Netherlands and Belgium in full bloom, it has to be the springtime. The only limitation to the Springtime Tulip River Cruise — it sells out fast.”
Our small group from Evansville was joined by larger groups from Dallas, Pennsylvania, and Georgia — about 135 passengers in all. Collette Vacations tour managers Jane and Kate were on board and were friendly and efficient. The Elegant was staffed by about 40 Lüftner crew members. Günter, our Austrian cruise director, was excellent.
River cruising is gentle and easy. At port, passengers step off the boat and into the heart of a city or village. The local tour guides and bus drivers were all very good. (Buses, for example, must be taken to Keukenhof, Bruges, and Brussels, in Belgium.) Quietvox receivers (worn around your neck with a small earphone) are issued to all passengers so tour guides can easily be heard. At most ports, we had plenty of time to explore on our own, as well as with the guide.
Food onboard was very good. Unlike the food frenzy atmosphere of cruise ships, meals onboard were appropriately sized and delicious, offering choices for each course at lunch and dinner; breakfast was an ample buffet. An impressive cheese tray was displayed each night as dinner’s final course. Regional wine, also good, was served with dinner. Bitberger beer was on tap.
Our itinerary (see sidebar page 38) carried us 500 miles over rivers, canals, and inland waterways. Every day was a treat. The weather was cool. The scenery was ever changing and nearly always idyllic. (I did awaken one morning to the view of the concrete wall of a lock.)
Amsterdam and Tulips
A cool spring in Europe threatened to delay the annual tulip show, causing a bit of initial concern. We soon realized there would be plenty of authentic culture and flowers on our itinerary, which began in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a seaport, capital, and the biggest city of the Netherlands. The 100 canals, Grachten, of Amsterdam — more than Venice — divide Amsterdam into approximately 90 islands that are connected through more than 1,000 bridges. This year marks the 400-year anniversary of Amsterdam’s famous canal district. The cultural organization Unesco added Amsterdam’s inner ring canals to its World Heritage List in 2010. A canal boat tour, a popular way to see the city, was included in our tour.
We had a sunny afternoon to explore Amsterdam. Crowds and available time precluded us from touring the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum that had just reopened after a $500 million, 10-year renovation. I have visited Amsterdam before, in 2007 with my husband, and had a grand time. Perhaps because of that, I was not compelled to cram too much into our limited time there, which began and concluded the trip. Of course, we enjoyed the floating flower market, the Blumenmarkt, and strolled the Dam Square.
If there’s a cure for jet lag, or for your first night in Amsterdam, it is strolling the grounds of the world’s largest flower garden: Keukenhof, or Kitchen Garden. I spent the first morning of the cruise walking about the impeccable Keukenhof, located about 45 minutes from Amsterdam in Lisse. More than 7 million bulbs are planted annually in the park, which also features the most current and creative garden and landscape designs.
In Keukenhof’s four pavilions, more than 30 flower shows are produced annually. In the Oranje Nassau Pavilion, the show changes weekly; I saw roses and a display featuring the flowers of Elton John. The Willem Alexander Pavilion displayed more than 100,000 tulips in the most exotic varieties. The Beatrix Pavilion presented an astonishing orchid show.
At Kinderdijk, Netherlands, another UNESCO World Heritage site, we saw 19 working windmills dating to the mid-18th century — the largest collection of windmills in the country. They are occupied and cared for by individuals or families who apply to live in the windmills — there’s an 19-year wait. Applicants must be certified millers. Our guide, a pretty young woman with a degree in horticulture, shared the tale of Kinderdijk’s name. In the St. Elizabeth’s Flood of 1421, a baby was saved, found floating in the flood waters, in a wooden cradle that was balanced by a cat jumping back and forth to keep the water out. Kinderdijk means child’s dike.
Ghent and Bruges, Belgium
I was very excited to visit Belgium. The ship docked in Ghent, Belgium’s second-largest city. Highlights included visiting the St. Bavo Cathedral with the Ghent Altarpiece, a very large, early 15th-century Flemish 12-panel painting.
At the market square, we tried Ghent’s best-known treat, “the nose of Ghent” — dark red triangle candies with a sugary outside and raspberry syrup inside.
With canals, pointy Gothic architecture, significant art, and a storybook town square lined with inviting cafes, Bruges is today a sightseeing destination. After a walking tour of the city, chartered in 1128, we explored the Grote Market with its impressive belfry tower, dating to 1240.
Throughout Belgium, at port and on board, we had the opportunity to enjoy Belgian beer, each brand served in its own glass. In Brussels, I left with a large quantity of Neuhaus chocolates.
At the conclusion of the cruise, upon disembarkation I carried my luggage to Amsterdam Centraal Station where I boarded a Thalys train to Paris. Realizing the ease of European travel, I’d made arrangements to meet a relative in Paris, expanding the trip to be more of a mini tour of Western Europe.
Five months after the Tulip River Cruise, I think of my experiences a lot. Besides recalling the sheer beauty I encountered, I found I really enjoyed the Western European history refresher course. I think I’m a better student now of daily world news. Would I book this same trip again? I absolutely hope to.
When You Cruise: Collette Vacations, seven-night Springtime Tulip River Cruise, April 25 to May 3, 2014. For more information, call 812-682-4477 or visit lifestyletoursonline.com.
• Tips on Tulips — How to make traveling easier and more enjoyable.
• Bonus Photos — Images that didn’t make it into the main feature.