A cruise along the Rhine during the spring showcases some of Europe’s prettiest sights, says Cruise International Contributing Editor Julie Peasgood

I am standing in a sea of tulips. More than seven million of them, there are tulips everywhere I turn. They are in a multitude of shades, sizes and shapes – and the more
exotic varieties show off with frilly edges and two-tone stripes that leave me stunned.

A breathtaking patchwork carpet of these iconic flowers stretches over 79 acres of the Keukenhof Gardens, the largest and most beautiful spring garden in Europe and the first destination on my Emerald Star river cruise.

In fact there are gardens within gardens here, along with pavilions featuring spectacular hybrids and examples of the latest trends in gardening. There are swathes of daffodils and hyacinths too, their heady scent adding fragrance to the visual displays. But I am particularly captivated by the tulips that are planted in antique iron bedsteads, and inspired by the Delft Garden, where tulips pop up from equally quirky containers all decorated with broken Delft teacups and plates (I can’t wait to get home and put all my cracked china to similarly good use!).

Dazzling city gems

The Keukenhof Gardens are in the small town of Lisse in south Holland, and they are open annually from mid-March to mid-May, meaning the April sailings for this Netherlands and the Beauty of Belgium itinerary are perfectly timed for witnessing the world’s largest floral display. Plus we are only half an hour from Amsterdam where my cruise begins and ends, so it’s also possible to cherry-pick one of the capital’s many ‘must-see’ museums, or to soak up some of the laid-back atmosphere and diverse shops that line its myriad of picturesque canals.

Keukenhof is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the cruise, but our other ports of call have delights in store, too. Architecturally rich Antwerp is the next destination on our eight-day trip, and our enthusiastic guide illustrates an encyclopedic knowledge of this cosmopolitan city.

Emerald Waterways offers an inclusive excursion in every port – tomorrow features a full day tour to the beautifully preserved Belgian city of Bruges, but today we are treated to a morning’s walking tour of Antwerp’s city centre and its medieval cobbled lanes. We admire the impressive statue of renowned Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens – whose Baroque paintings grace the Cathedral of Our Lady with its lace-like Gothic spire towering over 400 feet above Groenplaats Square. And I am intrigued by the Butchers’ Hall (now one of Antwerp’s 40-odd museums) built in ‘bacon-style’ in the early 1500s in red and white brick, reminiscent of bacon meat and fat.

But it is in the Vlaeykensgang, the oldest street in Antwerp where I want to linger most. This secret alleyway, originally built in 1591, is a magical place. Shielded from traffic noise, it is a tiny, time-locked gem from the Middle Ages. It now houses an excellent restaurant, and is a perfect location to listen to the Cathedral carillon – the bells are the only sound to disturb its tranquility. It’s also close to a cluster of Belgian chocolate shops, stylish bars serving top-notch Belgian beer, and only a short walk to the famed Diamond Quarter where it’s possible to witness gems being cut and polished.

Celebrating good times

Back on board (minus diamonds but carrying some lethally good chocolate truffles) and time to get ready for dinner. I so wish it was my birthday – tonight there are no less than five birthdays on board Emerald Star and the restaurant staff sing the best greeting ever. The witty delivery and close harmonies that spring forth from these waiters are second to none.

One of the best things about my cruise is how united and loyal the entire crew seem to be. A complete mix of nationalities, they are headed up by hotel manager Albert, restaurant manager Zikret, and the vibrant cruise director Sheryl. Everyone works as a cheerful, caring, tight-knit team, and it makes a successful recipe for happy cruising – a feeling shared by many of the passengers I chat to as we sail.

Similar in style to a chic, boutique hotel, Emerald Star is elegant and contemporary in its
design. The cabins are well-appointed and beds are large and comfortable. A big plus for me is that the dining room has plenty of tables for two (which is quite unusual on river cruises), so if you’re with a partner and prefer dining à deux there’s plenty of scope.

Cocktails can be enjoyed in the airy main lounge, and I love watching the world go by from the open-air terrace. A revelation is the small swimming pool at the back of the ship – always peaceful and private, it soon becomes my favourite haunt on board.

Onshore adventures

I discover a new favourite on dry land too – the magical town of Veere in Zeeland, next stop on our route. Chocolate-box pretty, this tranquil Dutch town is full of magnificently restored houses with the neatest of gardens, and a marina that looks as if it’s been manicured. Further explorations reveal several quirky antique shops, upmarket arts and crafts shops with a welcome absence of tourist tat and charming cafés arranged round Markt, the elongated main square.

There’s also an alluring little sweetshop, where assistants dressed in local costumes serve a baffling range of Dutch confectionery. Fans of liquorice, or drop, can have a field day with more than 50 varieties on offer, ranging from bullet-hard and salty to sweet and squidgy. The local specialities, Zeeuwse babbelaars (a caramel pastille made with salted butter) and kaneel, (chewy cinnamon bonbons) make great presents for taking home too.

I am sad to leave Veere, but The Delta Works which we visit in the afternoon prove fascinating. Created after a disastrous flood in Zeeland in 1953, and declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, they are a series of high-tech construction projects which now protect the province from the open sea by a series of dykes, sea walls and locks. We are given an exciting tour of the Storm Surge Barrier, then it’s back on board to review all our selfies as we set sail once more.

Immersed in culture

After an easy morning admiring windmills along the Dutch waterways, we arrive in Arnhem, in the eastern part of the Netherlands. Best known for its Second World War battle and the Bridge Too Far, our guided tour today begins in the Airborne Museum Hartenstein, where a well-planned exhibition is dedicated to the Battle of Arnhem. The nearby war cemetery in Oosterbeek contains 1,748 Allied graves, impeccably neat and well maintained, and is a serene and moving tribute to the brave soldiers who gave their lives back in 1944.

We are fortunate to have two excursions visiting three towns on our last day. Volendam is a picturesque fishing village, and barely a mile away lies Edam, with its network of lovely canals and ancient warehouses lining cobbled lanes. Naturally, we all sample its famous cheese at source; learning that the domestic version is actually covered with yellow or black wax rather than red, and then enjoy deciding which to buy in the Cheese Scales building, a museum dedicated to the town’s main claim to fame.

And finally, 13th-century Hoorn, another popular town, is perched on the edge of the sea and houses many listed buildings and a fair number of unusual museums for its size. As well as our inclusive walking tour, it’s possible to take an ‘Emerald Active’ biking tour of Hoorn or to invest in an ‘Emerald Plus’ experience, which today consists of ‘clog painting’. (I’m looking forward to that one!)

Back in Amsterdam and nobody is looking forward to flying home, but cruise director Sheryl has come up with a last-minute surprise for everyone – a night canal tour. Illumininated by millions of twinkling lights, our tiny boats glide among the lovely gabled buildings of Amsterdam – an added off-the-menu treat which makes a perfect ending to our cruise.

I shall return – but next time, I shall make sure it’s my birthday.

GETTING THERE: An eight-day Netherlands and the Beauty of Belgium river cruise departing in April 2017 starts from £1,495pp. For more information, visit  emeraldwaterways.co.uk or telephone 0808 115 6269.

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