Deborah Stone discovers the enchanting waterways of Holland
I wake up and look out of the French windows to see the sun glancing off the sea. It’s going to be a wonderful day… Hang on a minute, when I went to bed I was on a river cruise, sailing through the Netherlands past tall townhouses, flat fields and distant windmills. But now there’s nothing but water outside and, although it’s very calm, it’s definitely sea. And I can see seagulls.
Racing up to the Sky Deck, I discover that on the other side of our luxury river ship there is land. We’re sailing through the IJsselmeer, which was once the in-land sea known as Zuiderzee but has been the largest freshwater lake in Western Europe since a major dam cut it off from the North Sea in the 1930s.
The breeze on the open deck still smells as fresh as the ocean though, and as we dock at Volendam there’s no mistaking the jaunty seaside feel of the pretty little yachting town, with a row of traditional Dutch-gabled buildings along the promenade and a few old fishing boats moored near a three-mast ship.
At 9am the 170 or so passengers on board Avalon Imagery have the place to ourselves and, like every other Dutch town we see on the trip, the narrow streets are spotless and the neat brick-built buildings are brightened by pots of pretty flowers.
We certainly can’t drive through its narrow streets, so the coach drops us near a path that follows a canal and we peek into the exquisitely neat gardens of the grand homes once owned by wealthy merchants during the Netherlands’ Golden Age, back in the 17th century.
This neighbourhood, Damplein, is so old that many of the historic houses are leaning over and an ancient brick-built bridge straddles the 16th century dam at the end of the canal.
The shops here sell organic groceries and desirable knick-knacks that are only possible to resist because of the prices. Like most of euro-land everything is more expensive here than in Britain and not for the first time I’m glad to be on a holiday that includes all my meals (with complimentary wine at dinner), daily sightseeing trips and – the clincher – regular access to proper tea.
We have some free time to explore the museum in the grand old town hall, or Stadhuis, built in 1737. There is also a tourist information centre here, but there’s no such thing as a free tourist map in the Netherlands where even the municipal museums have an entrance fee.
So I’m pleased to regroup with the others for our included guided tour of the small Edam cheese museum.
Edam cheese is made all over the country but it’s named after the town because it was sold in Edam’s Kaasmarkt after being weighed at the Kaaswaag, from the late 1700s.
We return to Volendam where the streets are now full of happy day-trippers busy buying souvenir clogs and enjoying the sunshine, and I’m ready for lunch back on the ship.
Although I try to stick to salads for lunch on Avalon Imagery it is hard to resist the carvery in the hot buffet section. However, I’m glad I still have an appetite when it comes to the evening meal: four courses including dishes such as Atlantic perch with chilli-scented tagliatelle, wok-fried chicken with honey-ginger-garlic sauce and crêpe with sautéed chanterelles.
An open-seating policy means I can sit with different people at every meal, and afternoon tea is served in the main lounge, where the armchairs and sofas are arranged in sociable groups. Also, there are often regional treats such a freshly-made suikerbrood – or sugar bread.
Free tea and coffee is always available, as is complimentary WiFi access, and when I just want to get away from everybody I can lounge on my hotel-standard bed and watch the world through the full-length windows of my pleasantly spacious cabin.
It’s such a friendly ship, though, that I’ve taken to sitting with a group of American friends for a glass of wine on the Sky Deck in the last of the sunshine before getting ready for dinner. We all bring snacks such as Dutch Gouda cheese with mustard seeds (my favourite), and pretzels or crisps to share.
My eight-day Tulip Time cruise dips into Belgium with excursions to the glorious medieval towns of Antwerp and Ghent, but the highlight is a day at the Keukenhof Gardens with its rivers of Tulips and swathes of Narcissi, Daffodils and Hyacinths.
The gardens close in late May, though, which signals the opportunity for river cruise operators to take advantage of the Netherlands’ watery superhighway, The Rhine, to explore Germany, Luxemburg, Switzerland and France.
Avalon Waterways’ 13-day Rhine & Moselle cruise leaving from Amsterdam, for instance, visits Volendam and Edam but then heads off down to Cologne, Germany’s UNESCO-listed cathedral town, and then to smaller medieval river towns in some of Europe’s best wine territory. This includes the half-timbered village of Bernkastel where the nearby vineyards produce Bernkasteler Doctor – which is considered the greatest Riesling wine ever made. The cruise takes you through the outstanding Rhine Gorge on the way to Strasbourg in France, known for its massive cathedral, before arriving at the Swiss city of Basel for the flight home from Zurich. These are all very Germanic towns, which makes the Netherlands’ section of the Rhine all the more fascinating.
From my window seat on the flight home I can see that the Netherlands is mostly under water – whether inland seas, lakes, rivers or canals – and it occurs to me that this is a country that was made for river cruising. Especially if you like a chunk of Gouda with mustard seeds to nibble with your pre-dinner wine.
Avalon Waterways offers a 13-day Rhine & Moselle cruise on board Avalon Affinity departing regularly until September 2013 from £2,909pp (departs 6 July). The Amsterdam to Zurich trip calls at Volendam and Kinderdijk in the Netherlands, Cologne, Koblenz, Cochem and Mainz in Germany, Strasbourg in France and Basel in Switzerland. Call 0800 668 1801 or visit avaloncruises.co.uk
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