Exploring the “Garden of Europe” on a Dutch River Cruise from Amsterdam | Travel

A 6am knocking on my front door would normally be ignored, but today I’m thrilled. I am being collected from my home in Norfolk by Titan Travel’s VIP transfer service for a week-long river cruise in the Netherlands. This is my first time on a cruise, but if being driven to the airport is any warning sign, it’s unlikely to be my last.

Arriving at Schiphol Airport, I am greeted by a Titan representative and quickly transported to the MS River Discovery II berth at Ruijterkade West in the heart of Amsterdam. Although not a new ship, this is the first season that Titan has chartered this ship. We are welcomed to our floating hotel with afternoon tea and then shown to our rooms, where our suitcases await us. As someone who pathologically overpacks, it’s literally a burden.

My cabin, the Vespucci Suite (the rooms are all named after explorers except for the Elvis Premium Suite), is spacious yet comfortable and includes thoughtful extras such as umbrellas and blankets. But the big selling point is wall-to-wall French doors. The main pleasure of this trip is enjoying the fresh air and waterscapes from the luxury of my room. It’s a dreamer’s dream.

The port of Hoorn

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The historic trading port of Hoorn is our first port. We leave during dinner, sipping cocktails in a dining room that’s more windows than walls, which frame the darkening sky in an epic slideshow. I retire to my room early to unpack, leaving the doors open to the windy elements. The ship sails through the night with a reassuring roar.

In the morning, I jump when the ship’s sound system crackles in my room. It’s Brenda, our affable cruise director, who gently reminds us of the day’s itinerary, even though it looks oddly like she’s in my bathroom. Eager to see the new morning view, I open my curtains before getting dressed, much to the amusement of the deckhand of the ship we are moored alongside. I’m close enough to see him smile. I suspect he’s used to semi-dressed passengers who don’t understand the nature of being rafted; this often happens on the busy rivers of Europe and you might find yourself crossing another ship to reach your houseboat.

We are here for the day and I join the Hoorn walking tour, despite the weather doing its best to convince me otherwise. A freezing storm quickly eviscerates our umbrellas and the rain descends from the sky in crates, as the Dutch say. But, British at heart, we dutifully follow our guide through the charming old town. Even in this weather we can appreciate the innovative Dutch architecture. The crooked houses lean conspiratorially, deliberately angled to shield their porous cement from the elements. A bright red unicorn adorns the fortified harbor building, built in a curve to ward off cannonballs.

Exploration is much more tempting when a hot bath and dry clothes are just steps away. After a buffet lunch on board, I defrost in my cabin with hot chocolate and the stroopwafel I had stored in Hoorn. The other passengers – all Brits over 50 and a lively mix of newbies and seasoned cruisers – are entertained by a one-man Serbian cabaret, Aleks, who plays in the lounge every day. The seemingly omnilingual opera singer is a salsa dance instructor and tour guide by day, a Rat Pack-style crooner by night. Suffice to say that the socks are completely charmed.

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Our itinerary takes us to a different port each day. We glide through colossal industrial locks and ghostly wind farms across the brooding Lake Markermeer to Enkhuizen, Lelystad and Zaandam. For most passengers, Keukenhof is the highlight. The gardens receive over 20,000 guests daily during the two months they are open, from late March to mid-May, displaying over 800 varieties of tulips in every hue imaginable. Flowers bloom throughout the gardens and the grounds are blanketed in an extravagant array of tulips, crocuses and hyacinths. Tourists happily pose in a river of bluebells and daffodils.

I opt for the murmuring boat tour that meanders between the endless fields of bulbs. Named for its quiet electric motor, the boat is actually less of a whisper, more of a low hum. We’re still early in the season so the flowers haven’t peaked yet – usually the last two weeks of April and the first two weeks of May is the time to go – but it’s still fascinating. A couple of geese honk a comment overflown. We pass a man and his dog on the bank “ziek zoeken” – looking sick – looking for sick bulbs to keep the rest healthy.

I was given a packed lunch from the ship’s galley – you really can get by without opening your wallet all week if you want. But I can’t resist the warm apple pie and whipped cream at the Keukenhof cafe for dessert, despite the feast that awaits me on board.

Evening menus are often elaborate multi-course concoctions of veal cheeks, veal liver parfait (with chocolate, no less), lobster cappuccino and the like. Sirloin steak, sea bass and salmon also make an appearance, as do vegetarian options. It’s a little too designed for my modest tastes, but overall passengers enjoy the pageantry and Chef Tuca’s team works hard to make meals memorable. I certainly brought home some extra ballast.

Rows of tulips at Keukenhof

Rows of tulips at Keukenhof

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On our last day, we were again blocked by the weather, but that’s the nature of the beast when cruising at the very beginning of the season. We are expected in Amsterdam for a canal tour, but the ship is stuck at anchor in Zaandam by howling winds. Brenda scrambles to get us onto coaches, but with Amsterdam only a few minutes away by train, some passengers make their own way. I spend the morning wandering among the city’s old barges.

The River Discovery II returns to Amsterdam at night, and Brenda’s now familiar voiceover gives instructions for disembarkation. The most common comment I hear as we leave is that “you just don’t have to worry about anything”, and it’s true. My biggest worry on the way back, after being picked up from Heathrow by my personal driver, is that I’m getting a bit too used to it.

Jenni Doggett was a guest on Titan. A five-night Tulips and Windmills cruise costs from £1,299 pp, full board, including flights, drinks with meals and excursions, departing April 3, 2023 (titantravel.co.uk)

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