When I was a child, I would tell my mother “Flowers are my favorite things.” Years later I still feel that way. This past spring I had the pleasure of visiting Holland, a country famous for its flowers during the height of the blooming seasons. As it turns out, flowers are only the tip of this iceberg when it comes to the charms of Holland. Traveling with my friend and coworker, Linda Wilson, we began our adventure with a nonstop flight from Houston to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Optional excursions were made available right away but we opted to get a quick overview of Amsterdam on our own. We took advantage of the easy and fast direct train service from the airport into Central Station in downtown Amsterdam. The station was conveniently located close to our river cruise ship.
In the afternoon, we were ensconced aboard the Poetry II, one of the new “suite ships” from Avalon Waterways. Our French-balconied “Panorama Suite” was typical of the luxurious accommodations aboard ship. At 200 square feet, the cabin is significantly larger than comparable cabins and offers an amazing full-width wall of glass with a sliding door that creates a 7-foot opening to the world outside.
Shipboard service surpasses even the premium level of accommodation. Dining is also a treat with carefully thought out meals at all of the offered meal times. One feature we particularly enjoyed was the offerings of local specialties during our cruise.
The first morning off the ship was in Volendam, a city right out of a fairy tale. This charming seaside town was full of interesting shops, tempting bakeries and friendly people. But what would a small Holland town be without a cheese shop? We visited one that offered a small museum of the cheese making practices of the past. One of included excursions took us to a fully functioning tulip farm. Here they plant, cultivate and ship these delicate-looking flowers all over Holland. We were allowed to purchase a blooming bundle of 20 tulips for only 5 euros. We kept these in our stateroom for the duration of our trip. Linda donated her bundle for the ship’s concierge desk to enjoy.
There were many memorable included excursions. Two of the most surprising were the Batavia shipyard and the World War II museum in Arnhem. At the Batavia Shipyard, we enjoyed a video of the history of shipbuilding and its importance to the country’s economic stability. We had an amazing tour of the “bones” of a half built ship then onto the finished replica of the sailing ship Batavia, the original of which was built in 1628 for passage to and from the East Indies. Like the Titanic that followed nearly four centuries later, the Batavia sank on her maiden voyage in 1629. Taking craftsmen and laborers ten years, the Batavia has been carefully and fully replicated.
We relished every moment on that ship, starting with the great deck and continuing below decks where the cannons are, we enjoyed a full tour of this huge vessel. Investigating the captain’s quarters, the navigation system and even the makeshift kitchen, visitors experienced a rare glimpse on to the lives of 17th century Dutch seafarers. Another favorite took us back in time to the Airborne Museum Hartenstein in Arnhem, featuring a comprehensive selection of World War II artifacts and an incredible journey through recreated war scenes.
As an example, visitors walk through a bombed city and look into the ruined buildings at soldiers talking on radios and taking care of the wounded. The tables are eerily lifelike with the sounds of bombing and fighting in the background. The museum was created in memory of the airborne battle that happened here in September 1944 – known historically as the Battle of Arnhem. The movie “A Bridge too Far” was based on the battle of Arnhem. All along this amazing journey of small Dutch towns with their rich history and charm, we have been passing fields full of the colors of spring. Some of the fields were still in the process of blooming while others were full of flowers.
Towards the end of our vacation, we were treated to a half day at Keukenhof Gardens. Linda called this, appropriately, the “Disneyland of Flowers”. Keukenhof is a park of 70-plus acres of blooming flowers of all kinds – more than just Holland’s ubiquitous tulips. There are also lakes, sculptures, greenhouses and a windmill to explore. There is even a petting zoo full of roosters, pigs, cows, rabbits and a wild turkey. This was a thoroughly wonderful afternoon that was clearly enjoyed by all types of guests.
Our last day was in Amsterdam, streets lined with the tall row houses for which the city is justly famous. Canals and bridges are everywhere, having formed the city’s transportation backbone during its early development. On a sunny Saturday, we did take advantage of an optional excursion to the Anne Frank House. The perfect weather outside was a deep contrast to the solemn, but hopeful, feeling inside. The house tour focuses on the well-known story of the young girl who, for two years lived with her family and others in the back of one of those famous canal side houses. There are still some of the celebrity pictures on the wall of Anne’s room. One can only wonder what it must have been like for Anne and her family to be virtual prisoners in these small spaces, constantly anticipating discovery and fearing for their lives. This is a place that must be visited to be fully appreciated.
The Avalon experience was one of understated elegance and genuine service-oriented comfort. After our excursions and outings, we came back to the ship, welcomed with open arms and light refreshments. The Tulip Time cruise offered a delightful insight into Dutch life and history while enchanting guests with the beautiful explosions of colorful flowers. Avalon Waterways and Holland will be definitely be on our “do it again” list.