Windmills and, Maybe, Tulips

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Spring came late to the Low Countries in 2013 with snow still falling in at the end of March. So what happened on the famed springtime "Windmills and Tulips" cruise through the Netherlands?

Photography by the authors

Spring came late to the Low Countries in 2013. It was snowing at the end of March when we arrived at our favorite European port, Amsterdam. Ahead lay “Windmills and Tulips,” our Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection adventure. And ahead also lay bitter weather. (“The coldest spring for 60 years,” we heard several times.)

We had brought the warm clothes of wimpy Southern Californians — which meant at the end of the cruise and our 10 days on German trains we had too much luggage. That provoked a certain amount of cursing.

So what happened on the famed springtime “Windmills and Tulips" cruise that Uniword puts on for five consecutive weeks every year? The cruise runs during a spring so busy passengers wanting to book cabins would almost have to plan their trip the way a general would plan a battle.

So what happened? Well, we saw a lot of windmills! But no fields of tulips. Spring had not come.

So the cruise was a disappointment?

Absolutely not! Our river cruise across the Netherlands — also poking a little into Belgium — was a good example why European river cruising is the fastest growing part of the industry. There is so much to see and do on a European river cruise that loss of a theme hardly matters. It’s not as if you’re dragging along for days on an ocean liner that has lost its engines or in a coach that has rolled into a canyon. The theme is the least important aspect of a river cruise. There is so much more.

The first day on a cruise ship is always the same with passengers walk the decks looking for the places that will become their favorites. We like to check out the upscale suites to decide next time if they are worth the extra beyond the cabins.

The River Queen is only 361 feet long and 37.5 feet wide. It was remodeled in 2010. On a big ship proximity to the dining room and lounges may be advantageous and that’s usually where the most expensive cabins are, but on a boat as sensibly sized as a river boat that may not be an issue. However, the suites are gorgeous and in 2012, readers of Condé Nast Traveler voted the River Queen “the number one ship in the entire cruise industry.”

River boaters may not be spending much time in their cabins. There is almost too much to see on Europe’s rivers, although how active — or not — you decide to be is, fortunately, a personal decision.

The usual cautions hold: wear stout walking shoes (Europe’s cobblestones have been called “foot massage”) — and pace yourself. You don’t have to do everything! Only on ocean cruises does a ship sail for days with nothing outside to see.

What is there to see?

The list of shore excursions for this cruise is outstanding from favored admissions to Amsterdam’s Heritage Museum (which is sheltering the Van Gogh Museum’s masterpieces while the Van Gogh itself is renovated) to leisurely explorations in the original shops of the 19th century village Zaanse Schans, a re-creation sometimes called “Holland in a Nutshell.” There, curious visitors can see antique klopen displayed and watch those wooden clogs being made today.

A riveting shore excursion for seniors with personal memory of World War II is the Netherland’s tribute to the Allied forces: the National Liberation Museum near Nijmegen, the first city to fall when the Germans invaded in 1940. A diorama of the Waal crossing depicts American Army medics under fire as they attend the wounded.

What’s happening on board at the end of the day?

Sure you get a daily printed news sheet and you can usually get CNN and movies on your cabin TV and the small library has interesting offerings, but can you expect entertainment on river boats that have only about 130 guests?

Surprisingly, yes. From lectures on the Dutch Masters and local Dutch dancers (dig those clogs! And hold on to your husbands!) to enthusiastic choirs whose passionate voices resonate throughout the boat. Plus, two mellow, stringed instrument trios and a demonstration by a silversmith who comes on board to the detriment of our wallets. The variety and the quality are unexpected and delightful.

A final comment

We’ve come to expect that on upscale cruise lines like Uniworld the home office will be both pleasant and competent, the ship captains personable, the dining superb, the wait and cabin staff attentive and those who man the front desk, bless their hearts, patient, supportive and amiable even as we ask all the same questions every day. And there’s always a piano with afternoon tea. Those things are a given.

But the quality and disposition of the cruise director is less certain. He or she makes the cruise. In something like 30 cruises we’ve only occasionally had cruise directors who clearly were in the wrong job. One was a Frenchman who came with Wind Surf when it changed owners and the other, by chance, another Frenchman with the Compagnie du Ponant cruise line when it was struggling to lose its French style and embrace a global market — a market that would include a lot of Americans who needed a cruise director with an ability to laugh at himself.

So it was a particular pleasure to meet the best cruise director we’ve ever found on a cruise ship: one Bart Roelofs whose detailed observations and sense of fun made this cruise so complete we will be obliged to tell you more about him and his discussions of the Dutch personality in another story. He endeared himself to the mostly American passengers by saying that, as a tour guide for several years for German tourists being conducted across the United States, he now knew every corn field in Nebraska!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.