First time in Holland and Belgium for myself and a friend (we have traveled many places), and this turned out to be one of our top 10 favorites, ever. Much of that enjoyment is directly owed to the shipboard staff and crew of the Viking River Cruise organization.
We visited many places and sights in addition to the main ports listed in our itinerary. In most cases, it was as though we were transported directly back, 600 or 700 hundred years in time, to towns and countryside left enough intact for us to step into the life we had only glimpsed in the paintings of those times. It was truly dramatic and beautiful.
I had a number of favorites: Hoorn with it's 14Th century inner harbor and main square, Antwerp's MAS Museum, Cathedral of Our Lady, and Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Of course, Amsterdam has more to see than one can even remember, and has quite an interesting culinary history. Just outside of Amsterdam, we were thrilled to experience the tulips and other blooms of Keukenhof Gardens, right at their peak. The windmills, dikes, bicycle culture and friendly people, also added to an outstanding experience.
We took the 2-day pre-extension offered by Viking, to explore a bit on our own. We were billeted at the Hotel Moevenpick, which was quite nice, but convenient ONLY to the ship. To reach the sights, it was a 15-20 minute cab ride from the hotel to most chosen destinations, or one could take the free hotel shuttle (running every 30 min.) to the Central Station. From there we could then pick up a tram for transport to various city sights. Had we been in town, it would have allowed us to easily sample much more of the local culture, and the unique flavor of the city and it's friendly inhabitants.
I would probably rate the overall cruise a 9-out-of-10, but as I mentioned, 10++ goes to the incredibly capable, friendly, cheerful, accommodating, resourceful and patient-beyond-belief, staff and crew. Every day was carefully considered and orchestrated, to maximize the choices and experiences of the guests, whether from escorted excursions, or independent exploration, to culinary efforts, and many other on-board comforts. They kept everything running smoothly, with a low-key and open style.
They were also, without exception, unfailingly kind, and always there with the solution to almost any difficulty or problem. For instance, my friend left her purse (with EVERYTHING in it), on a bench in front of a major tourist cathedral, but didn't discover it missing until she reached the return excursion bus. Michael (Brauner) and Katya happened to be with us, and quickly phoned a guide who was with a group not far behind. He was able to trace and recover the purse intact! Their quick thinking probably saved my friend's entire trip!
Our cabin accommodations were in stark contrast to the personnel. Although we could always count on a whistle clean space, it was VERY cramped, with our mattresses having long since seen better days. The cabin "decor" also left a lot to be desired. The overall impression reminded me of something done up in "a plain brown wrapper."
The bedside tables were thin, stained-wood squares which were somehow attached to the wall. Flimsy, poorly-lit lamps sat atop each one, and one sad chair had been jammed into a space next to one of the beds, but couldn't be used if the bed was also occupied. I understand the Danube was on it's last sail, and would no longer be a part of the Viking fleet. Good decision! Also, we were assigned to what was probably the last reservation of a fully booked cruise, so I didn't expect a GREAT cabin. Even so, this was about the least inviting I'd seen.
So, that's our story, and it was a good one! I know I will return to the Netherlands and Belgium again, and will probably repeat the river cruise experience. It is a trip with little or no worry, traveling mostly while you are sleeping, so your day experiences are maximized. I'll never forget the beauty of the countries and the people and the chocolates!