WINDMILLS AND TULIPS CRUISE Viking Sky, April 16-28, 2008
It was with some concern that we boarded our flight to Amsterdam to begin our Windmills and Tulips cruise since the weather reports for the previous month had been consistent: cloudy, rainy with temperatures in the 40s and low 50s. How could flowers bloom in this weather? But, optimism is a must when traveling, so after packing warm and rainproof items, we left for Amsterdam where we had made our own arrangements for a 3 day pre-cruise stay. We flew Lufthansa, one of the few good airlines left, because we could get a direct flight from Charlotte, NC to Munich, connecting to Amsterdam, thus avoiding the plague of Philadelphia, Newark or JFK Airports.
Our flights were right on time, and we arrived in Amsterdam around 1 pm local time. We opted to take the train into town, since a taxi ran about 45 Euros while the fare for two on the train was a little over 7 Euros! (That may have been the only bargain that we found the entire trip!) The trains run to the central station 4 times an hour, and the trip takes only about 20 minutes. Other than the hassle of schlepping our bags down the escalator and onto the train, the trip was convenient and easy. A short cab ride to the hotel completed our trip.
In Amsterdam, we stayed at the Ambassade , a lovely small hotel on the Herengracht Canal. The hotel rooms are in several buildings, restored on the inside but maintaining the traditional look and style of old Amsterdam on the outside. Our room was light and airy, overlooking the canal and in a quiet location. Service at the hotel was excellent, and the breakfasts were tasty and convenient.
We hit all the usual tourist highlights, museums and canals. The Ann Frank House is always crowded during the day, but we went around 6 one evening and walked right in. We also wanted to make sure that we saw Keukenhof Gardens thoroughly, so after checking out of the hotel (they held our bags), we took an excursion to the Gardens. This worked out very well because we couldn't check onto the ship until mid afternoon.
Keukenhof was one of those infrequent attractions that not only lived up to expectations but far exceeded them. My companion Barbara is the flower person, and while I'm not a flower nut, I do like photography, so we were both euphoric with what we found at Keukenhof. Not only were the flowers, landscaping and scenery unspeakably beautiful, but the grounds went on and on, with a new breathtaking scene around every bend. I brought 3 cameras, with two sets of batteries for each and was down to my last emergency battery when we had to leave. We were really glad that we would be back in another week with the ship's tour, because there is way too much to see and absorb in one visit.
THE VIKING SKY
After retrieving our bags from the hotel storage, we took a taxi to the Viking Sky. This ship is middle aged by ship standards, having been built in 1998, but it has been well maintained and is clean and attractive. The advantage of this ship, and one of the reasons we booked it, was that all the cabins (except the suites) are identical in size and layout, except for the windows. Thus by booking one of the 3 lowest category cabins, we saved over $1000 compared to the cabin right next to us. We found the cabin comfortable and adequate in size, but the bathroom lighting was terrible, according to Barbara, and the walls were paper thin. We heard our neighbors cough and even identified the sound of a digital camera powering up from the cabin next door. This was definitely not a crowd of party animals, however, so noise from adjoining cabins was not a problem.
What was a problem was the air conditioning unit for the ship that was located near our cabin. The compressor cycled on and off regularly and annoyingly, but thanks to ear plugs, sleep was not compromised. Other than these annoyances, the cabin was fine.
We found the food very good, with an ample breakfast buffet and a choice of a light lunch in the lounge, or a more complete meal in the dining room. Dinner was single seating with a choice of two entrees, plus a vegetarian offering and the always available chicken or steak. The service was excellent.
The ship remained overnight in Amsterdam our first night, and an included canal cruise and Van Gogh museum excursion were scheduled for the next morning. The Van Gogh Museum was excellent, and it was nice to bypass the throngs of people waiting to buy tickets. The included headphones provided an excellent narration for us culturally impaired tourists, but the throngs inside the museum made it difficult to see and appreciate all the paintings. Nevertheless, the excursions were interesting and good.
That evening we sailed for Horn, arriving late in the evening. The next morning we had a walking tour of this picturesque fishing village, huddled against the cold on a raw, windy day. As the morning progressed, however, the weather improved and a glimpse of sun appeared, giving us hope for the rest of the week.
The ship sailed in the afternoon for Volendam. This is the Costa Maya of Holland. A completely rebuilt city designed to attract and cater to tourists, this was a crowded and forgettable place. The ship offered a free excursion to a local wooden shoe and cheese manufacturing site, which we took for lack of anything better to do. It was predictably touristy, but the price was right.
The ship sailed that night for Arnhem. Unfortunately, the scheduled tour to the Palais Het Loo was not available since the palace and grounds are closed on Monday. An afternoon tour of the Arnhem battle grounds was substituted, which left the morning available. The ship offered an optional tour to an open air market, but we opted to take a local train to the picturesque town of Nijmegen. This was a lot of fun, and we enjoyed seeing the local countryside and browsing a local market in the town square, surrounded by a majestic church. The efficient and convenient train service had us back in Arnhem in time for lunch on the ship. In the afternoon, we took the included tour of the battlefields and museums associated with Operation Market Garden of "A Bridge Too Far" fame. Being a World War II buff, I found the tour interesting and the cemetery moving, but I suspect the majority of passengers would have preferred the palace tour.
The ship sailed late in the afternoon for Nijmegen, where we had visited earlier in the day, but it arrived late at night where a group of local performers embarked for a mediocre display of local dancing in wooden shoes. Whoopee! A few hard core gamblers went ashore to a local casino, which, interestingly, required a foreign passport to gain entrance. I guess they didn't want to take advantage of the locals!
The next day we awoke in Dodrecht for our tour of the windmills at the village of Kinderdijk. One windmill was open for the hoards of tourists while a host of other windmills lined up for photographs. Unfortunately, our guide got the time confused, and we had to be back at the bus well before we actually left, severely curtailing our free time and photographic opportunities. So much for his tip!
The afternoon was at our leisure in Dodrecht, so we climbed the tower of the Grote Kerk Church for scenic panoramas, and strolled through the streets of this picturesque city. We sailed around 4 under sunny skies for our next stop, Antwerp, Belgium. The trip to Antwerp was not particularly picturesque - imagine a watery New Jersey Turnpike near Newark - but it was nice to be sailing and moving into new territory.
The included tour the next morning was to Brussels. After a 10am departure to avoid morning rush hour traffic, we visited the Automaton, symbol of the 1958 World's Fair, and spent time in the central square of Brussels. The emphasis there was mostly on the stomach: loaded Belgium waffles, Belgium chocolate and Duvel (Devil) Beer.
Overnight, the ship relocated to Ghent in preparation for our next excursion to Brugge, Belgium. Other than Keukenhof, this was the highlight of the trip. This lovely, historic town built within a river (moat), was picturesque and interesting. We opted to stay in town for the afternoon while others went back to the ship after the morning tour. We climbed the church tower, ate lunch at an outdoor cafe, drank Brugge Blonde Beer, bought chocolate - not enough - at Dumon's, and generally had a delightful tourist day under unseasonably warm and sunny skies.
That night we sailed to a small yacht harbor where we disembarked the next morning for a tour of the Delta Works Project. This ambitious and expensive flood control project was undertaken by the Dutch after the devastating floods of 1953, and is truly an engineering marvel, designed to control the sea under all conditions. After the tour, the bus drove to a new port where the ship met us for the remainder of the trip to Rotterdam. That evening, the ship stopped briefly in Rotterdam to pick up a local group of singers called the "Sea Chanters." They were actually very good, and performed just for the enjoyment of singing - and the free Heinekins!
The Viking Sky sailed for Amsterdam after disembarking the Sea Chanters, arriving early in the morning. That morning, Saturday April 27, was the day for the ship's tour to Keukenhof Gardens. The good news: the weather was warm and sunny, and the flowers were at or close to their peak. The bad news: this was a weekend, and a weekend that featured the world famous flower parade that passed directly in front of Keukenhof Gardens. The result: crowds of indescribable magnitude. Fortunately, our tour arrived relatively early in the morning, and the beauty of the flowers and trees exceeded the increased people count. It was amazing the difference one week meant. The grass has greened up, the trees had filled out and the flowers were just magnificent. We opted to stay at the gardens after the tour bus left and made our own way back to the ship via the bus/train from the airport. The extra time was well worth it, but by the time we left, the crowds were so large that it was almost impossible to even walk along the trails.
And now, an editorial note. I hope there is a special Hell for those tourists who are never content just to take pictures of a beautiful natural site. THEY HAVE TO BE IN IT! So, while you are trying to take a photo of a beautiful flower grouping, there is a tourist tromping on the grass (despite the "Stay Off" signs) in front of flowers grinning foolishly and totally ruining the picture! There, I've vented.....
Back on the ship by mid afternoon, we relaxed on deck, rested and started the always unpleasant job of packing. Surprisingly, the captain's farewell dinner was scheduled for this, our last day on board, which was somewhat unusual but was still enjoyable. No tuxes or formal gowns were seen, but the dress was a notch above the other days.
The next morning we took a cab to the airport, coordinated by the ship, for which we shelled out 45 Euros. Since we were flying to Munich to connect for our flight, the process time at the airport was less than for the flights flying directly to the States. We were there about 2 hours early, which on a Sunday morning, was more than enough time.
This was a most enjoyable cruise, with the flowers at Keukenhof clearly being the star of the trip. Timing the flower's peak in the notoriously unpredictable Dutch weather is a challenge, and if you can allow yourself an opportunity to go more than once, at different times, as we did, that can be a good hedging strategy. The primary downside to this itinerary is the fickle weather (we lucked out, no rain at all, but it was cool early in trip) and the atrocious exchange rate of the Euro. Fortunately, booking the cruise well in advance and paying in dollars insulated us somewhat from the full impact of the weak dollar. Oh, one other downside: once you have seen Keukenhof, every other garden you visit the rest of your life will suffer in comparison.
If you are interested in viewing some of my pictures of Keukenhof Gardens, you can log onto www.dutchgardenofeden.site.shutterfy.com. Any questions - drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.