Red-eyed and groggy after an overnight transatlantic flight, I'm sitting in the baggage claim area of Amsterdam's Schiphol airport waiting for my dad to arrive from his own journey across the pond. As my eyes sift through the crowds pouring out of the international arrivals terminal, a sudden realization hits me: this is the first time in my 41 years of life that I'll be going on a trip with my father, just the two of us. Sure, there had been tons of family trips in my childhood days, but a father-son journey had somehow always eluded us.
The opportunity to spend any kind of leisurely time with my old man has been a rare commodity as of late. Not only have we lived apart for a couple of decades (I live in Miami and he lives with my mom in Puerto Rico), but our daily lives are worlds apart. My routine revolves around my job and my school-aged kids; he's a retiree whose priority is balancing his multiple doctor appointments with helping my mother care for my elderly grandparents.
Not only would we get to travel together, but we'd do so with an experience that was new to us both: a 7-night river cruise across the Netherlands and Belgium on Emerald Cruises' newest ship, Emerald Luna.
After collecting dad and his luggage, we make our way out of Schiphol airport on the NS train en route to Amsterdam's Centraal Station -- and on to our mutual journey of river cruise discovery.
With apologies to anyone I've traveled with before, I've come to believe that there is no such thing as a perfect travel companion. Finding the right travel buddy largely depends on the content and nature of the trip in question, and how well it meshes with the person's interests and preferences.
In my dad's case, however, his undying enthusiasm for all things travel makes him the closest thing to an ideal travel partner. Whether he's visiting a place he's been to on dozens of occasions or that he's getting to know for the first time, his euphoric demeanor is predictably reliable. His excitement to explore the Dutch capital is a good example; although in fairness, the last time he visited Amsterdam was more than 40 years ago.
I can reasonably trace the origins of my own passion for travel (and deciding to make a career out of it) to my dad's influence. Although dad never quite pursued his travel interests professionally in a consistent manner, he did spend a few stints working in commercial aviation in his 20s, first as ground personnel in San Juan's international airport and later as an American Airlines flight attendant based in Chicago.
And while I always considered him an airline-only nut, he insists that cruising has always been near and dear to his heart. He vividly remembers the first time he sailed on a cruise ship in the mid-1970s -- aboard the SS Amerikanis of the now-defunct Chandris Lines, the predecessor to Celebrity Cruises -- on a short voyage from Venezuela's La Guaira port to San Juan, stopping in Curacao.
And by his own admission, all cruises he's ever taken since (all oceangoing) have been memorable, to the extent he comfortably tells me he's never met a cruise he hasn't liked.
Given dad's bottomless enthusiasm for traveling (and cruising), I never had any doubts that he would enjoy our spring voyage, aptly titled "Netherlands and Belgium in Bloom." But we are, after all, creatures of habit, and the fact that he had never been on a river cruise made me wonder what he would think of the experience.
One of the many things that draw him to cruising is the hardware. I had noticed that for him, the bigger the cruise ship, the more starstruck he gets. I confirmed this a few years ago when we spent a few hours touring Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas in PortMiami (at that time, the largest cruise ship in the world; today it ranks second after sister ship Wonder of the Seas). He still rants and raves about the gargantuan 228,081-ton ship as if he had spent two weeks sailing instead of a handful of hours aboard.
His first impression of the much smaller Emerald Luna in Amsterdam's Oosterdok port was one of curiosity and delight. The four-deck river cruise ship proved an unusual sight, but the biggest 'ooohs' and 'aaaahs' were reserved for the moment he set foot inside, greeted by the intimate atmosphere of Emerald Luna. A few minutes later, his appreciation grew when we were led to our cabin on Deck 2 -- a 180-square-foot Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite.
I pointed out to him that the cabin name was a bit of a misnomer, as our room didn't exactly have a balcony but instead a floor-to-ceiling window that lowers electronically to a halfway point. But he wasn't really listening; dad was trying to wrap his head around the fact that small river cruise ships could, in fact, boast accommodations like the ones he was familiar with on ocean cruise ships.
As enamored as he was with our comfy Cabin 230 -- or interested in chitchatting with our North Macedonian cabin steward, Zija -- he was eager to explore the rest of Emerald Luna. If the efficient space of our cabin had an immediate impression on him, the public spaces took him further down the path of awe. The contemporary elegance of Reflections restaurant on Deck 2, coupled with the relaxing atmosphere of Horizons Bar and Lounge on Deck 3, provided a double dose of delight.
Admittedly, some of Emerald Luna's amenities were lost on dad. He took a hard pass on the fleet of e-bikes that are available to passengers, citing that biking is now beyond his physical capabilities. And the indoor pool on deck 3 -- or the movie theater it became on select nights -- were also not his cup of tea. He felt more at home on the Sun Deck, where he could enjoy uninterrupted views of the landscape or enjoy the chilly weather of springtime Europe, temperatures he's deprived of year-round in the balmy Caribbean.
He even looked forward to the Muster Drill, bemused at the idea of seeing all the passengers and crew gathered in one place -- which also happened to be the Sun Deck.
I've often heard that river cruises are a much more relaxing affair than their ocean counterparts. And Emerald Luna certainly fit the bill: a small ship with plenty of spaces that beckon passengers to give in to the leisurely pace of sailing on peaceful waterways.
But on our 7-night itinerary, dad and I found little time to kick back, as we managed to stay almost permanently on the go. Emerald offers an included daily tour on every itinerary, plus additional excursions -- known as DiscoverMORE tours -- for a fee. We went on every one of the included tours, plus the two DiscoverMORE offered on our sailing: an early morning visit to the Alsmeer Royal Flower Auction near Amsterdam and an afternoon tour to the town of Delft from Rotterdam.
Additionally, our itinerary featured a total of three overnight visits (two in Amsterdam and one in Rotterdam) free time meant more time to wander in each port of call, so the only lounging moments were exclusively reserved for mealtimes, bus rides or sleeping. Dad simply wouldn't have it any other way and I cheerfully obliged.
Aside from being dad's first river cruise experience, this was also his first time in the Netherlands since the 1970s. And, except for Amsterdam, all the ports on our itinerary -- Rotterdam, Antwerp, Willemstad (not the Caribbean port of the same name) and Arnhem -- were new to him, which triggered his innate Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO).
Tellingly, as our itinerary wore on, each new port became his favorite. From Amsterdam we got to visit the picturesque Zaanse Schans windmills and the uber-popular Keukenhof gardens, ripe with millions of blooming tulips. In Rotterdam, we were immediately enthralled by the city's modern architecture and skyscrapers. And the included tour to The Hague provided a healthy dose of culture with an exclusive visit to the Mauritshuis Museum.
Tiny Willemstad (population: 2,500), with its star-shaped fortifications and charming streets, felt like being transported to the past. And in Arnhem, we were mystified by the bucolic landscape (hills in the Netherlands!) and charmed by the regal Paleis Het Loo, which we got to visit exclusively as the palace was technically undergoing repairs, but an exception was made for our Emerald tour.
Dad's biggest praise, however, was reserved for the Belgian city of Antwerp, featured on Day 5 of our itinerary. Prior to our visit, he knew virtually nothing of Antwerp; other cities like Brussels and Bruges felt more familiar in his mind. Our included tour took us to the heart of the city to admire the guild houses of Grote Markt and the majestic Cathedral of Our Lady, just a five-minute walk from where Emerald Luna docked on the Scheldt River.
After getting our bearings courtesy of the one-hour tour, we set off on our own to pursue the city's myriad charms. Our adventure took us down the upscale Meir Street; the lauded Diamond District that put Antwerp in the map as the global center of the diamond trade; and to the Opera House and the stunning Antwerp Central train station. Before our all-aboard time, we managed to cross three delicacies off our list: French fries, waffles and Belgian beer (four, if counting the Belgian chocolates we purchased for gifts).
To be impressed by Antwerp's handsome architecture, rich history and elegant flair isn't all that surprising. However, upon sailing away from the dock, dad found another less universally embraced reason to love the Belgian city.
Antwerp is Europe's second largest port (after Rotterdam) and the interminable industrial infrastructure unfolding before his eyes left him mouth agape and firmly planted on the Sun Deck. He readily admitted that it wasn't necessarily a pretty sight (indeed, other than crew members doing their job, he was the only soul on the top deck). But the scale was astonishing to him.
In what became a nightly ritual, he would call my mother after dinner to rattle off the highlights of the day. His feverish ramblings bordered on incoherent, as it seemed that the slideshow of information in his brain played at a faster pace than his words could translate. But every conversation ended with him urging my mother to go on a river cruise with him (The museums! The food! The architecture!), convinced that she would love the experience.
I would be lying if I said our river cruise made dad completely forget about whatever worries trouble him daily. But I can say with enough certainty that the moments when he was fully engrossed in the experience left no room for other thoughts. And luckily, there were many such moments: Seeing the infinite variety of tulip colors and shapes in Keukenhof gardens. Witnessing the brilliance of Peter Paul Rubens' Baroque masterpieces in Antwerp's Cathedral. Taking a stab at painting traditional Dutch wooden clogs with our fellow Emerald Luna passengers. Gawking at the ultra-modern buildings in rebuilt Rotterdam. Coming face to face with Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring in The Hague's Mauritshuis Museum. Reassessing everything he thought he knew about French fries and waffles in Belgium. And reaffirming his love for travel -- and, specifically, cruising -- in a medium that was completely new to him.
We parted ways where our journey had begun in Schiphol, but not before vowing to make father-son trips a more frequent occurrence. I asked him -- somewhat rhetorically -- if he liked the voyage, but his beaming smile had all the answers. I also asked whether he now preferred river cruising to ocean cruising. Without batting an eye, he quickly replied: 'Why not both?'