Inland European capitals instead of sandy beaches. Always being within a few steps of land, rather than sailing on the wide-open ocean. Smaller, narrow-bodied ships instead of gigantic vessels. Having always sailed on ocean cruises, my knowledge of European river cruises had been limited to basic facts.
So, when the opportunity arrived to embark on a river cruise for the first time, I was eager to discover what I had been missing from sailing on fluvial waterways, and how it would compare to marine itineraries.
My first river cruise was aboard Emerald Luna, Emerald Cruises' newest ship -- what the line calls "starships" -- that debuted in 2022. The itinerary was a 7-night roundtrip from Amsterdam, visiting ports across the Netherlands and Belgium, on a journey aptly called 'Holland and Belgium in Bloom'.
With a title like that and because the itinerary took place on the first week of April, I knew that seeing flowers would be a given. But the 7-night trip also revealed interesting facts like the economic importance of tulips in the Low Countries, the whimsical significance of giants in Antwerpian folklore, a heaping dose of the history of the Dutch royal family, lessons learned from World War II and more.
Beyond the highlights of our itinerary, here are five things I learned on my first river cruise.
The first thing that struck me upon meeting Emerald Luna in Amsterdam's De Ruijterkade Oost pier was its nimble size. The long and narrow ship features four decks, measures 443 feet in length and a 36-foot beam (width), and can hold a maximum of 180 passengers.
Apart from some luxury and expedition ships, this capacity is well below the average found in ocean cruises, particularly mainstream lines, whose ships can carry thousands of passengers across multiple decks.
The intimate nature of Emerald Luna, meant that by day 2 of our itinerary, all the faces of my fellow passengers and crewmembers had become familiar. This was aided by the fact that our sailing had only 78 passengers, but also because Emerald Luna features only two main sizeable public areas: Reflections Restaurant on Deck 2, and the Horizon Bar, on Deck 3. Another noteworthy, but smaller public areas on the ship is the indoor pool on Deck 3 -- which doubled as a movie theater on select nights.
Due to the chilly spring weather of our April sailing, the spacious top deck was hardly ever used, except by the sporadic passenger who wanted to enjoy the views or jog around the track.
Lunch, dinner and -- to a lesser extent -- breakfast in Reflections Restaurant turned into natural opportunities to socialize with fellow guests. Over the course of the seven days of the cruise, we enjoyed the company of almost every passenger, be it at the restaurant or at the après-dinner activities in Horizon Bar.
Ditto for the attentive crew. By the second day, they were fully aware of how we preferred to take our coffee, allergies, dietary restrictions and even hobbies that turned small talk into full-fledged conversations.
A common knock against ocean cruises is that you often spend too little time in ports of call. And on top of that, sometimes the ports where the cruise ships dock can be a bit distant from the destination's main attractions. I quickly discovered that river cruising fixes both grievances.
Owing to the short distance between ports of call, the transit time was swift in our itinerary, so we could spend a generous amount of time in each destination, and also visit nearby attractions.
What's more, our itinerary featured an overnight stay in Rotterdam as well as a total of three overnights in Amsterdam (two nights at the beginning of the journey and one at the end), allowing more time to explore each city and surroundings. While overnight stays aren't unheard of in ocean cruises, they're relatively rare and usually reserved for higher-end luxury cruises or some expedition itineraries. And they are practically non-existent on seven-day itineraries.
Additionally, access to the city centers in each port of call was a cakewalk. In Amsterdam, for instance, we were no farther than a 15-minute leisurely walk to Dam Square. In Antwerp, it took less than five minutes to cover the distance from our ship to Grote Markt, while Rotterdam's ultramodern Market Hall was about 10 minutes away from our dock on the Nieuwe Maas River.
In what I was later told is a common practice among river cruises, the details of each day of the itinerary were discussed the prior evening in what are known as 'Port Talks' with the cruise director.
These chats were comprehensive enough to give passengers are clear overview of the destination, the tours offered and the onboard activities. But the fact that you don't know the specific details for each activity several days in advance hampers your ability to schedule other things you might be interested in pursuing and that aren't featured in the offered or included tours.
In Amsterdam, for instance, I was interested in visiting some of the city's main attractions that I knew weren't going to be included on any of Emerald's tours. The point ended up being moot anyway, as several of these main attractions -- like the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House or the Rijksmuseum -- were sold out weeks in advance. But being able to know in advance exactly when our included tour was scheduled to leave and come back would have gone a long way in plotting a more elaborate agenda for each day of the cruise.
Talking to fellow passengers, I discovered that many scheduled a few days prior or after the cruise precisely so they could visit marquee attractions that they knew wouldn't be featured on the river cruise itinerary. Even though river cruises allow for more time on ports of call when compared to ocean cruises, it would still be unrealistic to see and do everything , especially in culturally-rich European cities that offer so much to visitors. Lesson learned; I took note of this approach for my next river cruise.
Emerald Cruises offers three types of tours: included excursion, EmeraldACTIVE and DiscoverMORE (the included excursion was sometimes referred to as EmeraldPLUS). The line includes the first two categories in your fare, which is another point that compares favorably to most ocean cruises, where shore excursions carry an extra cost. Most, but not all, river cruises have at least one included excursion per port.
The included excursions often consisted of a walking or bus tour of the destination. In some cases, however, they went the extra mile. Day 4, for instance, featured a morning tour of The Hague and began with a visit to the city's Mauritshuis Museum, home to masterpieces like Johan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. What stood out is that our visit to the museum was arranged to begin one hour before opening time, so we had the place all to ourselves for those precious 60 minutes.
Similarly, on Day 6 in Arnhem, our included tour consisted of a visit of the Het Loo Palace, which at the time was still closed for repairs. But the palace-turned-museum opened its doors to us, and we were able to tour the grounds unencumbered by other visitors.
Other included tours featured special touches, like our one-hour walking tour in Antwerp that was capped off with a gift of Belgian chocolates for every attendee, or an impromptu sampling of Dutch cheeses, herring and jenever at Rotterdam's Market Hall. For many, the highlight of the itinerary was Day 7's visit to the tulip-rich Keukenhof Gardens outside of Amsterdam. This attraction draws thousands of visitors per day from all over Europe during the peak season and is sold out weeks in advance.
Also included in your fare, the EmeraldACTIVE tours consisted exclusively of guided bike tours during our sailing, aided by the presence of a fleet of some 20 e-bikes. Unlike the daily included excursions, the bike tours were offered on four of the seven days of our journey, but passengers had the option of checking out an e-bike at any time during port days and riding it on their own.
DiscoverMORE tours, on the other hand, cost extra ($59-$64 per person), and two of them were offered on our sailing. The first one took place on Day 2 and consisted of a visit to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction near Amsterdam. The second one -- a tour of the Delft pottery factory and city of the same name -- was offered on Day 3 while in Rotterdam.
The one drawback with the included excursions and EmeraldACTIVE tours is that they would typically overlap. During our sailing, there was only one instance where the included tour took place in the morning (the bus tour to The Hague from Rotterdam) and the EmeraldActive tour took place in the afternoon in Willemstad (not the capital of Curaçao, but a tiny, 2,000-resident village in the Dutch province of North Brabant).
On all other days, we were forced to choose between the guided tour and the bike tour (or exploring on our own). I realized that this is by design, as only a handful of passengers favored the guided bike tours consistently and the rest showed little to no interest in them. Having a limited number of available e-bikes was likely another reason why these tours were scheduled at the same time, to avoid not having enough bikes to satisfy demand.
In my case, however, I would have enjoyed the opportunity to do both tours on any given day as they would typically feature very different attractions of the same destination. An example happened on Day 6 when we visited the port of Arnhem near the German border. The included excursion tour consisted of a visit to Het Loo Palace -- the royal Dutch family's former summer residence that now serves as a state museum -- located in Apeldoorn, about an hour north of Arnhem. The bike tour, on the other hand, benefited from Arnhem's hilly terrain (very different from the average Dutch landscape) and verdant parks within the city.
Similarly, Day 2 in Amsterdam featured an included tour to the picturesque windmills of Zaanse Schans that took place at the same time as the guided bike tour across the tulip fields of Waterland near the town of Edam.
Choosing between the included tour and the bike tour ultimately comes down to personal preference and the content of each tour. If you enjoy being more active and nature (although the e-bikes are significantly less physically intense than traditional bikes), the bike tours are a great alternative. The included tours, on the other hand, will often entail riding on a bus and thus cover much more ground. They may also include visits to attractions that would incur an expense if done independently.
Additionally, there is also the opportunity to use the e-bikes outside of a guided tour on your free time, so that's always an available option if you prefer not to pass up on the included tour but would still like the chance to ride a bike.
Although I felt at times like I was missing out by not being able to do both tours, the voyage on Emerald Luna still allowed me to dig deep into every destination we visited. The included tours alone went a long way in providing a thorough overview of the cities we visited and the extended time in port allowed me to also explore on my own. If I had tried to cover as much ground independently, it would likely have taken considerably more than 7-8 days, a mountain of logistics and a budget several times higher than the average fare for a river cruise.