(Updated 4:56 p.m. EDT) -- Before visiting the Netherlands and Belgium in the springtime, my mind danced with thoughts of bicycling past sun-drenched landscapes dotted with tulips and windmills, nibbling Belgian chocolate and cheese along the way.
Occasionally with travel, the reality is a bit less exciting than the daydream, but onboard a National Geographic Holland and Belgium expedition river cruise, the reality was even better. Our weeklong April cruise started and ended in Amsterdam on board AmaWaterways' AmaMora, and provided an endless array of experiences onboard and ashore.
National Geographic partners with AmaWaterways for these cruises, with just one scheduled per year in addition to summertime cruises on the Danube and Rhine, as well as Christmas market European river cruises. On our journey, AmaMora would stop in Hoorn; Middelburg; Ghent/Bruges; Antwerp; and Rotterdam/Kinderdijk, traveling through the Netherlands' extensive lock and dam system throughout the journey.
National Geographic has been leading expeditions throughout the world since 1999, escorting intrepid travelers on both land-based and water voyages, frequently paired with a minted Nat Geo expert on hand to share insight along the way. (Since Disney's acquisition of the company in 2019, these expeditions have largely remained unchanged, as the formula seems to resonate with guests, many of whom are repeat Nat Geo travelers.)
On our springtime river cruise through Holland, that meant two experts, a National Geographic photographer and a geographer, joined our voyage to offer insightful lectures and opportunities to get to know them on informal excursions. Though our cruise might have been light on "expedition" in the traditional adventurous sense, traveling with these experts at times felt like a university course that suddenly came to life.
The photographer who joined our team, Gianluca Colla, provided tips on optimizing smartphones or cameras to make better images; shared humorous and heartfelt stories of people and places he’s photographed throughout the world for National Geographic; and led several spontaneous photo walks with cruise guests in which he gave us photo assignments and then shared his tips for how we could improve. He was eager to answer even our most clueless photography questions.
With a little encouragement from Colla, some of our fellow travelers could be found striking up conversations with shopkeepers and taking portraits of locals (one local resident even invited these budding photographers into her home), trying out new artistic angles and framing techniques, as well as tinkering with long-forgotten settings for shutter speeds and apertures on our cameras.
"The best pictures are given, not taken," Colla told us on a few occasions. The result, at least for me, was a new way of observing the world through my camera -- a lesson I’ll carry with me into my future travels.
Meanwhile, Dutch geographer Jan Nijman, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and Georgia State University, took guests on a deep dive through the history and culture of the Netherlands, highlighting the immense engineering feats involving water management and economic growth at the region’s peak of influence in the 17th century.
The Netherlands' impact throughout the world, from New York (once called New Amsterdam) to Indonesia, was fascinating to explore through Nijman’s lens. During each lecture (which coincided during evening cocktail hours on the ship), AmaMora's lounge was full of eager knowledge-seekers. Several people took notes -- on actual paper -- and asked insightful questions.
On our excursions, passengers asked about the finer points of architecture and the migration patterns of European eels. I always got the sense that I was among learned, curious travelers.
On the final day of our sailing, one guest joked with me that her phone had seemingly seized up from the demand of so many flower photos throughout the week. "I came to see tulips and windmills, and I saw tulips and windmills," another satisfied cruiser said. These river cruise itineraries are specifically timed for optimal tulip viewing.
As with most river cruises, on a National Geographic Holland river cruise expedition, each day you are offered a menu of on-shore activities from which to choose, from bicycling to historic walking tours or other excursions. Depending on the itinerary, you might have a morning and an afternoon activity -- or you can simply forgo organized group outings and roam around on your own, joining the ship before sailing time.
For many people, seeing fields of tulips in their full spring splendor was the primary draw of the trip, and on our voyage there were three options for these tulip encounters: visiting a tulip farm in Hoorn, roaming the grounds of the Floralia flower exhibition in Brussels, and for the grand finale, a trip to Keukenhof, a botanical garden spectacular open to the public just eight weeks per year in the spring exploding with the color of 7 million tulip bulbs.
Other highlights included visiting the workshop and studio of the famous Royal Delft pottery (to quote our gregarious tour guide, "We love a good plate here!"), and savoring Dutch treats like stroopwafels, Belgian-style waffles, fries (or frites) drenched in various mayonnaise-based sauces, Trappist beer, and of course, chocolates.
Though the trip's 10- and 15-mile cycling excursions seemed a bit daunting at first to an irregular cyclist like myself, they were some of my favorite experiences of the trip. Led by a local guide, we bicycled through the mostly flat lands through farms and quaint cobblestone streets. The fresh spring air was energizing, even during periods of light rain.
I also loved the flexibility of wandering through these European cities on my own, with very little language barrier to overcome, since English is spoken widely throughout the Netherlands and Belgium. A mug of silky Belgian hot chocolate was the perfect accompaniment to the chilly air on more than one occasion, as I happily wandered through canals and sidestreets peeking into lace and cheese shops.
AmaWaterways' excellent service and amenities shone on our river cruise, with a particularly attentive maitre d' and chef team who happily obliged our requests.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all served in the main dining room, accompanied by complimentary regional wines, beers, and soft drinks. On each lunch and dinner menu, local specialties were highlighted, such as Dutch meatballs, mussels, pea soup, and local cheeses.
Once I asked Executive Chef Ali Sidic Hadiama, from Indonesia, if he would indulge us by preparing a dish from his country. On the final night, two steaming bowls of perfectly spiced bakmi goreng, an Indonesian stir-fried noodle dish, appeared on our table, which felt like a gift from the kitchen that we eagerly gobbled up.
As with other AmaWaterways river cruises, guests can indulge in a Chef’s Table meal, each course paired with wines, included in the cost of your cruise. But additionally with a National Geographic Expeditions cruise, all gratuities -- including for guides and bus drivers for land tours -- are also included.
Overall, the cruise was one I'll happily reflect on as I cherish my own flower and windmill photos. Experiencing Dutch cities and villages warmed by the hospitality of locals, who happily called out to us, "Enjoy yourself!" while we navigated their streets -- a warmth that shines even brighter than fields of tulips -- is something I won't forget.