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September 25, 2018, Belgium, Netherlands

Gentle on my mind

A first-time river cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium lets Audrey Ng experience both the excitement of big cities and the quietude of small towns

Audrey Ng

ENSCONCED within the covers, I woke up to soft morning light streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. With the quiet all around me, save for the distant chirping of birds and the gentle lapping of waves, I felt contented.

I snuggled in the cushy double bed, enjoying the cool spring breeze that flowed in through the windows — but for just a few minutes. The prospect of seeing a new city was too enticing.

I was voyaging on Avalon Illumination, Avalon Waterways’ Tulip Time cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium, which sailed from March to May this year. Next year’s sailing dates are from March 23 to April 27. My journey took me from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, Antwerp, Ghent, Middelburg and Willemstad before returning to the Dutch capital.

Ship dreams are made of these

“It looks just like a hotel,” I thought, as I stood at the lobby reception desk after boarding. A spacious lounge with a bar was to my right and, to my left, a short staircase opened onto the hallways of the cabins on three levels of the ship, which can hold 164 passengers.

I was impressed when I saw my room. An inviting double bed stood against the wall of the 18.6 sq m room that would be my private space for the next eight days. It even had a sofa, wardrobe and desk, and the marble-floored bathroom was large by cruise standards.

The indulgent service began with the bed — guests can choose from four types of firmness for their pillows — and continued in the public areas.

On the top deck, we could relax in a small jacuzzi or play chess on a giant board. Rows of deck chairs on the carpeted floor invited us to sunbathe or stargaze as the ship glided gently along the calm waters — I could barely feel it moving.

Major rivers we sailed on included the New Meuse, the Lys and the Scheldt, which links to the North Sea. I found river-cruising a relaxed and comfortable way of travelling, without the hassle of packing my luggage and moving to the next city every few days. Standing on deck, I could see the skyline of a city as it came into view. The ship also sailed past the verdant countryside, a sight I would not usually see on a regular city trip.

The vistas outside made for a pleasant accompaniment to the delicious meals served in the dining room that stretched across half the length of the ship, with windows lining both sides.

I still rave to everyone about the great food on board.

I couldn’t get enough of the Eggs Benedict and pancakes every morning. Besides cooked food, I loaded my plate with items from the continental breakfast buffet and the made-toorder egg station.

The feasting continued at the lunch buffets, where I got my fill of pasta, meats and vegetables.

Dinner was the meal I most looked forward to.

Every evening, we were presented with different four-course meals — with options of beef, grilled fi sh, a vegetarian dish and even herb crusted lamb chops once — served by friendly kitchen staff. The draw of good food was an effective way of making sure passengers got back to the ship on time!

To accompany every meal, guests could choose from a selection of red, white and rosé wines, two appetisers, local soups, as well as a cheese platter or desserts.

Adding to the pleasurable dining experiences was the chance to meet different people at the table each night. I enthusiastically swapped travel tales with fellow passengers from Australia, South Korea, Indonesia and the United States.

City wanderings

Our journey began in Amsterdam, where I sailed on its Unesco heritage canals. Along the Prinsengracht, we passed rows of tall, narrow houses, the snaking queue in front of the Anne Frank House museum, and the Westerkerk (Western Church), where artist Rembrandt is buried. On the Herengracht, we travelled past large gilded houses where the city’s richest merchants once lived.

The ship set sail in the evening or at night and docked in a new city each morning, just in time for guests to join guided walking tours or excursions to nearby areas.

When we arrived at Rotterdam, passengers had the option to visit the famous Keukenhof tulip garden or Gouda, famed for its eponymous cheese. I picked Keukenhof and spent the whole day in the beautifully manicured gardens that are home to over seven million bulbs and 800 varieties of tulips.

Open for only eight weeks every year, the 32ha garden was crowded with tourists, all snapping away at the array of red, pink, yellow and orange tulips, as well as other flowers in bloom, such as daffodils and hyacinths.

Strolling along the various outdoor and indoor sections of the park, the fresh fragrance of the flowers followed me wherever I went. Each area was a riot of brightly coloured plants in artful arrangements — I couldn’t get enough of taking photos at every new spot.

I spent the next two days exploring Antwerp and Ghent on my own, marvelling at the beautiful architecture, notably the Flemish Renaissance-style buildings in Antwerp’s Grote Markt, mediaeval squares, and Ghent’s Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

I squeezed in with a bunch of other eager tourists to see up close the cathedral’s famous Ghent Altarpiece, a large and complex 15th-century work comprising several panels of oil paintings by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It is one of Belgium’s greatest masterpieces.

My Belgian experience was a fulfilling one, not just for its beautiful architecture but for the delicious traditional food I tried, such as beef stew with fries and beer.

Getting off the tourist radar

The trip also took me to places not on the typical tourist radar, such as the small towns of Middelburg, Veere and Willemstad in the Netherlands.

After the excitement and bustle of the big cities, it was pleasant to just stroll along the cobblestoned roads, taking in the quiet streets in the morning, the quaint houses and the small artisan shops.

Discovering all these new cities was fun, but what I will cherish most was a short bike ride with some friends I made on the ship through Veere and the surrounding countryside, past gentle green hills and cows in pasture.

My first river cruise was a novel way to experience Europe and one journey that I can take my parents on some day.

THE WRITER’S TRIP WAS SPONSORED BY SCENIC TRAVEL

THE RIVER CRUISE EXPERIENCE

While planes and trains are the most common and convenient modes of transport for an inter-city trip in Europe, a river cruise offers other benefits.

■ Transport between cities is settled: There is no need to factor in extra time to get to the airport, or find the platform your train departs from. You also get to avoid the crowds.

■ Luggage-free, hands-free: No more dragging your bags along Europe’s cobblestoned pathways, hauling them up and down steps and then navigating your way through the crowds. You also don’t need to pack and unpack each time you move.

■ Feast like a king: Eat all you want and well, as all three meals are provided. Outside of mealtimes, the lounge pantry is always stocked with muffins and cookies. Late breakfast and afternoon tea are also served.

■ Go at your own pace: You are free to choose what to do for the day as long as you are back on the ship before it sets sail.

GUIDELINES

■ I flew to Amsterdam direct from Singapore with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. From the airport, transport by coach to the dock was provided by Avalon Waterways (www.avalonwaterways.com).

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