Explore Belgium and Holland on a Gate 1 tulip time river cruise

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(Last Updated On: November 11, 2019)

What could be a better way to celebrate the arrival of spring in Northern Europe than a tulip time river cruise through Belgium and the Netherlands?

rows of yellow and purple hyacinth, red tulip buds, and yellow daffodils in front of yellow forsythia and trees

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Cruising into spring on a tulip time river cruise

When spring comes to the Netherlands, thoughts turn to tulips.

While nothing compared to the tulip mania that struck during the 17th century Dutch Golden Age where fortunes were made and lost betting on tulip bulbs, tulips are still a big thing in Holland as an agricultural product and a tourist spectacle.

I’ve long wanted to see the tulip fields in bloom and a tulip time river cruise seemed like an ideal way to indulge in my own form of tulip mania.

Tulip time cruising basics

All of the major European river cruise companies seem to run tulip time cruises, all of which operate on similar schedules and with stops in many of the same ports.

We traveled on a Gate 1 river cruise aboard the Monarch Countess. However, whatever tulip time cruise you choose, these are the basics.

Tulip time is brief

Dutch tulip time river cruises run from late March through early May.

 

Tulips are only one stop on a tulip time cruise

In general, tulip time cruises longer than a couple days will include travel through both the Netherlands and Belgium. Tulips aren’t a thing in Belgium like they are in the Netherlands. However, interconnected waterways between the two nations make it easy to cover both. And Belgium has some really beautiful cities, making it a nice addition to the itinerary.

Usually only one day of the cruise will be devoted to tulips. That day will include a visit to Keukenhof Gardens and maybe a drive through an area with some fields in bloom. Some cruises may also add a visit to the wholesale flower market, but that’s less common. The rest of the cruise will be spent visiting cities, windmills, and other tourist attractions in the Netherlands and Belgium.

The ship moves mostly at night

Tulip time cruises generally travel at night, leaving the full day open to visit the day’s port or take an excursion farther afield.

 

Itinerary for the Gate 1 tulip time cruise on the Monarch Countess

We traveled with Gate 1 on the Monarch Countess. The itinerary for other cruise lines will vary some, but most will include the same ports we visited.

Like many other cruise lines, Gate 1 offers pre- and post-trip extensions. We spent two extra days in Amsterdam at the end of our cruise as part of our package. Other passengers began their cruise with four days touring Paris.

This map generally shows the route we followed and the sights where I spent time.

We cruised the first week of April. Weather this time of year can be variable. However, while it was cooler than anticipated, we had very little rain.

Day 1 – Amsterdam

Arrive in Amsterdam and transfer to the port. Embarkation begins at 2 pm. After arrival formalities, time to relax on board. Tonight, meet your Cruise Director and enjoy the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail and Dinner as it sets the mood for your delightful river cruise.

Arrival

We, like many others on our cruise, landed in Amsterdam quite early in the morning.

 

On foot in Amsterdam

Not wanting to listen to more complaining or waste a day in Amsterdam, we drank some hot chocolate in the lounge, ate a breakfast snack, and headed out to explore for the day.

Or part of the day, as it turned out to be.

I crashed before we got to most of the stops on our list, halting our day of exploring about 3 pm. But that was after walking from the cruise terminal through the heart of the city, with stops along the way to tour a church, eat lunch, and see the “floating” flower market before wandering back along the edge of the Red Light district. Most of this was more-or-less familiar territory from our wanderings a year ago. It was nice to revisit the area and made touring while sleep-deprived much easier.

Street scene with old buildings and lots of people

 

Day 2 – Nijmegen, Netherlands

The ship docks in Nijmegen, the oldest town in the Netherlands, with its beautiful river landscapes and magnificent historic buildings. Uncover traces of the city’s past on a walking tour before roaming the unique shops, outdoor cafes, and cozy restaurants on your own. The ship sails this evening to Antwerp, Belgium.

Touring Nijmegen

Initially I wasn’t that excited about visiting Nijmegen, as the city was (mistakenly) bombed during WWII and thus has relatively few historic buildings. However, we had an excellent guide who took us past the reconstructed chapel and ruins in Valkhof Park, through the farmer’s market, and into the heart of the city to the church before winding through a medieval alley and past a brewery.

medieval brick hall

We came back later that afternoon on our own to tour the church and do a beer tasting at the brewery.

 

Day 3 – Antwerp, Belgium

Today you arrive in Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest and most historic port cities, where more than half of the world’s diamonds are traded. Evidence of the wealth produced from trade during the 16th century can be seen in the opulent homes that line the city streets. The tour of the city begins at the Cathedral of our Lady, the highest Gothic building in the Low Countries and continues to the unique market place surrounded by the mighty Renaissance Town hall and numerous guild halls. Rest of the day is at leisure in Antwerp, or return to the ship for a relaxing afternoon on board.

Touring Antwerp

Our walking tour gave us a good overview of the historic center of Antwerp. It’s an interesting old city with a beautiful historic core filled with Flemish Renaissance buildings.

row of medieval guild halls

We spent the afternoon taking a closer look at the city – particularly its grand cathedral and impressive printing museum.

We wanted to do a few more things in Antwerp, but the museum took longer than anticipated. And then a late afternoon thunderstorm made wandering the city as evening fell a very wet proposition. Instead we made a dash back to the boat between downpours.

 

Day 4 – Ghent, Belgium

 Discover the historic Flanders port of Ghent today, a showcase of Flemish wealth. Your tour of this medieval city includes views of the 7th century St. Bavo’s Cathedral and the imposing Gravensteen Castle. At the town center view the gigantic Belfry, a symbol of the city’s independence, and the

Gothic-style Cloth Hall, glorifying the city’s major industry.

 Return to the ship or take the optional afternoon tour to Bruges, also known as the “Venice of the North” and home to some of Europe’s best preserved medieval buildings.

We again began the day with the cruise’s included walking tour. Like the previous tours, we got a good introduction to this gorgeous small city and what it has to offer.

Medieval buildings along a canal on a sunny day

Touring Ghent

Since we were visiting Bruges on our own after the cruise, we spent both the morning and afternoon in Ghent. That gave us time to take a closer look at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, go to the top of the belfry, wander the city a bit, and take a canal cruise. We wanted to visit the Design Museum of Ghent, but it was closed that day. Of course, that assured we had time for the canal cruise and a beer.

 

Day 5 – The Delta Works and Rotterdam, Netherlands

 Enjoy a fascinating excursion this morning to the Delta Works. After the 1953 flood in the Netherlands, where more than 1800 people drowned in one night, the Delta Plan was created to prevent a disaster of this magnitude from ever happening again. Taking 30 years to complete, the storm flood barrier, almost six miles long, stands as the final defense in the battle against the water and is considered a technical miracle.

 Rejoin the ship for lunch and continue cruising this afternoon towards Rotterdam where the ship will remain docked overnight.

Between the drive there and the tour itself, the Delta Works visit took the entire morning. But it was nice to have an afternoon to just relax and watch the scenery float by. And, as evening fell, I was able to do a little photography in Rotterdam.

red glow on buildings and bridges along a harbor

 

Day 6 – Keukenhof Gardens and Kinderdijk, Netherlands

 Depart early this morning for beautiful Keukenhof Gardens, the largest and most spectacular flower gardens in the world, where a sea of multicolored tulips stretches out over the flat Dutch landscape as far as the eye can see. Rejoin the ship in Rotterdam for lunch on board.

 This afternoon visit a windmill park in the small village of Kinderdijk on the north bank of the River Noord. The windmills, built in the 1700s, are still in use today and played a vital role in the development of the country. During this excursion, visit a windmill and learn more about the modern technology that is now replacing their existence.

This was the day I’d been waiting for – the flowers at Keukenhof and windmills at Kinderdjik. It was the one day that makes a tulip time river cruise different from any other river cruise anywhere else.

We also had a little more day cruising, which was nice.

We ate all meals on board again today, but this time there was no option as we were cruising during both lunch and dinner. While there was fish on the menu tonight, both of us went with the beautifully prepared roasted turkey breast.

Keukenhof Gardens

Fortunately, our Cruise Director made us get up really early to go to Keukenhof Gardens. That allowed us to get there before other tour groups and see the garden when it was nearly empty. There were plenty of flowers to see, beautiful weather, and no other people for the first hour or so!

rose and peach tulips in the foreground with a fountain and landscaped grounds in the background

Because it was a beautiful day and not at all crowded when we arrived, we spent all of our time in the gardens. (There are pavilions with exhibits too, but there wasn’t time to do everything.) Bulbs in bloom included a few crocuses, lots of hyacinth and daffodils, and a good number of tulips. In addition, our timing was perfect to see many flowering fruit trees at their very best. It was so beautiful!

While three hours was probably enough for most people, I was happy to know that I’d be back again in a week!

Kinderdijk

Kinderdijk is a UNESCO World Heritage site that preserves a number of windmills built to drain water from the land. It’s a place I’ve wanted to photograph for a long time, but I knew the time of day and schedule limited my photo options. It turned out even worse, as it was the only bad tour we had on the trip. The whole experience was a complete fail – and most of the problems weren’t things in Gate 1’s control.

row of windmills along a canal

 

Days 7 -9 – Amsterdam

Apparently, there were a variety of package options available with this cruise. The one we had ended with two extra days in Amsterdam. It was perfect for us because it also included a canal tour (we did one last year when we were in Amsterdam, but on a small private boat) and admission to the Rijksmuseum (which we did not visit on our previous trip to Amsterdam). And who can’t use more time in Amsterdam?

Day 7: Amsterdam city tour

Awake this morning in Amsterdam, one of the greatest small cities in the world, with its world-famous museums and historical sites. Board a glass-top boat and cruise the winding canals for an up-close view of the stately historic homes, 16th-century warehouses and charming churches. Continue on foot to view the Anne Frank House, the Royal Palace on Amsterdam’s Dam Square and the Dutch National Monument dedicated as a memorial to victims of WWII.

Rejoin the ship for lunch on board, and spend a leisurely afternoon in Amsterdam. Later, rejoin the ship for tonight’s Farewell Dinner.

We ended up skipping most of the walking tour, as the canal cruise ended in the neighborhood we wanted to visit. Our own touring began in a restaurant perched above the rooftops and then continued with a bit of sightseeing along the street, stops at the Handbag and Van Loon House museums, and an excellent beer.

 

Day 8: Rijksmuseum Tour

 Disembarkation in Amsterdam. Bid farewell to your Cruise Director and meet your local host as you visit the world-famous Rijksmuseum. On your guided tour you will explore the vast collection of works from some of the world’s greatest artists including the Dutch masters Vermeer and Rembrandt

Today was our day to take in all the Dutch masters we wanted with a visit to the Rijksmuseum.

It was also the end of the cruise portion of our trip. For the next two nights we would be staying in an upscale neighborhood within walking distance of the museum district.

Rembrandt and more at the Rijksmuseum

Our visit to the Rijksmuseum began with the museum’s pride and joy, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, and continued through the Gallery of Honor, which features masterworks by the greatest artists of the 17th Dutch Golden Age.

Our guide discussed a selection of paintings in great detail, explaining hidden clues to their meaning and why these particular paintings are viewed as master works. Not having ever studied art history, his comments were enlightening. While I tend to like the Dutch masters anyway, I ended the tour with a much greater appreciation of their work.

We wandered around a bit more of the museum, but not nearly as much as we would have liked since we had tickets for the Rembrandt show later in the day.

two women looking at the painting Night Watch

All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum

sketch of Rembrandt as a young man

While Night Watch was on display in the Gallery of Honor, most of Rembrandt’s other works from the Rijksmuseum collection were on display in a separate show commemorating the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death.

With over 300 prints, 60 drawings, and 22 paintings, the show was gorgeous, enlightening, and overwhelming.

Settling into a new neighborhood in Amsterdam

homes along a canal

With too many guests for one hotel, those of us with Gate 1’s Amsterdam extension were split into two groups. The larger group stayed near the passenger cruise terminal in what looked to be a very nice hotel. We stayed at the rather underwhelming Bilderberg Garden Hotel in the Oud-Zuid, a wealthy neighborhood just beyond the Museum District.

And, while the hotel didn’t impress me, the neighborhood was a delight. With beautiful homes, tranquil parks and canals, excellent restaurants, and interesting shops, it was a pleasure to explore this quiet bit of Amsterdam. And it’s also a pleasant walk to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

I’d gladly stay in this area again.

Food and dining

We intended to eat lunch at RiJKS, the fine dining restaurant at the Rijksmuseum. However, it proved difficult enough to find that we ate at the Café instead. The Café has a very limited menu and really slow service, but good food. And it’s convenient.

The Bilderberg had a nice bar and a large outdoor patio (with a fireplace). I describe it as a nice bar because we found a very lovely Affligem Dubbel on tap, which was all we really needed.

We had a lovely Italian dinner at Restaurant Di Bruno near our hotel.

Day 9: Full Day in Amsterdam

Day at leisure to further explore Amsterdam on your own. Perhaps experience a taste of real Dutch life by renting a bike to discover the little alleyways, hidden courtyards and canal-side treasures. Tonight, treat yourself to dinner at a fabulous restaurant, or join the effervescent night scene in this city filled with theaters, nightclubs and spirited cafes.

We had one goal for the day: The Van Gogh Museum.

The Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum holds the paintings, letters, and other material that once belonged to Vincent van Gogh’s brother Theo. That makes it a very personal look at van Gogh’s life and development as an artist. But it also means that little of the artist’s best work – which was sold to patrons – is on display.

 

Food and dining

We never got around to eating lunch, but made up for it a bit with another Affligem Dubbel at our hotel.

We followed that with a hearty dinner at Brooks, a popular local restaurant walking distance from our hotel.

Review of our Gate 1 river cruise on the Monarch Countess

This was our first European river cruise and our second time booking travel through Gate 1.

While there were a few surprises, our tulip time river cruise was generally what I expected or better. And, since it seems there are very few online Gate 1 river cruise reviews in general, let alone reviews of the Monarch Countess, you can find a full review below.

Gate 1 Travel

As we discovered on this cruise, Gate 1 Travel has a very loyal following. Most other passengers had taken multiple tours and/or cruises with the company – up to 16 in at least one case.

We traveled with Gate 1 in 2011 when we toured South Africa. That was a good trip for the money, with a great tour manager/guide, a reasonable itinerary (most of the places you would want to see and a reasonable amount of time at most of them), lots of pretty good food, and unexpectedly good hotels. I wasn’t crazy about the size of the group (too large), but it offered a lot of value for the money.

And that’s why I decided to go with Gate 1 for my tulip time river cruise.

For a budget tour company, Gate 1 offers a good value for the money on their tours. Their tulip time river cruise was no exception.

 

 

Price

Note that I refer to Gate 1 as a budget travel company.

It would probably be more accurate to describe Gate 1 as a “value” travel company. They are unlikely to be the absolute cheapest tour or cruise option available for a particular destination. However, they offer a very good value for the money, with good itineraries, decent accommodations, and very good guides at a price far below that of premiere companies. And, like every other cruise company, Gate 1 is always running special discounts.

 

The Monarch Countess

We aren’t big cruisers. However, just prior to the tulip time cruise, we spent a few days cruising the Nile in Egypt. That cruise set my expectations for the tulip time cruise.

Prior to the Nile cruise we’ve taken an “exotic” cruise across the Pacific on a relatively small (900 passenger) Princess ship, an Adriatic cruise on an even smaller (300 passenger) Croatian ship, an expedition cruise in the Galapagos (maybe 150 passengers, probably fewer), and a Barefoot tall ship cruise (70 passengers) through the Caribbean. Other than that, we generally take to the water on small boats or ferries.

Based on this experience and the experiences of river cruising friends, the Monarch Countess was about what I expected, with a few pleasant surprises and a few small disappointments.

 

Cruising on the Monarch Countess

Gate 1 Travel provides a cruise director and an activities director on each cruise. There is also a musician on board to provide evening entertainment. (Our cruise director was fantastic, but not every cruise on the Monarch Countess will have the same cruise director.)

In a couple of cities the ship was docked within walking distance of the city center. At others, buses were available to take passengers to the city or sight we were touring.

Schedule

As noted earlier, the ship generally moved only during the night. This allows a full day to explore in each port and is common along heavily industrialized waterways like those around Amsterdam. It is not unique to Gate 1 river cruises.

We had a full day in most ports, with the ship arriving during the night and departing in the evening.

Most days the schedule looked something like this:

    • Arrive in port during the night
    • Early breakfast in the lounge one hour before breakfast
    • Two hours for breakfast buffet – Beginning as early as 6:00 am and as late as 7:30, depending on the day’s activities.
    • Morning excursion
    • Lunch buffet – Usually at 12:30, but sometimes earlier or later depending on the day’s activities. (I never figured out how long they would serve lunch after the appointed start time.)
    • Afternoon excursion or free time with on-board activities available
    • Port talk to explain the next day’s schedule – 15 minutes before dinner
    • Dinner – Usually right around 7 pm
    • Evening entertainment in the lounge
    • Departure – Often, but not always, as late as 10 pm
    • Late night snacks

In most ports our departure was late enough to take an evening walk, visit a bar, or do some night photography on shore. However, the protracted dinners (it was usually 9 pm by the time dessert was served) left no time to go ashore unless you skipped dinner on board.

In port

I was aware that river cruise ships often dock along high sea walls that block the view from most or all cabins. I was not aware that, like Nile cruises, ships often double or triple dock, eliminating any view from the cabin.

Unlike the Nile, where passengers just walk through the reception area of one ship to get to and from the shore, disembarking when the ship was double docked was more challenging on the tulip cruise.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, double docking usually resulted in having to climb up and over (and sometimes back down) an exterior stairway or two when leaving or returning to the ship. That generally wasn’t a problem except when it was raining, in which case the stairs were often slippery.

Excursions

Gate 1 schedules at least one tour each day as part of the cruise.

As you can see from my itinerary, tours included in the cruise were walking tours of Nijmegen, Antwerp, Ghent, the Delta Works, Keukenhof, Kinderdijk, and Amsterdam. All of these were led by local guides. Our cruise director also led an informal walking tour of the area of Rotterdam near where we docked.

The only optional tour (for which there was an extra charge) was the half-day tour of Bruges, which we didn’t take.

 

Final assessment of this Gate 1 river cruise

Overall, I felt that the Gate 1 tulip time river cruise on the Monarch Countess was an excellent value for the money.

purple hyacinth, colorful tulips, and white daffodils with text"Belgium and the Netherlands on a Tulip Time River Cruise

Aside from one bad excursion, the itinerary, excursions, and tour guides were excellent, the staff was great, the food was very good, and the ship itself was clean and comfortable. I also really appreciated the knowledge and responsiveness of our cruise director and the effort she made to give us useful information and get us out on our tours ahead of other groups.

A slightly better designed cabin, larger public spaces, and additional dining room staff would have improved the shipboard experience. But those are minor complaints.

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purple hyacinth, colorful tulips, and white daffodils with text"Belgium and the Netherlands on a Tulip Time River Cruise

purple hyacinth, colorful tulips, and white daffodils

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