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?
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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
- Itinerary for the Gate 1 tulip time cruise on the Monarch Countess
- Review of our Gate 1 river cruise on the Monarch Countess
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.
This coincides with the flower season in Holland (the Netherlands), which usually begins in March with crocuses. Daffodils and hyacinths bloom next. Tulips don’t usually begin to bloom until mid-April. They have a fairly short season and usually only bloom through the first week of May. Of course, bloom times are weather dependent: Flowers may bloom a week or two earlier or later if the winter was unusually warm or cold.
The different types of flowers also have early, middle, and late-blooming varieties. That means there will still be crocuses blooming when the earliest daffodils and hyacinth start and there will still be daffodils and hyacinth (and maybe even a few crocuses) when the first tulips bloom.
The largest and most famous flower garden, Keukenhof, is open for two months each year between mid-March and mid-May. And, unlike the bulb fields that grow only one variety of flower at a time, Keukenhof plants layers of early, middle, and late-season bulbs together to ensure there will be plenty of color while the garden is open.
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.
The Netherlands itself doesn’t seem to be a big cruising destination except during the spring tulip season. For that brief period, the country’s waterways fill with river cruisers seeking a landscape filled with colorful tulips.
Unfortunately, most of the waterways in Holland are either very commercial with lots of industrial development or very flat and rural without much scenery. And tulips are only grown in a few parts of country, none of which seem to be located along waterways used by river cruise ships.
To compensate for the lack of scenery along the waterways, ships generally travel through the region’s maze of rivers and canals at night.
During the day, tours are offered in each port. In some ports it’s also easy to sightsee independently, while other stops require a bus trip to the day’s destination.
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.
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.
We, like many others on our cruise, landed in Amsterdam quite early in the morning.
Unlike many others, my husband and I arranged our own flights and transfer to the ship.
Already (sort of) knowing how the train system worked and where the terminal was located simplified things a bit. Ending up with a great cab driver who figured out exactly where the ship was (it wasn’t where the riverboats usually dock) also saved us a lot of time and frustration.
And we were delighted to be able to drop our luggage at the ship on arrival. It was an unexpected bonus to discover we could relax in in the ship’s lounges until our room was ready in the afternoon. Not only that, but they had snacks and beverages for us!
However, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Some passengers who booked flights through Gate 1 (which offers really cheap flights) were furious because they couldn’t get into their rooms when they reached the ship at 6 am. I understand their frustration, but it was a rather unreasonable expectation – especially since it was clearly stated in the cruise information that rooms would not be available until afternoon. And why make your jet lag worse and waste a day in Amsterdam sleeping through the day?!
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.
Grootste Amsterdamse Mozaïek ‘Oersoep’
Having a general sense of where we were going didn’t preclude surprises.
The first of these was an elaborately decorated pedestrian passageway, the Grootste Amsterdamse Mozaïek ‘Oersoep.’
Created by artists Arno Coenen, and Iris Roskam, and Hans van Benteum, the passageway’s glowing glass mosaics, sculpture, and painted mirrored windows evoke images of Amsterdam past, present, and future.
The New Church (Niuwe Kerk)
While passing by, we noticed a church on Dam Square was open and promoting some sort of art exhibit.
We weren’t particularly interested in the exhibit, a 1663 painting of Saint Michael by Luca Giordano (the Italian Renaissance isn’t my thing), but the interior of the New Church itself was lovely and interesting – as one would expect of a church that dates back to the 15th century and is used for royal occasions!
The Floating Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt)
I’ll admit it. Having seen floating markets in Asia and houseboats along the canals of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, I had a Romantic vision of picturesque river barges loaded with flowers tied along the canal.
Instead the Bloemenmarkt, the “only floating flower market in the world,” consists of solidly built shacks above the canal at street level. It’s all built on barges, but there is nothing noticeably floating about it. This time of year it sells lots of bulbs (which should be planted in fall, not spring) and “cut” tulips (some fresh, but most made from wood or plastic). You can also buy all the wooden shoes, cheese, tee shirts, and tacky souvenirs you could ever want – and then some.
It was very disappointing and a little depressing.
Food and dining
We ate lunch at the Tara, where the food was ok and the decorating choices were fascinating.
As would be the case for the rest of the cruise, we ate dinner on the ship. Our dinner choices included peach chicken with mustard sauce and grilled butterfish with tomato, olive, and caper relish.
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.
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.
We came back later that afternoon on our own to tour the church and do a beer tasting at the brewery.
Saint Stephen’s Church
Although the original church was constructed here in the 13th century, Saint Stevens (Stevenskerk) was remodeled considerably in the 15th century and then heavily damaged in WWII.
Reconstruction after WWII wasn’t completed until 1969. But what remains today includes elements that go back to the 16th century, so it was a very interesting place to explore.
De Hemel Brewery
After more than 30 years in business, De Hemel (Heaven) Brewery is the oldest craft beer brewery in the Netherlands. It might also be the most beautiful, with its home in one of Nijmegen’s oldest buildings – a 12th century monastery once owned by an order of knights – and a courtyard filled with flowering trees.
And the beer? Wonderful.
The brewery wasn’t open for tours the day we visited, but it was the perfect place to relax and sample a selection of beers on a perfect spring day.
Food and dining
We ate both lunch and dinner on board the ship. Our dinner options included pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon and baked salmon trout with wine sabayon.
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.
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.
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.
Cathedral of our Lady
It took almost 200 years to construct the towering Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal), a project that began in 1521.
Despite fires, attacks, and plunder, today’s Baroque and neo-Gothic interior is filled with splendid art and objects, including paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and a gorgeous carved pulpit and choir.
The cathedral’s belfry is included in the Belfries of Belgium and France UNESCO World Heritage site.
We expected the Plantin-Moretus Museum to be interesting. After all, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and we are generally interested in books and publishing. Lane even ran a press back in the day.
But even we were surprised by the museum. Not only does it preserve the oldest printing presses in the world and a fine library of rare books, but as the home of a wealthy family for three hundred years, the museum includes amazingly well-preserved interiors and fine Flemish art. At one point we counted eleven Rubens hanging on the walls! (Peter Paul Rubens was a friend of the family. As such, he took care of the family’s portrait painting needs for a number of years.) With so many wonderful collections, it was a fascinating look into the past.
Food and dinning
We waited out the last of the afternoon downpour in a bar by the Plantin-Moretus museum where the beers were great, but the snacks pretty ordinary.
Dinner on board the ship included rack of lamb and pan-fried perch.
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.
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.
Unlike previous ports, in Ghent the cruise ship docked far from the city center. That required planning our day around the two shuttle runs provided by the cruise or taking a taxi back and forth. We opted for the shuttle, but Ghent is beautifully lit at night. It would have been worth taking a taxi back into the city (and back to the ship later) in order to do some night photography. Next time.
Saint Bavo’s Cathedral
I suppose I should be tired of cathedrals by now, but each is different and interesting. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint Baafskathedraal) was no exception. With elaborate Baroque features, loads of stained-glass windows, paintings, and soaring spaces.
Amid all of this splendor, I somehow missed the ancient painted crypt!
The Belfry of Ghent
Ghent is home to another of the UNESCO-listed Belfries of Belgium and France. It’s the tallest one in Belgium, but it has an elevator. That made “climbing” this one a very easy! There are also interesting museums on a couple of levels, so it’s worth stopping on the way up or down. And the view is lovely.
While there, we took a quick look inside the 15th century cloth hall at the base of the tower.
Ghent canal tour
Ghent is laced with canals, making a leisurely tour by boat an ideal way to see the city.
The boats provide a different perspective – and a supply of blankets assures a pleasant journey even on a chilly day.
Food and Dining
We should have stayed in Ghent for lunch, but with limited shuttle options, we headed back to the boat to change into warmer jackets and eat lunch before returning to the city.
Likewise, it was just so much easier (and cheaper) to eat the meal included in our cruise than take a taxi into the city to eat in a restaurant. And, the food on the ship was pretty good. On this evening we had pot roast with red wine sauce and grilled gilthead seabream with beurre blanc and risotto.
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.
I wasn’t convinced the Delta Works tour would be very interesting. I was wrong. It was fascinating.
The Delta Works is a massive project that creates a storm barrier across an arm that opens to the North Sea to protect the region from flooding. I’m not big on humans thinking they should control the environment, but it’s clear that the Dutch take a more ecological approach to their engineering these days. And the project itself is impressive. Touring the section with the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier (a system of huge sliding gates that can be closed when storms threaten to flood the land) was a great engineering geek-out. My friends from MnDOT would have loved it.
The Neeltje Jans Delta Park includes a lot of things for kids (including some really inappropriate seal and sea lion shows), but it also provides access to the storm surge barrier itself. The exhibit about the barrier is actually located inside a portion of it.
This was the first time the ship moved during daylight. It was nice to see some of the countryside, although it made me really want to be on land, in a car exploring!
We’ve gone through quite a number of locks as we’ve traveled, but, of course, we couldn’t see any of them. Today we went through the large locks at Philips Dam during daylight hours, so everyone gathered in the lounge to watch. (A few hardy souls were on the top deck. This was one of the warmer days we’ve had, but it was still pretty chilly.)
If you’ve ever gone through a lock you know it’s a slow process. And this one seemed particularly slow because the Philips Dam and locks are designed more as an exchange of fresh and salt water (to maintain a freshwater lake) than a change in water level. That process seemed to involved a little extra pumping and draining than a normal lock, so it all took a good long time.
We’d had the afternoon to watch ship traffic moving on the water (the amount of commercial river traffic is impressive) and we passed large industrial and port facilities as we entered the Rotterdam.
Because it is such a huge port city, I was expecting we would be far from any place we could walk to. Thus, I was delighted when we tied up within sight of the magnificent Erasmus Bridge (Erasmusbrug).
Not only did I have a fabulous view of the bridge right from my cabin, but we were within easy walking distance of the cube houses and an interesting neighborhood. I finally had a great (if cold) night to do some photography!
Food and Dining
We ate all of our meals on board again, but this would have been a great night to eat somewhere in Rotterdam. But the cruise included meals and the dinners were generally very good, so it was hard to justify going out and spending money in a restaurant. (That’s both a positive and negative of cruising.) Tonight’s dinner options included a lovely crispy grilled Barbary duck breast with hickory smoke flavor sauce. And dinner was early enough that I was out in time to photograph the blue hour.
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.
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!
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 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.
Our tour guide was competent, but she stood forever in a boring spot talking about the history of the large site we had limited time to see. And the speaker system wasn’t working, so we couldn’t hear her anyway. A LOT of time got wasted just standing around while the sun peeked through the clouds to create beautiful light on some windmills farther down the canal.
I should have just left the group and walked down to those windmills. However, I actually was hoping to learn more about the site and our tour included a canal cruise that I definitely didn’t want to miss.
But I didn’t learn much.
No one at the park was minding the windmill museum, so there were probably 100 people in a space big enough for 20. Add a couple flights of narrow, twisting stairs and it became impossible to see anything inside.
Once I’d seen about half the rooms, I could hear the guide yelling (from outside) that we had to leave NOW to catch the boat for our cruise. Since I really wanted to see (and photograph) those beautifully lit windmills farther down the canal, I skipped the rest of the windmill museum and hustled to catch up with the group.
It was only after the boat left the dock that I discovered our “cruise on the canal” was simply a ride back to the park entrance. It was NOT a tour that took us past the rest of the windmills. (There were tours that cruised past the windmills, but not ours.)
By then it was too late. Once back at the entrance I needed to walk back to where I caught the boat and then on to the windmills I wanted to see. There wasn’t time. There would have been time if I had skipped the “cruise,” but there was too much backtracking now.
The whole experience was awful and terribly disappointing. It was the only bad experience on the week-long cruise, but it was bad.
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.
De Riekermolen Windmill
We started our day on a bus that took us beyond the heart of Amsterdam to see De Riekermolen, a historic windmill that stands in an area where Rembrandt used to sketch. It’s a cool-looking windmill, but not open to the public or even located on public property. And there were a lot of tour groups there, so it was kind of hard to image the bucolic scene Rembrandt would have found.
Amsterdam canal cruise
Lane and I took a canal tour last summer when we were in Amsterdam, but I’m not one to ever turn down an opportunity to get out on the water. Besides, last summer we were on a small private boat that went where the big tour boats can’t go. This would be a different experience.
Fortunately, there was plenty of room to move around and take pictures on the boat. (Some tour groups fill every seat to save money. Gate 1 left us in smaller groups, so there was plenty of space.) While the canal tour covered many of the same sights we saw last year, it also went some other places. And, of course, it was nice just to have another chance to admire Amsterdam.
Lunch above the rooftops
We ditched our tour group after the canal cruise. But not before our very helpful guide told us how to find blue Amsterdam and a great view over the city.
Located in a tower above a shopping mall, blue turned out to have good views and tasty lunch options. It was a great spot to relax and just soak in the view. And we would not have found it on our own!
Pathé Tuschinski Theater
We made a quick stop in the lobby of the Pathé Tuschinski Theater.
The wildly colorful theater dates back to the Roaring 20s and features a wild mix of Amsterdam School, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco details.
Museum of Bags and Purses
The Museum of Bags and Purses (Tassen Museum Hendrikje – now closed) in Amsterdam features both a permanent exhibit on the history of bags and purses (note that men were the first to carry purses) and a wide range of temporary exhibits. Besides the main historical exhibit, we saw exhibits focused on travel, high-end design, the use of natural materials, and more.
Museum Van Loon
The Museum Van Loon is a canal house from 1672 with an interior that evokes life in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age.
The fully-furnished property includes the residence, coach house, and formal garden. It’s an interesting step back in time.
More food and dining
While our light lunch at blue (see above) was delicious, we needed an afternoon snack before returning to the ship.
That brought us to Grand Café 1884, a delightful café and bar located between the Central Station and the cruise terminal. It was the perfect spot for a beer with a side of frites. And we found a perfect beer in the Hertog Jan Arcener Tripel.
For our final dinner on the ship we were served our choices of roasted beef tenderloin or grilled halibut. As was the case most nights, I went with the fish and was not disappointed.
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.
All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum
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
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.
The museum displays a large number of self-portraits, which were very interesting, but so crowded it was hard to really see them. The museum also makes interesting connections between van Gogh and other artists. I found the connections with Paul Gauguin particularly interesting, as there was much more of an exchange between the two than I realized. Likewise, it was fascinating to see some of van Gogh’s experiments, including his experiments with copying the Japanese woodblock prints he collected and pieces by other artists.
However, unexpectedly, my favorite section of the museum may have been the Hockney exhibit, Two Painters, One Love. This exhibit mixed a few wonderful van Gogh paintings with monumental landscapes by David Hockney. It was interesting to see how van Gogh inspired Hockney. However, The most interesting part was the collection of videos showing Hockney creating the images on display using his iPad! It was like seeing the artist thinking.
Despite timed tickets and a ban on photography, sections of the Van Gogh Museum were at least as crowded as the Rijksmuseum. Cramped stairways, rather dark galleries, and lots of other visitors made the experience rather exhausting.
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.
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.
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.
To get the best value, subscribe to their email list to receive notices of Gate 1 deals on tours, cruises, and other vacation options.
If you are looking for an even better deal, follow discount sites like Travel Zoo and then book as soon as you see a deal you like.
That’s what we did.
We booked the Gate 1 11 Day Tulip Time River Cruise with 2 days in Amsterdam in May 2018 using a Travel Zoo discount. The total price (for two of us) was $3800 for a standard cabin with a French balcony. The Travel Zoo discount shaved a bit more off Gate 1’s already discounted price.
(For comparison, if you booked the same cruise and cabin for next year’s cruise right now at Gate 1’s “discounted” price, you would pay $2500 per person.)
Although Gate 1 river cruises are offered on several ships, the Monarch Countess was the only ship sailing during the time-frame we wanted. But that was ok, because cruises on the Countess are cheaper than those on the newer Monarch Empress.
If you’ve never booked through a site like Travel Zoo, be aware: Deals can sell out almost immediately. There were almost no French balcony cabins left when we booked a few hours after seeing the announcement.
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.
Passengers couldn’t check into their rooms until 2 pm, although a few particularly unpleasantly insistent passengers were able to get in earlier.
- Luggage can be stored on the ship at any time before check-in.
- Lounges are open for passengers to use prior to check-in and are stocked with beverages and light snacks. Breakfast and a light lunch are also available for early arrivals.
- While Gate 1 Travel’s flight arrangements can be a good deal for some people, booking flights through Gate 1 does not guarantee either arrival on the ship after check-in begins or early check-in.
The Monarch Countess was built in 2010, but cabins and other interior spaces have either been extremely well maintained or updated at some point. There wasn’t much obvious wear.
However, I was surprised to find our room on the Sapphire Deck was smaller and less functional than the cabin on the Nile cruise.
- There wasn’t space for two people to easily move around the room.
- Storage space was poorly designed, with neither usable space for storing clothing or to use luggage for storage. Shelves were mostly in odd sizes or cumbersome locations and there were no drawers. Nor was there space to store a suitcase where it could be easily opened.
- Although there was a side chair, there really wasn’t much room to sit there.
- Bathrooms were on the small side even for a cruise ship, but functional. Oddly, the hand towels were quite large and the bath towels absolutely miniscule.
- The safe was very small. Don’t expect a large DSL camera or even the smallest laptop to fit inside.
But it was comfortable enough, with:
- A decent bed
- Lots of well-located outlets
- Big sliding doors we could open on the rare warm day
Free wifi was available in the cabin and throughout the ship. Quality varied dramatically depending on what port we were in.
There was also a TV, which we never used again after watching the safety video.
Cards with safety information and the service directory were missing from our room. We had to ask for them. Ship staff assume they will be left in the room at the end of the cruise. However, since there is so little room in the cabin, daily schedules and other paper get stacked on top of them and the entire stack – including the safety and services information – invariably ends up in the trash or packed in a suitcase with other travel memorabilia.
The staff servicing the rooms were very good. Andrea, who was in charge of my room, actually found a gold earring I lost somewhere in the room before I even realized I’d lost it! I was both surprised and delighted to find it sitting in a prominent spot on my desk when I returned from my morning tour.
The Monarch Countess has two lounges.
- The main lounge in the ship’s bow has a bar where drinks and coffee seemed to be available most of the day. This is also the largest of the two lounges. As such, this is where the daily port briefing and evening events are held. Unfortunately, it is not large enough for the number of passengers on board. Get there early if you want a seat.
- The other lounge, located in the back of the ship, is smaller, but it has coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and cookies available throughout the day.
The dinning room was large and quite comfortable, with a mix of table sizes and seating options. There are big windows on both sides, so it’s easy to watch the other river traffic while cruising.
A full sun deck has a small hot tub, but no pool. There are lots of chairs, but when I traveled it was generally too cold to be up there.
The reception area is very small, with only a tiny seating area. This is where the Countess reception staff and the Gate 1 cruise director have desks.
The food on the Countess was the biggest surprise, as it was very good and much better than on my Nile cruise.
That was particularly true for dinner.
Dinners included an appetizer, choice of one of two soups, choice of one of three main courses (meat, fish, or vegetarian), and a choice between two desserts or a cheese buffet. A Caesar salad or mixed green salad and chicken breast or salmon were also available each night. Red and white wines were offered at dinner, with the wine changing each night to complement the meat and fish being served. The same basic beer was also available each night.
- While some of the soup courses and desserts were a little odd or not quite as described, the main courses were all beautifully prepared and very good.
- Wine was poured freely throughout the meal. Apparently, that is standard for many river cruises, but not something I’ve experienced before.
Neither breakfast or lunch were as good as dinner. Both were served buffet-style and the food quality just wasn’t as good as in the evening. There were quite a few options though, as along with a buffet that included options that changed each day along with a number of staples, a special cooked-to-order dish was also available each day. In addition, made-to-order eggs were always available at breakfast and burgers were available at lunch.
All meals had open seating, with tables that sat between four and eight people. There were no tables for two.
Service was a bit of a problem, especially at dinner. The staff was very friendly and generally competent, but under-staffing resulted in extremely slow service. Dinner generally took two hours, with 10 or 20 minutes (or more) between courses simply because there weren’t enough staff on hand. That’s too long.
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.
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.
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.
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.
City tours were in the morning, giving passengers the afternoon to explore on their own. The Keukenhof tour was a brief introduction and orientation to the gardens, with most of the time left open for independent wandering.
One thing I particularly appreciated about this Gate 1 river cruise was the cruise director’s willingness to make passengers get up early and get moving in the morning. There was plenty of grumbling when a particularly early start was announced, but on those days, we were generally the first or second tour group to arrive at the site we were visiting. This greatly enhanced our experience in Keukenhof, but also in other places where we completed much of our tour before other tour groups flooded the site.
(Since most tulip time cruises are stopping at the same destinations, smaller places – even cities like Ghent –can get very crowded.)
All of the tours generally provided a good overview of the destination. And, when they were working, the wireless sound system made it easy to hear the guide even without standing in a tight group. Oddly, women seemed to have more trouble getting the system to broadcast their voice without breaking up then men.
All tours were led by local guides and almost all of the guides we had were excellent.
Gate 1 cruises can carry about 130 passengers. That is a very large group.
To manage that, our cruise director split us into three or four groups for each day’s tour by setting out bowls of colored paper slips. You could take whatever color you wanted as long as there were still some available.
This system allowed her to manage group size without creating groups randomly or on a first-come, first-served basis. That let passengers traveling together or newly acquainted friends to easily ensure they were in the same tour group from day to day. It also allowed the cruise director to establish a “gentle walking” group by designating one color as the tour that would move at a slower pace and avoid as many stairs as possible.
But even with this system, groups could still have up to 40 people in them. While that’s common for group tours (and smaller than some), it’s still too many.
Gate 1 excursions are not for passengers with limited mobility
Apparently, river cruise passengers overall are older and less fit than participants on land-based tours. The passengers on this cruise fit that description, as the mix was much older and slower moving than on any other group tour or cruise I’ve taken.
Gate 1 cruises include almost all tours as part of the cruise package. However, participants are expected to be fit enough to stand, climb stairs, and walk over uneven ground for several hours. This is noted in all information about the cruise.
Our cruise director’s decision to create a self-selecting “gentle walking” group was NOT Gate 1 policy and not something she’d felt the need to do on other cruises. (Apparently this particular cruise had an older, less mobile mix than the typical Gate 1 cruise.) However, it was a way to manage a situation that frustrated both those with limited mobility and those forced to wait for them. I think everyone on board appreciated her decision, but it was not normal for a Gate 1 cruise.
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.
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.