A spring river cruise in the Netherlands to view the tulips and other bulb flowers is a terrific cruise experience. We sailed on the Viking River Cruises' Viking Europe roundtrip from Amsterdam, enjoying the spectacular flowers, quaint villages, windmills, and other marvelous sites of the Netherlands and Holland.
Author's Note: Viking River Cruises uses some of its new Viking Longships for its Dutch tulip cruise itineraries now. Although the river vessels are different, the river cruise experience is still as delightful as it was when I took this cruise several years ago.
Join me on this travel log of our Dutch tulip cruise.
I had been to Amsterdam a couple of times but had never explored the rest of the country. There is much more to the Netherlands than just its largest city! Here are a few interesting facts.
First of all, Holland constitutes only 2 of the 12 Dutch provinces of the Netherlands. Much of the country is "artificial", having been reclaimed from the sea over the last few centuries. Almost a quarter of the country's 40,000 square km lies below sea level, and much more of the Netherlands is at or just above sea level--no worry about altitude sickness here! There are over 2400 km of dikes to keep the sea water out, some of which are more than 25 meters high.
Dutch history goes back 250,000 years. Evidence of cave dwellers dating back this far was found in a quarry near Maastricht. Other early settlers of the area have been traced back 2000 years ago. These ancient people built huge mounds of mud as living areas to be used during the frequent sea-driven floods of their homeland. Over 1000 of these mounds are still scattered around the flat countryside, mostly near Drenthe in the province of Friesland. The Romans invaded the Netherlands and occupied the country from 59 BC to the third century AD, followed over the next few centuries by the German Franks and the Vikings. The Netherlands flourished during the 15th century. Many merchants became wealthy selling tapestries, expensive clothing, artwork, and jewelry. The Low Countries, as they were called, became famous for their shipbuilding, salted herring, and beer.
The 17th century was a golden one for the Netherlands. Amsterdam thrived as the financial center of Europe, and the Netherlands were important both economically and culturally. The Dutch East India Company, formed in 1602, was the largest trading company of the 17th century, and the world's first multinational corporation. The Dutch West India Company was founded in 1621, and it was the center of the slave trade as its ships sailed between Africa and the Americas. Explorers from both of these companies discovered or conquered countries around the world, from New Zealand to Mauritius to the island of Manhattan.
The Netherlands ultimately became an independent kingdom, and were able to remain neutral during World War I. Unfortunately, the country could not stay neutral during World War II. Germany invaded the countryside in May 1940, and the Netherlands were not liberated until 5 years later. There are many horror stories from the war, including the leveling of Rotterdam, the starvation during the Winter of Hunger, and the plight of the Dutch Jews such as Anne Frank.
The postwar years saw the Netherlands returning to the trade industry. These decades after the war also saw the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea off the Dutch coast, and the return of productive farms. Many of the Dutch worldwide colonies gained their independence during the postwar years. Today the Netherlands are seen as extremely liberal countries, with broad social programs, personal freedoms, and high tolerance for drugs.
Now that you know a little of the history and geography of the Netherlands, let's take a look at our Dutch Journey cruise on the Viking Europe.
As we flew overnight across the Atlantic, I tried to dream of fields of tulips and slowly turning windmills.
It may be hard to believe, but the tulip caused an economic disaster in Holland in 1637 never seen before. Tulips started out simply as wildflowers in Central Asia and were first grown in Turkey. (The word tulip is Turkish for a turban.) Carolus Clusius, director of the oldest botanical garden in Europe located in Leiden, was the first to bring the bulbs into the Netherlands. He and other horticulturists quickly found that the bulbs were well suited for the cool, damp climate and fertile delta soil.
The beautiful flowers were quickly discovered by the affluent Dutch, and they became wildly popular. In late 1636 and early 1637, a mania for the bulbs swept through the Netherlands. Speculative buying and selling drove the price up to where some tulip bulbs cost more than a house! A single bulb fetched the equivalent of 10 years' salary for the average Dutch worker. Much of the speculative trading was done in pubs, so alcohol-fueled the tulipmania. The bottom fell out of the market in February 1637, with many merchants and citizens seeing their fortunes lost. Some speculators were left with unsold bulbs, or with bulbs that were on "layaway". The concept of options arose from this disaster, and the term tulipmania still is used to describe an investment frenzy.
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The first windmills in Holland were built in the 13th century and were used to grind flour. Within a hundred years, the Dutch had improved on the windmill design, and the gears were used to pump water. Soon hundreds of windmills dotted the dikes overlooking the flat lands, and the mass drainage of land began. The next big improvement was the invention of the rotating cap mill. The top of these windmills rotated with the wind, allowing the mill to be operated by just one person.
Although pumping water to drain land was the most famous use of the mills, windmills were also used for sawing wood, making clay for pottery, and even crushing paint pigments. By the mid-1800's, over 10,000 windmills were operating all over the Netherlands. However, the invention of the steam engine made the windmills obsolete. Today there are less than 1000 windmills, but the Dutch people recognize that these windmills, and the skills needed to operate them, should be preserved. The Dutch government runs a 3-year school to train windmill operators, who must also be licensed.
After our almost 9-hour flight, we arrived in Amsterdam in the early morning. Juanda and I had a day and a half to explore Amsterdam before we board the Viking Europe.
Since we were a day early for our cruise, we took a taxi from the airport into the city. Schiphol Airport is the third busiest in Europe, so there were lots of taxis available. After about a 30-minute ride we dropped off our luggage at the hotel and set off to explore the city.
Choosing a hotel for only one night was a challenge, especially for a Saturday night during the spring tourist season. We wanted to stay in a place that would give us a sense of the Amsterdam atmosphere and culture, so we avoided the chain hotels that promise consistency, but not necessarily an interesting Dutch atmosphere. I first checked on small hotels or bed and breakfasts but quickly found that many of them required a stay of at least 2 or 3 nights. Using some of my Netherlands guide books, and searching the Web, I hope I found just what we were looking for--the Ambassade Hotel. The Ambassade is located downtown and was constructed from 10 canal houses. The hotel has 59 rooms, and promises to "offer all the advantages of this modern age but with the valuable heritage of a bygone era."
After sitting for hours, we were ready to set off from the hotel on foot and do some exploring. Since the Viking Europe was going to stay overnight in Amsterdam, and the cruise package included a tour of the canals and of the Rijksmuseum, we saved those two "must-dos" for after we checked in with the ship. Since our hotel was near the Anne Frank house, we walked over there first. It is open from 9 am to 9 pm, starting April 1. Lines get very long, and you can't take an organized tour. Going early in the morning or after dinner helps keep the wait less.
After walking around for a while or touring the Anne Frank house, we headed towards the central station to visit the Tourist Center near there and buy some tram tickets. The circle tram is a hop-on-hop-off tram line running through Amsterdam city center in both directions past most of the attractions and hotels. With the circle tram number 20, it is easy to move from one attraction to another without having to change lines.
Since the weather was dreary, we headed to one of the museums other than the Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam has many attractions and museums for all tastes. Two museums are located in a large park area within walking distance of each other and the Rijksmuseum. The Vincent van Gogh Museum includes 200 of his paintings (donated by van Gogh's brother Theo) and 500 drawings as well as works by other well known 19th century artists. It is located near the Rijksmuseum. Next to the van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Modern Art Museum is filled with fun works by trendy contemporary artists. Major movements of the last century such as modernism, pop art, action painting, and neo-realism are represented.
The Dutch Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum), across the street from the zoo, has displays explaining the Dutch resistance to the German occupying forces of World War II. Propaganda movie clips and touching stories of efforts to hide local Jews from the Germans bring the terrors of living in an occupied city to life. Interestingly, the museum is also near the location of the former Schouwburg theater, which was used as a holding place for Jews awaiting transport to concentration camps. The theater is now a memorial.
After our overnight flight and walking or touring the city for a while, we headed back to the hotel and cleaned up for dinner. Amsterdam has a vast array of cuisines. Since we were tired from our overnight flight, we ate a light dinner near our hotel. The next day we were off to join the Viking Europe.
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We joined the Viking Europe our second day in Amsterdam. Some of our fellow cruisers spent three days in Amsterdam as part of a pre-cruise extension package. Others flew overnight from the U.S. and arrived in Amsterdam in the early morning. We were all excited about the upcoming cruise and meeting new friends.
After a relaxing Sunday morning exploring the area near our hotel, Juanda and I took a taxi to the ship. We had spent our time walking the streets and canals of this marvelous city and visiting the Anne Frank House. The tourist bureau near the Central Station had walking tours designed to take you through some of the most interesting parts of the city.
The Viking Europe was conveniently docked near the Central Station. We had a canal tour on Sunday. Although I had taken a canal tour in Amsterdam before, it was a good chance for Juanda to see more of the city. The architecture of Amsterdam is so interesting, and the stories about the city and its canals so fascinating, it's fun to see it over and over again.
At the end of the day, we made our way back to the Viking Europe for a "welcome aboard" cocktail reception and dinner. The Viking Europe stayed overnight at the dock, and we did some more touring of Amsterdam the next day.
The Viking Europe has 3 identical siblings, the Viking Pride, Spirit, and Neptune, and they were all built in 2001. The ships are 375 feet long, with 3 decks and 75 cabins, each with its own private bath with shower, telephone, TV, safe, air conditioning and hair dryer. With 150 passengers and 40 crew, we met many of our fellow cruisers. The cabins are either 120 square feet or 154 square feet, so space was adequate. We didn't spend much time in our cabin since most of the day we were out tiptoeing through those tulips or seeing the Dutch countryside.
We stayed another day in Amsterdam and went to the Floriade horticultural fair and the Rijksmuseum via tour bus.
I loved this special horticultural fair, which is only held once every 10 years. The Floriade opened in April and ran through October 2002. Three million visitors visited the horticultural exposition. We were there during "prime" tulip season, but tulips bloomed at the Floriade from the opening in April through to the last day in October. Tulip grower Dirk Jan Haakman used cold storage to protect these lovely flowers. In springtime, he refreshed the tulips every two weeks, later on in the season once a week.
The theme of Floriade 2002 was "Feel the Art of Nature', and we got an opportunity to do just that. Visitors walked through a colorful valley of one million bulb flowers. Asian, African and European gardens allowed us to see flora from around the world.
Garden and landscape architect Niek Roozen designed the Floriade 2002 master plan. He incorporated existing natural elements, such as the Genie Dike, a part of Amsterdam's old defenses, and the 20-year-old Haarlemmermeerse Bos (woods). The glass roof in the section of the park near the roof was a spectacular attraction. There was even a pyramid in the Haarlemmermeer. It took 500,000 cubic meters of sand to build Big Spotters' Hill. On top of this 30-meter-high observation hill stood a work of art by Auke de Vries.
The Floriade Park consisted of three sections, near the Roof, by the Hill and on the Lake. Each section had its own character and atmosphere. In addition, each section interpreted the main theme of the Floriade in its very own way. The section near the Roof was located on the northern side of the park and connected with the northern entrance. An opening through the Genie Dike led to the second section, by the Hill, to the southwest of near the Roof. Further south was the third section, on the Lake. This section covered the northern part of the Haarlemmermeerse Bos, which was established well over twenty years ago.
This wonderful museum is the gateway of the Museum Quarter. Pierre Cuypers, the same architect who designed the Central Station, conceived this museum in 1885. Don't be surprised if you think the buildings resemble each other! The Rijksmuseum is the premier museum in Amsterdam, welcoming over 1.2 million visitors a year. There are 5 major collections in the museum, but the "Paintings" section is probably the most famous. Here you will find the Dutch and Flemish masters from the 15th to the 19th century. The huge Nightwatch by Rembrandt is the showpiece of this section. I never realized that this famous painting was almost a mural in size! The painting was not originally named the Nightwatch. It got its name because all the grime and soot it accumulated through the years gave it a dark look. The painting has been restored and is really special.
It was late in the afternoon when we returned to the Viking Europe. We were all tired from our day at the Floriade and the Rijksmuseum. We sailed from Amsterdam for Volendam, Edam, and Enkhuizen.
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After leaving Amsterdam, we sailed north to Volendam, Edam , and Enkhuizen in Noord Holland. After spending the night at Volendam, our group traveled via bus through the bucolic Dutch countryside to Edam, home of the world famous cheeses. On to Hoorn, named for its horn-shaped harbor, and finally on to Enkhuizen, where we rejoined the ship.
Edam is only a 30-minute drive north of Amsterdam, but its small-town and sedate atmosphere was a refreshing change after the hustle and bustle of the city. At one time, Edam had over 30 shipyards and was a busy whaling port. Now the city of only 7000 inhabitants is quiet and peaceful, except during the July and August cheese market. We saw the old Kaaswaag, the cheese weigh house, where 250,000 pounds of cheese were once sold each year. Edam also has some picturesque canals, drawbridges, and warehouses.
Hoorn was once the capital of West Friesland and home of the Dutch East India Company, so it was a very booming port city in the 17th century. Now Hoorn is home to a harbor full of yachts, and the scenic harbor is lined with stately homes. Hoorn had 2 famous sailor sons--one was the first to sail around the tip of South America in 1616 and named it after his hometown--Cape Horn. The second explorer discovered New Zealand and Tasmania a few years later.
Enkhuizen is one of the most delightful towns on the West Frisian peninsula, and we were glad to spend the night there. Like many other port cities, Enkhuizen's prime was during the heyday of the Dutch merchant fleet. However, when the Zuiderzee began to silt up in the late 17th century, Enkhuizen's role as an important port also dried up. The small town is now home to the Zuiderzeemuseum, an impressive historical look at life in the region before the bay was sealed off in 1932. The museum consists of an open air museum that looks like a mock Zuiderzee village from the early 20th century, complete with inhabitants in traditional dress.
After spending a day in Noord Holland, we dined and slept overnight on the Viking Europe while docked in Enkhuizen.
The next day on our Viking Europe Dutch Journey, we had a bus tour of the Friesland lake region of the Netherlands and the village of Hindeloopen. We rejoined the ship in Lemmer to cruise on the Ijssel River over dinner to Kampen.
Friesland is often called the lake district of the Netherlands. It is flat, green, and has many lakes. The region is also full of black and white cows, the namesake Frisians. The residents of Friesland live on mostly reclaimed land, and old stories are told about the early days of the "new" land that sometimes it was difficult to tell whether you were in muddy water or watery mud!
One of the more interesting women who called the Friesland region her home was the famous Mata Hari from World War I. There is a Mata Hari museum in Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland. Leeuwarden also has two other interesting museums--the Fries Museum and the Princessehof Museum. The Fries Museum tells the story of the Frisian culture and has many silver pieces--long a specialty of Frisian artisans. The Princessehof museum is a haven for pottery or ceramic lovers. The Princessehof has tiles from around the world, and fantastic selections from the Far East.
Our tour stopped at Hindeloopen, a small village on the Ijsselmeer. This picturesque town has canals, little bridges, and a nice waterfront. Hindeloopen is also one of the key towns in the Elfstedentocht, the Eleven Cities Race. This speed skating marathon event is 200km long and the record time is over 6 hours. The Eleven Cities Race takes place in the Friesland Region, but can only be held in years when all of the canals are frozen. The "annual" race has only been held 15 times since 1909. The race cannot even be scheduled until 3 days before it is run, and the entire district participates in either skating, working, or watching the event. Sounds like fun!
A short cruise on the Ijssel River will bring the Viking Europe to Kampen. This small town has not yet been overrun by tourists, much like some of the other towns in the Overijssel region. We took a walking tour of Kampen, stopping to see the Nieuwe Tower and the 14th-century Bovenkerk church.
The Viking River cruised throughout the Captain's dinner, stopping at the Hanseatic city of Deventer for the night. Deventer was a busy port as far back as 800 AD. Today the city has a compact circle of interesting canals and some wonderful architecture in many of its buildings. Some of our fellow passengers wandered around the village after dinner. One of the nice things about a river cruise is that the ship usually docks right in the center of town.
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Anyone who has studied World War II is familiar with the Dutch city of Arnhem. The city was almost leveled during the War, and thousands of British troops were killed near Arnhem during one of the worst Allied losses of the War--Operation Market Garden. We cruised to Arnhem during the morning hours from the Hanseatic city of Deventer, admiring the scenery along the way. After our busy schedule, the river cruise was a welcome respite!
When we arrived in Arnhem, we transferred to a motorcoach for the short ride to the Netherlands Open Air Museum (Nederlands Openluchtmuseum). This 18-acre park features a collection of old buildings and artifacts from every region in the country. There is a little of everything. Old farmhouses, windmills, trams, and workshops are available for exploring. In addition, craftsmen in authentic costumes demonstrate traditional skills such as weaving and blacksmithing. Our group came away from the Open Air Museum more educated about the culture and heritage of the Netherlands.
Next, we were off to the city of windmills - Kinderdijk!
The next day of our Dutch Journey on the Viking Europe started with a morning cruise to Kinderdijk. We were at Kinderdijk to see windmills! Kinderdijk is located 60 miles south of Amsterdam and is one of the best-known sights of Holland and together with the Zaanse Schans, Kinderdijk is probably one of the best-preserved examples of the typical Dutch landscape. Images of the Kinderdijk windmill landscape are featured in every photo book on Holland. In 1997, the Kinderdijk mills were placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Eighteen windmills dating from the mid-1700's are along the banks of the Lek River and stand over the marshes. The windmills at Kinderdijk come in several different types, and all are maintained in operating condition. The Dutch have been reclaiming the land in this area for centuries, and if you are at Kinderdijk on a Saturday in July or August, you might be able to see all of the windmills working simultaneously. Must be quite a sight!
In the afternoon, we cruised to Rotterdam, Europe's busiest port. Rotterdam was almost completely destroyed during World War II. In May 1940, the German government issued an ultimatum to the Dutch government--either surrender or cities like Rotterdam would be destroyed. The Netherlands government gave in to the Germans, but the planes were already airborne. Most of the center of the city of Rotterdam was destroyed. Because of this destruction, much of the last 50+ years has been spent rebuilding the city. Today the city has a unique look unlike any other city in Europe.
The next day we were off to see the famous Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam.
Our Dutch Journey on the Viking Europe river cruise ship was almost over as we traveled to the place that first peaked my interest in visiting the Netherlands in the spring--Keukenhof Gardens.
After spending the night on the Viking Europe moored in Rotterdam, we traveled to Schoonhoven, famous for its gold and silverware. While in Schoonhoven, we had a walking tour of the village, and Juanda and I both purchased some distinctive silver jewelry. After lunch on the ship, we boarded a motorcoach and traveled through the peaceful countryside to Keukenhof Gardens.
Keukenhof is the world's largest flower garden. It is about 10 miles south of Haarlem, near the towns of Hillegom and Lisse. This 65-acre park attracts over 800,000 visitors during the 8 week tulip season of about mid-March to mid-May. (The time changes slightly each year.)
Keukenhof gardeners combine nature with artificial means to produce millions of tulips and daffodils at exactly the same time each year. In addition to the tulips and daffodils, hyacinths and other flowering bulbs, flowering shrubs, ancient trees, and other countless flowering plants are there to entertain and enthrall the visitors. Furthermore, there are ten indoor exhibitions or flower parades and seven theme gardens. The garden also has coffee shops and four self-service restaurants.
Keukenhof Gardens makes every photographer look like a professional. I have never made pictures that got as many compliments as those I took of Keukenhof and the Floride in the Netherlands in spring.
We rejoined the ship back in Amsterdam and were at the dock in Amsterdam overnight.
The next morning, we flew home to Atlanta from Amsterdam. On our overnight flight to Amsterdam, I daydreamed of windmills, tulips, wooden shoes, and those all-important dikes. On the way home, I could vividly picture those memories of the Netherlands thanks to our fantastic cruise tour!
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.