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Overview and Embarkation in Amsterdam
A tulip cruise is a perfect way to greet springtime and to see some of the Netherlands and Belgium. The spring flowers are at their best from about mid-March through mid-May, and most river cruise lines send ships to Amsterdam in the early spring for cruises that last seven to ten days.
I cruised on the AMAWaterways Amalegro on a 9-day cruise tour in early April, and loved this itinerary. Our days were filled with the opportunity to explore several intriguing cities and villages of the Netherlands and Belgium either with a guide or independently. The ship was beautiful, and the crew did an excellent job of taking care of all the Amalegro passengers--they kept us well fed, entertained, and as busy as we chose to be.
Two Days in Amsterdam
Arriving in Amsterdam from our overnight flight, we easily met up with the AMA representative and took the shuttle to the ship, arriving there about 10:30 am. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our cabins were already cleaned, and by the time we... had a coffee/tea and cookies, our bags were in the cabin.
We unpacked, ate a light lunch, and walked the short distance into town. It was cloudy, but not raining, so mom and I sat outside on the Damrak (the main street of Amsterdam that links the Central Train Station with the Palace Square) in a sidewalk cafe and enjoyed a Dutch beer along with some people watching. The spring holidays brought out thousands of college students, and many seemed to be strolling along the Damrak.
The ship was completely full, with about 150 passengers. We enjoyed meeting some of our new fellow cruisers over drinks and dinner, but soon after, most of us went to bed early.
The next morning we had a hearty breakfast before leaving the ship at 8:30 am on an Amsterdam city tour by canal boat and bus. The weather was cold (low of 40, high of 50) and cloudy. The Amsterdam canal tour was interesting, much like we had enjoyed before. You can see much of the city from a boat, and looking at the row houses from the water is a different perspective than walking. The boat passed by many historic sites, including the Ann Frank house. We had about an hour's free time at the flower market, where I bought a stocking cap and gloves. Probably the best 20 euros I've ever spent, since I wore them most days. We were back on the ship by lunch and we sailed for Volendam.Continue to 2 of 13 below.
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Volendam from the AMAWaterways Amalegro
During lunch, we sailed north on the Il River for Volendam in North Holland, arriving about 3 pm. Our short voyage took us through a lock into the Markermeer (Market Lake), which is part of the larger Ijsselmeer. The Ijsselmeer was once known as the Zuiderzee before the Great Enclosure Dyke closed it off from the North Sea in 1933. Today the Ijsselmeer is a very shallow freshwater lake.
Volendam is a former fishing town, but today it has more tourists than fish, although we did see one small shop selling eels. The village is busy, but it is charming in its own way, with workers decked out in traditional Dutch costumes. The good news is that most of the tourists are packed in the shops, bars, and restaurants along the main street of Volendam, which is atop the dyke.
Our walking tour took us behind the dyke into the charming residential area of Volendam called the Doolhof, which is a maze of narrow streets and small, neat homes with wooden gabled fronts. One warning--you could easily get... lost in the Doolhof! The guides quickly marched us by the shops located on the top of the dyke, telling us we could return later to shop. We wound our our way through the quaint, picturesque section of Volendam. This view of Volendam was much better than that on the crowded dyke!
The AMAWaterways Amalegro uses the audio VOX system for all its tours. I love these things since you can be yards away from the guide and still understand all that he/she is saying. Most other passengers really appreciate these audio devices. The guides aren't trying to scream over each other, which really makes the tours much better. On most of the tours, we had five groups -- a fast walking group, a slow walking group, and three normal groups. Mom and I always picked "normal" so I could make photos along the way.
About 20 passengers signed up for a bike riding tour from the ship at Volendam to Edam and back. They had a great time seeing the Dutch countryside at a somewhat slower pace, and they only got wet once!
Our Volendam guides led us through the small town to the coaches, and we rode the short distance (only about 10 minutes) to Edam.Continue to 3 of 13 below.
03 of 13
Edam in the Netherlands from the AMAWaterways Amalegro
In the early 1900's, Edam produced and sold over 250,000 rounds of cheese each year. Although Edam is still best known for its cheese, the town is quite lovely and enjoyable for a walking tour. Edam is filled with small canals, drawbridges, and old warehouses. Edam also has many impressive buildings and homes, reflecting the Golden Age wealth of the Netherlands. During the 17th century, Edam had 33 shipyards and was a whaling port and trade center of North Holland. Today it is mostly a bedroom community. Although only a short drive from Volendam, it's much quieter, except on cheese market days in the summertime.
The buses let us off at one end of the town, and we walked through Edam with the guides, rejoining the buses on the other side. Reboarding the buses, we rode a short distance to a farm that produces and sells cheese. I think everyone enjoyed sampling the many different varieties of cheese, and many Amalegro passengers bought some to take home.
The buses rode alongside a... dyke covered with grazing sheep and baby lambs on the way back to the Amalegro. It was a fun afternoon in the Netherlands.
That evening, we had the required safety drill before dinner. Cheri, the cruise director, pointed out that we would be close to land during much of our river voyage. In addition, since most of the rivers and canals are very shallow, if the ship started sinking, we could all just make our way to the top deck to keep our feet dry! Seriously, I don't think any of us were worried about sinking, but it's always good to know that the cruise ship personnel are well trained on safety procedures.
After another delicious dinner, we cruised overnight on the way to Arnhem.Continue to 4 of 13 below.
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Arnhem - A Day in Arnhem from the Amalegro
The AMAWaterways Amalegro arrived in Arnhem about 8 am on Easter morning. Arnhem, with a population of about 140,000 is much larger than Volendam and Edam, and is the capital of the Dutch Province of Gelderland. Most of us left the ship on buses at 9 am for our tour of Arnhem. Some passengers walked or took a taxi to one of the Arnhem churches for Easter services. The Amalegro staff provided a map of the downtown area with the churches and service times marked. Those who went to the churches couldn't understand the Dutch language, but loved the experience of celebrating Easter with Christians from another country.
World War II history buffs are very familiar with Arnhem as the site of the Operation Market Garden battle of September 1944, which was documented in the 1977 movie, "A Bridge Too Far". This battle was one of the worst for the Allies, with over 17,000 Allied troops killed, wounded, or captured. The winter of 1944-1945 was a horrible one for the Dutch civilians... living near Arnhem, as hundreds died of hunger since no food could be imported from Allied-held Belgium. Even though Arnhem was a disaster for the Allies, the Dutch still revere the Allied troops who tried in vain to capture the town.
Those interested in learning about Operation Market Garden should plan to visit the Airborne Museum Hartenstein, which is located in a mansion used by the British as their headquarters during the battle. Near the museum is the Oosterbeek War Cemetery where over 1700 Allied soldiers are buried. Since it was Easter Sunday, the museum was closed, but we did ride through the quiet, peaceful cemetery.
Today, Arnhem is an industrial city, manufacturing synthetic fibers and conducting technology research. The city also has many lovely old homes since it was once a favorite retirement place for Dutch Colonials returning from Indonesia.
The Amalegro passengers had a guided tour of the Netherlands Open Air Museum (Nederlands Openluchtmuseum) in Arnhem. This museum was opened in 1918 and is a collection of old buildings and artifacts that demonstrate the Netherlands heritage and traditions. We rode the tram with our guide to the furthest point in the park and walked back to the main gate, watching the costumed volunteers demonstrate blacksmithing, weaving, and farming. Before boarding the buses, we attended the HollandRama, a multimedia show that provides information on the social-economic history of the Netherlands.
I've visited other open air museums in Stockholm, Kizhi, and Bucharest, and think they all do an excellent job of attempting to preserve the architecture, crafts, and everyday life of the native peoples of the regions they represent.
We returned to the Amalegro in time for lunch, and the ship sailed for Nijmegen at noon.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
05 of 13
A Rainy Afternoon in Nijmegen in the Netherlands
Sailing from Arnhem, the Amalegro arrived in Nijmegen about 2 pm. Nijmegen is a city of about 150,000 on the Waal River near the German border where the Rhine splits as it leaves Germany. Nijmegen is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, having been founded by the Romans in the second century. Like Arnhem it is in the Gelderland province. The city is hilly and filled with trees, a stark difference from the flatlands of northwest Holland. It is a college town, with over 13,000 students enrolled at the University of Nijmegen.
The Amalegro docked very near the old town of Nijmegen, and the town was an uphill walk from the river. Unfortunately for us, the combination of an Easter Sunday afternoon and a cold rain kept the locals indoors. We donned our rainwear, raised the umbrellas, and took the uphill walk into town, but found almost everything closed. The large town square, pedestrian streets, and shops are probably very interesting on a pleasant day. We did take a look at the... 800-year old St. Stephan's Cathedral, which was severely damaged during World War II, but has been re-built. Since it was raining, no one was even out in the streets or around the church on Easter afternoon. After about a half hour, we returned to the ship and enjoyed hot tea, pastries, and music in the Observation Lounge.
We enjoyed an Easter dinner as we sailed for Belgium. That evening the Amalegro staff, led by Cheri the cruise director, transformed the Observation Lounge into "Hootchie Mamma's Speakeasy Club", where we had a fun roaring twenties party, complete with boas and bowlers.
I was delighted to find that the Easter bunny had visited the Amalegro when we returned to our cabin after the party. We didn't have any children onboard, so we all got to eat the chocolates and yummy candies.Continue to 6 of 13 below.
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The Amalegro arrived in Antwerp (Antwerpen in Flemish) during the night, and we awoke with views of the old Flanders city right outside our window. Boasting 500,000 residents, Antwerp is Belgium's second largest city and is one of the world's largest ports. The old city sits in the northern part of Belgium on the Scheldt River, and the port's industries stretch all the way to the Netherlands border on the North Sea. Antwerp was a very important port city in northern Europe once before, reaching its peak in the 15th century. However, decades of decline followed this economic peak, and Antwerp can thank Napoleon for restoring the city by re-opening the river to the sea and building docks and a naval harbor.
One fascinating fact about Belgium is its two national languages--Flemish and French. Flemish is the predominant language of Antwerp and the rest of northern Belgium, and French is the language of the south. Flemish is the same as Dutch in the written form, but is spoken... differently. Using two languages can be confusing for tourists, especially those who are driving, since cities are spelled differently. Most Belgians seem to also speak English, and German is spoken in the eastern Ardennes. This wouldn't be quite so unusual if the country were not so small!
After breakfast on the Amalegro, we had another excellent walking tour. Our guide walked with us for about an hour or so, and then we had free time until lunch. Like most tours, it started at 9:00 am. The first thing we noticed on our walk was the big pavilion on the dock left over from the time of the Belgian Congo colony. At one time, ships from the Congo would unload their exotic animals and products right downtown.
The tour included the Steen Castle, the Butcher's Hall, and the big market square (Grote Markt), which is dominated by the Brabo Fountain and Stadhuis (City Hall). The fountain tells the story of the legend of Brabo, a Roman warrior who slew the mythical giant who demanded a toll from anyone who was sailing on the Scheldt River. This legend may also link to the name of the city - Antwerpen. The statue of Brabo shows him holding the hand of the giant high over his head prior to throwing it in the river. Hand werpen (hand throwing in Flemish) eventually evolved into Antwerpen. Sounds good, doesn't it?
Walking through charming narrow streets in an old city like Antwerp is a wonderful way to experience Europe. Our guide even took us along one that is very narrow and perfect for listening to the afternoon carillon concerts. The tour ended at the magnificent cathedral, which has many pieces by famous local artist Peter Paul Rubens.
After lunch, many of us took an optional bus tour to Brussels. Others walked back into Antwerp to visit Rubens' home or to shop for chocolates, beer, or those famous Antwerp diamonds. The Amalegro stayed in Antwerp until 10:30 that night, so some passengers ate dinner in the city or tried some mussels and fries.Continue to 7 of 13 below.
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The Amalegro only had two optional tours on our tulip time cruise--one to Brussels and the other to Bruges. This excellent idea allows passengers a choice -- more time in Antwerp or Ghent or the opportunity to tour Brussels and Bruges at a reasonable extra cost.
The bus ride from Antwerp to Brussels was only about 30-45 minutes, and the time went by quickly. Much of the city tour was on the bus, and we passed by many of the famous sites in Brussels, stopping occasionally to get off for a photo stop--like at the Atomium in Laeken at the site of the 1958 world's fair. While in the Laeken district on the outskirts of downtown Brussels, we also saw the Domaine Royal, the residence of the King of Belgium and his family; the Pavillon Chinois and Tour Japonaise, and the Parc de Laeken.
Moving into the area of Brussels that houses the government buildings of the European Union, we stopped at the Parc du Cinquantenaire, which is dominated by Brussels' own Arc de Triomphe, called the... Arcade de Cinquantenaire. This arcade connects two large museums--the Royal Art and History Museum and the Royal Museum of Army and Military History. Autoworld, a collection of over 400 vintage cars, is also in the complex. The park setting is lovely, and we would have like to spend a few hours there.
The next stop on our bus tour was in the Lower Town section of downtown Brussels. Our guide walked us to see the Manneken Pis, the beloved symbol of Brussels, which translates from the Flemish as "small man urinating". The boy was unclothed the day we were there, but has over 600 costumes that he has worn through the years. Like the four-foot Little Mermaid of Copenhagen, this two-foot statue was tinier than I thought it would be.
As expected, the area around the Manneken Pis was packed with tourists (and with Belgian waffle and chocolate shops). The guide expertly led us, armed with our audio Vox sets, through the large crowd to the Grand Place, one of Europe's most beautiful squares. We had almost two hours of free time to explore the downtown area, and mom and I used part of the time to sample a hot Belgian waffle. Yummy! Unlike our American waffles, these do not start as a thin batter. They start as a dough ball and are stretched and mashed into the waffle iron. They seem sweeter, and are delicious. I had strawberries and chocolate, but skipped the whipped cream for my diet's sake. Mom had plain with powdered sugar. Enjoying the warm sunshine while strolling around the Grand Place and marveling at the magnificent guild houses on the Grand Place was a delightful way to spend a pleasant couple of hours.
We returned to the ship just in time for dinner at 7 pm. After dinner, we enjoyed La Strada, a group of Belgian musicians entertain with "light" classical music. Some of our fellow passengers enjoyed an evening in Antwerp. The ship sailed for Ghent at 11 pm.Continue to 8 of 13 below.
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Unlike in Antwerp, the Amalegro could not dock in downtown Ghent (Gent in Flemish). All river ships stopover at the industrial section of the city, and we rode a shuttle bus about 10 minutes into town. Ghent is Belgium's third largest city, with about 250,000 residents. It is a major university center of Belgium. Like Antwerp, Ghent is on the Scheldt River, but further upstream at the point where it joins with the Leie River. In medieval times, Ghent was Europe's largest cloth producer, using wool imported from England.
Ghent has numerous canals, but not as many as Bruges or Amsterdam. The early April weather was sunny and warmer than previous days on our cruise tour, but cold enough for my stocking cap. We had a guided walking tour, following by an hour or so of free time. On the walking tour, our guide discussed the history of Ghent and pointed out the city hall, various churches, the Gravensteen castle, cloth hall, meat market, and St. Baaf's Cathedral. Mom and I used the... free time to sit down and enjoy another Belgian waffle and a hot drink.
The downtown area was very quiet in the early morning, but had perked up by the time we returned to the ship for lunch. We enjoyed the guide and the walk a lot. I hadn't heard much about Ghent prior to this visit, but was glad we went. The old town is quaint and picturesque, but not nearly as busy as nearby Bruges.
After lunch back on the ship, many of us took the optional bus tour to Bruges. Others chose to ride the free shuttle back into old town Ghent.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Bruges (spelled Brugge in Flemish) is arguably Belgium's most famous tourist destination. Over two million visitors come to Bruges each year, and those of us who have been to Bruges can understand why. Bruges is one of Europe's best-preserved medieval cities. Since the streets, canals, and buildings are so well maintained, they almost look like a large movie set or a Disney medieval theme park.
Like Ghent, Bruges was once famous for its cloth, with ships making their way to the city via the Zwin, the waterway that linked Bruges to the sea. However, in the 15th century, this waterway began to silt up, and Bruges lost its contact to the sea. Attempts to reopen the passage or build a new canal were unsuccessful, and the merchants moved their businesses to Antwerp. What once was a booming economy became almost a ghost town. In the 19th century, a new canal was dug, linking Bruges to the sea at Zeebrugge. This canal and an increased focus on tourism revitalized Bruges. Summer is the... busiest season, but many tourists do as we did--visit Bruges for the day or in the off season. Those planning a visit in the summer should plan to stay overnight. In the evening, the cobblestone streets and narrow canals are quiet, and the old city is at its best.
Bruges was supposed to be an hour's bus ride from Ghent, but ended up being almost 2 hours each way because of road construction. We had a young woman for a bus driver, which is the first one I've ever seen. She looked about 21 and even had braces on her teeth. Like all the drivers I've seen over the years, she did a great job.
Bruges has 120,000 inhabitants. Tourism is definitely king, with no other industries (other than the seaport of Zeebrugge, which is about 15 miles away). Buses are not allowed in Bruges, so visitors must meander the narrow streets or ride in a canal boat to see the town. We enjoyed a canal boat ride, and walked all over the city with our guide. We had over an hour of free time at the end of the tour, and mom and I sampled a Belgian beer in an outdoor cafe. Neither of us tried the famous cherry beer, which sounded way too sweet.
The cathedral of Bruges was shrouded by scaffolding, but has a marvelous pieta (Madonna and child) statue done by Michelangelo on the inside. It was an early work and looks different than the one in St. Peters in Vatican City.
Like most visitors, we loved Bruges, and it was fun to see it when it was not so busy. I had visited Bruges in the midst of summer, and my memories were mostly of crowds and shops, bars, and cafes packed with tourists. In the early spring, when the daffodils cover the grounds of the tranquil Begijnhof and the weather is cool, the place is really magical, especially when you remember that it's real, not Disney.
That evening we had a Belgian dinner and an improv theater group as the entertainment in the lounge. The Amalegro sailed north at 11:30 pm.Continue to 10 of 13 below.
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Willemstad in the Netherlands
After the busy cities in Belgium, the tranquil village of Willemstad in the Netherlands was a nice respite. This fortified little town is completely surrounded by its old city wall, which is in the shape of a 7-pointed star. Willemstad is green, picturesque, and so tiny you can walk around the whole town in less than an hour.
The large city wall has canals on both sides, and the town has one main street, a tower, the oldest Protestant (Dutch Reform) church in the Netherlands, and a windmill. The Amalegro arrived in Willemstad in the early morning, and the sleepy little village seemed barely awake as we started our tour. We walked with the guide for about 45 minutes and then had a short organ concert in the octagonal church. The church is not the original building, but a church has been on the site for over 400 years. After the tour and concert, Mom and I walked back to the ship along the top of the city walls, which of course reminded us of walking atop the city walls of Dubrovnik, but... not nearly as large).
Visiting small towns like Willemstad always remind me of how good a cruise tour can be. If we were touring independently, I'm not sure we would have ever driven out of the way to see Willemstad, yet it was a favorite village to us all. The area around Willemstad would be a perfect place for bike riders and hikers to spend the day.
After walking around Willemstad for a couple of hours, we were all ready for a hearty Dutch lunch. The Amalegro sailed for Kinderdijk while we enjoyed our lunch.Continue to 11 of 13 below.
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Kinderdijk Windmills in the Netherlands
Three things come to mind for many people who have never visited the Netherlands--dykes, tulips, and windmills. Following our morning in the village of Willemstad, the Amalegro arrived in Kinderdijk about 2 pm. Kinderdijk is a picture perfect UNESCO World Heritage Site for the Netherlands. The site has 19 windmills, all dating back to the 1700's, giving the village Kinderdijk the most and best preserved set of windmills in the world.
The mills were built to drain excess water from the Alblasserwaard polders, which are all below sea level. The water is sluiced into the Lek River. Today, the wonderful wooden windmills with their large paddle wheels have been replaced by electric pumping engines, but the windmills remain.
Strolling on the paved paths in Kinderdijk or riding a bicyle is like stepping back into history. I definitely felt like I was in old Holland--all I needed was a Dutch cap and some wooden clogs! Some of the Kinderdijk windmills have been transformed into homes, but one... is open to tourists. It was quite interesting to see how the miller and his family might have once lived in this unusual home, and the views from the top (be careful on the narrow steps) are quite lovely.
That evening on the Amalegro we had the Captain's farewell cocktail party and dinner. The ship sailed at 7:15, and docked for a few hours in the pretty little town of Schoonhoven. We sailed on for Utrecht at 3 am. Our last day on the Amalegro had begun. The next day we would be at Keukenhof Gardens to see one of the other icons of the Netherlands--bulb flowers.Continue to 12 of 13 below.
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Keukenhof Gardens - Spring Flowers in the Netherlands
We awoke in Utrecht our last day on the Amalegro. The ship buzzed with excitement at breakfast as we all wondered whether or not we would see any blooming tulips at Keukenhof Gardens. The gardens had opened in mid-March as usual, but the winter of 2009-2010 in the Netherlands had been especially severe. We remembered the tulip beds we had seen at Bruges - beds of green tulip leaves, but no blooms. The cruise had been wonderful, and we all agreed that blooming tulips would be the icing on the cake, not a necessary part of our voyage.
We left the ship at 8:15 am in order to arrive at Keukenhof early and avoid the crowds (if possible). While we were away from the ship, the Amalegro moved back to the river cruise ship dock in Amsterdam near the Central Station. The morning was cloudy and cool, but not raining. Traffic was horrendous, and the bus drivers got off the motorway and took the scenic route to Lisse, the site of the gardens. We passed through beautiful countryside and even saw a... few fields of tulips. Our hopes were raised by the color.
Arriving at Keukenhof, our guides walked with us through the gardens to the Willem-Alexander pavilion. On the way, we passed by many beds of daffodils and some of tulips. I think we all let out a sigh of relief as we saw the colorful flower beds ringed by brilliant green grass, trees, and bushes. Keukenhof was in bloom! The flowers were not at their peak, but they were still spectacular. In another week, the blooms would be at their best. One good thing about visiting Keukenhof prior to the peak time is that the number of garden visitors was down from when I last visited several years ago. This sure made walking around the park more enjoyable!
Our time in the Keukenhof Gardens went way too quickly. As we made our way to the buses, I think we all made snapshots of the color in our minds. A few Amalegro passengers opted to stay at Keukenhof longer. They took a shuttle to nearby Schiphol Airport and then a train into the Central Station in Amsterdam, which was within easy walking distance of the Amalegro. We decided to return to the ship, have a nice lunch, and then have an easy afternoon in Amsterdam, followed by packing for the trip home.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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Back to Amsterdam and Home from the AMAWaterways Amalegro
We had free time in Amsterdam our last afternoon and evening on the Amalegro. Some passengers used the opportunity to visit the Ann Frank, Van Gogh, or Rijks Museums. Others walked the short distance into the city and strolled along the Damrak or had a drink while watching the interesting people of Amsterdam--both residents and tourists.
It had been a fascinating time in the Netherlands and Belgium. AMAWaterways has developed a diverse tulip time itinerary packed with cities, towns, villages, and countryside. The excellent guides and audio VOX system enhanced our understanding of all we saw and experienced. The entire week was filled with activities and ports, and most of our sailing was done at night. Although we would have loved a day to do "nothing" but sail on the Amalegro and watch the scenery, I can't think of a port I would have sacrificed for a day on the water.
The next morning, we disembarked and took the Amalegro shuttle to the airport. Like most small ships, the... disembarkation process was smooth and lacked the stress and "hurry up and wait" sometimes seen on large cruise ships. We didn't have to put our bags outside the door until 30 minutes before we were to leave for the airport, making packing easier. By the time we ate breakfast, our bags were on the bus and it was time to go home.
Thanks to AMAWaterways and the crew of the Amalegro for a memorable time on the rivers, canals, streets, and gardens of the Netherlands and Belgium.
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.