The city center in Antwerp, Belgium, is lively with artworks, shops, and restaurants. | Photo by Paul Lasley
2. Ports are close to city centers. On a river cruise, you typically dock in the middle of cities and towns; it’s easy to disembark and explore. No need to wait for a shuttle from the ship, as is sometimes the case with ocean cruising. And because many cities grew up around these rivers, you’re usually within easy walking distance of historical sites.
3. Shore excursions are typically included in the price. Your cruise fare usually includes at least one optional shore excursion in each port and often several. In Bruges, historian and guide Johan Serpieters led our group of about 20 to the town square. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves echoed against cobblestones as carriage rides took visitors past buildings dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Serpieters shared interesting tidbits. For example, did you know the stock exchange started in Bruges? On his recommendation, we bought Belgian chocolates at Dominique Persoone’s The Chocolate Line and nibbled on artfully crafted bonbons that combined sublime flavors, such as ganache with raspberry juice or fresh mint.
4. Entertainment is intimate and often local. After dinner, about 50 or 60 passengers would gather in the lounge. One night, La Strada, a group of two women on violins and a man playing guitar, entranced the audience with selections that ranged from the classical “The Barber of Seville” to the contemporary “Moon River,” and included a spellbinding piece by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo. “They were playing on the streets of Antwerp,” said Cruise Manager Sonja Lodewijkx. “Someone from AmaWaterways heard them and hired them.”
During the day, Sonja often lectured about upcoming ports and shared Dutch lore, such as how to eat bitterballen, Dutch meatballs whose insides are so hot they can burn your tongue if you don’t bite carefully.
Our staff and crew exuded genuine warmth while taking care of tours, meals, and activities. Milos always remembered how Paul liked his coffee, and Sonja greeted passengers as though they were guests in her home.
5. Food is a highlight. Dining is as important on river cruises as it is on the high seas. Dishes such as grilled chicken in rich natural juices, served with mushrooms and sweet potato mash, had clean, true flavors. Soups were delicate; the essence of lobster infused a not-too-thick lobster bisque, for example. White asparagus was in season—some spears were as large as cigars—and the after-dinner cheese selection included a memorable aged Gouda. One morning, Paul had what he declared to be the best eggs Benedict he’d ever tasted. And it was always a treat to return from a day ashore to afternoon tea, with cucumber sandwiches and lemon tarts or seed cakes.
6. You can also eat ashore. In The Hague, Paul and I stopped in Dudok brasserie, a reputed hangout for Dutch Parliament members. A bowl of whipped cream and a dish of cinnamon ice cream accompanied decadently delicious apple pie.
7. You can customize your cruise. In Middelburg, instead of taking a ship’s excursion, we asked Sonja, the cruise manager, to arrange a taxi to Veere, about a 15-minute drive from the Dutch port. I had a special reason to do so: In the 1600s, four Vandeveer brothers sailed from Veere to the New World, settling in what was then New Amsterdam. One brother eventually traveled to the South and then to the Midwest, where my mother, Marian Vandeveer, was born a few hundred years later. Paul and I climbed the spiral staircase of De Campveerse Toren, a hotel that occupies the stone structure where William of Orange and Charlotte de Bourbon celebrated their wedding feast in 1575. I .looked out from the battlements of the town’s old fortification and tried to imagine the courage it must have taken for my ancestors to depart from here to an unknown fate across the sea.