BY JAMES CALDWELL (ENGLAND)
If you are interested in boats (as a Sea Breezes reader, this probably applies to you), then the Netherlands is an ideal holiday destination. If you are interested in boats, 17th-century Dutch paintings and colourful flowers, all these enthusiasms can be fulfilled by taking a boat trip in the Netherlands in the springtime.
The Dutch are obsessed with water. It is a constant backdrop to daily life, both rural and urban, and a source of varied recreation, but it is also a looming existential threat. In round numbers, 20% of Dutch land has been reclaimed from the sea, over 25% is below average sea level and 60% is vulnerable to flooding due to a combination of high tides and storms. Tide surge barriers and a combination of drainage and pumping are used to manage water levels. This is a never-ending task, and one which is getting progressively more arduous as the drying land sinks and sea levels rise. For now, the Dutch are winning against the waters, and there has been no repeat of the disastrous 1953 storm surge, which flooded nearly 10% of Dutch farmland.
Dutch navigable waterways are pleasingly varied and include stretches of the North Sea, huge freshwater lakes, major European rivers and a great variety of canals. Although the Netherlands possesses an enviable, beautifully maintained motorway system, a substantial amount of trade goes by water, as so much of the country is accessible to the canal/river network. We explored this intriguing landscape in the MS Douce France, chartered for the trip by Noble Caledonia.
THE DOUCE FRANCE
The Douce France is an elegant vessel with a maximum passenger complement of 98 (on our voyage, about 85), which is small compared to some of the bigger inland waterways cruisers, which take 180 passengers or more. Cabins are spread over two decks. Most are on the lower deck with large windows and an openable window panel. On the middle deck, there are fewer cabins, all with Juliet balconies, sharing space with the saloon/bar in the bow, restaurant in the stern and reception desk/shop amidships. All cabins, bar one, are the same size, with a floor area of 14.5 square metres. There is plenty of space, a comfortable bed and a good-sized shower. The open-top deck has tables and chairs, sun loungers (not much call for these in mid-April), an awning which can be lowered, and the wheelhouse, which can, if required by low obstructions, sink down so the roof is level with the deck. This phenomenon is worth seeing, as it happens with the skipper inside the wheelhouse who disappears and then pops up again like the demon king in a panto. The saloon is well-lit by large windows with plenty of comfy chairs and sofas and a number of small tables and chairs, useful for card games. You can make yourself tea and coffee here at any time of day, or one of the staff will do it for you. They will also, when requested, pour you a drink from a well-equipped bar. Bar measures are generous, and prices low – the correct combination. The dining room is similarly light and airy, with tables of different sizes. There is no set seating, so you can, if you want, mix and match your dining companions as the voyage progresses. Breakfast and lunch are served from a large and varied buffet. Dinner is a sit-down, waiter service affair with a small but useful element of choice, including a number of excellent fish options during the voyage, which is not easy to do well for such a number. A good selection of wines and beer are available for no extra charge at lunch and dinner. The waiting staff, including one who was an accomplished conjurer, were smart, very friendly, and hard-working. Before dinner, the Cruise Director gives a briefing on the following day’s activities and timetable. This is backed up by a daily “Aboard and Ashore” sheet delivered to your cabin every evening.
This comfortable and well-run vessel was our home and transport for 9 full days and enabled us to visit 15 destinations. We started near Amsterdam and went to Hoorn in the North, across to Arnhem in the East, back to Veere and Middleburg in the South, fetching up in Rotterdam in the West.
The original plan had been to join the ship in Amsterdam, but a combination of being at the height of tulip season and the massively popular Vermeer exhibition meant that no Amsterdam berths were available. Instead, we were berthed at Lelystad, about an hour from Amsterdam, by coach. This led to more road travel than expected, but being in Lelystad was a bonus from the shipping point of view. Although it is a relatively new town, it is home to an excellent maritime museum, which includes the Batavia, a fi ne replica of a 17th-century Dutch East India Company ship. Batavia is solid but spartan. Unless they were particularly adventurous, modern passengers would not put up with conditions aboard for a day, let alone the time it took to travel to the East Indies and back, which is what she was designed to do. In addition to the Batavia, there were several unusual working vessels – pusher tugs Auke and Jelle Auke and (I think) a c 1960s dredger – moored within the modern harbour. Also visiting were several steel-hulled 1930s sailing ships, including the Willem Barentsz, now converted for carrying passengers.
From Lelystad our first coach journey took us to the Keukenhof gardens. If you are not Dutch, you can pronounce Keukenhof in several different ways, all of which will be wrong! As our trip was timed to coincide with the tulip season, we were by no means alone, but the gardens are sufficiently extensive to absorb large numbers of visitors, and the sheer scale and variety of the planting means no one feels short-changed. You can enjoy every conceivable type of tulip in formal and semi wildflower meadow settings, as well as other less-expected flowers, which included a spectacular Ukrainian flag border of blue and yellow hyacinths. It was at the Keukenhof that we encountered Dutch apple cake as a coffee accompaniment for the first time. This is available everywhere, and everywhere it is different, so you just have to keep trying them. Our favourite guide confided that she had given up making apple cake for her husband as he had been unwise enough to compare it unfavourably to his mother’s. Otherwise, a harmonious marriage, apparently.
The following day was something of a marathon but for a very good reason. A couple of months before the trip began, Noble Caledonia had been in touch to ask if we would be interested in going to the by-then world-famous Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, if they could find tickets. Needless to say, we responded enthusiastically but did not really believe the tickets would materialise. We should have had more faith, as evening tickets did indeed become available, and the late-in-the-day timing of these tickets then drove the rest of the day’s programme. We started by taking the coach to Naarden, a fortified moated star-shaped town enhanced by a stork nest untidily arranged on the chimney of the town hall. We learnt about the so-called “bacon” style of Dutch architecture, involving lots of red brick with thin veins of pale stone. Stone is virtually non-existent in the Netherlands, hence its sparing use. Then on to Amsterdam and, after lunch to the Rijksmuseum to see the permanent collection. An early dinner, then back to the museum to indulge in the Vermeers. The evening timing meant fewer people, so all the paintings were properly visible. Those annoying folk who stand a foot away directly in front of every picture do eventually move on. By now the Douce France had travelled from Lelystad to a berth in Haarlem, which meant a much shorter coach ride back to general approval.
The next morning was spent in Haarlem, enjoying the Franz Hals museum, the Grote Kirk, complete with organ played by Mozart and Handel, and a labyrinthine kitchen shop with many gadgets that we had not previously realised were essential. We sailed late afternoon and shortly encountered a significant lock/bridge complex which required the ship’s wheelhouse to be lowered and a good deal of skilful manoeuvring. As dusk gathered, we were passing through Amsterdam sea port, full of sea going commercial vessels – container ships and bulk carriers – all being busily loaded or unloaded by the massive array of port machinery.
By contrast the following morning found us on a small pontoon in Hoorn, Northeast of Amsterdam. The town has both ancient and modern parts, canals, lift bridges, a substantial marina and a more traditional harbour full of more traditional craft. As it was Sunday, many of the sailing barges came out of the harbour to benefit from a dry day with a useful breeze. After a good look at Hoorn itself, we took the coach to Edam (plenty of the product available) and Marken, a diminutive settlement of largely wooden houses that used to be an island. Now it has a causeway and consequently feels somewhat overrun by visitors (like us). Late afternoon, we departed for a major night voyage to Arnhem.
We awoke absolutely next to the “bridge too far” in Arnhem. The metal bridge is not the original, but the piers are. All around the bridge area, the great majority of the buildings are of 50s/60s architecture, evidence of the comprehensive destruction wrought during the war. You can walk over the bridge and back. This takes a considerable time, and it is only then that you appreciate the staggering achievement of the paratroopers who were able to hold the Northern end for so long, with no relief and against well-organised and determined opposition.
What was the Hartenstein hotel, the final HQ of the paratroopers before they were forced to withdraw, is now beautifully restored, a peaceful place, full of mementoes of its former role and housing in the basement, a walk-through experience which starts with a ride in an assault glider and ends up in a street battle in the middle of Arnhem. The combination of this impressive and dignified building together with the nearby war graves cemetery, gratefully tended by Dutch children, underlines the ferocity of the battle, the heroism of the allied forces and the appalling experiences of the Dutch civilians from which their British equivalents were largely preserved, thanks to the English Channel.
During the night we started our voyage south – westwards towards Dordrecht, and the next morning we were still going, so had the best opportunity so far of observing Dutch river life. This varied from privately owned steel hulled cabin cruisers of the Linssen/Pikmeer type right up to very large freighters and tankers, often deeply loaded so that the water ran just (only just) below the gunwales. These freighters all had their accommodation at the stern. This was always generously sized, with large windows and sometimes a car perched on top for use at the destination. On some, the wheelhouse could be raised to a considerable height, presumably to allow the skipper to be able to see forward over the bow. Judging by the number of substantial boatbuilders (“scheepswerf”) on the shores on either side, many of these vessels are locally built, further reinforcing the links between the Dutch and their waterways.
At Dordrecht, three rivers meet. Overlooking the junction, there is a hotel. The former queen Beatrix used to come and stay there just to watch the boats. No wonder the Dutch loved her.
Dordrecht was our base for a visit to Kinderdijk, supposedly named following an incident where a baby was accidentally set afloat in a basket and a cat balanced the basket and saved the child from drowning. There is a sculpture of child, basket and cat, but the guide said the story was probably all nonsense! At Kinderdijk there are nineteen of the remaining 1,200 windmills in the Netherlands. These are still used as part of the constant effort to keep pumping water out of the land and return it to the sea, although most have been replaced with more modern systems, some still indirectly powered by wind, but in order to generate electricity. Windmills look delicate from a distance, but when you get up close, especially when the sails are working, you realise that they are very solid pieces of machinery and immensely powerful. A small moveable fence warned us not to stray too close to the revolving sails that hissed past us only a few feet away. The mill which we saw in detail was fully functional and tended by a lady miller. As well as looking after the mill and its mechanism, she also had a miniature farm established on the banks of the canal with goats, rabbits and chickens all flourishing. Inside the mill, the machinery powered by the sails is visible but closed off by Perspex screens. Originally, these screens would not have existed, considerably increasing the hazardous nature of the mill environment. Millers traditionally had lots of children, notwithstanding their cramped quarters. The combination of lethal machinery and deep water must have caused significant attrition.
By the next morning, the sun had come out properly and having travelled overnight, we found ourselves on a jetty with a short walk into Veere, a truly charming waterside town and source of apple cake. Later in the day we moved a short distance to the larger town of Middelburg, where, again, it was possible to step off the Douce France straight into the town centre.
FINAL WATERSIDE DESTINATION
That night, we travelled to our final waterside destination of Rotterdam. Much mauled during the war, it is now an energetic modern city and a boat lovers ’ paradise. We only saw a fraction of the city waterways – harbour tours are available – but what we saw included huge river cruisers, a great variety of river freighters and tankers, high-speed water taxis, some very plush modern private boats, and large numbers of historic vessels.
Rotterdam was our base for Delft and then the Hague on a typically blowy cold April day. The Delft pottery factory tour is a joy; intelligent and informative, and you get to see pottery taking shape in a mould before your eyes. The tour decants you into the factory shop, from which you will be lucky to escape unscathed. Delft’s historic area includes a leaning tower to rival Pisa, hectic markets with a lot of fish on offer, and some very cosy bars in which you can escape the knife-like wind and warm up with an aged Genever (a drink, by the way.)
The reason for including the Hague was to top up our Dutch Golden Age painting experience at the Maritshuis, a small gallery in a former private house that punches well above its weight. Among the many gems on offer was what we learnt to call “The Girl with the Pearl”, recently returned from the Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam.
In summary, travelling by boat in the Netherlands feels like the right way to see the country. The waterways network is so extensive that you can use it to experience many aspects of Dutch life, from globally renowned sites to dozy riverside villages, with plenty of cheese and windmills in the mix. For boat lovers, there is a constant panorama of watercraft and interesting waterways infrastructure.
Then, when you step ashore, you can enjoy the warmth and humour of our friends, the Dutch, whose heads, thanks to their hard work and ingenuity, are still above water.