Barge Trip Report, July 26, 2003 Princess Royale Amsterdam - Bruges

In 2003, we celebrated our wedding anniversary by taking the barge cruise to Holland and Belgium. Ewaterways is the company which manages Barges and River Boats in Europe. I previously took a cruise in Burgundy, France and loved it, so next time I decided to bring my husband and see Belgium and Holland.

Itinerary day-by-day

Pre-cruise, Amsterdam. Thursday/Friday/Saturday

We flew on Delta nonstop JFK to Amsterdam. Flight was on time and uneventful. We traveled with another couple, so we took a taxi to our hotel. Otherwise there is a hotel shuttle, 19 eur per person. For 4 people, taxi was the same and we did not have any stops. We stayed at NH Amsterdam Centre, it is 5* dutch hotel chain, very nice, recently renovated. Great showers! With two shower heads! We had a good deal, but no breakfast. We had breakfast 3 mornings in different places and paid from 11 eur to 5 eur per person. Hotel’s breakfast is 19 eur per person. NH Amsterdam center is located near Leidesplein, near hotel American and close to museums.

On arrival, we refreshed and went to explore. We’ve done a lot for the first day considering jet lag. We bought Amsterdam passes which includes admission to most museums and free public transportation. It also included boat cruise, so we took advantage on it first day. We walked and took trams. On Thursday, we visited Historic Museum, Jewish Museum, went to Red Light District and went back to hotel around 5pm, refreshed and had dinner at Indonesian restaurant next door. The food was very interesting, Ristajfel (rice table), sampling on Indonesian dishes. However, we concluded that we love Thai food more. We collapsed into beds after dinner but we lasted almost until 10pm

Next morning, we went to museums. We visited Rijksmuseum (it will be closed soon for renovations). After that, we took a boat cruise, went to market and sample famous Amsterdam’s herring. It was terrific, but not everybody likes it! We went to Van Gogh museum in the afternoon and had a dinner at Leidesplein at European restaurant. 

We had to be next day at 3 pm at Hotel De L’Europe for Barge meeting place. Therefore, we had a half more day in Amsterdam. We arranged for late check out. Next morning, we went to the nearby American Crowne Plaza hotel for breakfast, and had wonderful buffet in their art deco dining room. Afterwards, we walked in Voldenpark and from there visited some nice stores in shopping area nearby. After that, we came back to hotel, checked out, took a taxi and went to Hotel de L’Europe. The porter took our bags and we still had 2 hours for lunch. We ate nearby facing the water and when we came back to hotel, we already saw other travelers who arrived for Princess Royale. Everybody was on time. The barge manager Ian introduced himself and checked the list. The bus was waiting, we boarded the bus and it took us about 30 minute ride to the place where barge was moored.

All crew of Princess Royale was waiting at the bus to meet us – nice touch! They took care of our bags. Turned out the barge was on a northern side of Centraal Station – so we still were very close to Amsterdam center. Some people went to central station to buy things they forgot. We were met with drinks and appetizers, and were shown to our rooms.

Ian asked us to introduce ourselves. 4 of us are from Westport, CT. There turned out to be other guest grew up in Westport and another one had parents from Westport. So we had things to talk about!  The Princess Royale was cruising in Amstrerdam harbor to show us some sights from the water. Aftterwards, we had a nice dinner and after dinner some of us took a boat cruise around Amsterdam, it was very pretty at night. After dinner, we socialized a bit and went to bed.

Sunday, Haarlem, Oude Wetering

In the morning, we left Amsterdam on the river Ij south to the old timber harbour. We crossed the southwestern part of Amsterdam, we saw backyards of the houses which face canals. Very relaxing cruising. We had leisurely breakfast. That was a good thing about this trip that you do not need to wake up early to go somewhere. We’ve been very active in Amsterdam and enjoyed now well-deserved rest. During lunch we cruised along the edge of the Westeinder Plassen, a wide lake popular with local sailing clubs. On Sunday, there were many boats in nice weather, very enjoyable. Like in USA, people wave from the boats and from the land. We arrived to small village Oude Wetering. From there we took a short ride to Haarlem. In Haarlem, we had a guided visit of Frans Hals Museum, which had an interesting collection of Hal’s works and other Dutch masters of 17C . After museum, we went to Haarlem and wandered through the square. Too bad on Sunday evening almost everything was closed, but it was nice stroll through this city.

After that, we got back to the boat and after dinner took a walk along canal in Oude Wetering. Not much of a town, but cute small houses along canal.

Monday, Oude Wetering/Kinderdijk/Willemstad

We cast off at 8am and went south to the city of Gouda (pronounced in Dutch gau-da). We also cruised via Rotterdam and saw the port. We joined the Hollandse Ijssel River on which we cruised downstream to moor at Kinderdijk where we disembarked and walked to the windmills. There was one windmill which was open to the public. They were built to pump dry one of the Holland’s oldest polders, the impressive series of 19 windmills had stood there since 1740 and were in use well into the 20th century. The windmills are now part of the UNESCO world heritage. We walked into the windmill, climbed narrow stairs to the top floor. After that, we boarded Princess Royale and went south into the Zeeland Delta. We landed at Willemstad, where we moored. It was a very nice small town, with fortifications. The town is called after it’s founder, William of Orange. The original ramparts built on the plan of a start with seven branches, date from 1583 and are still complete. There is also a small Protestant church to have been built in the Low countries in 1608. We took a walk after dinner.

Tuesday, Willemstad/Antwerp

We cruise out of Holland to Belgium on the Rhone Link Canal to moor during lunch. We moored at Antwerp – seaport and capital of diamonds. After lunch, we took a tour of Antwerp, including Cathedral of Notre Dame (16C), the highest gothic church of the former Netherlands. This cathedral has a work of Rubens “The Resurection of Christ”. Ian showed us some alleys and took us around. Unfortunately, we did not have time for the museums, there are two interesting museums – print museum and art. We went back to boat for dinner. This evening we moored at Temse, a small Belgium town, which is has some churches and cool contemporary houses and statues in the park. We enjoyed walk.

 Wednesday, Antwerp/Ghent

We cruised out of Antwerp east and arrived by lunch to Ghent, the “city of 200 bridges”. We took a guided tour of city (very good local guide). Ghent’s architecture is very mixed, Romanesque, Gothic, Rococo, and even timber frame. The remarkable monuments included the 12C castle, 15C church of St. Nicholas, The Catherdal of St. Bavon, with 12 panel Adoration of the Lamn by Van Eyck brothers. The painting was very impressive. The 300 ft tall belfry and the drapers hall, built in 14 and 15C, remind us of the wealth the cloth and weaving industry brought to the city. We had some free time and walked to the boat later on. Unfortunately, this was a night where we moored at boring area, some industrial building, lock and a path along canal. We walked a bit but scenery was disappointing.

Thursday, Ghent/Bruges

We cruised during breakfast to Bruges through the Flemish countryside, The canal was opened in 1614!. After lunch, we went to Bruges and took a walking tour. Afterward, there was time to explore city. We did not rush since we are staying in Bruges for two next days! It is the best town we visited this trip (not including Amsterdam, but they are so different!).

I will not go into details of Bruges, but it is medieval gem! See for yourself. http://www.brugge.be/ . Some people took a bus to the boat – we moored near windmills. Other walked back. This was a last night, gala dinner. We laughed, talked and enjoyed our small company of 17 people. That was our anniversary and the crew prepared an anniversary cake with champagne. After dinner, we went with Captain to Bruges, it was beautiful at night! We went to the bar and then walked back to boat.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Post-Cruise, Bruges

After breakfast, there was a coach transfer for a group to Brussels, where everybody went. We took a taxi to our hotel Die Swaene (very romantic!) and spent two more nights there. Next two days we explore Bruges, went to Groningen museum to see art, Gruuthouse museum to see history of Bruges, furnishing, decorations. We visited the Church of Our Lady with the only one work of Michelangelo, Madonna and Child which left Italy.

We had another very nice dinner at our hotel’s restaurant, very elegant, 4 course meal. One thing I did not like was pigeon, but the rest was exquisite. We also had very nice breakfasts there – for a change, excellent breads and pastries for breakfasts.  Speaking about Belgium food: everybody knows about French food but Belgium is even better and it is underrated!! We had a lot’s of mussels, Belgian Waffles, fries (they are called French fries or now some people started calling them Freedom fries, but they were originated in Belgium). Chocolate is exceptional, try local chocolateries instead of Godiva chain. Beer is excellent. Coffee is great!

We bought some lace (do not know how I will be using those lace tablecloth – seems very impractical here in USA), chocolate. In the evening, there were performances on Burg Square. Italian band played “Tarantella” and it caused participation of Italians dancing. Such a festive atmosphere.. The weather was perfect, warm, sunny, and a bit cooler in the evening. When we left, we heard at airport that heat wave was coming, so we were lucky to leave on time. Everything comes to end and on Sunday, we boarded train for Brussels to the Bruxelles Midi – central station and changed to another train to airport. For travelers using trains – Bruges does not have escalators, only stairs and you need to carry your luggage upstairs. Take a note. Brussels central station and airport had escalators.

We met our friends at airport who told us that they like some part of Brussels too – museum, grand place. Maybe we will visit Brussels next time, as for now, we were completely satisfied with our vacation.

Barge

What is a barge cruise? It is an experience and not for everyone. For experienced, sophisticated travelers who already been to the country and want to revisit less traveled places, at slower pace it will be a great experience. It is a niche cruise for people who appreciate great food, wine and cheeses. You sail with less passengers, amenities and activities than on a regular cruise. Unlike barging in France, Princess Royale is new, contemporary type of barge, and it covers more distances. You float from citiy to city from Holland to Belgium. So it was not possible to walk along tow paths like in France. Nevertheless, it is very nice way of seeing countryside and in the evening, when barge was moored, we were able to walk in small towns. The barge has bicycles as well so you can bike in the evening once barge is moored. Holland is great place for bicycling since it is very flat.

The price is all-inclusive, accommodations on the barge, gourmet meals, drinks (wines with lunch and dinner, open bar), sightseeing. You only need to pay tip at the end.

Princess Royale is a barge for 22 people barge with 11 cabins. Two of them are suites, but they are not that large however very efficient and extremely comfortable. All cabins are with windows or portholes and private bathrooms. The water pressure was excellent. All cabins have individual control heating and air conditioners. There are plenty of room for clothes, but the cruise is casual and only one last night is it s a bit dressy (not required), so no need for a lot’s of fancy clothes. The cabins are not locked from outside. You can lock valuables at manager’s safe.  The water is drinkable, we were told, but bottled mineral water was provided in the cabin.

The barge also had a dining room, a bar area which was called saloon where most people congregated most of the time and an open deck.

Barge vs other cruises

Barges foat on manmade canals, that have no current, covering just 30-50 miles per week. They move so slowly that passengers can step off the barge at the lock, walk or bike into town and catch up again with a barge. You cannot do this on river or ocean cruise.Generally, barges accommodate from 4 to 24 passengers, this makes them ideal for families or friends who want to occupy the entire vessel. The cuisine and the local wines are of high quality but not for hamburger-steak-beer crowd. Entertainment in the evening is minimal if non-existent.

River cruises, on the other hand, sail at faster speed and can visit more cities or countries per week and usually stay on more crowded ports. A river cruises would have more amenities, larger cabins, big decks and some of them have Jacuzzi or swimming pool. 

So, what vessel is right for you?

If you hyper-kinetic, you would not probably like the barge cruise. If you want to be in different location every day, the barge is not right for you. Barging is really a slower pace with in-depth view of countryside. It is a gentle, quiet pace – “stop and smell the flowers”. Yet, you will go every day to see the sites, and when you come back, the exquisite meals are waiting for you. You explore at your pace little villages, paths, countryside. You get as much exercise or be lazy as you want to be.

Clientele

On our trip there were 17 Americans, mix of couples and three women traveling alone. One couple had 16 year old son. Although I do not think teenagers will like this kind of trip, the teenager fit very well and was very well behaved. Adult ages were from 39 to 78 and it was an excellent mix of people, the group got along very well together and we bonded really fast, even as on any other trip, were some complainers, but there were a lot’s of laughter, fun and caramaderie.

Entertainment

Instead of whirling through 15 countries in 10 days, barge travelers want to savor a small part of Europe from the deck of a small vessel floating on its inland waterways – the canals and rivers that cross the continent. Do not expect Broadway shows. On barges, passengers make their own entertainment. You talk to the guest, to the crew. There is an open bar. Or you can opt to go to local bars in the evening where you are staying. There are no TV’s, so you are supposed to get away from everything. There are board games and books. George, foreseeing the lack of TV, brought his own computer with DVD movies and some people watched movies on our computer (we had Sopranos). Some people played poker, others chess, the rest just read or talked.

The Crew and the Service

There was a crew of 7 people – a barge manager, captain, pilot, chef and two housekeeping ladies who were taking care of cabins and also served the meals. Chef was French (Gail) and she cooked superb meals. Captain Reen was Dutch, barge Manager Ian from South Africa, one housekeeping lady from Canada, the rest from from UK. They did a superb job taking care of us and we were very happy with service.

Food and Wine.

This is the highlight of the trip. Meals were spectacular, beautifully presented, and delicious. They do ask you in advance if there are special dietary requirements or preferences. This is important time to tell it beacuse the meals do not have menus. You have to eat what you are given but it was good! We personally liked all meals but less sophisticated palates did not like some meals.There are 4 course dinners and you are will not leave hungry. Chef Gail also had her book of barge cooking for sale so we bought them but I doubt I will be able to produce such elaborate meals. Sauces were superb and that’s what is making the dish great.

For breakfast, there were pastries, cereals, yogurt and fruit. Gail also cooked eggs for those who wanted it. However, comparing with France where every day fresh pastries and baguettes were delivered, on this trip the pastries were not fresh every day. That was a disappointment. Holland and Belgium have wonderful breads and pastries and I do not know why Ewaterways could not arrange delivery of fresh bread daily.

Lunch was buffet style, with 2 wines served, one either fish or meat or pies/tarts and 3 salads. Buffet is served by staff after staff explains wines and chef describes the menu. You can help yourself for seconds if you wish. Desert for lunch was either cheese and fruit or sweets.

Dinner was a 4 course meal. Before meal, the staff explained wines, and dishes. It was usually appetizer, main course, cheese course (with salad) and dessert.

The cheeses were not that average American palate is used to and they were with distinctive cheesy smell as you feel when you enter French cheese store. Cheeses were Dutch, French and Belgian, and had very interesting flavors. There were cocktails before dinner, later on we just helped ourselves from the bar. Chips, nuts were available every day for our pre-dinner drinks. Beverages: coffee, decaf, milk, tea (caffeine and herbal) were available at meals and most time of the day (serve yourself). For early risers, there was coffee available at saloon.

Open bar was very well stocked. I do not drink much and Emma (crew member) even fixed me nice juice cocktail. There were variety of Holland and Belgian beers which everybody liked.

Final Thoughts

Very enjoyable vacation, easy pace, excellent food and wine. We had visit the most beautiful region of Europe and savored it. Small group of people, you make your own entertainment, great conversation late at night.

For travelers who like to tour larger cities with intense sightseeing, more crowds, nightlife, action, I would advice against it. My other concern was that we are independent travelers and never take bus tours. Even on a cruise, we venture on our own in ports or with private guide. We like smaller ships (love Windstar!). When we cruise, we prefer expedition cruises. However, I found out that I've enjoyed the trip. We had a small group (and other barges are even smaller in size), and found the trip very personal.

If you have questions, feel free to Email, will be happy to  reply.

Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who's been there.... Tastes Differ... 

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