Rhine Holiday on a Viking River Cruise: Hello Holland!

It started as a recurring dream. I’d find myself onboard a cruise. Only, it wasn’t in the tropics, or to watch whales in their Alaskan habitat. Instead, it was in Germany in the dead of winter. The dream made no sense until an email arrived one day. I was invited aboard the Viking Jarl, an eight-month-old longship in the Viking River Cruises line. The Rhine Getaway was taking place over Thanksgiving, starting in Amsterdam, then making its way through Germany and France. Highlights of the trip – seeing UNESCO World Heritage Sites with the extra perk of Europe’s holiday markets. I accepted on the spot.

Playing as a looped fantasy over and over in my brain was the time to be spent in Amsterdam; less than a day. I’d never been to this fair city, but the images of bicycles locked on bridges arching over the Rhine was something I wanted to witness firsthand. So, after dumping our luggage on the boat, my friend Susan and I headed out to make the most of every minute spent in Amsterdam. (holland.com, eat-amsterdam.com)

There are myriad ways to take in the city — by foot, bicycle, Amsterdam & Region Day Ticket, which allows for 24 hours of public transport via metro, trams and buses. What felt most fitting — getting a lay of the land via a canal cruise.

Departing from a dock near Central Station, were myriad cruises, including one from Lovers Company. Our flirty, Rasta-haired guide pointed out the main attractions of the city by water — NEMO, the Netherland’s largest science museum, the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht, Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market, and the Artis Royal Zoo. More exciting to me was the vision of Amsterdam I’d long harbored — the canals with their charming, bicycle-lined bridges, quaint houses and, of course, the city’s 2,500+ house boats. My dreams of owning one were quickly dashed upon hearing of average price tags around €500,000.

Once the hour-long tour completed, it was time to wander through the streets in search of Oliebollen, fried dough balls said only to be available in Holland this time of year. The treasure hunt brought other gems to surface, including boutiques with fashions too warm to wear in Los Angeles, but just right for the trip down the Rhine. Regional delicacies abounded from cheese to ham to herring. As for the Oliebollen, we finally hit pay dirt when stumbling upon one of Amsterdam’s nine Christmas markets.

Most of Europe’s holiday markets open over Advent, from December 1-24. Catering to excited shoppers, many skip this rule, opening in late November and eeking out every bit of holiday cheer through the New Year.

We found an Oliebollen stand, but sadly, upon biting into this long-desired confection, it was discovered this was not one of the aforementioned carts where they’re served up hot. The market, though, was more exciting than the supposed treat. Holiday lights set the tone, with early-bird vendors offering up tree ornaments, wooden toys, candles and jewelry.

We went off map in our exploration of the city, often lured by the holiday decorations strung across various alleys and streets. One particular path took us past red window displays. A winking “mannequin” alerted we’d just stumbled upon Amsterdam’s famed Red Light District. Wafting through the air, the smell of marijuana from cannabis cafes with menus featuring various forms of hemp.

Still more time allowed for joining the local hubbub at various squares. Here, horse-drawn carriages offered yet another way to see the city. Wistfully, we learned we were missing the upcoming Amsterdam Light Festival, occurring through January 19, where light sculptures by contemporary artists line the canals and certain historic buildings.

All too soon, it was time to board the Viking Jarl. From our stateroom’s verandah, we bundled up and watched the last of Amsterdam as the longboat cast off toward the Rhine. Toasting occurred over dinner, where we met with the other 190 passengers, the majority from North America. Beyond celebrating Thanksgiving via the cruise, many were multi-generational travelers included adult children lauding parents who were celebrating milestones. Or, in one case, a recent college graduate being shown by his grandmother, the very history he would soon impart upon becoming a high school teacher.

Day two dawned at Kinderdijk-Elshout mill network, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A briefing from an expert in the Jarl’s Aquavit Lounge gave the ins and outs of The Netherlands windmills and Polders. Soon, we set out on paths too small for cars, but just right for our gaggle of tourists. The early morning fog gave the windmills a romantic vibe. Learning that this handful of windmills, just nine miles outside of Rotterdam, were the majority of The Netherlands 28 remaining wooden windmills, a number that once stood at 150, brought on wistfulness.

Our group’s guide was a former teacher, whose enthusiasm for Kinderdijk, his home village, was infectious. We crossed a footbridge to investigate the interior of a windmill. Climbing the steep steps leading upwards made one wonder – was it worth the lengthy waiting list, €500/monthly rent, required seven-year residency and operational duties to live inside these chilly, round spaces?

A renewed sense of appreciation was born as we re-embarked the Jarl for an afternoon spent immersed in the passing landscape dotted by cathedrals, castles and a replica of Noah’s Ark on the shores of Dordrecht, built by Johan Huibers. Adding a sense of place to our gazing — Dutch Cheeses and Jenever, the regional gin. As twilight broke, we bid The Netherlands adieu.

Bekah Wright’s journey continues…

Part 1 – Hello Holland!
Part 2 – A River Cruise to Germany
Part 3 – Celebrating American Thanksgiving on a French River Cruise

About the Author: 

BekahWright_AuthorPhoto_200x172Travel writer Bekah Wright spans the globe experiencing everything from fly fishing to sheep herding. She recently wrote about traveling to Zambia for First to Know, and upcoming articles include a journey to Edinburgh with Sir Richard Branson, spending a night at an observatory, and night finds in Carmel, CA. Her writing has been featured in GOOD, Bon Appetit, National Geographic Kids, Los Angeles magazine and TV Guide