If you would prefer to watch my video review of this cruise, click here
River cruising is one of the fastest growing sectors of the cruise industry – small wonder, it has to be one of the most relaxing forms of travel, directly addressing our ever increasing desire to occasionally take our foot of the accelerator pedal of every day life.
Europe’s waterways are busy too but thankfully a 400 foot long river cruiser can only go so fast. Sitting on my balcony gazing at the riverbank and I realised that even the cyclists were overtaking us, and felt happy to be travelling in the slow lane for once.
I was on board Royal Emerald, formerly a Scenic ship but now under new ownership and chartered by Noble Caledonia for a series of European river cruises. Mine began in Amsterdam and ended in Bruges, taking in Arnhem, Antwerp and Ghent along the way. In this part of the world the cruising distances between ports are not great and for much of this cruise, the cruising happened at night.
They are not called the Low Countries for nothing – the landscapes are as flat as flat so you don’t get the same dramatic scenery as you do say on the Rhine or the Danube. Its also heavily industrialised in parts and more often than not, our moorings were… um, not exactly scenic. But industrial landscapes have an intrigue of their own and what we lacked in greenery was made up for with easy access to some of the region’s finest cities.
Noble Caledonia cruises always have a cultural bent and on this one Dutch Art was the theme of both lectures on board and many of our excursions. In Amsterdam, we are treated to visits to both the spectacular Ryksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum (currently with a fascinating Van Gogh & Japan temporary exhibition). In Antwerp we had a guided tour of Rembrandt’s House as well as witnessing Ruben’s masterpieces on display in the Cathedral. And in Ghent it was a treat to have the chance to inspect, close up, the magnificent Mystic Lamb tryptic.
But it was not just art – there is so much more to see in all these wonderful cities. Medieval buildings and museums sitting harmoniously alongside striking modern architecture and contemporary culture not to mention shopping, welcoming cafes and local specialities. Bruges in particular offers endless temptations in the form of chocolate, craft beers, patisserie and waffles.
Basking in glorious (unseasonably warm) Spring sunshine it was also a joy to tiptoe through the tulips at Keukenhof Gardens and see the more formal baroque gardens of Het Loo Palace near Arnhem. On most days we’d have a guided tour in the morning with free time to explore independently in the afternoons. The days that included two excursions were, it has to be said, exhausting – most involve a fair amount of walking – I clocked up just shy of 30 miles in 6 days!
Back on board, no surprise that the sun deck which runs the full length of the ship, was proving an irrisistible magnet for many in the sunny weather. And why not, sometimes a comfy seat and a good book can be more appealing than another tour. That’s the joy of river cruising – you see so much and yet it is all at a relaxed pace and you can dip in and out of the programme as much as you want.
Royal Emerald is a modern ship – the styling is contemporary and designed to let in as much light as possible with big windows and a fairly neutral colour palette. It fits a certain mould but what it lacks in character it makes up for in efficiency and, although its a bit a given in the cruising world, the mainly Eastern European crew really did go out of their way to create a happy atmosphere on board. The cabins are all quite similar in design and a good size. Those on the upper two decks benefit from having a private balcony – big enough for two people to sit out on and with a sliding exterior window that you can have up or down depending on the weather. The food is also good – not anything to rave about but lots of choice and always thoughtfully presented. Another bonus of this Noble Caledonia charter was that wine, beer and soft drinks were included with lunch and dinner – makes a big difference I think to oiling the social wheels and eliminating any pressure to buy group drinks.
There are some obvious reasons why this style of holiday is ideally suited to an older market. The slower pace, everything laid on for you, the close proximity of sightseeing from moorings, touring without the hassle and the educational focus were just some of the reasons passengers I spoke to cited for choosing a river cruise. A recent trend in River Cruising has been cruise lines developing product targeting a younger market and families – more entertainment on board, more varied and activity based excursions with bikes available for guest use etc. It may yet catch on but Noble Caledonia understand their more, ahem, mature audience well and it’s clearly appreciated as their 70+% repeat bookings success proves. In the end, it’s not really about age at all – that is, after all, simply a state of mind – travelling with like minded people, regardless, is always enlightening and rewarding.
Cathy travelled with Noble Caledonia for a filming assignment on board Royal Emerald in April 2018. To find out more about Noble Caledonia’s selection of cruise available on board Royal Emerald for 2018/19 click here