LOW ON THE WATER

Old-world splendor meets the latest in riverboat luxury on a languid cruise through the waterways of Belgium and Holland

BY CHRISTOPHER P. HILL

Has it really taken me 40 years (and I’m being generous here) to discover the unhurried pleasures of riverboat cruising? It’s inexplicable, really—I’ve always loved traveling over water, whether it be aboard a Turkish feribot bound for Bodrum, a Halong Bay junk, or a ketch in the Java Sea. Even a ride on rickety Star Ferry still gives me a kick. Big cruise ships, admittedly, have never been my thing—too crowded, too busy, too, well, cruise-shippish. But had I considered that the best elements of the cruise—comfy cabins, tine dining, the frisson of waterborne romance and adventure—could be distilled, in miniature form, into a languid passage along an inland waterway, I would have started doing this sort of thing years ago.

I am not alone. By all accounts the river cruise industry is booming as never before.

Europe, of course, is the mecca tor this sort of travel, with a host of passenger boats plying such storied and scenic rivers as the Danube, the Rhine, the Seine. Avalon Waterways, the company I’m sailing with, has vessels on all these, as well as itineraries on the Nile, the Amazon, and the Mississippi. True, the river I’ll be following for much of this cruise, the Scheldt, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it But then, when you’re on a good boat, it doesn’t much matter where it takes you.

And I am on a good boat—a brand-new boat, in fact, on its inaugural cruise. The name with which it will be officially christened in two days time, Avalon Artistry Д is a bit florid tor my tastes—all the cool names seem to have been taken by Viking River Cruises, whose longship fleet is full of Odhis and Heimdals and Baldurs—but everything else is as pleasing as can be, from the modish Panorama Lounge with its big wraparound windows to the ranks of nifty lounge chairs on the rooftop sundeck.

My suite is larger than I expected (30 percent larger than the industry standard, a brochure assures me) and plush, with its bed positioned to face the full-length window—just the thing for supine sightseeing. There’s a marble vanity and L’Occitane toiletries in the bathroom, and an espresso machine and regularly replenished cache of cookies just down the corridor in the aft lounge. Keeping everything shipshape is a young crew of 45, mostly Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Romanians, with a couple of chipper Indonesian restaurant staffers thrown in for good measure. And the food— well, more on that later.

My first lesson in river cruising—that it’s more unpredictable than you might think— comes before I’ve even left Brussels Airport. There, Avalon’s meet-and-greet staff inform me and some other fresh arrivals that the boat, which we were supposed to board in the Belgium capital, is still in Antwerp, 50 kilometers to the north, stymied by an emergency lock closure on the canal connecting the Scheldt to Brussels. But no matter: off we go to Antwerp by coach—only to find that a gas station explosion had slowed the highway traffic to a crawl under a gray, wet April sky.

Things brighten considerably when we roll up to the quay in Antwerp, just downriver from a little stone fortress—the Het Steen—built in the 13th century to ward off Viking marauders. The Scheldt, which begins in northern France as the Escaut and flows into the North Sea at the Dutch port city of Vlissingen, rises and falls with the tide here; at this moment, it is running low, and the Avalon ArtistryII — designed, like all riverboats that must contend with old-world bridges, to be low and long— is barely showing above the quayside. We have to walk down the gangway to get to its top deck.

After being welcomed aboard and shown to my suite, I’m sorely tempted to stay put. Instead, I join a group tor a whirlwind guided tour of Antwerp s old city center, a 10-minute stroll away It’s all very touristy, the Grote Markt (town square), but glorious nonetheless, with ranks of grandly gabled 16th-century guild houses and a fabulous Italianate town hall. When the group breaks up to pi under the souvenir shops, chocolatiers, and frites joints that line the plaza’s cobbled periphery, I duck into the hushed Cathedral of Our Lady—Belgium’s largest church—to light a candle for our voyage and admire the art collection contained within, which includes native son Peter Paul Kubcns’ baroque masterpiece The Assumption of the Virgin and his two equally moving triptychs Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross.

Later that afternoon, the Artistry 2 casts off from it moorings and moves silently into the calm flow of the Scheldt, now much higher in its banks. We mark the passage with a multi-course feast in the dining room, watching the darkling shore ghost past as course after course emerges from the gourmet galley— rock lobster with salmon caviar in lobster bisque; turbot and poached scallop on a bed of truffle-scented spinach; garlic-crusted lamb rack; goat’s-cheese creme brulee.

Before long, we’ve entered the first of 10 locks we’ll encounter on our trip. Flanked by tall, dripping walls, the boat’s bow just meters from a great steel gate, it feels like we’ve drifted into an ancient underground cistern. The narrowest lock we will pass through, a crewmember tells me, is just V2 meters wide; a tight squeeze given the Artistry’s 11.1-meter beam. But this one is more than twice that breadth, and long enough to accommodate two barges to our rear. Once enough vessels have maneuvered themselves gingerly into position beside and abaft us, the lock’s rear gate slides shut, the water begins to rise, and up we go, until the gate before us opens and out we glide. So riveting is the process that I hardly notice it’s taken the better part of an hour.

I WAKE THE NEXT MORNING in Holland. We’ve returned, salmon-like, to where the Artistry12’was born—well, close enough: she came out of a shipyard near Rotterdam—en route to her christening ceremony at Middelberg, once a major port tor the Dutch East Indies Company. But first we’ve stopped at the town of Veere, which looks plucked from a painting by Jan van der Heyden. Its solid, stubby-towered Gothic church—the Grote Kerk—looms across a canal-side parking lot.

Those of us who haven’t opted to poke about in Veere (or remain, indolently, on board) are taken by bus to a mammoth storm-surge barrier erected across the Eastern Scheldt estuary in the 1980s. You need look no further (or proof of Dutch engineering genius. Part of a series of dikes, dams, sluices, and other barriers developed in the wake of the North Sea flood of 1953 and collectively known as the Delta Works, the Oosterscheldekering is a system of 62 massive sluice gates that stretches for nine kilometers between a pair of islands with equally impressive names (Schouwen-Duiveland and Noord-Beveland, if you must know). Exhibits inside one section of the barrier show how the gates’ giant concrete piers were constructed and sunk into place by a ship the size of a football field. Today the North Sea is flowing innocuously between them, but it isn’t always so: the Oosterscheldekering has been called into action 24 times since 1У86.

The Artistry II sails on down the Walcheren Canal—smooth and guileless as a millpond— to Middelberg, where it takes four swings of a magnum of Moet & Chandon before the boat’s fir-garlanded prow is christened with champagne. A local dance band called A-Go-Go keeps the Panorama Lounge hopping well into the night.

And then we’re in Belgium again, moored alongside an industrial dock at С J hen t. Our daily newsletter informs us of our options: biking around Ghent, or busing to Bruges. Just about everyone opts for the latter, and fair enough: the capital of West Flanders could be prettiest little canal city this side of Venice. On the ride over, our guide gives us the historical bullet points: how Bruges was once the richest town in the Lowlands; how it fell into decline from the 16th-century when the River Zwin began silting up; how Victorian-era tourism put it back on the map. And if Bruges time-warp quality appealed to 19th-century travelers, how much more so to today’s visitor? Cobbled lanes and medieval canals with names like Groenerei and Dijver and Spinolarei encircle a diligently preserved town center where swans preen themselves on loamy embankments and horse-drawn carriages clip-clop past gabled houses of time-mellowed brick and mullioned windows. Sightseers are thick on the ground, and in the canal boats; after the serene universe of the Artistry II, I soon find the crowds exhausting. But it’s peaceful inside the 12th-century Hospital of St. John, now a museum of medieval medicine. The former wards display portraits of early Flemish surgeons and cabinets filled with the grisly instruments they wielded: fleams, saws, chisels, trephines. One painting depicts a ruffle-collared doctor inserting a lancet into a little boy’s eye; another, a dissection. It’s almost enough to put me off a group lunch of moules frites. Almost.

We «re back in Dutch waters the next day, cruising through the Rhine Delta then up the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal, which runs almost dead straight to our final destination, Amsterdam. Buses wait to whisk us to the tulip and daffodil gardens of Keukenhof, but I elect to stay on board, greedy now tor more time on the water. I have the Artistry II pretty much to myself all the way up to Utrecht, where the Keukenhofers will rejoin the boat. I visit the bridge, where the captain walks me through the various controls and radar screens and hydraulics. I take a dip in the topside hot tub. I thumb through books in the aft lounge. But mostly I just stand against the rail watching Holland’s low, green farmland drift by at 10 knots, and wondering again why it has taken me so long to find my way onto a river cruiser.

The Artistry II sails into Amsterdam’s harbor at twilight. In the morning we will disembark (or good, but she will continue on along the Rhine to Basel with a fresh load of passengers. I envy them.

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