Going Dutch? We tip-toed through the Keukenhof tulips on a Titan river cruise

Guest writer, Alan Wooding travelled to The Netherlands by coach to visit the world famous spring gardens at Keukenhof and to sail around the Dutch inland waterways on board the MS Bellejour

“It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, but my husband refuses to fly,” confided Phyllis, a keen gardener and a fellow pensioner. It was her desire to visit Keukenhof Gardens in The Netherlands which led me to take the opportunity of enjoying a no-fly alternative offered by Titan Travel.

Like many elderly pensioners Phyllis has never flown, yet she had never considered making the trip by coach or experiencing a gentle cruising holiday around the famous Dutch waterways which would allow her to tick off one of her bucket list items.

Unlike most holiday companies, Titan always arrange a non-nonsense door-to-door pick-up service. You get your own personal chauffeur, are collected from home and driven in a comfortable vehicle to a point of embarkation. After that you’re transferred to an awaiting Buzzlines coach before making the Channel crossing, either on a 90 minute P&O ferry out of Dover or, in our case, by train through the much faster Euro Tunnel.

What follows is an easy onward journey on good European roads from Calais to Amsterdam as you pass through France and Belgium and into The Netherlands, the trip itself taking approximately five hours, including a 45 minute comfort break for a snacks and drinks.

As Keukenhof’s magnificent spring garden only has a short eight week season, amazingly it still manages to attract over one million visitors from more than 100 countries each year. It is also the highlight of Titan’s six-day ‘Dutch Waterways and Tulips’ holiday which you spend aboard the luxurious four star-plus MS Bellejour river boat.

We were met by Gavin Wood, Titan’s cruise director along with their tour manager Gill Riley, who accompanied us on three included excursions to Keukenhof, the windmills of Zaanse Schans plus an Amsterdam canal cruise.

 

About MS Bellejour

 

Following the company’s success after exclusively chartering MS Serenade back in 2017, Titan (www.titantravel.co.uk) chose to add a second river boat for its 2019 season so it chartered the Maltese-registered MS Bellejour from Swiss-based company Select Voyages. It’s a sleek 127m (417ft) long river vessel and the MS Bellejour can carry a maximum of 180 passengers in 90 well-appointed en suite cabins and on this occasion, it was skippered by jovial Dutch captain, Oskar van Spierenburg.

Chatting in the ship’s spacious reception area, Captain van Spierenburg explained: “We have 126 guests on board this week, including a group of travel agents from all over Britain. As it’s also our first trip of the season, we’ve got 32 members of the catering and house management team, some of whom are learning the ropes. I’ve also got five experienced crew members which includes an engineer and my deputy.”

He added: “I admit that we’ve had a few teething problems as it’s the first week of the season, but hopefully we are able to overcome these as soon as they’re brought to our attention. I actually leave the ship later this month and the Bellejour will then be repositioned for a season on the River Danube.”

Built in 2004 and originally named MS Johann Strauss, the MS Bellejour has three deck levels and all have 16 square metre cabins. Those located on the upper Danube and central Rhine decks have large panoramic sliding glass windows with French balconies while on the lowerMoselle deck, the cabins have large elongated portholes which still provide excellent views as the Dutch waterways landscape slips serenely past.

A selection of cabins on the Moselle deck are available for sole occupancy while all 90 are air-conditioned and include double beds (which can also be split into a twins), tea and coffee making facilities, a private bathroom with shower, satellite television, a mini bar, telephone, hairdryer and a safe, plus plenty of wardrobe space.

Other key members of staff included Italian-born hotel manager Andrea Zanchi, restaurant manager Andreea Chis and the MS Bellejour’shead chef Nikola Pavlovic. Meanwhile the majority of staff were either Bulgarian or Romanian, most of them making their cruising debuts.

Titan’s tour entertainer was Norman from Newcastle who arranged various daily quizzes and games, one of which was ‘deck quoits’ – which was won by my wife! – while the game of ‘ladder golf’ was new to everyone but it proved to be a huge hit with those who took part.

In the restaurant guests could enjoy a buffet breakfast, then a choice of a five-course luncheon or a light lunch in the lounge, before a dinner comprising an appetizer, soup, main course and dessert plus tea or coffee. All meals are accompanied by a choice of drinks – either top quality wines and beers or a non-alcoholic soft drink option. You can also purchase an optional unlimited drinks package from £10 per person per day which runs from 10am to midnight.

Facilities onboard include a large restaurant and lounge with a well-stocked bar, a small onboard shop and 24-hour reception plus a reading area which has a 24 hour tea and coffee making facility. There’s an enormous promenade sun deck, a wellness spa and fitness centre with a sauna. There’s also a heated whirlpool jacuzzi while guests also have free WiFi and a daily onboard newspaper.

Titan’s ‘Dutch Waterways and Tulips’ holiday is priced from £999 and includes all meals (there are two seven-course gala dinners), afternoon tea and late night snacks, together with a Captain’s Cocktail reception party.

 

Keukenhof Gardens

 

In celebration of its 70th anniversary season, Keukenhof’s theme for 2019 is ‘Flower Power’ with visitors getting to experience the 1960s in all its flamboyant and colourful glory. The spring garden – which is located close to the small Dutch town of Lisse and opens between 21 March and 19 May – is only a short 30 minute bus ride from Amsterdam and it displays over seven million flowering bulbs in spectacular fashion every spring.

We actually travelled there by coach from the port of Enkhuizen – where we spent the night – passing through huge areas of Dutch countryside that have been reclaimed even though it remains around four metres below the level of the nearby North Sea.

The gardens themselves are looked after by a dedicated team of 40 gardeners who make sure that the fabulous displays of tulips, daffodils and those amazing scented hyascents, are shown in the best possible light.

I arranged to meet up with long-time friend Annemarie Gerards-Adriaansens – the garden’s Public Relations Manager – who explained: “Here at Keukenhof, flowers simply connect people from across the globe as they come together to enjoy the tulips, fragrances and colours

“This part of North Holland is world-famous for its bulb fields and for the enormous amount of flowers cultivated both here at Keukenhof and in the fields right across the country. For example, those in the Flevoland province are also magnificent.

“The Flower Power theme at Keukenhof this year is intended to recreate the vibes of that era through bright colours and music. It’s also a great theme for celebrating Keukenhof’s 70th anniversary as ‘Flower Power’ really does show the strength of flowers.”

Besides the wonderful parkland gardens – which were absolutely full of blooms – there are several fabulous pavilions housing the very best that the Dutch bulb industry can produce. The seven million-plus flowering bulbs on displayed are all donated freely by around 100 different producers who use the garden to showcase their wares.

In the huge Willem-Alexander Pavilion (named after the Dutch king) are hundreds of species of tulips along with some wonderful colourful lilies, while the nearby 1000 square metre Beatrix Pavilion is specifically the domain of orchids of every shape and colour. And it’s here that Flower Power really comes into its own as the designers have had a field day, adding all manner of props to highlight the 1960s.

The Oranje Nassau Pavilion showcases the use of flowering bulbs in interiors while the new Juliana Pavilion depicts the history of the tulip from 17th Centary tulip mania – when a single tulip bulb would have been swapped for a canal side house! – to today’s contemporary icon. Added to that, the renovated historic nearby walled garden contains extra information about the origins of the tulip.

The annual Dutch Flower Parade (or Bloemencorso) takes place on 13 April and stretches for 42 kilometres around the region. It goes from Noordwijk on the North Sea coast to North Holland’s provincial capital Haarlem via Keukenhof where many thousands of visitors gather to watch the decorative floats pass by.

 

Titan’s Dutch Waterways Cruise Itinerary

 

Following a welcome glass of bubbly and light refreshments on our arrival at MS Bellejour, we set sail from our berth close to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station for the town of Hoorn, located on the western shore of the Markermeer where we spent the night following a seven course Captain’s Dinner.

Hoorn became one of six homes to the former Dutch East India Company and it has a 17th Century town centre whose main spare is called Roode Steen. Quickly becoming one of the wealthiest and most important towns on the Zuiderzee, it’s population has grown to more than 70,000 inhabitants today.

One of Hoorn’s many claims to fame relates to a pair of Dutch ships which negotiated a safe passage around the southern most tip of South America on their way from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. While huge storms and previously uncharted rocks had claimed many previous explorers, it was to become known as Cape Horn.

Hoorn’s ancient harbour features the Hoofdtoren, a huge 16th Century lookout tower while nearby is the Westfries Museum which has on display paintings of the Westfrisian Golden Age.

A talk about the history of the tulip by Josette, a Dutch horticultralist, was enjoyed by the Titan guests in the MS Bellejour’s lounge while at midday we left Hoorn and sailed north to the equally attractive town of Enkhuizen. However because the Ijsselmeer (formerly known as the Zuiderzee) has a huge 19 kilometre causeway which dissects it, we had to sail via the giant locks at Lelystad in the province of Flevoland on the opposite bank.

Enkhuizen is a former fishing and whaling port and was also home to the Dutch East India Company but we had little time to explore as after breakfast we set off by coach for Keukenhof Gardens, passing through much of the countryside which is now a hugh nature reserve.

That night we set off again and, having berthed in Lelystad, we were royally entertained by 25 members of the Shantymen Kaap Hoorn choir – shades of the Fishermen’s Friends! They have performed all over the world and all the members have links to the sea, either as fishermen or sailors, their repertoire including many well known sea shanties which the Bellejour guest were encouraged to join in.

The following morning we set sail for Zaandam where we visited the Zaanse Schans, an historic 18th Century village comprising six well preserved windmills. We also learned of the skilled craft of clog and cheese making and wandered the streets alongside the River Zaan.

It was then back to Amsterdam for our final full day which included a city tour by coach and an hour-long cruise around the city’s remarkable 17th Century canal system aboard a glass-topped boat.

While many guests then visited the Rembrandt exhibition at the fabulous Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House and Van Gogh Museum always need to be booked in advance as the crowds are enormous.

One very interesting exhibit at Amsterdam’s National Maritime Museum is the 18th Century replica East Indiaman “Amsterdam” which takes you right back to the Dutch Golden Age when the Dutch capital was the world’s largest port and Holland was truly a world power.

Sadly the holiday was over all too quickly and after an early breakfast, we were back aboard our Buzzlines coach to make the return journey to Calais. Unlike the outward journey, we returned to Dover via a P&O ferry before being returned to our own homes in another chauffeur driven Titan vehicle.

** On Saturday 27 April, the entire population of The Netherlands will celebrate King’s Day. There are street markets everywhere, where people sell a wide variety of new and secondhand items as well as homemade treats. Bands play on street corners and you wouldn’t be surprised to see everyone dressed in bright orange. In cities such as The Hague, Utrecht, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, huge outdoor parties take place the night before often featuring famous DJs and musicians. Meanwhile tradition also dictates that King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, together with their three daughters, visit at least one or two municipalities in The Netherlands on this particular day.

Titan Travel Fact File

Alan and Jo Wooding travelled to The Netherlands on a Buzzlines coach courtesy of Titan Travel on their six-day ‘Dutch Waterways and Tulips’ holiday with prices starting  from £999. Full details from Titan Travel at Titan House, Cross Oak Lane, Salfords, Redhill, Surrey RH1 5EX – www.titantravel.co.uk