Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021

© Jeremy Ferguson

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Go Dutch

Glide past windmills, tulip fields and 16th-century villages on a river boat cruise in the Netherlands

One windblown day last March, Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman smacked a bottle of Veuve Clicquot against the hull of a boat and hit the kind of high notes that shatter glass. The vessel was Avalon Waterways’ Felicity. Brueggergosman is the Felicity’s godmother. It was the diva's job to christen it and she carried out her duties most stylishly.

There’s little doubt Felicity faces a rosy future. River cruises are huge business in Europe, and have been since the opening of the Main-Danube Canal in 1992. The Canal hooked up the Rhine and the Danube Rivers, making it possible to river-cruise from the Netherlands on the North Sea to Romania on the Black Sea, a voyage of almost 2000 kilometres. A handful of unconnected rivers from France’s Seine and Rhône to Russia’s Volga complete an intensely appealing map of choices.

Hundreds of boats ply these rivers, about 100 reserved for the English-speaking market. With 80 years’ experience and nine riverboats, Avalon Waterways ranks as a leader in the field. Turned out in a Rotterdam shipyard at a cost of about €14 million, the Felicity is the baby in the fleet. The Felicity is a typically bullet-shaped vessel capped with a rooftop deck for sunning and sightseeing. It carries 138 passengers and a staff of 40 — that is to say, a canoe by megaship standards. Smart design shows: oversized windows embrace the passing riverside panorama. Staterooms are a generous 17 square metres. Beds, pillows, linens and reading lamps are first-rate. Lounges and public areas are designer efforts. The Felicity cognoscenti hog the aft lounge, which comes equipped with a top-of-the-line espresso machine and coffee to match.

This ain't no cruise ship

That said, a river cruiser is much about what is isn’t. It offers no glitter, no glitz, no spa, no casino, no Vegas extravaganza, no souvenir bazaars, no art auctions, no formal-wear silliness and no cruise-ship trickery. You can shop for wines and spirits and bring them aboard to enjoy in your cabin. There’s no booze Gestapo to force overpriced in-house labels on you.

The restaurant is the loveliest room on the boat — softly lit, immaculately set and partitioned with alcoves framing exotic flowers. Servers from as far off as Bali and Bucharest carry out their long days’ duties with good cheer. Serviceable house wines are complimentary at dinner. All one might pray for now is good food. And mostly, that's what it is.

The breakfast buffet is a bounty of fresh fruit, breads, pastries, prosciutto ham, crispy bacon and eggs to order. Later, the kitchen demonstrates a talent for silken, deep-flavoured soups; gazpacho astounds with depth of flavour. For the most part, the brigade scrupulously avoids overcooking (just run from the red mullet, yech). The scampi, shrimps, lobster tails, Scottish salmon, veal tenderloin and roast beef dance out perfectly juicy and underdone. And when was the last time you had escargot soup? The Felicity’s maiden cruise — and the first of every season — is Tulip Time, a springtime romp on the waterways of the Netherlands and Belgium. This is far from a traditionally linear river cruise. It happens over so many bodies of water — more than a dozen — often it’s difficult to know where you are.

Off-ship excursions are run by Avalon in conjunction with local guides, and show more integrity than the bottom-line mass tours to which passengers may be accustomed. Nobody’s trying to sell you a carpet (with a fat commission for the ship) this time out. The pace of sightseeing, however, can recall the old Chinese admonition about “smelling the flowers from horseback.”

Down the river

What follows is a list of the Felicity’s ports-of-call during the nine-day Tulip Time cruise.

The Dutch city sits between two branches of the Rhine. The excursion focuses on the WWII Battle of Arnhem and Operation Market Garden. This was the botched attempt by British and Polish forces to push the Nazis out of the Netherlands, a tragedy that unfolds vividly in the small but succinct Hartenstein Airborne Museum. The battle was richly detailed in Richard Attenborough’s epic, star-studded 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far, and the movie remains essential viewing. Shrewdly, it’s part of your in-room movie selection.

At the junction of the Lek and Noord Rivers, Kinderdijk boasts the highest concentration of windmills in the Netherlands. Its kickline of 19 18th-century windmills merits a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

In the 16th century, the Belgian city on the Scheldt River was the most prosperous in Europe, and its architecture reflects this era. The Town Square, with its stately city hall and phalanx of Guild houses in the style of the Flemish Renaissance, is easily one of the most beautiful of its kind in Europe. Around it, narrow streets fan out, a gauntlet of pizzerias and souvenir shops in tune with 21st-century tourism. For an authentic Flanders lunch, seek out the restaurant De Peerdestal: The specialty is horsemeat.

At the confluence of the Sheldt and Lhys Rivers, the “diamond” of Flanders bows only to Bruges for medieval grandeur. Cathedrals are plentiful, as they always are, but the Guild houses along the Leie River at the old Graslei Harbour steal all thunder. Bridges and towers, nooks and crannies leave you wondering why some contemporary Hitchcock hasn’t shot a suspense movie here. Ghent drips with atmosphere and on a dark day, the mood is richly ominous. Did I mentione the city’s very own beer, stropken, translates as “noose”?

Pass this town's amiable panoply of merchants’ houses, moats, canals and cathedrals and go straight to the lively farmers market in the town square, where aromas of smoked meats and roasting cashews distract even the most well-fed visitor. Literally towering above the market stalls, the ornate Stadhuis or city hall is invariably mistaken for a cathedral. This didn’t make much of a difference to the Luftwaffe, which reduced it to rubble in WWII. The townspeople replicated it faithfully after the war.

A rustic, picture-perfect village five kilometres out of Middleburg, Veere charms everyone who treads its cobblestones. What more bucolic spot for a cup of espresso or pint of suds to the sound of a 48-bell carillon?

Rotterdam ranks as the largest port in Europe. It was also the world’s busiest port until Shanghai stole that superlative. Sprawling and modern with occasional patches of playful urban design, it fails to impress from a tour-bus window.

For many Felicity passengers, Europe’s answer to BC’s Butchart Gardens is the highlight of the voyage. Open for fewer than eight weeks a year, it presents a spectacle of 7 million blooms and 6000 varieties of tulips, making it the largest flower garden in Europe. In a cold spring, the tulips may not be ready, but orchids and fellow exotics in greenhouses are a marvel, too. And when an albino peacock appears in the park, strutting his stuff for three coy peacockesses, the crowd breaks into applause.

This atmospheric town has a past as a picturesque fishing village and a refuge for artists such as Pablo Picasso and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. It’s also one of the few places in the Netherlands in which women can be seen in traditional Dutch costume. The Felicity’s final lap between Voldendam and Amsterdam sweeps passengers across the waters of the Zuiderzee. This is the North Sea inlet, roughly 100 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide, whose unstoppable floods have taken up to 10,000 Dutch lives at a time. The combative Dutch have sealed it off, converted it to freshwater and renamed it Lake Ijssel (pronounced “Eissel”).

At journey’s end, the Felicity has covered 700 kilometres of waterways. The optional excursion out of Veere to the Delta Works has already made the point that the ocean is always on top of the Dutch. One of the world’s greatest engineering feats — 9.65 kilometres of dams, dikes, locks and storm-surge barriers — the Delta Works responded to the 1953 floods that drowned 1800 people. It ensures such a tragedy will never again befall a resilient little nation literally keeping its head above water.

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  1. On November 18, 2010, DR. JABEZ NORMAN said:

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