What makes the heart of Holland tick from a tourist’s perspective my wife Jenny and I asked ourselves on our way to keep an important appointment with The Lady Anne? No this was not a date with some elevated personage but an invitation to join a famous heritage river cruiser, the oldest passenger vessel on the European waterways.
This lady began her life as a Rhine freighter back in 1903 and was sensitively converted into a river cruiser back in 1963. But what makes her so special is that she only carries 100 passengers and is small enough to voyage along quieter Dutch waterways where the larger river cruisers cannot venture. And equally importantly she is owned and sailed by Dutch Captain Wido Arts who delights in sharing the quieter side of The Netherlands with his passengers.
We joined the lady on the Lower Rhine at Arnhem following an easy ferry and coach ride from Dover and after a comfortable night onboard cast off on our Heart of Holland cruise. We soon swapped the Rhine for the meandering River Ijssel and spent the morning on the sundeck as small picturesque towns of the old Hanseatic League of merchants and traders slipped slowly by. This was to be a relaxing feature of this cruise because as we would not be covering long distances on such mighty rivers as the Rhine and the Danube there was no need to sail overnight.
Everyone’s heard of Amsterdam but how many like us, relatively unfamiliar with Holland and The Netherlands, have ever heard of the lovely old riverside town of Deventer? Sitting in its centuries old square and hearing not a single word of English spoken, it seemed as if we were now truly off the beaten track and in the heart of Holland. This view was reinforced that evening when after dinner onboard we arrived at the equally picturesque town of Kampen where there was time for an evening stroll along quaint canal side streets.
Here in times past the good burghers hit upon the cunning plan of hoisting a cow to the flat top of the town hall to crop the grass growing there. The poor animal soon fell to her death but is now immortalised in an annual Cow Festival. The Lady Anne, with Captain Arts, at the helm, cast off at 7am and we soon sailed out of the Ijssel and into the small fishing harbour of Urk on the shores of the Ijsselmere, or former Zuiderzee, a giant 30 mile wide inland lake with lock access to the edge of the North Sea. Again we spent a delightful couple of hours wandering around the small town and stopped for a coffee in a cafe where the minute the young waitress realised we were Brits she switched to the most perfect English which happened time again, in shops, restaurants, cafes and bars.
By noon we were bound for Medemblik on the far side of the Ijsselmere and back out on the sundeck after lunch, it seemed for all the world as if we’d swopped a river cruise for an ocean going one. Our lakeside berth, like most others, was only a few hundred yards from the main street where we visited a bakery and working museum to watch biscuits being made before strolling around a bustling yacht harbour to visit the small Radbound Castle dating back to 1287. We cast off again with the sun rising over the lake to access the lock system before sailing around to the busy port of Den Heder where we re-entered the inland waterways bound for Zaandam.
We reached our destination after a morning sailing through the green heart of Holland across a patchwork landscape of bulbfields and small lakes to discover the Lady Anne to be something of a celebrity. For she is the largest vessel to enter the town where just behind a facade of modern buildings, we discovered a mini Amsterdam complete with small canals, spanned by bridges, lovely old buildings, water side shops, bars and restaurants and people on bicycles everywhere. That evening we cruised past the famous Zans Schans windmills before skirting around Amsterdam on an outer ring of canals where, if we’d wanted to stay up until the early hours, we could have watched the dramatic spectacle of a whole section of motorway and an adjoining railway line being raised to let us pass.
Jenny happened to open the curtains around 1.30 am to come face to face with a party of tram cleaners who hooted with laughter before she hurriedly closed them again. The following afternoon we arrived at the famous cheese-making town of Gouda where we visited the historic weighing hall and St Johns Church with its 72 magnificent stained glass windows and enjoyed a drink in the square before returning to the ship for dinner. With the holiday drawing to a close we arrived in the megga port of Rotterdam at noon the following day and moored close to the iconic white Swan Bridge and just across the water from a giant multi-decked cruise liner which shrank the Lady Anne to minnow proportions.
Rotterdam with its mix of architecturally stunning high rise buildings towering over waterways packed with old Dutch barges, its fabulous domed shaped market and famous bright yellow complex of cube-shaped houses, was truly an exciting eye opener. The following morning we visited the Euromast tower for a 185 metre high revolving view over the city before sailing on past the famous Kinderdijk windmills, a UNESCO World Heritage site to, our final port of call in Dordrecht. Here Jenny and I enjoyed our final wander around lovely old canal side streets before finding a sunny spot for a glass of chilled white wine and some smoked salmon tapas just a few steps away from our lovely Lady Anne.