Old-world splendor meets the latest in riverboat luxury on a languid cruise through the waterways of Belgium and Holland
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 a 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, fine 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 for 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 II, is a bit florid for my tastes—all the cool names seem to have been taken by Viking River Cruises, whose longship fleet is full of Odins 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 Artistry II—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.