After being welcomed aboard and shown to my suite, I’m sorely tempted to stay put. Instead, I join a group for 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 plunder 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 Rubens’ 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 II 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 multicourse 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 crème brûlée.
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 12 meters wide; a tight squeeze given the Artistry’s 11.4-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 Artistry II 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 for 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 for 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 1986.