Traveling Deeper With AFAR on a European River Cruise

AFAR and AmaWaterways took to the Dutch and Belgian waterways in celebration of a different kind of cruising, with an award-winning ship, exclusive—and active!—experiences, locally sourced cuisine, and more.

Traveling Deeper With AFAR on a European River Cruise

A peaceful sunset from the deck of the AmaSerena

Photo by Onnalee MacDonald

Imagine cruising through the Netherlands and Belgium with an intimate group on a regal ship, enjoying stunning views, signature cuisine, and enriching excursions curated just for you. These experiences and more are what guests were treated to aboard the seven-night river cruise, Best of Holland & Belgium With AFAR, which recently set sail in October after a year-long delay due to Covid.

An experiential event series, AFAR Sailings launched in 2018 with a cruise on the enchanting Mediterranean Sea. For this most recent iteration, AFAR explored along the Rhine River in the Netherlands and Belgium with AmaWaterways, the highly regarded, family-run river cruise company—an AFAR Travelers’ Choice winner for 2019 Best River Cruise Line. The cruise line’s cofounders were also recognized as 2019 AFAR Vanguard honorees for keeping their cruises personalized amid a fast-growing industry.

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Staterooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies.

Photo by Onnalee MacDonald

Aboard the award-winning AmaSerena, there was something for every type of traveler, from those who wished to socialize to seekers of rest and relaxation. Some, like AFAR’s executive director of brand partnerships, Onnalee MacDonald, enjoyed a little of both on the cruise including the soothing accommodations. Twin-balcony staterooms feature both French and outside balconies with sweeping views, plus white marbled bathrooms, for the ultimate in style and comfort. “We couldn’t wait to get back to our room,” MacDonald said. “It was cozy, well appointed, and always clean, with a big sliding door to watch the countryside. There was even turndown service with a nice dark chocolate, either Belgian or Dutch.”

The main lounge served cocktails and tapas in between meals, while the sun deck includes a giant chess set, a pool with a swim-up bar, and a track where MacDonald would take walks and stargaze at night. There was also an inviting library, a hair salon, a fitness room, and a fleet of complimentary bicycles for exploring on land. “The bikes on board were perfect for our desired level of activity,” says MacDonald. “It was so nice to ride in every port with great local guides.”

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Some of the treats served aboard.

Photos by Onnalee MacDonald

Back on the ship, guests could book in-room massages, participate in wellness activities like yoga, or take in a robust schedule of entertainment, including traditional Bavarian music, a local quartet, and modern piano favorites. When hunger struck, they could dine on locally sourced cuisine at the Main Restaurant or indulge with a multi-course dinner at the Chef’s Table. Says MacDonald, “The food was quite nice—good salads, beautiful fish, and every evening a brothy soup, like the light cream of cauliflower.” Of the Chef’s Table, she said, “It was excellent. The highlight was the lemongrass soup. Everyone loved it and the chef was kind enough to share the recipe with us.”

Based on the AFAR way of traveling—that is, having an immersive, richer experience—the Best of Holland & Belgium cruise revolved around exclusive moments, like when everyone dined at Chez Léon, one of the most famous restaurants in Brussels for moules frites. As the AmaSerena traveled through the Netherlands and Belgium, guests also enjoyed cruising the Amsterdam canals, listening to the distinctive instruments at Museum Speelklok in Utrecht, admiring the artistry of castles like Gassbeek in Flanders, and tasting Belgium’s famous chocolates and waffles.

They even toured charming, off-the-beaten-path places like the medieval harbor town of Veere in the Netherlands, the well-preserved city of Bruges in Belgium, and Dordrecht, Holland’s oldest city. At every stop, a knowledgeable local guide showed guests around and shared each destination’s fascinating history.

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A view of the countryside from the ship.

Photo by Onnalee MacDonald

“The hard thing about cruising in general is that it’s not as immersive; you just get back on board,” says MacDonald. “But we actually went into the little towns and neighborhoods, and [that way of traveling] was definitely the high point.” Her favorite excursion was a big bike tour, and an especially memorable experience was taking a boat from Alblasserdam to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk, home to Holland’s greatest concentration of windmills. “We were able to talk to a local who had raised his family in a windmill and still lived there after 43 years with his wife, who swims daily in the canal during the warmer months. I felt transported.”

Wherever guests went, they always had a choice of activities to truly make the trip their own. Says MacDonald, “One day we wanted to go back to a cheese farm, so they said, ‘Go ahead, and catch up with the group later.’ It made it feel like our own vacation; it gave us flexibility and wiggle room.” There was even an option to start the trip with a one-night, pre-cruise land program in Amsterdam, which included a stay at the five-star Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam, a private welcome cocktail reception, and transfer to the AmaSerena by canal boat.

>> Next: The Best European River Cruises to Book

Natalie is a a New York-based writer and editor focused on travel, food, and drink. Her work has appeared in AFAR, TimeOut, Fodor’s Travel, Edible Brooklyn, Serious Eats, and Vox Creative, among others.
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