Holland is enchanting any time of the year. But Holland at springtime, now that's magical.
It's the season when the tulips are in full bloom, and the fields and farms are vibrant carpets of color that would rival Joseph's coat. The breathtaking blooms are worthy of an artist's inspiration.
Sprinkle in the quaint cities and towns, the Old World windmills and the warmth of the Dutch people and you have the consummate vacation experience.
I saw several of these remarkable sights by river ship on the Viking Mani, a sleek, intimate 190-passenger vessel operated by Viking River Cruises. It was my home base for seven days as I traveled the majestic Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, where I extended my visit for three days to take in the magnificent city sights and the incredible tulips blanketing the countryside.
Viking River Cruises is one of the best small-ship cruise lines in the world, and the amenities onboard the Mani — spacious cabins with large picture windows, a fine restaurant, a cozy bar, library, sun deck, in-room telephone and private bathrooms plus outstanding crew service — were only exceeded by the itinerary and the included shore excursions, which were first-rate.
The tours are conducted by knowledgeable English-speaking guides who patiently explained the interesting points of each destination.
There were no long bus rides, and plenty of time was allotted for exploring on your own.
My journey included the cities of Basel; Breisach and the Black Forest of Germany; Strasbourg, France; Heidelberg and Rudesheim, Koblenz and Cologne, Germany; and finally, Kinderdijk and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. At each port, the Mani would dock near the center of the city within minutes of the most notable attractions, affording passengers an immediate and up-close view of the history and culture of the area.
It takes about a day or two to get into the routine of a river cruise, and after a half or full day out and about, it was rejuvenating to return to the Mani for some relaxation or a cup of coffee and sweet treat in the lounge.
Meals were highlights of each day and the cuisine could easily match anything prepared on larger vessels. After dinner, guests could listen to some piano music in the lounge or go out to sample the nightlife if the ship was staying overnight. There are no lavish stage shows onboard, but there are times when special entertainers from the area come aboard for performances featuring local traditions.
But the real lure of the river cruise was leisurely sailing along the Rhine, where castles pervaded the rolling hillsides, and visiting legendary cities and towns.
After a brief stay in Basel, it was off to Strasbourg, then the German towns of Heidelberg and Rudesheim with docking in Mannheim. The most striking and imposing view in Heidelberg is the famed castle, the setting for the opera The Student Prince. The fortress ruins rise majestically over the roofs of the city and entertain millions of tourists each year.
Only two other German towns remained on the itinerary — Koblenz and Cologne — before the Mani sailed into the Netherlands during tulip time.
Koblenz is at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. It is primarily a cultural, administrative and business center of the Middle Rhine. Its massive 12th century fortress, Festung Ehrenbreitstein, is Europe's largest. The 2,000-year-old city features a beautiful riverside promenade and once served as home to French refugees during the French Revolution.
Cologne's most notable landmark is the Gothic cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction began in 1248, continuing in stages over the course of seven centuries, and completed in 1880.
As for the Netherlands, its most recognizable symbols are the unique windmills and the tulips. At Kinderdijk, probably one of the best examples of the typical Dutch landscape, there are 19 windmills, and though their task of handling water has been taken over by steam and electric pumps since 1868, the mills are still turning. One mill is open for touring, and you can't help but marvel at the Dutch resourcefulness.
The same must be said for the country's devotion to flowers, particularly tulips.
From mid March until the end of May, tulips transform large parts of Holland into a colorful patchwork, and no matter where you look, the fields will be different and gorgeously colorful. Holland's longest tulip route is located in the Noordoostpolder in Flevoland. While not as well known as Keukenhof and the flower-bulb region, Flevoland boasts nearly 80 miles of roads with signage and nearly 2,500 acres of flowering bulb fields. The area was selected by National Geographic as one of the world's most beautiful road trips.
Keukenhof Gardens, in Lisse, is one of the world's most spectacular floral extravaganzas. Set in a beautiful park of winding streams, small lakes and tree-shaded paths, the gardens cover more than 70 acres and contain nearly 7 million tulips and other flowers. The indoor and outdoor exhibits showcase the genius of Dutch gardening. To include Keukenhof Gardens and many of the other significant Dutch sights demonstrates the genius of Viking River Cruises.
Visiting Holland during tulip season is something you'll grow to love. But all that Holland has to offer can't fully be appreciated in one day or one week, just as a river cruise can't be fully appreciated after only one sailing.
Tom Wuckovich, a former travel editor for AAA Going Places magazine, has written about travel for 35 years.