Water world: Cruise through Belgium and The Netherlands

I think I'm the highest thing in Holland. I only have to stand on Scenic Pearl's open deck to be above everything else in this flat country. I look down on cars tootling across dykes, and onto the passing heads of sedate cyclists. Often I eyeball the chimneys and weathervanes of villages that hold their nerve below sea level as our ship glides by above. One afternoon a yacht passes, and I look down on a fat family stripped to their underpants in celebration of the unexpected sunshine. They aren't perturbed at being spotted from on high: flesh wobbles as they wave.

The Dutch have little worry about privacy. "No, Dutch people don't mind if you look into their windows," comments Scenic guide Madlen in Maastricht. "I don't even have lace curtains. Look if you like, what do you see? A sofa, and people just sitting on a sofa and watching a television. What is so interesting?" 

But to the nosey traveller, everything is interesting. We sail past houses whose unadorned windows invite a stickybeak into living rooms where blond children scribble at their homework. At night in Amsterdam, kitchens are illuminated like stage sets, providing passing tableaux of cooking couples amid bowls of fruit and discarded newspapers. Now Scenic Pearl is a perch from which to gaze into country gardens onto cheese-fed Dutch folk having lunch or dozing in deckchairs.

I'm on a river cruise between Amsterdam to Basel but, unlike most cruises, Scenic Pearl isn't just rushing down the Rhine in a week. We'll take a slow, 15-day meander through the Netherlands' and Belgium's maze of waterways, and later veer onto Germany's Moselle River. A third of the journey concentrates on the Lowlands, and I'm glad. This is a lovely cover of northern Europe, greatly overlooked beyond Amsterdam, yet pretty and unpretentious.

We sail from Amsterdam in late evening after dining on green-shell mussels followed by pork tenderloin with parmesan risotto and a lip-smacking walnut ice cream. Early next morning, I stagger jetlagged out of bed and fling my cabin curtains open on Belgium. The sky is pale blue. Mist curls above the water as a skein of ducks flies past, and flocks of sheep nibble the dyke's embankments. They seem curiously out of place in this flatness, as if on holiday from New Zealand.

Tidy, rust-free port facilities appear. Antwerp's old town is buried like an antique among the gritty modernity. We tie up on the Scheldt River, which our local guide Pieter says has a strong undertow despite its seeming calm. "Do you know what to do if your spouse falls in?" he jokes. "Just shout and ask where the money is hidden."

Time to make one of those painful choices of cruises: Antwerp or Bruges? In the end I opt for Bruges, though later, after dinner, I'll have time to rush into Antwerp's lively bar-lined streets and admire its fine gabled houses. Bruges is a 90-minute drive through cornfields and groves of wind turbines, but worth the journey. The Gothic town sits on swan-paddled canals and is crammed with breweries and chocolate shops, though Pieter is eager to point out that contemporary reality and history make for odd partners.

''I'm not a Disney guide, I like to tell it as it is," he says as we stop by a gingerbread building. "This so-called hospital in the Middle Ages housed six people to a bed with all their diseases. They were kept warm under blankets, the perfect breeding conditions for bacteria. And they had to stare at paintings of the afterlife!" 

Next morning, we're back in the Netherlands as a red sun rises. I sit on my cabin balcony, window lowered to admit a surprisingly warm September breeze, and watch passing villages, yacht-filled harbours, a waterside caravan park. Geese honk from the reeds. The whole Rhine Delta region we're sailing through sits below sea level, wrested from the waves by centuries of canny dyke-building and water management. As French philosopher Rene Descartes observed, God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland. One of the great pleasures of river cruising through locks here is the picture it provides of Dutch engineering ingenuity on an astonishing scale.

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I stroll around the ship's deck and gaze across the polders to infinity. ("Holland is so flat you can see on Friday who's coming for lunch on Saturday," says Madlen.) In this horizontal country I find the sudden verticality of poplar trees and church towers remarkable and beautiful. In the old days churches provided a GPS by which to navigate across this two-dimensional water world. You could recognise Antwerp by the soaring, lacelike stonework of its gorgeous belltower; Nijmegen by the ornate Renaissance roof of its cathedral; Veere by its humped, strangely stubby church dome.

Veere is our pleasure for the afternoon. Waterworks have shut off the old seafaring town from the sea, but it has a busy yacht harbour and seems to float on water. It's one of those utterly gorgeous Dutch mini-towns of crooked cottages on crooked alleyways, with tiny shops selling bric-a-brac and cafes dishing up great slabs of apple pie. The Netherlands is a country of modest dimensions, bourgeois comforts and a wonderful lack of pretention: a refreshing change from Europe's big cities, with their show-off monuments and opulent palaces.

In the evening, I'm off to neighbouring village Vrouwenpolder which, along with a group of other passengers, I've chosen for my complimentary Scenic "Dine Around" evening off the ship. De Boekanier restaurant is decorated with model ships and old anchors and has great Belgian beers on tap. The menu is dense with tongue-twisters such as kaaskroketje and pijnboompitjes, but affable and patient waitresses are soon serving up delicious pork in onion gravy.

As we sail out of Veere, the sun is setting as yachts return homeward, sails white against a pink sky. Next day the scenery alternates between rural idyll – fat cows, strutting herons, flower-decked cottages – and small-scale factories, always tidy and free of rust and grime. After lunch we arrive in Nijmegen, a medium-sized university city on the Waal River. Bombed during World War Two, it lacks historical charm but has an agreeable, pedestrian town centre with good shops and lively beer-hall terraces.

As we near Germany, the landscape for the first time takes on three dimensions, rucking into small tree-fringed hills. Locals walk their dogs along poplar-lined dykes. We sail a canal elevated above farming fields and slide into Maastricht, a prosperous, mid-sized university city with a fetish for churches and cafes – and sometimes both together, as several of its 50-odd churches house coffee shops, and one that's perhaps the world's most delightful bookshop. 

"I lof it!" says our guide Katy, who has a strong Dutch accent, virulent orange hair and a dry sense of humour. She's been a guide in Maastricht for 23 years and yet has lost none of her enthusiasm. She loves everything she shows us: market stalls selling raspberries and wheels of cheese (I lof it!), a mediaeval water mill, the town hall. "See that man vacuuming the street? I do think we are very clean. I lof it!"

I think I love it too. Where else in the world would you see someone vacuum-cleaning outdoors? This is a country of gleaming door knockers, scrubbed cafe tables and polished windows, everything in its place and as it ought to be. You could say the same of Scenic Pearl: you just couldn't sail through this immaculate country and not keep your standards high. I stride the deck, once more the highest thing in Holland, and squint towards further adventures downstream in Germany. All's well with my world.

PEARL OF A SHIP

Scenic Pearl carries 167 passengers and is one of Scenic's "Space-Ship" category of river vessels noted for their agreeable passenger-space ratio. Cabins are a decent size and further enhanced by enclosed balconies whose large exterior windows slide down to create indoor-outdoor spaces useful in Europe, where the weather can be changeable but the scenery always lovely. 

The ship has a small spa and fitness centre, expansive open-air top deck and lounge with bar. Apart from the main restaurant, a small cafe and specialty venue Portobellos are other dining options. Passengers in Diamond Deck cabins can indulge in a six-course degustation menu at Table La Rive.

Scenic Pearl's shore excursions are often general walkabouts that give you a good destination overview in the company of informative guides who invariably speak excellent English. There's time for individual exploration afterwards. Alternatively, various "Freechoice" excursions (also inclusive) are visits to Bruges, the Delta Works, and Arnhem Airborne Museum or the Netherlands Open-Air Museum. 

Scenic provides a "Tailormade'' handset with an earpiece to listen to your guide, but the GPS-guided device also provides on-board commentary on passing riverbank landmarks, and can be used for self-guided tours of port towns. It's an excellent travel tool that sets Scenic apart.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION 

holland.com and visitbelgium.com

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14.5hr) with onward connections to Amsterdam (7.5hr). Phone 1300 303 777 or see emirates.com/au

CRUISING THERE

Scenic's 15-day 'Romantic Rhine & Moselle' cruise between Amsterdam and Basel (or the reverse) has frequent departures between April and October 2017. Prices from $8,195 per person including meals, beverages, shore excursions and Wi-Fi. Next year's cruise may differ slightly from the one described here. Phone 13 81 28. See scenic.com.au

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Scenic.

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