Did you think river cruises in Europe were off-limits to you as a wheelchair user? Think again! I used to dream about sailing on a river boat somewhere in Europe, and I was disappointed every time I saw the beautiful commercials, knowing I wouldn’t be able to get on or off the boat at ports of call as an electric scooter user and a person who can’t walk at all. So you can imagine my elation when Accessible Travel Netherlands offered up a 6-day fully wheelchair accessible river cruise through Holland!
This isn’t your typical river cruise, however. The boat itself, the Prins Willem Alexander, is classified as a hospital vessel. Every single passenger cabin on the second level is fully wheelchair accessible, with two hospital-style adjustable twin beds, a small desk and chair, and a sink. All the doors also have push-button entry from outside and inside, with emergency call buttons and cords throughout. You can lock your door from the inside, but not the outside, and the safes are high up. I just have our tour guide lock my room with the master key when we leave the boat, and I always lock my room at night so no one wanders in. There is one shared bathroom for every three cabins, and some people may balk at not having their own en suite bathroom. However, the shared bathrooms are large and fully set up for wheelchair users—including one where passengers can be laid flat for bathing. The third level has the main salon, which is used for meals during the day and entertainment in the evening.
The cruise itself starts in Utrecht, about thirty minutes south of Amsterdam. We boarded around 4pm local time, and spent the first night docked in Utrecht. We headed out on the river the next morning around 10am, and our first port call was the large port city of Rotterdam. It was very easy to get off the boat at the dock, and Veroniek, our tour guide with Accessible Travel Netherlands, had set up an accessible city tour for us (as with every port call) upon arrival. Rotterdam is a beautiful city because it has a great balance of modern and historic. The sidewalks were very easy to manage, and it was lovely to see so much of its maritime identity everywhere.
We spent the night in Rotterdam, then cast off at 8am for our next stop in Tiel. This is a quiet river town of only 40,000 people, and is best known for its now-shuttered jam factory—and raspberry-shaped mascot called Flipje. The streets were empty because it was a workday, which was a welcome novelty because I had become accustomed to tourists and people rushing everywhere in Amsterdam! Tiel also owns a sad corner of history, as all 300 of its Jewish residents were deported during WWII to various concentration camps and never returned. At the end of our charming walking tour with our guide, we went to a small café to enjoy pannkoeken (Dutch pancakes) and poffertjes (fried pancake balls) before heading back to the boat for the evening.
The next morning, we cast off at 8am for the village of Doesburg. This town looks deceptively small with a population of only 12,000 people, but is actually home to 150 monuments and museums. It’s best known for its mustard factory, and contains the oldest public meeting space (now a bar/restaurant) in Holland (1478), called De Waag. Like many other Dutch villages and cities, Doesburg was hit hard by the Germans during WWII, and the large church tower in the center of town had to be completely rebuilt. The buildings and streets are so incredibly charming here, and it was such a pleasure to wander through town on a sunny day.
We had to leave earlier than usual on the fifth day for Zwolle because the river water level was low, meaning we had to reduce our speed. The morning fog made for some beautiful photos, and there were plenty of things to see along the river’s banks—a collapsed castle tower, birds, cows, cathedrals, and windmills. Zwolle is a good-sized city with 125,000 people, but it still had all the charm of an Old World Dutch village, with winding streets, beautiful buildings and cathedrals, small canals, and shops and cafes. It was easily my favorite stop of the cruise, as the sidewalks were wide and smooth, and there was a large pedestrian-only area in the center of town.
I can’t express strongly enough how enjoyable this cruise was, mostly due to its unique nature. There were only about 100 people on the entire boat, which includes about 70 Dutch senior citizens from various nursing homes and locales around Holland, plus younger caregivers, including nursing students. You can actually request the use of one of their care givers without having to bring someone with you; just make the request with some notice. I was part of a small tour group with Accessible Travel Netherlands, including two Americans living in Germany and two gentlemen from Scotland. English is at something of a premium on the boat. Most of the staff speak pretty good English, but few of my fellow passengers spoke any English at all outside of my tour mates. However, this really didn’t pose a big problem, as we had plenty of people who could translate, and made for some quite amusing moments.
You may be curious about the food, considering the clientele. The food on board was fantastic! The downside is that you don’t get to pick your food from a menu for lunch or dinner. You get what you get, but the quality is so good (and they do have vegetarian options). Dinner is a 3-course meal with soup, entrée, and dessert. Breakfast is a buffet of yogurt, cereal, meats, cheeses, and breads. Midmorning you get a coffee/sweets break as well, and they bring around platters of hors d’oeuvres around 10pm during the entertainment. Coffee and tea are free, but you must buy a beverage card for sodas and alcohol. Trust me, you will not go hungry on this cruise.
Also, if you think a night of entertainment with a boat full of Dutch seniors will be mellow, think again! Of course, this is not cruise ship-style showmanship, but a ton of fun nonetheless. We had a singer the first night (all in Dutch, of course), bingo the second night (during which I won an awesome pair of handmade Dutch wool socks), a fantastic talent show the third night with hilarious group performances by the staff, and singers the fourth and fifth nights. The group is typically Dutch in that they’re quiet, polite, and direct, but despite their older age and different physical conditions, they love their fun and music and were an absolute riot! We had fun waving and greeting each other when we would cross paths in town.
There are some things I should point out before you consider booking one of these cruises (which will be available twice in 2018; inquire with Accessible Travel Netherlands). You will need to bring all your own toiletries, including soap for showers and handwashing in your room. The bath towels are the size of large hand towels, so if you like the big fluffy variety, you may want to bring your own. There are also no hair dryers on the boat, so you will need to buy one in town since you can’t just use a converter with a US dryer (you’ll fry it). You will have plenty of down time on the boat (which is one of the best parts, in my opinion), so enjoy the relaxing view, bring some books, plays cards or dice, or work on your laptop (like I do every morning) with the gorgeous Dutch countryside as your office. Wifi is sparse on board—at €5 for 500MB of data—so you’ll need to pace yourself if you don’t have an international data plan for your phone. Finally, bring ear plugs if you’re a light sleeper. The walls are extremely thin, and with all the wheelchairs and mobility devices moving around, there is noise at all hours, especially if your cabin is next to a bathroom or under the salon.
Despite these little things, the most incredible part of the boat is that the entire vessel is made specifically for wheelchair users! Also, being able to access all these small towns and villages throughout Holland that I would never be able to get to otherwise is priceless. Having wheelchair accessible private tours ready for us in each port call takes all the worry out of the trip and leaves the planning to someone else. The atmosphere on the boat is unique, happy, and very friendly. You will have a wonderful time, and I hope you get to experience Holland by river in 2018!