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 a power wheelchair user and a person who can’t walk at all. So you can imagine my elation when Accessible Travel Netherlands began offering the opportunity to sail on not just one, but two fully accessible river cruise ships through Holland and Germany! I’ve had the good fortune to sail on the Prins Willem Alexander twice–once through Holland in April 2017, and once again on the Rhine River in Germany in September 2019.
This isn’t your typical river cruise, however. 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, a closet, a TV, 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. Here is the full video tour of the ship and my Rhine River cruise experience:
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. There is no assigned seating, although many people end up eating with the same people at the same table for the whole cruise. Our tour group of four sat together, and were joined by a wonderful Dutch lady who spoke awesome English, as well as her mother. She was instrumental in teaching us all how to play Rummikub!
The top level has a large sun deck, part of which is enclosed in case it’s windy. Smoking is allowed on the top deck in the open air portion. By request, you can even enter the pilot house and learn all about how the captain and crew navigate the ship!
The Holland cruise I took in April 2017 started in Utrecht, about thirty minutes south of Amsterdam, and ended in Meppel. 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.
My Rhine River cruise in September 2019 started and ended in Arnhem, about an hour’s drive southeast of Amsterdam. We boarded at 4PM and spent the night docked in Arnhem before departing early the next morning. Our first port stop was Düsseldorf, which is the capital and second-largest city of the most populous German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia after Cologne. It’s also known for its fashion industry and art scene. Just like my Holland river cruise, our little group had pre-arranged accessible tours during our stops. We rolled through the beautiful Old Town portion of the city, visited a stunning (and accessible) church, and learned much about Düsseldorf’s history.
Our second stop the next day was Cologne, which I was extremely excited about because the Cologne Cathedral has been on my bucket list for years. One hour of our tour was dedicated to visiting the packed cathedral, and that was barely enough time. It’s one of the most massive cathedrals I’ve seen anywhere, and it’s just completely overwhelming. Cologne itself is 2,000 years old, and is the fourth largest city in Germany. If you have time, you can visit the renowned art Museum Ludwig, or the Romano-Germanic museum. If you like perfume, make sure you smell some samples of the famous No. 4711 cologne from Cologne!
Once we left Cologne and started heading south, the landscape really started to change. Low mountains and hills came into view, as well as vineyards, elegant churches, and stately riverside mansions. We arrived at our third port around 1PM in Koblenz–a city I had never heard of, but should have. Koblenz was established as a Roman military post by Drusus around 8 B.C. Its name originates from the Latin(ad) cōnfluentēs, meaning “(at the) confluence of the two rivers, because it’s situated where the Rhine and Mosel rivers meet. We toured the lovely Old Town area with a guide, but then had a real treat–a round-trip accessible cable car ride across the Rhine!
After departing Koblenz that evening at 6PM, we turned to head back north towards our final port of Andernach. I had never heard of this town either, but was pleasantly surprised by how charming it was. We started our tour at 9:30AM, so the streets and alleys were devoid of tourists heading for the nearby famous geyser. We visited a beautiful (and accessible church), the old city walls, and the remains of a castle. It was also fantastic just to casually roll through narrow alleys of brightly painted historic homes decorated everywhere with flowers.
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 both times with Accessible Travel Netherlands, including two Americans living in Germany and two gentlemen from Scotland for my Holland cruise and two ladies from Great Britain on my Germany cruise. 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). Lunch is sometimes soup, a sandwich of some kind, salad, etc. 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. During my Holland cruise, 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. On my Germany cruise, we had two Latin guitar players/singers, a belly dancer, a piano player/singer, bingo, trivia, and karaoke, as well as the talent show the last night.
The passenger 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. Absolutely everyone on this cruise is either someone with a physical, mental, or developmental disability or a caregiver, and every square inch of the ship is wheelchair accessible.
There are some important things I should point out before you consider booking one of these cruises (which will be available several times during 2020; inquire with Accessible Travel Netherlands). While I already can’t wait to go on this ship again next year, this experience is not the typical cruise situation, and may not work for everyone.
- You will have to share a bathroom with two other cabins (although you’re not assigned to one specific bathroom). They are VERY spacious, shower chairs are available, and some bathrooms have a bathing bed.
- Hoists, shower chairs, commodes, and other medical equipment are already on the ship for anyone to use without needing to arrange rentals.
- Toiletries were not provided during my cruises. You will want to bring your own, including shower gel and hand soap.
- Hair dryers are not provided, so bring your own. It must have dual voltage capability, as US 110V dryers will not work with just adapters.
- You’ll have plenty of down time during the day to enjoy the gorgeous views and get to know your fellow passengers. There are no scheduled activities on the ship during the day, so bring a book, some cards, or a travel-sized game. My friends and I played a lot of Scrabble and Rummikub!
- Wifi is either bad or non-existent on the Prins Willem Alexander. Have a good international data plan in place, and if you need to work on the Internet, bring a wifi hotspot.
- If you’re a light sleeper, bring ear plugs, as there can be some noise in the hallways until about 11PM and starting at 7AM.
- This cruise is a culturally immersive experience. You will sit with people you don’t know for meals, and you will hear Dutch (or German on the MS Viola) spoken around you almost exclusively. Your tour escort and any English-speaking passengers or volunteers will gladly translate for you, but I suggest embracing the opportunity to learn about another culture. For example, I learned how to count to ten in Dutch just by playing bingo.
- The staff of the ship are all volunteers. They love what they do, and many of them have been helping passengers on these cruises for over a decade. It makes you feel like you’re among a new Dutch family. They are kind, helpful, friendly, and overall amazing.
Despite these little quirks and departures from a typical cruise experience, the most incredible part of the boat is that the entire vessel is made specifically for wheelchair users! This is the only opportunity full-time wheelchair users have to go on a European river cruise, and well worth any adjustments I had to make to my routine. Also, being able to access all these small towns and villages throughout Holland and Germany 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 or Germany by river very soon!
Would you like to take a fully accessible river cruise through Holland or Germany? Please visit my accessible travel agency’s website, Spin the Globe / Travel, and I can help you get there!