Complete article followed by selection of photographs taken while with the Elegant Lady

by Pam Hobbs, Pictures by Michael Algar

It is a very domestic scene unfolding a few metres from where I stand: a young woman waters potted plants on her kitchen window sill, makes some tea and takes it upstairs to her husband. Together they sit talking, drinking from steaming mugs. Outside, a baby's playpen and child seats on a bicycle suggest they are parents of a youngster or two. Suddenly, the young man vanishes, to reappear on the dock minutes later when he unties ropes that hold them steady. His wife now moves their freighter-home forward towards the next lock.... And so they leave us to deliver their cargo of sand - perhaps in Rotterdam or Amsterdam, or at one of the smaller ports along our route. River folk, they live and work and raise their families on the waterways of Holland and Belgium, which right now are shared with dozens of cruise boats such as Canada's own Elegant Lady.

An unexpected pleasure during our two weeks aboard the Elegant Lady is to be a part of this age-old culture. In historic cities, we arrive as did trading ships centuries ago to wharfs lined with gracious homes built by l6th century traders. In small towns we step ashore to a gentler era, in which ducks nest undisturbed beneath riverside trees, and swans glide imperiously past thatch-roofed buildings, and street litter is non-existant. Housewives, some wearing traditional Dutch costume, pedal hard to balance boxes of plants or a youngster or two on their old-fashioned bicycles. Homes and gardens are immaculately maintained, as are municipal grounds and parks. And everywhere, in both city and country, Spring is in full bud. For this is April, Tulip Time in the Low Countries, presenting scenes every bit as brilliant as Joseph's coat of many colours.

One of my favourite times on these waterways is early morning, when I can lift the blind and from my bed watch the world go by. It is an ever-changing view - cyclists on their way to work - sheep trotting single-file along a dyke studded with golden daffodils. Wooded areas and neat farms, and the occasional old-fashioned windmill. Blossoms on fruit trees paint the skyline in frothy pinks and whites. Gardens have waterfront tea houses and patios that smack of lazy summer days ahead. If the weather's right I take my pre-breakfast coffee up on deck. There landscapes are further enhanced by sounds and smells, when birdsongs break the stillness and farmyards are pungent.

Although most people we cruise past go about their business without giving us a second glance, we do get the occasional greeting. Two boys stopped on their way to school one day, to wave and shout "Hey Canada" Ashore or on board there's no doubting where we are from. Large lettering on the side of our ship says it's owner isJerry Van Dyke Tours of Cambridge, Ontario. We fly two Maple Leafs, and upon arriving in port hoist a third. huge. All 65 passengers are Canadian, as are our hosts Jerry, his son Jeremy Van Dyke and two staff members from the Cambridge office. Hockey scores and other important news items are posted in the lobby. Personal items charged to our shipboard accounts can be paid for in Canadian currency. Mealtime talk is of life in the Okanagan and Grand Bend and Etobicoke. Listen hard and you'll even hear a sentence or two ending in "eh?"

Passengers who have travelled with the Van Dykes before, tell me they feel like family. They ask to see photos of Jeremy's new baby, meet friends from other trips, and plan their anniversary reunions on the Elegant Lady. They also like that ‘all inclusive' means just that. I too am impressed; if I passed up on the souvenirs I could return home with my credit card unswiped in two weeks. On this my first trip with them, It really is nice to know the tour bus driver won't be telling us us his kids need new shoes. No little pots with notes inviting us to tip at our discretion, and no dirty looks if we chose not to do so. (Even restroom fees and tips were prepaid for the entire afternoon we were on our own in Brussels.) No getting lost, wondering where to park or what to do in an emergency. We don't even have to arrange our airport transportation in Toronto, or haul our own luggage off the airport carousels. "Almost everyone here speaks English and has a mobile ‘phone" Jerry tells us, handing out cards showing the ship's contact number. "If you're lost or in trouble, ask someone to give us a call and we'll be there right away." It's comforting I can tell you. On-board guides Josie and Helene lead walking tours, and when we choose to go it alone direct us the shops, internet cafes, the churches with the Michaelangelo statue or Peter Paul Ruebens paintings when we decide to return for a second look. Does all this cosseting take the adventure out of travel ? Not for me it didn't. Like most other passengers I have toured Europe on my own. Now, with all the tiresome details taken care of, I find I am seeing more, discovering places I've never heard of, and enjoying our guides' anecdotes as well as up-to-the-minute information.

Jerry Van Dyke is one of those fortunate enough to combine three loves - his family, travel and people - in a business that pretty much started when he from Holland for a new life in south western Ontario with his parents and six siblings. Fourteen years old, and a self-confessed ‘car nut', he found work in a garage and became a mechanic. Then one day his boss asked him to drive a coach load of women to a bingo game. For Jerry this was the day the sun came out. Over the next decade he happily drove tourists around North America, married Anneka whom he had met on his first day in Canada, and started a family. Twenty-five years ago the couple founded their own company with four coaches, and did so well they began renting space on Europe's river boats. In 2003 they built the Elegant Lady to Jerry's specifications for the utmost in convenience and comfort. One of his biggest thrills he says was to sail her out of Rotterdam, the port from which he and his family emigrated all those years ago. Better yet, his parents were on board for the inaugural cruise.

Named for that other Elegant Lady - the late actress Audrey Hepburn, who had a Dutch mother and spent WW ll in Holland - she too is a real beauty. Bright and shiny with gleaming wood and brass throughout, she has cabins that are convenient as they are comfortable, with beds which convert to armchairs. Ensuite baths are expensively fitted and furnished. The bar/lounge is so welcoming I love to come home to it after a day's touring. As I would in a five star hotel, I slip off my shoes, sink into one of those comfy settees, order a pot of tea and listen to the gentle piano stylings of resident musician ???? while I write up my notes. As expected flowers are everywhere: a vase of tulips in every stateroom and in niches along the corridor walls. Mixed bouquets decorate all public areas, and if you're celebrating an anniversary you'll have one in your stateroom too.

We do have one itsy bitsy problem. The Elegant Lady travels only by day, which means there are decisions to be made. Should we go on a walking tour, or a coach trip, or stay on board for a river cruise. Most times we go on the land tours, enticed by the sheer volume of exciting old landmarks and treasures to see.

In other parts of Europe the peak tourist season is summer, but Holland and Belgium attracts most tourists in springtime because of the incredible flower displays. In this the third week of April bulb fields, presenting row upon row of tulips are at the peak. Gardens, and parklands, road and riverside verges are positively alive with colour. Geraniums tumble from window boxes, hyacinths sprout from pots in sunlit spots of cobbled alleys, flowering shrubs and trees crowd the decks of houseboats along every waterway. In public spaces tulips in their scarlet uniforms stand straight and tall as palace guards.

If the flowers are presented as an earthly rainbow, then we also have the pot of gold at its end. For ours is a tour of historic landmarks and artwork from the Old Masters, folkore and traditions kept alive for centuries, celebrations of the Queen's birthday. There's a saying that "God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland." Not quite, but it has certainly tamed the sea. We are taken to the Delta Project, an amazing engineering feat, fifty years in the making, destined to keep back destructive North Sea storms along the west coast. And to Einkhuizen for anoutdoor pioneer village, maritime style, to which fishermen's homes, and attendant buildings have been relocated when their sea was drained to make more arable land. And Polders, a name given to reclaimed land, where former fishermen now farm and tulips blanket the fields.

We explore great cities like Antwerp and Brussels where those marvellously ornate buildings erected by traders are still in use today. Amsterdam on Queen Beatrix's birthday is a joyfull day of impromptu flea markets, boat-loads of revellers clogging the canals, wall-to-wall people and everyone of them wearing at least one item of orange. In Brugges, known as Belgium's ‘Sleeping Beauty' a wooded riverside walk takes us to an historic community of cobbled streets lined with chocolate and lace shops and wonderful little restaurants. In The Hague we are privileged to have a tour of the International Peace Palace; at Scheveningen we lunch in the famed Kurhous on the seafront.

And on a sombre note we visit a cemetery for Canadians who died in battle during World War ll, to place flowers and a Canadian flag at the foot of the cenotaph. Our excursions are enjoyable, interesting and informative, but still there are few days when we don't comment on the flowers.

It is an abundance of riches. Several times in the past two weeks I've told myself ‘it doesn't get better than this' and then it does. Still the highlight for most of us is the day we visit Keukenhoff in the Dutch town of Lisse. Our drive there is through field after field striped in reds, yellows, pinks and mauves. Colourful carpets woven with tulips they cover some 41,000 acres of them between Harlem and Leiden. A kitchen garden back in the 15th century, Keukenhoff now presents 30ha (74 acres) of gardens containing seven million plants, and a further 5,000 sq metres (54 sq ft) in four great glasshouses. Each of a hundred growers has a garden, to do with what he chooses. In consequence there are woodland scenes with ducks and swans rippling picturesque ponds, avenues of narcissi and daffodils and tulips bordered by flowering trees. Formal gardens are graced with fountains and ornamental ponds, and great ribbons of colour from the multitude of blooms. We admire striped tulips and frilly tulips, some with fringed or jagged petals. Some are slim with pointed, tightly packed petals like those of a dahlia.. Minature bells hang from a main flower. Some tulips flowers are 4-5 inches deep and so shiny I touch them to believe they aren't wax. As a very amateur gardener I am excited with bulbs we're bringing home, and advice from the experts on how to grow them. Batteries recharged now I am ready for home. With a bit of luck the daffs will nod their welcome, and my neighbour's magnolia tree will be in full bloom. A week or two later the tulips will open, and remind me of Jerry and his crew, and some very nice Canadians I met aboard the Elegant Lady.

Note: For the 2008 season, Elegant Lady will be replaced in this service by the equally elegant Da Vinci.

Pictures of Belgium and Holland

1. Antwerp - Steen Castle
The city's oldest building

2. Antwerp. A statue of artist
Peter Paul Rubens in Groenplaats.
He lived and worked here, and his
home is now a museum.

3. Rubens paintings in Antwerp's 14th century Cathedral of Our Lady includes this three panel painting "Descent from the Cross".

4. Bruges: a canal vista

5. Bruges' Beguine House is a
peaceful oasis for nuns

6. Another beautiful Bruges vista:
Lovers Lake

7. The flower market in Brussel's Grand Place, said to be Europe's finest square surrounded as it is by particularly ornate architecture.

8. Locals lunch in Brussel's Grand

9. Bicycles, preferred transportation for
many in the Low Countries

10. Flowers everywhere, even in the most unlikely places

11. A visit to Adegem Canadian War Cemetery in Belgium

12. Middelburg waterfront. Many Dutch houseboats have their own flower gardens

13. Tourists in The Hague's Binnenhof, centre of The Netherlands' government.

14. A view of the International Peace Court, The Hague

15. The famous Kurhaus Hotel at Scheveningen, The Hague's North Sea resort

16. Madurodam's miniatures include the plants

17. Children enjoy Keukenhof

18. Keukenhof is a photographer's paradise

19. All Holland celebrates Queen's Day. This is Amsterdam

20. Marken's children celebrate the Queen's birthday their own way

21 Spring comes to Giethoorn's canals

22. Fish nets drying at the entrance to Enkhuisen

23. Hoorn Harbour

24. The massive Delta Barrier protects Holland in all seasons

25. Elegant Lady, our truly elegant floating hotel, docked at Gouda