Cheese, Windmills and Cycling the Dutch Countryside aboard ms Inspire
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
A beautiful morning filled with brilliant sun and blue skies greeted Tauck’s new ms Inspire this morning in Hoorn, Netherlands, and the options available to guests today were as excellent as the weather. Today, guests could choose to take part in tours of a cheese factory and one of the Netherland’s iconic windmills in the morning, followed by a tour of the open-air Zuiderzee Museum in the afternoon. Or, they could mix-and-match, opting to spend free time exploring Hoorn in either the morning or the afternoon.
Because I’ve been to Hoorn before, I wanted to spend some time lingering here in the afternoon, so I set out to tour the Schermer Polder Windmill Museum and the Zeilzicht Cheese Farm.
Located approximately 30 minutes outside of Hoorn, the Zeilzicht Cheese Farm welcomed us with open arms. More importantly, Tauck guests were the only ones present at the farm, despite the presence of four additional river cruise ships in Hoorn today. Keeping its experiences unique to its guests is a big priority for Tauck.
We were given a walk-through of the entire property, from the areas where the milk is processed and made into cheese to the livestock enclosures where the cows, in very modern fashion, are milked by an AutoMilker – a Dutch invention that looks similar to a car wash. The cows love the thing, and queue up five and six at a time to be milked by it. To see them standing in a line, waiting for a metal gate to swing open reminds me of watching people queue up at Disneyland before opening hours. The cows jostle amongst themselves, vying for the best position – or, to simply be first in line when the gate clanks open.
We were also invited to enjoy three different types of Gouda cheese, including one made with Stinging Nettle that was astonishingly flavourful. What’s more, we learned that the Dutch don’t really refer to cheese as being “Gouda” or “Edam” like North Americans do. To locals, Gouda and Edam are still regions of the Netherlands, not descriptors for cheese.
The one thing about the cheese factory’s operations that sticks with me is a machine I’d like to affectionately dub CrapBot. CrapBot is a sleek, red little device with two wheels and a series of brushes – I suppose – and the swept-back lines of a high-performance racer. Its sole task: remove the grime from the floor of the livestock enclosure. Caked with all sorts of awful, poor CrapBot moves over the exceedingly-ripe floor at about a kilometre per hour, occasionally reversing and taking another run at those hard-to-reach sections. It’s the unhappy Zamboni of the bovine world.
I like to make light of it, but it really is rather ingenious. The robot is smart enough to sense when a cow walks into its path, and either stops or corrects its course to get around the obstruction.
Much like the AutoMilker, I don’t know why this surprised me given the technology we have today, but I think in both instances I half-expected to see an old Dutch gentleman, hands weathered and sleeves rolled up to his elbows, performing these tasks by hand. Not so – Dutch ingenuity succeeds again.
Another example of Dutch ingenuity was on display for us to see at the Museummolen Schermerhorn, one of the few remaining traditional windmills still in operation in the country. It’s not as big as Kinderdijk, which I had the privilege to visit this past December, but the mill at Schermerhorn is no less fascinating.
Back onboard the Inspire, I enjoyed another fantastic lunch in The Restaurant. In the center of the room is a main serving station where guests can pick out salads, pastas and sandwich creations. The ‘Action Station’ at the forward end of The Restaurant was offering up made-to-order penne pasta in a tomato sauce, while additional items – like corn soup infused with ham and maple syrup – could be ordered from your waiter.
After lunch, I considered my options and decided to take one of Tauck’s brand-new bicycles for a spin around Hoorn. These are provided to guests on a complimentary basis, and feature three gear speeds and a rack to strap down any purchases you might make. They also have a working headlight – a must for dusk rides in the Netherlands.
Once I had set off from the pier, I found it very easy to cycle around the Dutch countryside. When you’re departing Hoorn, you have to ride on the street with traffic, but this is normal to cars here. Just keep to the right and you’ll do fine.
Finding your way couldn’t be easier; dedicated bike and motorcycle paths are clearly marked with signs, and route information is displayed on maps located every five kilometres or so. You will also get the hang of reading signs; for example, a sign that says Hoorn with a red horizontal slash though it means that you are now leaving Hoorn. This also applies to the blue circular signs displaying a bicycle with a red stroke through it; rather than meaning, “No bicycles on this route”, a slash through an icon like a bike just means that the dedicated path is coming to an end, so you may have to share the road.
I rode for nearly three hours, travelling as far as Schellinkhout and Kraalenburg before the Dutch Wind reared its ugly head again, forcing me to turn back halfway through my journey. If I was cool as a cucumber on the way down, I was ferociously hot and exhausted from fighting the wind by the time I reached the Inspire.
And that jetted shower in my stateroom never felt so good!
If you know you want to take a bike out on a set day, I’d reserve it as far in advance as possible. Far more people enjoyed the bikes today than I had expected. In fact, the only reason I managed to snag one was because the two women in front of me in Reception cancelled their own trips in lieu of shopping.
Tonight, I dined with a wonderful group of people in Arthur’s, Inspire’s alternate dining venue located all the way aft on Deck 3. Branded as a steakhouse in the evenings, dinner here is provided complimentary to all guests. An Italian restaurant aboard Tauck’s other vessels, Arthur’s is in keeping with Tauck’s policy of offering truly all-inclusive river cruises. With the exception of a very few things – like gift shop offerings and spa purchases – all onboard amenities are provided gratis.
I chose to have the filet mignon, and I was not disappointed. The quality of the beef was very good, and my main course – along with my appetizer, soup and dessert – was extremely flavourful and well-prepared.
Service, unfortunately, didn’t quite measure up to the meal. Half of the dishes came out of the kitchen with the wrong sides, or with an additional baked potato, that resulted in a lot of confusion. The ordering system also seemed very obtuse, with appetizer and main course orders taken initially, but orders for sides weren’t taken until after our appetizers were finished.
But let’s remember: this is only the second night that Arthur’s has been open in the entire life of this ship. The crew are still learning the system to a certain degree and, like everything, the appropriate changes will be made as time goes on.
Would I go again? Yes. The food and wine were very enjoyable, as was the intimate style of dining – not to mention the gorgeous sunset over Hoorn that was visible through the room’s large panoramic windows.
As a matter of interest, representatives from both Tauck and ship operator Scylla A.G. are here to observe and correct any last-minute issues that crop up on this first-ever sailing of the ms Inspire. The public address system doesn’t seem to be working in all staterooms, though it works without issue in mine. Rather than using traditional analog technology, the new P.A. system is completely digital – and that’s coming with some growing pains.
To be frank, these are things that are to be expected on the maiden voyage of any ship. Putting a ship into service for the first time is an intricate process that, quite often, reveals issues or potential problems that may not have been entirely foreseeable at the shipyard. If the biggest issue onboard is the spotty P.A. service, I’d have to say Tauck is doing very well with the launch of their latest-and-greatest.
Part of the reason things are working so smoothly here onboard is Tauck’s proactive policy of having four dedicate Tauck staff aboard each sailing. On our voyage, Tauck Cruise Director Steve Marchant knows the onboard product inside and out. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s been practically everywhere in the world, both professionally and personally, and can advise guests on just about anything.
We also have three Tauck Directors that will stay with us all the way to our post-cruise hotel stay in Brussels, Belgium next Tuesday. Yener, Joeri, and Zsofia aren’t just here to rattle off facts, though. They’re here to impart their knowledge, stories and wisdom upon us, while at the same time making sure we’re all where we need to be when we need to be there.
More importantly, the Tauck Directors are here because they want to be here. Passengers are a perceptive bunch; they can tell when things aren’t gelling properly. In fact, there’s only one other time that I’ve seen such an energetic, fun-loving group of people – and that was on my last Tauck voyage. In many ways, Tauck is the Silversea of the river cruising world: they deliver a luxurious experience, but they know how to make it real and very personal for each and every guest.
In an age where many things related to travel are quickly becoming impersonal, it’s nice to know that Tauck still believes in treating people as they would want to be treated. It’s a methodology that’s paid off for decades.
Tauck's MS Inspire - Belgium & Holland
|April 7, 2014||Amsterdam, Netherlands||Arrive Amsterdam; Embark Tauck's new ms Inspire|
|April 8||Amsterdam, Netherlands||Private river cruise through Amsterdam's Canals; visit the Rijksmuseum; tour Keukenhof Gardens|
|April 9||Hoorn, Netherlands / Enkhuizen, Netherlands||Walking tour of Hoorn or visit to Alkmaar. Walking tour of Enkhuizen & open-air Zuiderzee Museum.|
|April 10||Arnhem, Netherlands||Choice of tours - De Hoge Veluwe National Park exploration with Vincent Van Gogh at the Kroller-Muller Museum, or tour sites associated with the WWII airborne assault on Arnhem.|
|April 11||Rotterdam, Netherlands||Tour of Rotterdam & its museums, or optional excursion to the historic city of Delft.|
|April 12||Veere, Netherlands / Middleburg, Netherlands.||Exploration of Veere or excursion to Neeltje Jans Delta Works to learn about the country's storm surge barriers. In Middleburg, enjoy time exploring on own.|
|April 13||Antwerp, Belgium / Ypres||Orientation walking tour through Antwerp's historic city center & visit the Red Star Line museum. After lunch, Tauck Exclusive tour to Flanders to observe the centennial of World War I with dinner and a private visit to the In Flanders Fields museum.|
|April 14||Antwerp, Belgium / Hasselt, Belgium / Maastricht, Netherlands||Drive to Margraten to see the Netherlands American Cemetery. Tauck Exclusive Lunch at Chateau Neercanne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Guided visit to Maastricht & free time in the Old Town.|
|April 15||Brussels, Belgium||Disembark ms Inspire & travel to Brussels for a full day of sightseeing. Overnight at the Hotel Amigo.|
|April 16||Brussels, Belgium||Onward journey home.|