AMSTERDAM — ”In 15 minutes, you will reach your destiny!” our guide announced as we admired one of Amsterdam’s famous canals. Wow. Profound. Of course, she meant “destination.” A few minutes later, we were boarding a river ship called AmaCerto to visit cool ports in the Netherlands and Holland, pair beer with Belgian waffles, fall in love with Bruges, and take selfies with windmills.
If you are a traveling type in your 30s or 40s, a cruise may be part of your destiny, too. And Future You may climb that gangway sooner than you think.
Long considered to be a vacation choice of older travelers, cruises have begun attracting the TikTok generation. Industry experts at Cruise Line International Association have reported that millennials — famous for spending their money on experiences rather than material goods — are discovering the joys of cruising. “We’re seeing record-level demand and excitement for vacations as travelers are looking for new experiences to share with friends and families. In fact, we’re seeing increasing anticipation and aspiration to cruise from millennials, Gen Z and adventurers new to cruising,” says Kara Wallace, chief marketing officer, Royal Caribbean International.
Of course, visiting several locales on the same vacation provides ample, fun material for social media feeds. (And fun in general — what’s not to like about beer, waffles, and castles?) And there’s the practical side: country-hopping minus the hassle of border crossings and train schedules. Cruises also offer plenty of bang for the vacation buck, bundling food, drink, lodgings, entertainment, and (in some cases) shore excursions into their fees.
Vacationer, know thyself
Cruising comprises a broad spectrum of experiences, from small, adventure-geared expedition ships to those floating cities with 5,000 guests. What’s ringing the travel chimes of younger sailors? According to travel professionals, it’s a mixed bag. A Los Angeles-based agent told us that her younger clients “love all the bells and whistles” of the big, ocean-going ships — bring on the ziplines, waterslides, and Broadway-style productions! Her clients include lots of young families looking for kid’s programs and shipboard action aplenty.
Heidi Allison of Cruise Compete (www.cruisecompete.com) is seeing a boost in expedition cruises; their bookings by adults under age 55 with kids are up more than 35 percent. Why? She cites the desire for unique, authentic experiences: expedition cruises offer a chance to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations that standard cruises might not reach, including remote islands, and Arctic and Antarctic regions. Plus, expedition cruises typically use smaller vessels, creating a more intimate, personalized cruising experience. Sustainability is another factor; many expedition cruise operators highlight their eco-friendly practices and responsible tourism initiatives. If you’re keen on active excursions such as kayaking, diving, hiking, and wildlife watching, an expedition cruise is a good bet, and attracts a younger demographic, Allison says.
In addition, she’s sensing a shift in travel priorities. Post-pandemic, “travelers might be prioritizing more significant, once-in-a-lifetime trips,” Allison says. Witness the popularity of the ‘bucket list’ adventure.
Take me to the river
We were looking for something in the middle — no mega-ship crawling with kids (much as we love ‘em), and no stomach-churning rides in rubber dinghies to commune with seals. We wanted to see some new-to-us European cities, ride bikes in medieval villages, tour fairy-tale castles, eat good food and — yeah — take loads of photos.
That’s why we opted for a seven-day “Best of Holland & Belgium” river cruise on a 162-passenger AmaWaterways ship, AmaCerto. We’d never been to Belgium, and the excursions (included in the fare) drew us in: Belgian beer-tasting tours, chocolate-making, a culinary tour featuring Belgian delights (fries, chocolate, waffles), and the chance to explore on foot and bikes, not buses.
Built in 2012, the ship is sleek and modern, with well-designed cabins, marble bathrooms, and — the biggie — reliable Wi-Fi. The sun deck atop the three-level ship has a heated pool and bar, corn hole, a giant chess set, and a walking/running track. There’s a fitness room, a Wellness Host (a.k.a. personal trainer) who leads classes, and complimentary use of bicycles. All good things, if you plan to eat your body weight in fries. (Tip: Don’t call them French fries here. They’re Belgian fries, dontcha know — they were invented in Belgium, not France, and you’ll hear several versions of how this came to be as you tour the region.)
Those features, along with beer and bikes, seem tailor-made for millennials. But of the 106 guests aboard, there were a half-dozen under-50s, at most. “Millennials are still a relatively untapped market for river cruising,” says Kristin Karst, cofounder and executive vice-president of AmaWaterways. But their numbers are growing, she says. “By incorporating dynamic activities like hiking and biking and spotlighting regional cuisine and wine, our river cruises engage a broader demographic than before,” Karst notes. Mother-daughter trips, girl’s getaways, and solo travelers are also on the rise. Waking up in a new city every day, unpacking only once, is an enticing prospect for travelers of all ages, she adds.
We quickly bonded with Stacy and Jason Brown of Dallas, parents in their 40s and first-time cruisers. For the Browns, Amsterdam was the draw. “We were thinking of a train trip but our travel agent suggested this,” Jason said. “Why not see more?” They saw much of it by bicycle, pedaling to the historic Dutch town of Middelburg, and through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk, famous for its collection of 18th-century windmills.
Chocolate, castles, and beer
Sightseeing in this part of Europe does not disappoint — think medieval architecture, wonderful museums, Gothic cathedrals, and town squares dotted with massive statuary — and stories galore, shared by knowledgeable local guides. The ship offers three levels of walking tours: gentle, general, and active (longer, more cobblestones or uphill treks).
Ports of call include Veere, home to a 48-bell carillon and a Flood Museum; Ghent, the capital of East Flanders (home to Castle of the Counts); and Bruges, our favorite — one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and site of the Church of Our Lady, featuring a sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Bustling Brussels has World War II historic sites, Trappist beer (brewed in monasteries by monk), and what may be the greatest number of chocolate shops on the planet. Antwerp, Belgium’s “City of Diamonds” (since 90 percent of the world’s diamonds pass through it, they say) is a fun place to wander — and eat. Nobody leaves without sampling the amazing fries (“the best I’ve ever had” said our travel companion) and Belgian waffles, traditionally served with powdered sugar or sweet cream. Savory waffles — topped with, say, avocado puree or tuna tartare — are another option.
Back in the Netherlands, the options include yacht-y Dordrecht, bustling Rotterdam, and Kinderdijk, an Instagrammer’s dream. While we mostly opted for tours, we met a young couple from Vancouver in DIY mode, taking loads of selfies at every scenic spot.
What we liked: The personalized service; the relaxed pacing (you can do two excursions a day and still have some downtime); and the easy disembarkation process. We appreciated the lack of a formal dress code or assigned seating, two of our pet peeves about cruising. What could use improvement: More veggies, please! We love us some potatoes, but bring on the greens.
What did our fellow (younger) travelers think? “Loved it,” reported Stacy Brown. The biking was fun, the ports were lovely, and it was great to step out of the ship into the heart of the city. Jason Brown — the family cook — raved about the food (and wine pairings at dinner). But they noted that this isn’t for everybody — or every 30- or 40-something, for sure. “We’re not big partiers, but some of our friends wouldn’t like the lack of nightlife,” Stacy said. Shipboard entertainment was definitely a low-key affair.
That said, the liveliest event of the week was a “silent disco” party. Guests wore headphones and a DJ played ABBA, the Bee Gees, and “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. A small group of us hit the dance floor — and the 80-somethings were still grooving after the “kids” went to bed. For all we know, they’re still at it.
There’s something to be said for cruising with people older than yourself — it’s a reminder that you’re never too old (if you’re lucky) to enjoy the best things in life. Like travel. And dancing to Bruno Mars.
If you go . . .
Rates start at $2,800 per person for AmaCerto’s Best of Holland & Belgium itinerary. Their ships sail rivers in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. For a list of itineraries and sailing dates, visit www.amawaterways.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org