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November/December 2005 | The Low Countries in High Style

November/December 2005 | The Low Countries in High Style

Navigating the waterways of the Netherlands and Belgium on a deluxe all-gay riverboat cruise

Who says a cruise has to involve an ocean? TravelPride’s cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium offers an exciting (or relaxing, you choose) tour through a part of Europe too often left unexplored. Justly famous for their tolerance and art, these “low countries” also benefit from complex, ancient waterways that penetrate right to the heart of what makes this part of Europe unique. These waterways helped the Netherlands and Belgium colonize the globe, with the Netherlands actually reigning as a world superpower during the short-lived tulipmania of the 17th century, when the tulip bulb was the standard of currency, and many traded their homes for a single hybrid.


“We were looking for something that no one had done before,” says Steve Champion, president of TravelPride, “the perfect balance of fun, relaxation, and entertainment.” I’d seen the Netherlands before, but never as intimately as I did from a gently cruising riverboat. We began and finished with a canal cruise through Amsterdam, the final day of the trip falling providentially on Holland’s exuberant Queen’s Day holiday. TravelPride rented a festive canal boat for the day—a floating cocktail lounge, really—joining the water parade of other festive boats in the labyrinthine canals. It proved by far the most effective way to negotiate the orange-draped throngs of revelers who flooded the city.


Kinderdjlk

There were cultural stops—a dreamlike morning in Kinderdijk, with its valley of windmills that stretched into the soft-focus horizon; Keukenhof Gardens’ acres of tulips—and stops that were just downright fun—an excursion to Brussels to make a wish at the Manneken Pis, the infamous urinating cherub that is routinely thronged with photo-snapping tourists; a tour of the varied gay clubs and pubs of Rotterdam. The most memorable stop was Nijmegen, where an ambassador from the city’s gay community, flush with pride, showed off his town, starting with a tongue-in-cheek tour that included both bombed-out cathedrals and cruising areas. He finished at the newly opened bar at Nijmegen’s Gay Community Center, where we could hang out with the locals. The arrival of a boatful of gay Americans even made the front page of the local paper that morning.

“You lose intimacy on big ships,” says Larry, a passenger who was traveling with his partner of 36 years. Indeed, all passengers, ranging in age from 27 to 77—married, single, or temporarily on leave—developed a strong sense of community. Romance blossomed. One man who had been widowed for 30 years even felt comfortable enough to wear women’s clothes to dinner.


Delft

Nothing was left to chance, yet it all felt effortless—even down to the local guides. “Hello gays,” exclaimed one cheerful guide as we boarded the bus to visit the Delft porcelain factory. From tea dances on the boat’s upper deck, as we passed through inland locks the size of small airports, to fascinating excursions to the ancient market squares of Antwerp and Bruges, TravelPride provided a unique and memorable alternative to what we think of as a gay cruise.

“We want to go to places that you don’t see on a postcard or a T-shirt,” Steve says, “and the sailing times are adjusted to dock in time for happy hour.” Ships ahoy!

Antwerp

ESSENTIALS

CRUISE INFO
TravelPride’s (877-774-3342) ever-growing list of excursions includes a cruise in Costa Rica and Panama on Windstar (February 18–25, 2006), and a cruise of the Italian Riviera and Cote d’Azur (July 30–August 8, 2006). Though it’s unclear whether or not they’ll repeat the Netherlands/Belgium cruise in 2006, trips in the works do include cruises up the Danube River and around the Baltics. TravelPride makes the experience incredibly easy and welcoming. Casual-chic is the dress code, so there is no need to pack a tux for dinner (however, one cruiser did pack a Dame Edna wig and glasses). The staff is always available to answer questions or address problems, and they provide maps and advice at all stops. They even exchange money at the front desk.

SHIPBOARD ENTERTAINMENT
Some nights, in some ports, one just wants to stay on board. TravelPride offers onboard entertainment specifically tailored for the gay traveler, from TV theme sing-alongs with Matt Yee to brilliant jazz cabarets with the former disco chart-topper Pamala Stanley, who performed in front of the lounge window with a backdrop of huge ascending locks sending down curtains of backlit water. Also performing were Cashetta, the only drag magician I know of, who whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and the incomparably surreal Varla Jean Merman, whose show wasn’t so much drag as it was a fully realized character study of a woman just this side of delusional neurosis (though, hilariously, not always staying on “just this side”).


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