Gilly Pickup has a ticket to ride on a pre-Christmas trip to the canals of Amsterdam and the musical streets of Hamburg, former home of The Beatles
There I was, meandering sedately along one of Amsterdam’s Golden Age waterways on a canal boat. “Look, to the left,” instructed our guide, “the Anne Frank house. One of our city’s most popular attractions. Ah, just look at those queues…” she paused to let her audience take in the line of people stretching all the way from the museum’s front door right round the corner into the distance. “And this is December! Can you imagine the length of queues in summer?”
She shook her head dejectedly and I thought for a moment she would burst into tears. Almost immediately she brightened up again, telling everyone that Amsterdam was one of the world’s most dynamic ports from the 18th to 20th centuries; thatit has more bridges than Venice and that the grachtengordel, the city’s canal belt, is a Unesco-listed treasure. In this city where bikes outnumber humans, we weren’t too surprised to learn that thousands end up in canals every year – bikes, that is, not humans – and the city council dredges the canals regularly with a boat-mounted claw.
The one-hour canal trip came to an end outside the Hermitage Museum, founded as a retirement home for “elderly” women, which in the 17th century meant 50 years old! Now an outpost of Russia’s State Hermitage Museum, on display were 63 works by Dutch Masters from the parent collection in St Petersburg which I visited earlier this year. There are longstanding links between the Netherlands and Russia: Peter the Great, arguably Russia’s greatest ruler, visited Amsterdam in the early 17th century and took the Dutch city’s canals as architectural inspiration for the city that would bear his name.
My canal trip and museum visit were included in one of Cruise and Maritime Voyages shore excursions as part of their pre-Christmas cruise on Columbus. Other optional excursions included a four-hour walking tour of Amsterdam (£30) and a one-hour city tour by tuk-tuk (£37).
The 11-deck ship targets mature British passengers, with capacity for 1,400. There aren’t many cabins with balconies – only 64 of 775 – but ocean-view rooms are large with plenty of storage space. The 150 cabins allocated for single travellers reduce the overall capacity, meaning the ship doesn’t feel crowded even when full.
There are fixed times for dinner in the Waterfront restaurant, but those who prefer to eat when they want can go to the buffet where there are waiters on hand to bring drinks from the bar. There’s no obligatory service charge on top of drinks. Those who want to splash out a little or celebrate something special can pay extra to eat at the Fusion or Grill restaurants, while the ship has several lounge bars, including the British-themed Taverner’s Pub on deck 7.
While I was on board, evening entertainment included a rock’n’roll production in the Palladium Show Lounge; “Diamond Duo” Tatiana and Lara singing classics in Raffles Bar and the cruise director doing his best Elvis impersonation in the Dome Nightclub. During the day, there was something to suit most tastes, from crazy golf, fitness classes and table tennis tournaments to baking gingerbread men, carving fruit and vegetables, towel-folding demonstrations, quizzes and lectures.
The second and only other port of call on this short cruise was Hamburg, where as a fan of the Fab Four I was looking forward to the evening Beatles Tour. Before that, a coach took us round some sights including HafenCity, the redeveloped harbour area and Unesco world heritage site. We also stopped off to have a look inside the city’s newest building, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. This glass structure which stands on top of a former warehouse building offers a magnificent view over Hamburg from its plaza. As darkness fell, it was time to hop on the underground train to the Reeperbahn in the St Pauli neighbourhood. From there it is a short walk to Beatles-Platz, cleverly paved to look like a vinyl record.
There is no denying it, this is a seedy area – sex shops, girly shows and flashing neon lights – but popular with tourists, and of course the Beatles once called this red-light district home. Stefanie Hempel, our cheerful guide, is founder of the original Beatles walking tour in Hamburg, which she set up 14 years ago. These days other tours have sprung up but, as far as I know, none of the other guides produces a ukulele and break into Beatles songs at intervals throughout as Stefanie does. She had no information to share about the band that I didn’t already know, but then what is there to say about the Beatles that hasn’t been said? For this day tripper to Hamburg, it was memorable tour to round off a lovely mini-cruise.
London Tilbury-Amsterdam with CMV, from £279pp, departs December 13