FAM

First-time river cruiser finds fun, food & friendship

When you picture a millennial traveling the world, I’m sure giant backpacks and selfie sticks spring to mind. And though I don’t deny that young travelers fit that description more often than not, at their core, millennials crave the same thing all travelers do: to experience the world. The “how” may differ, the “when” may differ, but the thrill of a new experience remains the same. That’s why, when I was offered the chance to join on a Vantage River Cruise, I was thrilled; not only would I be exploring a new part of the world, it would also be my first experience with both solo travel and river cruising (or any kind of cruising for that matter). How would it compare to the traveling I’d already done? What would the ship be like? Would it be easy to make friends? One thing was sure: I couldn’t wait to find out.

On keeping busy

While it’s true that river cruising is a more leisurely way to see the world, the trip was still filled with things to do. Pacing on tours was comfortable, but each day had so many great activities! After breakfast each day, we would set out to experience a new city. History, art, culture, food; each new place was a whirlwind of discovery. This was balanced with a few hours of free time here and there; some used it to wander a city at their own pace, others spent it relaxing back on the ship. The day after I joined the trip, the sun was shining in the Netherlands skies, the perfect antithesis to the dreary Boston winter I left behind. A few of us decided to sign up for a free onboard bicycle, and in minutes a member of the crew had set us up for a leisurely ride along the river.

Watching our Cruise Director Erna Hoek was like seeing a super hero in action; her ability to think on her feet and keep everything organized was nothing short of a miracle. An incredible amount of care and organization went into each day, from gaining access to tours to arranging daily travel. Even more important, both she and local guides were from the same region we were traveling, so we could be sure that we were authentically experiencing each new city and avoided the “tourist traps.”

On food

I thankfully outgrew my “picky-eater” phase in high school, so I was determined to try as many new foods as possible (a Catch-22, thanks to tasty treats constantly at our disposal!). From savory soups to sizzling lamb chops to rich lava cake, each meal onboard was better than the last. With two dining rooms to choose from (more relaxed versus more formal) and a delicious menu that changed daily, we ate like kings the entire cruise (a rather difficult adjustment after arriving home and realizing there was no omelet station waiting for me each morning). And that was just the food on the ship! But even more rewarding than the cuisine was the story behind each meal; onboard menus featured regional dishes and ingredients, a mix of tours and free time let you taste-test your way through each new place, and onboard cooking demonstrations gave you a first-hand look at the technique of your chef. A meal was never a simple plate of food; it was a celebration of culture.

On making friends

I’d heard countless stories from past travelers about the connections they’d formed during a trip, but I was eager to see it for myself. As I sat down to dinner the first evening and watched the tables around me, I realized just how much these friendships colored the cruising experience. From friends who had met on a trip years ago to travelers who had met only three days ago, companionship filled the atmosphere. As the trip went on, these connections became deeper; the onboard activities made it easy to find likeminded travelers to explore with. “Foodies” onboard were sure to be on the optional culinary tour sampling heavenly waffles and rich Belgian brews. History lovers could be found lingering at the end of the Antwerp tour for another reverent look at Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary.”

What I was not prepared for was the fact that these friendships were not exclusive to travelers. I watched fellow cruisers bond with their servers at dinner, swap stories with their favorite local guides, and hug the concierge as if she was a long lost daughter. And it was easy to see why; the staff constantly went out of their way to forge connections with the passengers.

As the trip drew to a close, I found myself realizing that I would miss the cruise atmosphere as much as the destinations themselves. Removing the stressful factors of traveling (transportation from the airport, foreign languages, finding comfortable lodging) left more room for the best parts: discovery, camaraderie, and joy. The joy of forging new relationships, the joy of finding a new favorite food or work of art, the joy of experiencing life in a new way. As I swapped tales of past adventures with my fellow female solo travelers that final evening, I remembered an anonymous quote I had stumbled on only a few weeks before. “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”