When it comes to river cruising, the unpredictability of Mother Nature means operators occasionally need to make itinerary changes because of unusually high or low water levels.

But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it's even a bonus.

For instance, when the closure of the Port of Cologne on the Rhine forced operators to alter their sailings between Basel, Switzerland, and Amsterdam last month, several offered alternate sailings through small, picturesque towns and ports of the Netherlands and Belgium, areas they usually only sail during tulip season.

For Craig and Lorna Allen, a retired couple from Toronto making their 43rd trip on AmaWaterways, the diversion was enjoyable, enabling them to visits places they had never seen. And obviously, they've seen a lot.

I, meanwhile, was excited that my sponsored trip to cover AmaWaterways' expanding wellness program had also just turned into a bonus ancestry cruise. 

A Low Countries cruise with AmaWaterways

Before we left, I sent the itinerary to my mother, who dabbles on Ancestry.com, and found out that at least four of our stops would be in or near small towns where different sets of my great-grandparents had emigrated from. 

Although I didn't run into any distant cousins (that I know of), I loved wandering the towns and seeing so many of the Dutch treats I enjoyed with my grandparents as a child when we lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has a large and still tight-knit Dutch community. 

I was also amused by how tidy the streets and homes are, knowing that in addition to being frugal, the Dutch are well known for being fastidious housekeepers. 

Kinderdijk has the greatest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands.
Kinderdijk has the greatest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing

One of my favorite stops was the town of Kinderdijk, which has the greatest concentration of windmills from the 1500s in the Netherlands. Although the windmills were built to pump water from land that lies below sea level, many today have been converted into beautiful homes. 

And while the captain had jokingly called our itinerary the tulip cruise without the tulips, there was no shortage of beautiful flowers everywhere. 

Other excursions were to Delta Works and the Flood Museum, an area of an extensive flood-control project that includes a series of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees and storm surge barriers that were built after the North Sea flood of 1953 that killed more than 1,800 in the Netherlands. My mother's grandparents were from this region, and she said she recalls Sunday nights at their house where they read letters about missing relatives.

The Gothic De Haar Castle in Utrecht is one of the grandest castles in the Netherlands.
The Gothic De Haar Castle in Utrecht is one of the grandest castles in the Netherlands. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing

The Delta Works have been declared one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In addition to other Dutch towns my ancestors came from — including the northern port tourist town of Enkhuizen, where the docks are lined with gorgeous tall ships, and Utrecht, home of the Gothic De Haar Castle, where some of my fathers' relatives came from — we hit the Belgian highlights, including Antwerp and Bruges.

My favorite was Bruges, with its Gothic homes, chapels and grand town square, not to mention the brilliant underground pipeline that carries beer from the city brewery to a bottling plant outside of town.

Another highlight was getting to spend extra time in Amsterdam. By starting and leaving from there, we had an additional day to wander this beautiful canal city and discover neighborhoods and street markets off the usual tourist path.

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