I stepped on to the metal gangplank, hunched over under the weight of my pack. I smiled: “So this is what it was like to board a ship, carrying a seabag?” My mind quickly flashed to the memory of me departing Navy bootcamp, when I was still filled with the excitement of how the Navy was going to accelerate my life and I was going to drive ships chasing pirates and parachute onto aircraft carriers.
It was never to be. I got a desk job in Georgia.
There was only a railing on one side, the other side open to a certain danger. It wasn’t much wider than shoulder-width and was perched precariously at an angle as it stretched at least 3.5′ over the water of an Amsterdam canal. Despite the risks, I took a step. I needed to get on board–I had a job to do. And there was beer on there.
As I moved forward, accompanied by the “clang!” that each step produced, I felt the anticipation that my 21-year-old self in Dress Whites would’ve felt had I ever had the chance. My first ship, 11 years removed from the Navy.
“Permission to come aboard?” I asked, giving my best (facetious) salute.
My first float ever was not courtesy of the US Navy but, instead, was with Ruth and Mike from Bon Beer Voyage. This husband and wife duo from Florida are widely known throughout the beer and travel communities for putting together some of the most fascinating and fun once-in-a-lifetime experiences for people who love beer. While they do several trips throughout the US and Europe, this particular trip was a week-long beer cruise by canal barge from Amsterdam to Bruges, Belgium.
Of course, the vast majority of the trip was beer focused. We had multiple brewery visits, private tastings, pub crawls and even a beer-pairing dinner where we all had the best steak in probably the whole of Belgium. And while Ruth and Mike are probably the best beer-drinking sailors I have ever met, we did take some time on “dry” (wokka!) land and had lovely guided tours through Amsterdam, Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges. It was a great mix of culture and beer (although, to me, they’re one and the same so…)
Our barge was called The Fiep. Apparently named after the captain’s daughter, she was previously a cargo ship that had its nose hacked off and was then converted to a floating hotel complete with about a dozen rooms (some single, some double), a lounge, two outside deck areas and a kitchen/dining area. Oh, and a narrow gangplank that sailors who had never actually gone to sea should be careful on.
Outside of a couple of mornings, I wouldn’t necessarily say that we traveled by barge–that would take way too long. Instead, when we would head out for our day–usually by bus–the barge would make its way to our next stop and meet us there. It was like our hotel followed us around, which is a fantastic way to travel because we could go from city to city and not have to keep re-packing our bags.
Pretty cool, eh?
Considering I was off at sea (I just love saying that!) for a week and Hubs had to stay home to take care of Wee Man, I’m going to try really hard to make this sound like it was an actual deployment instead of, well, a pleasure cruise.
I mean, we only had a private chef that cooked us amazing breakfasts, lunches and dinners. But that wasn’t everyday. Well, just most days. We had to go find food on our own a couple of times in places like Ghent or Antwerp. Also, as if that wasn’t hard enough, I had to hang up my towel if I didn’t want our lovely hostess to replace it just yet when she was in cleaning our rooms. And in between all of that private cookery and housecleaning, we would have to leave for the day and go experience the best in beer culture in Belgium and the Netherlands by private, spacious and comfortable motorcoach. It was exhausting. And all we had to go back to at the end of a hard day of drinking and seeing beautiful cities was a relaxing lounge with a self-serve bar on the barge.
Ok, do you think Hubs bought that?
I’m not going to give a play-by-play of our itinerary. If and when you go, there need to be some surprises! Besides, all may not hold true for you because Bon Beer does try to switch things up here and there. But this is generally how we spent our week on the high (low) seas (canals):
Day One: Amsterdam
We boarded the barge in the early afternoon in Amsterdam a mere 15 minute walk from Amsterdam Centraal Station and near the NEMO museum. We had just enough time to unpack and freshen up before our welcome toast (it was a Duvel!) We were then led on a guided walk through Amsterdam where we got to learn a good bit about the importance of beer to the city which culminated at our first brewery visit. Dinner was on the boat and you best believe we went out on the town for some beer after.
Day Two: Dordrecht
We caught the bus in the morning and made our way out into the countryside. I won’t spoil the surprise but I will tell you that there were baby cows. We then had lunch and a tour at our first brewery visit of the day before we got back on the bus and went to brewery #2 (Trivia: it’s my favorite Dutch brewery…?) We made our way to a great beer bar in Dordrecht after dinner and had a good laugh. Also, Mike taught us about his philosophy on beer and music pairings. Apparently he believes that Ska and Red Ales go best. Huh.
Day Three: Antwerp
Next stop was Antwerp. We started our day with an interesting guided tour through the city–Ruth and Mike make sure to hire the greatest guides! He was a fantastic storyteller and I was so impressed by his knowledge of the Rubens’ paintings in the cathedral. Also, he blew our minds with some magic tricks while we were enjoying some Jenever at a bar (*buys book on magic tricks…) We had a good bit of free time this day so I made it a point to walk out to the incredible train station in the city. My favorite in Europe! The night ended with a private tasting on board the barge.
Day Four: Breweries!
This day was a slog–in a great way! We made our way through what seemed like the whole of Flanders visiting three very different breweries: one small, one pretty large, and one huge. That’s what’s so great about these Bon Beer Voyage trips: you get to see–and taste–all sorts. It was a lot of great conversation, delicious beer and interesting stories. We ended the day with dinner on the barge but I wasn’t much of a party animal afterwards. The week was catching up to me and I think I sat in the lounge staring for an hour and then went to bed.
Day Five: Ghent
The un-sung hero of Belgium: Ghent. Again, we started our visit here with an interesting guided tour which ended with a beer, relaxing in the sun canalside. We had most of the evening to ourselves where we attempted to do a pub crawl using the list of beer places that Mike and Ruth supplied us. We maxed out at 3 (of, like, a zillion.) Defeated, we went for dinner and then walked back to the barge. The way Ghent is lit up after dark is amazing so we were fine just to look at illuminated medieval cathedrals.
Day Six: Bruges and Westvleteren
Of course, if you’re visiting Belgium for beer no visit is complete without a stop at Westvleteren. I went for the Westie 8 instead of the 12 and was pleased with my choice (I do have about 10 bottles of the 12s at home.) I chose to attend the prayer service with the monks and I’m glad I did–it was powerful! After that, we got on the bus on the way to our final port call: Bruges. We were met by our tour guide who gave us one of the most intensive, detailed tours of the week. How do people keep this much info in their brain?! There was enough time for a couple of beers after the tour and before the stunning beer-pairing dinner (with the aforementioned best steak.) We rolled back to the barge after that though so no pub crawl for us.
Day Seven: Bruges and Breweries
We had a bit of free time in the morning so I finally made a point of visiting the Bruges Beer Experience. This is a nicely planned and interactive museum all about beer and a good bit about beer in Bruges. Even though I knew about 99% of the information in it, I still really liked it because it was like playing a big game. Everybody gets an iPad to move about the museum with. It’s super fun! We stopped for frites, waffles and chocolate (standard) on our way back to the barge to prep for the rest of our afternoon, which was spent visiting the last two breweries on our trip. We had a lovely farewell dinner on board before everybody had to go pack.
Day Eight: Au Revoir!
I grabbed a piece of bread at breakfast and with a final “permission to go ashore” (yessss), I was off to catch my 9am train. And just like that, my sailing days were over. Again. Kind of.
As you can tell, it’s an amazing experience on a Bon Beer Voyage beer cruise. Whether you simply like to drink beer, are a beer geek or just love to travel and experience a culture through its food and drink, this is the trip for you (or if you’re a sailor who had never been to sea…) I can book you on either of their beer cruises (they do one through France and Belgium too!) for their dates in 2019. Please send me a message or even get in touch with me on Facebook and I can get you more information. Bon (beer) voyage!
Amsterdam-Bruges Beercation Cruise
October 12, 2019 – October 19, 2019
Belgium & France Beercation Cruise
October 19, 2019 – October 26, 2019