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With its heady mix of culture and history, Amsterdam may be intoxicating and enlightening. But it’s NOT the Netherlands. To see the “real” Holland, do it the Dutch way… on a bike.

As a long-time aficionado of Amsterdam–indeed, a wannabe expat contemplating buying a home in the Netherlands–I have spent nearly half of the past two years in Holland’s freewheeling capital, mesmerized by the trade city’s heady blend of cosmopolitan traditions and Old World charm. From its shimmering canals to its 17th century merchant houses as well as enclaves of art by great Dutch masters and the still intact hippie vibe with a spirit of laissez faire liberalism, A’dam has much to recommend it to tourists seeking culture, history and a tolerant, non-snooty attitude toward alternative lifestyles.

But Amsterdam is not for everyone, especially those not willing to confine their Puritanical sensibilities against her raw, in-your-face energy, open prostitution and easy availability of soft drugs. Neither is A’dam Holland–land of iconic windmills, plump chocolate and ivory cows, day-glow
tulip fields and families of swans gliding along the waterways of carefully constructed polders. To see the real Holland, the Holland of vast emerald plains and verdant meadows studded with manicured homes, dykes and dunes, consider doing it the Dutch way: on a bike.
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A Land Made for Cycling with its small bit of remarkably flat, below
sea-level terrain, Holland seems to have been put on the planet to be a bike-friendly country. Indeed, by some estimates, there are now more than 18 million bicycles swarming around the Netherlands, a tiny nation of 17 million people. To join their ranks for a week, book an up-close-and-personal look at the serene countryside around Amsterdam on a bike-barge tour.

Given the Netherlands’ lush scenery and horizontal layout, most tours
offered by local companies are not designed for mileage junkies, hill
climbing fanatics or speed demons. If you’re an even somewhat in-shape parent or senior interested in vacationing with a child or grandchild age eight or older, touring Holland by bike could be a perfect, stress-free adventure without the hassle of packing and unpacking between destinations.
For all interested in viewing the fertile Dutch countryside at a leisurely pace, such options as the “Relaxing Southern Tour” are available. It’s the alternative I took when I embarked on a seven-night, eight-day guided adventure in May–the tail end of the tulip season, when the weather was mild and fields of flowers bloomed like Nature’s fireworks.

Priced at around 115 Euro ($172) a day including accommodations, meals, escort services by knowledgeable Dutch guides and bike rental, this tour and others like it are inclusive (save for alcoholic beverages) bargains for sightseers seeking comfort and convenience on a relaxing jaunt through neon bulb fields and historic town centers.

My relaxing Southern Tour Itinerary, led by intrepid Dutch marine biologist-turned-tour guide, Piet, stopped at such enclaves of Dutch culture as Schoonhoven, where silversmiths still practice their time-honored craft; St. John’s Church, where the “Gouda Windows” recount Biblical and Dutch history in stained glass; and De Delftse Pauw, Delft’s center of Chinese-inspired blue ceramics. In Den Haag, hub of Dutch government, we visited Mauritshuis–The Royal Picture Gallery–where Vermeer’s “Girl With the Pearl Earring,” Rembrandt’s self-portrait and other renowned works are displayed.

Other highlights included visits to Kinderdijk, Holland’s most impressive collection of polder mills, home to 19 eighteenth-century windmills used until 1950 to prevent the drained Alblasserwaard from flooding; Rotterdam, a Mecca for modern architecture fans and the world’s second largest port
(after Shanghai); and Keukenhof, reputedly the world’s largest flower garden, where seven million bulbs bloom in fluorescent splendor each spring.
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At Huis ten Bosch, our band of 14 laid-back cyclists age 25 to 70-something checked out Queen Bea’s house near a forest midway between Delft and Leiden. Nature lovers appreciated our visit to Holland’s resort near Scheveningen, bordered by rolling sand dunes. Culture vultures sapped up Dutch customs at the Zaanse Schans Open-Air Museum, a re-created 17th-century town that showcases the Netherlands’ culture, from cheese-making to clog-crafting, in a sort of Dutch Disneyland minus the roller coasters.

Yet no listing of attractions in southwestern Holland can come close to capturing the real appeal my tour’s unhurried course through landscapes of carefully plotted-out fields and meadows laced with dykes, waterways, and colorful flora and fauna.

Beyond the charm of picture-postcard panoramas, the Netherlands boasts some of the world’s most impressive man-made terrain, parceled out like a manicured chessboard in land reclaimed from the sea. Even without an engineering background, I marveled at the water management technology
through which Dutchies have turned previously uninhabitable terrain into an orderly pastiche, demonstrating their cleverness at turning a wannabe foe into a pastoral friend.
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For those not impressed by leafy pastures of happily grazing cows and sheep, a visit to the Museum de Cruquius, one of the world’s first technical museums and home of its largest steam engine, may hold more appeal. Toward our tour’s end, we stopped at this miracle of Victorian technology, where the former boiler rooms of the steam-pumping station that drained Haarlem Lake in three years provide an overview of a 2,000-year-old struggle against water. The feat launched the Industrial
Revolution in the Netherlands. In the 1930s, The Dutch Royal Institute of Engineers saved the pumping station from demolition by turning it into a museum.

 

 

A Sightseeing Junket

With an average daily mileage of 24, the “Relaxing Southern Tour” could be traversed in two or three days by cyclists who simply want to get from Point A to Point B. But that is clearly not the point of what is designed as a sightseeing junket on two wheels, not an endurance race. On my tour,
I pedaled along on a comfortable Gazelle touring bike equipped with 24 gears and yellow panniers, provided by the tour operator.
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I needed few of these gears, for the Dutch countryside is as flat as cloggies’ delectable poffertjes-small, fluffy pancakes you might sample on board the modern Victorian-style Sailing Home. If you’re fortunate enough to have Guerdi, a no-nonsense Dutch chef known to spend all day in a ship’s kitchen preparing such exotic culinary imports as rijstaffel (literally, rice table), comprised of rice surrounded by well seasoned side dishes, you can be sure you’ll be well fed on your trip.

A Multicultural GroupOn board Sailing Home, I occupied a comfortable cabin with private bath, central heating and air-conditioning. Of course, I could have stayed all day here or in the ship’s cozy lounge if I chose, for no excuse is needed to stay indoors if the riding mood fails to set in or inclement weather threatens to dampen cycling pleasure.
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Adding to the week’s fun was a multicultural tour roster; my fellow riders included three American couples from conservative Pennsylvania Dutch Country, a fourth from Germany, a fifth from Canada and a delightful mother-son duo from Argentina. Among the group was Tom from Minnesota, a
single like me, who had energy to spare after each day’s riding. Each evening, after I’d retired for the night, he went looking for life in such quiet towns as Delft, Leiden and Haarlem, but found little to amuse himself after the sun went down.

On the morning following our disembarkation from Sailing Home, I proudly shepherded Tom around Amsterdam, treating him to sights in the town where I yearn to live that are far different than what we’d uncovered in the Dutch countryside. And like me, he came to this conclusion: the Dutch landscape surrounding the Netherlands’ capital is not Amsterdam. But neither is A’dam representative of the charming countryside that envelopes it like a soft cushion around a pulsating hub.
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The hardest part about going to Curacao and Bonaire, islands in the Netherland Antilles, is the flight. Sheesh, it takes over a day with at least 3 connections, ours being in LA, Dallas and Miami. But it is worth it! Curacao’s capitol is Willemstad and has been named a Unesco Heritage site with its beautiful Dutch architecture lining its famous St. Anna bay. The bay is famous not just for the multi colored gingerbread dappled buildings but also for the Queen Emma pontoon bridge which sways back and forth to open up the passage way for oil tankers and cruise ships many times a day and night!

We were fortunate to stay in the Plaza Hotel on the Punda side of the bay and to have a second story room with a balcony for viewing all the activity of the bridge and the opposite side called the Otrabanda. That side seemed to be a bit more “ethnic”, meaning more locals had their shops and restaurants there. This island has an interesting and sad history involving wars and slavery. It was through all of this that the survivors developed their own language called Papimentu, which means “chatting”. It is a combination of English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and the many dialects from Africa. It also has a smattering from the indigenous Arawaks, who of course were annihilated long ago.
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The main reason people come to these islands is to scuba dive. The dive sites are easy shore entries, and the water is a clear luscious warm turquoise with amazingly abundant reefs within a short distance. We dove “Car Pile” and “Tug Boat” and then ate conch at a seaside shack. As far as I could tell there were no biting sharks or stinging jellyfish, and you could dive with just a light short wet suit or lycra. As for on the streets, one does need to be careful of the underbelly preying on the carefree tourists. One such fellow, “Ronnie” befriended us under the guise of “helping” and soon after requested a rather substantial tip! I didn’t mind too much though as it is apparent that the locals are not the ones making it rich here, and as so often happens in these places, the wealthier visiting nations can bring a double edged sword making it hard for them to afford to live in their own country.

We timed our stay to include New Years Eve as we had heard that that is when the Carnival begins, and that was no lie! Wow! The day began with deafeningly long explosions created by enormous firecrackers in huge piles laid out in front of store fronts. The idea is to scare away the bad spirits, and I can’t imagine it didn’t work! As evening fell we were awed by the 180 degree view from our balcony of the horizon spewing color in a seemingly never ending display of fireworks. The people had lined the shores of the bay with chairs and coolers, dancing and singing, and even added their own contributions of combustibles. I must say, there were obviously no inner city fire code laws in effect on this very special night.

The following day the city was quiet as all seemed to be nursing aching heads and ringing ears, so we felt like we had the island to ourselves. We rented a car and headed out to explore this cactus speckled dry desert island. What we found was the challenge of reading the road signs! Granted they are in Dutch, but that was not the issue. The problem is seeing them at all since the constant sun has weathered them to non existent. It really doesn’t matter much though since the island is so small you really can’t get lost for long. We headed up to the northern coast where the shore is much rougher and saw Boca Pistol where the water comes in and shoots up into the air.

We saw Christoffel Mt. which at 1240 feet does stick out noticeably but is pushing it being called a “mountain”. Given that this was New Years Day we should have expected that everything would be closed, but we didn’t and so felt quite fortunate when we found the American run restaurant, Sol Food near Westpunt. I have to say that that was one of the best pizzas I have ever had, anywhere! The owner, Sunny, used to be a caterer, and you can tell. Amazing views, laid back vibe and delicious food. Up this way is the luxury resort Kura Hulanda which we ended up staying at on our last night of vacation, so I will tell you about that later. We continued our tour of the island and stopped at Kas Abou beach where you have to pay to get in. Honestly, I thought it was a bit overrated and definitely over crowded. But of course the sand is white, the water blue and warm, so why complain?

The next day we took a little plane over to the island of Bonaire which is even smaller than Curacao. We stayed at the Divi Flamingo dive resort because again, diving is the thing to do here. The entire coast is a protected marine park, and should be, it is spectacular! Again, all the dive sites are clearly marked shore entries and most places are geared toward the diver so it is easy and convenient. Our resort and ocean view room were so lovely we saw no reason to dive anywhere else! And again, the food was fantastic!
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We did try to explore the island and find some typical goat stew in a little town called Rincon, but of course the famous Rose Inn was closed that day. We were so disappointed. I guess we will have to go back to try again. Instead we made up for it by going on a 4 hour horseback ride through cactus lined dirt roads, passing by lagoons with bright pink flamingos and finally reaching the coast at Lac Bay where we got to ride the horses in the ocean! They swam and snorted while we hung on bareback style in our bathing suits.
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As I mentioned earlier, our final day was spent at the Kura Hulanda in Curacao. We wanted to have a special last night and boy was it! This place is magical for those who can or choose to afford it. The rooms overlook the ocean with the western sky creating a perfect sunset venue. Plus there is a small beach to snorkel or dive and then a pool to rinse off in. They have four restaurant choices but we chose the room service which was quick and the staff were gracious and helpful. One fellow even loaned us his own CD of Reggae music.
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Our time on these two lovely islands was expensive, but comfortable and memorable. I encourage a visit there even if you are not a diver as there are plenty of other things to do! Just remember your sunscreen and bug spray.
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Sometimes, less is less. And I wanted more. Romance, fine dining, nightlife, shopping, a change of pace and culture. My husband, not so much. He craved quiet time, a sunny beach… and a really great massage, but then, so did I. We both needed to at once rejuvenate and relax. Not that our hometown of Sarasota isn’t one of our favorite spots on the planet, but we live here, we work here, and we hadn’t been allocating enough time for play. It was just time to get away.

Location, location, location. The Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino on Sint Maarten certainly had it. Perched on the sparkling shores of Maho Beach and conveniently located in lively Maho Village on the Dutch (versus the French) side of the island, it afforded plenty of daytime and nighttime activities on-property and off, the latter, literally steps away. Of course, lazily lounging at the beach and sipping fruit-embellished tropical elixirs at the swim-up pool bar also held great appeal. So did gazing at the enormous waterfall cascading into the lushly landscaped pool. But the coups de gras was the award-winning spa; another key reason we chose this particular paradise.
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Aptly named The Good Life, it has for years been voted the best spa on the island, and named among the top three in the Caribbean. An extensive menu of sybaritic treatments includes: body scrubs, wraps, masks, facials, waxing, manicures and pedicures, and an array of massages; ours of choice was the couple’s massage. We were fortunate to have as our therapists Spa Director Gabriella and massage therapis, Gabrielle. Gabriella, who melted away my husband’s aches and pains as Gabrielle provided me with my own little slice of heaven. We shared our luxurious treatments in the Couples Massage Room, a rose-laden hideaway with lilting music that lulled us into nirvana. We scheduled our massages to occur one hour after our arrival at the resort, facilitating our transition to island time.

We were primed for dinner, glowing, relaxed and hungry. Serendipity came in the form of an exceptional oceanfront dinner venue: The Point. We are foodies… and the meal (fresh lobster, filet mignon and roasted scallops) was not only beautifully presented, but also exquisite in quality. There are more casual dining options, the generous breakfast buffet at the Oceanside Terrace, and lunch or dinner at The Palms Grille, a breezy, beachfront eatery. We savored them all.
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We also explored Maho Village, an adjacent esplanade of 40 shops and cafés, as well as the resort’s sprawling Casino Royale, just across the street. Cheri’s Café, next door, offers casual, open-air eats, but what drew us in was the entertainment. Beginning at 9 p.m., local entertainers strut their stuff for kids of all ages. If you’ve never experienced multiple generations bopping to a Caribbean beat, it is heartwarming. From tiny tots to grand- and probably great-grandparents, everyone dances. The crowds converge from everywhere, from the Midwestern United States to the Northeast to Western and Eastern Europe and Latin America, with one common language… laughter.
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Maho Village boasts restaurants of many ethnic persuasions. We had it on good authority to try Le Moulin Fou, a French restaurant in the heart of the village, another dreamlike meal and a wonderful opportunity to dust the cobwebs off my once-fluent French. The food is authentic, and much of it is flown in from France. Next stop, the Casino show… an exhilarating display of glamorous costumes and nubile bodies with limitless energy – an eclectic blend of acrobatics and salsa to heart pounding music. I unsuccessfully tried to convince my husband that we should learn to dance like these performers… for fitness and fun. Oh well, just watching this spectacle had to enhance our cardio health.
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While we were content to remain in our self-contained surroundings, we felt we should experience historic Philipsburg, the capitol of Sint Maarten (ranked TripAdvisor.com ‘s 2008 #1 Caribbean/Latin America and #3 Worldwide Destination.) We took the 30-minute cab ride to the quaint city, replete with markets, boutiques and cafes lining the European-like streets. A shopping diva would find ecstasy in this designer mecca, with everything from Tiffany to Tommy.

Call us homebodies, but we were anxious to return to our resort in the village. It held for us everything we wanted and more. The staff sings with abandon as they go about their chores, and everyone here seems genuinely happy. The resort is affordable, comfortable and pretty, with an unpretentious ambiance. And located just a five-minute drive from Princess Julianna International Airport, it includes, free of charge, the intoxicating rush of giant jets whooshing over the beach. Ever seen the belly of a plane? It’s yet another reason visitors flock to these shores.

Among the resort’s ongoing efforts to be socially as well as environmentally responsible is participating in the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A favorite destination of an international group known as “plane spotters,” this was the locale of choice for a child with terminal cancer. The staff set up his bed outside under the stars so that he could lie beneath the swooping planes and make his greatest wish come true.

Sonesta Maho Beach Resort certainly granted ours. Yet, truth be told, of all the things we discovered there, the very best was… us.

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Courage… strength… inspiration… heartbreak…
These are the words that come straight into my mind when I think about Anne Frank and her diary.
I first read the diary when I was in primary school, and again when I was in high school. Ten years later, I knew what it was about, but I couldn’t remember the emotions I felt reading it. Perhaps I was too young to experience any emotions.

Before I left Australia for my holiday in Europe, I decided to read Anne Frank’s diary once again. I knew I would be visiting the house in Amsterdam, and I wanted that experience to really mean something. I spent my mornings and afternoons on the train to and from work, reading about the life, and death, of Anne Frank. I was once again captivated by her innocence, the terror she experienced, the trauma of her family, and her life underground.
I put myself into her place and lived the moments in my mind, imagining what I would do in certain situations. I also allowed myself to feel emotions towards Anne and her family. I got angry at her mother, I admired her father and I loved Peter Van Pels as she did. I wanted the moment that I stepped into her house in Amsterdam to be truly unique. It was!
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Standing outside, I looked around me at the street Anne and her sister Margot stared at through closed curtains. I saw the road where Anne had described seeing soldiers patrolling and Jews fleeing, terrified, to escape the war. Where she saw friends and neighbours taken away by the army, marching towards certain death, the roads are now littered with people dressed in clothes Anne dreamed of owning, faces as beautiful as the pictures she cut from magazines and posted on her walls. But I see laughter and smiles as friends share stories and tourists scour the streets in search of history. As Anne looked onto these streets during the heartache of World War Two, she could never have imagined the happiness the people are blessed with today. The streets are filled with traffic – cars, buses, bikes – taking the people to more destinations of enjoyment. In the rare occasions Anne was able to sneak a look outside, the only cars she saw were military, buses were full with Jews on their way to concentration camps, and those on bikes were simply there in a failed attempt to escape.

But looking at the streets outside the house, was nothing compared to being inside – as I’m sure was the same for Anne and her companions.

The house is built in two sections and is four stories (plus attic). The back section of the two top floors became the secret annex, where Anne and her family, the Van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer spent 25 months of their lives. They lived there until the arrest, when the annex was emptied of its furnishings by order of the German occupier. It was an anonymous telephone call to the authorities which led to their whereabouts. While it will never be known for certain who reported them, two theories surfaced. One alleged the betrayer was Anton Ahlers, a Nazi and business associate of Otto Frank. The second theory pointed to a Dutch cleaner named Lena Hartog-van Bladeren, who worked in the office in front of the annex. But the true identity of the betrayer will never be known. Those hidden were all deported and sent to extermination camps, where all but one died.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was the only survivor (Anne died from typhus and deprivation in March 1945 in Bergen-Belsen. She was just 15 years old). He was found by the Russian Army at Auschwitz, and when he recovered, he learned of the death of his wife and children. After the war, Anne’s diary was found strewn across the office floor, where it was picked up and hidden away. It resurfaced many years later and was given to her father.

The annex itself, has remained in its authentic state. I was speechless as I walked the same corridors and staircases that Anne and her family had walked. I had tears in my eyes as I stepped through the worn bookcase which served as a secret door to the annex. And my heart pounded as I made my way into the make-shift bedrooms. Although they are empty now, I was able to picture what they must have looked like, and I couldn’t comprehend how each person survived for 25 months in such extreme conditions. I guess it was nothing compared to life in concentration camps.
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Even now as I think of it, I shudder at the image of the small room that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer – the pictures she had pasted to the wall to cheer her up, still there, faded and torn. A reflection on a young life – long lost.
Had I walked into the secret annex where Anne Frank and her family lived without reading the book beforehand, I don’t think I would have truly understood what it meant to be there. I might never have felt despair walking into the rooms that served as the kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms; I wouldn’t have cared that there was barely enough space to fit a desk, let alone two or three beds; and I wouldn’t have felt my heart pound as I remembered how scared Anne had been as she wrote about the view from the window or listened to the news on the radio.

As I walked through the annex, I thought about how hard it must have been for Otto Frank to pack up his family and hide them from the world for more than two years, to stop his daughters from going out to play – from even looking out the window to feel the sunlight on their faces. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been for him to watch as the shine slowly faded from the eyes of those he loved the most, knowing he was unable to help them. I thought about Peter and Margot, and wondered what might have happened to them had they survived the war. But mostly, I thought about Anne and how she experienced hell, first hand, yet through her diary – and sadly, her death – she has made so many people smile.

She was a young girl who dreamed of becoming a journalist, but she lived and died in an unfortunate time. Her writing has since inspired thousands, and her words have touched even the hardest of hearts. Through her adversity, the world has learned that life sometimes is dreadful. We have also learned that although at times life may seem tough, we should appreciate what we have, because there will always be people who live their lives in a secret annex.

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The historic rivers of Europe, starting with the Rhine in the north and ending with the Danube in the south, form centuries-old trade routes connecting many great cities. Two of my favorites, Amsterdam and Budapest, are joined by these waterways. Both have their own unique history, culture and great art, but are inexorably linked, even now, by the long shadow of the Holocaust and the brutal occupation of the Nazi era. Here is a quick guide to both cities.

 

 

Amsterdam: Background

Are you in Holland or the Netherlands? Actually, both. Netherlands is the country and Holland is the region. Holland is located on the western coast of the Netherlands and there are two regions, North and South Holland. Amsterdam is in North Holland and is the capitol of the country.
Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport (www.schiphol.com) was recently voted the best airport in Europe by the British magazine, Business Traveler. Whether you arrive or depart from Schipol Airport, leave time to shop and sightsee. There are numerous first rate stores and restaurants and the prices are not outrageous, as is the case at most airports. The Rijksmuseum actually has an annex there. There is also a casino that features more than 100 slot machines and table games, including roulette and blackjack.

 

In Amsterdam, there are 750,000 people and 600,000 bikes. Because of its small size, it’s an easy city to walk around, but beware of the bicyclists. They are not pedestrian friendly. The city is twelve feet under sea level, with 22 locks holding out the North Sea. There are 1,600 bridges crossing more than 100 canals, with 3,000 houseboats dotting the waters.

 

 

On the Ground and in the Water

It takes only 20 minutes from the airport to get to the center of Amsterdam and there are many transportation choices readily available. Taxis are expensive, but the light rail system runs from the airport into town and is cheap. Connexxion is a reasonably priced van service that will take you directly to your hotel.
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Public Transportation in Amsterdam

Even if you spend three days sightseeing, you won’t be able to get to all of the museums. The Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt and Van Gogh Museums will keep you very busy. The ghost of World War II still hangs over Amsterdam, as best seen through the eyes of Anne Frank at her family home. Close to one million people per year visit to learn or re-learn the details of the tragic story.

 

There are 28 public parks in Amsterdam. Stroll through Vondel Park, the largest and most popular park in the city. Walk to the Floating Gardens market; it is a wonderland of flowers, fruits and plants displayed beautifully on houseboats bobbing on the canal.
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A Stall at the Floating Gardens

The character of this water-bound city is connected to the canals, so take a cruise to get a feel for the lifestyle. “Love for sale.” OK, I admit that my wife and I walked through the Red Light district. We saw row after row of mostly young women, scantily dressed and displayed in storefront windows. It’s an eye opener (and eye full). Prostitution is legal and carefully controlled. Marijuana and hash are sold in coffee houses all around town. You’re definitely not in Kansas, Toto.

 

 

Where to Stay, Eat and Get Information

My wife and I stayed at the new Hotel Movenpick City Centre. It is located on the water’s edge, next to the passenger terminal, within walking distance to the old center of Amsterdam and Central Station and adjacent to the Dutch Concert Hall, Muziekgebouw. It is four-star rated but has many five-star features, including complimentary computer use. The Movenpick is a non-smoking hotel that includes a lavish breakfast in the price. The staff is most accommodating and friendly. Note: Rates are usually cheaper on the weekends. Go to their website, www.movenpick-hotels.com and click on Amsterdam.

 

Try the Belgium fries (frites) sold by street vendors. They are a national obsession. One has a choice of peanut sauce, mayonnaise or ketchup as condiments. Stop by the centrally located Albert Heijn supermarket for local produce, gifts, snacks, lunch, bottled water, wine and/or chocolates.
The Visitor Bureau’s website (www.holland.com) is easy to navigate and very helpful. For savings including museum admissions, free public transportation, canal cruising and restaurants, consider buying the I amsterdam card. Also, pick up a copy of Amsterdam Weekly to see what is going on in town. Note: English is the second language so getting around is easy.

 

 

Budapest

Background: Budapest is known as the “Pearl of the Danube.” It is Hungary’s capital and actually three cities separated by the Danube, but connected by six bridges. The three parts are made up of the Buda Hills and the Old City on the west bank and Pest on the east side. The city population is approximately two million; twice as many people live on the Pest side. There are ten million people in the entire country, which is about the size of Indiana. The language is difficult and, strangely, is closer to Finnish in origin than any other European dialect. Like Amsterdam, the memory of World War II still lingers in Budapest. Through most of the war, Hungarian Jewry was relatively safe. That changed in the last nine months of the war, when over 600,000 Jews were deported and murdered by the Nazis. On the riverfront, a moving bronze sculpture marks the spot where children, women and men were shot and dumped into the Danube.
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A Tribute to the Murdered Jews of Budapest

On the Ground and in the Water

Once again, three days are not enough to see everything. Walk the riverfront of the historic Danube to the classic Chain Bridge which was completed in 1849. Spend time wandering around Vaci Street, a pedestrian-only shopping area that is also the banking center of Budapest. Take a guided bus tour to see the Parliament Building, the Castle District, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Citadel. Visit the Hungarian National Museum, the RoyalPalace, the Millennium Monument and Hero’s Square. In Pest, you will find the Parliament building, the Jewish Quarter and the “Great Synagogue,” the largest in Europe still in use. The arts are rolled into a terrific venue, under one roof, at the new Palace of the Arts, which anchors a dramatic urban redevelopment in Budapest. The impressive lobby is shared by three main venues: the Ludwig Museum, the National Concert Hall and the Festival Theatre. All feature state of the art, high quality acoustics and comfortable seating. The concerts, movies, plays, ballet and art exhibits can accommodate up to 4,500 people. There are snack bars, a restaurant, an Internet café, a gift store and bookshop for shopping or just browsing.
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The Danube and Budapest

There are 123 thermal springs in the city. Every day, 70 million liters of thermal water bubble throughout Budapest. Gellert Hall is the largest and best known of the spas and it is worth a trip. One can select from a vast array of spa features. There are thermal baths, saunas, a swimming pool and a solarium; beauty treatments plus dental and medical services are also available. Get in the water!

 

 

Where to Stay, Eat and Get Information

We stayed at the 165 room Art’otel (www.artotels.com) which pays homage to the arts by way of American artist Donald Sultan. The hotel is comparable to a one man show of his works with over six hundred pieces on display throughout the public areas and in every guest room. It is very guest friendly, features state of the art technology and offers an extraordinary buffet breakfast that is included in the rate. Their signature restaurant, Chelsea, serves an eclectic array of international, Mediterranean, Asian and regional food. The hotel is a 10 minute walk from the World Heritage Site Buda Castle and three blocks from the metro station. Hint: request a room overlooking the Danube for a panoramic view of the city and the famous bridges of Budapest.
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View from the Art’Otel

Eat at the historic Gerbeaud Haz. Established in 1884, it features a beautiful restaurant located in a covered courtyard, plus a beer house and a confectionery café. World class chocolate is made on the premises and their pastries are legendary. All around town, coffee houses and inexpensive outdoor food kiosks abound. Visit the Central Market Square which was built in 1896. It is the perfect place to pick up a snack, cheese, locally grown fruits and vegetables, gifts, salami and/or kolbas, world famous Hungarian paprika and, of course, Tokay wine. It also offers a great opportunity to people watch.
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Paprika Stall in the Central Market

Contact the Hungarian Tourist Bureau (www.gotohungary.com) for trip information and ideas. Consider buying the Budapest Card from the Tourism Office for savings that include museum admissions and restaurants (www.budapestinfo.hu). They also offer the free Budapest City Guide. Pick up a free copy of Where (www.wherebudapest.com.bu) or Key to Budapest (www.keytobudapest.com) for listings of activities. There is excellent public transportation that includes subway, trolley and buses. Take “company” cabs not private ones; they are regulated and safer. The minibus shuttles to the airport are frequent and inexpensive. Budapest’s Ferihagy International Airport is tourist friendly and easy to navigate.

 

 

Travel Hints to Make Your Vacation Easier

DK Publishing produces outstanding, beautifully detailed travel books that include maps, hotel and restaurant information, attractions, things to see and places to visit. They are excellent planning tools. Their guides to Budapest and Amsterdam were trip essentials and, afterwards, looked great on our bookshelf. They can be ordered online at www.dk.com.
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Essential Travel Books from DK Publishing

Arrive early to all of the museums to miss the crowds and purchase tickets. Rent headsets; they will be your educational, electronic guide. Internet cafes abound in both cities and are relatively inexpensive. In Amsterdam, the Euro is used and the Florint is the currency of choice in Budapest, although they will accept Euros. Upon departure you will, most likely, be stuck with the coins of the country you are visiting, and banks won’t exchange them for U.S. dollars. Here’s a suggestion: have fun shopping in the airport. My experience is that most of the shops will be happy to take your leftover change even if it totals a bit less than the full retail value of candy bars and/or souvenirs.

 

Someone recently told me that there were two types of luggage, lost and carry-on. Fact: more bags were lost by the airlines in 2007 than in any other year. Keep your bags close by and pack lightly. My Boundary Day Pack by Eagle Creek (www.eaglecreek.com), complemented by their award winning Hovercraft 22 inch roll-on, allowed me to travel throughout these two great cities without ever checking through my belongings.

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For 30 years I had dreamed about sailing on a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise. An offer of a very heavily discounted rate combined with a free Continental Airlines certificate was all I needed to sign on the dotted line for a 6 night cruise on the S/V Legacy leaving from Aruba and visiting Bonaire and Curacao. Jet Blue, Delta, US Airways, American & United also fly non-stop in around four hours. Of major importance was the fact that all three islands are outside the “hurricane belt.” The promise was for a relaxed, informal cruise with lots of food, drink, and fun in the sun. Just how informal I was about to find out when I was the only person, besides the captain, wearing long pants to dinner. I could have brought shorts, bathing suits, a beach towel, hats, clogs, sneakers, t-shirts, suntan lotion, my camera, toiletries and my sunglasses and left everything else at home. I had last been to Aruba and Curacao thirty plus years ago (on a cruise), but Bonaire was new for me (and my 146th country visited).

Mike Burke, Sr.,was born in 1924 in Newark, New Jersey and first sailed to the Caribbean after serving in World War II on a submarine. He bought his first boat, the 25 foot sloop Hangover, in Miami in 1956. Now with the world’s largest (and family run) fleet of refurbished tall-masted ships Mike believes his cruises should be informal and not expensive. This former bait boy negotiated with the Vanderbilts and Onasssis to assemble his fleet. Presently his daughter runs the company (He still comes into the Miami headquarters daily) which consists of four tall ships plying the Caribbean year round with 65 to 125 passengers. There is no connection with the Windjammer Company that concentrates on cruises along the eastern US coast. His fleet of S/V (sailing vessels) ships include: Legacy at 294 feet built in 1962 as a weather ship and bought in 1981; The Yankee Clipper is the smallest ship at 197 feet and was built in 1927 for the Vanderbilt’s and bought in 1963; The Mandalay is 203 feet, built in 1923, and purchased in 1980; Polynesia is 248 feet, built in 1939 and bought in 1975.
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Talking to the other passengers on the Legacy I found mostly couples and over half had sailed on a Barefoot Cruise before: the 8th trip for one; the 6th for another. They liked the fact that the ship sailed in late afternoon and at night. We spent one night docked at each island, which allowed a beach BBQ with a band a few hundred feet from the ship, as well as shopping and shore excursions. I arranged in advance to be met by guides provided by the local tourism authority. There was a group of divers and snorklers, several of whom brought their own equipment. Without TV or computers everyone seemed to have brought lots of books to read. In addition, there was a scavenger hunt, costume night, the battle of the sexes, crab races, rum swizzles, hor d’oeuvres and game time before dinner. Every morning was Captain’s Story time dealing with the day’s schedule. Captain John may have been selected as much for his relaxed sense of humor as his sailing skills. “What’s the difference between God and a Captain? God doesn’t think he’s a Captain.” That seemed to be the intention of the company. The 40 person crew interacted with the passengers and seemed to really enjoy their work. There is plenty of room on the decks for sunning, reading or just looking at the water. Do you know why they call it the “Poop” Deck? The top rear deck was where they used to throw the garbage overboard. We had at least a half-hour watching a school of dolphins swim along side our ship. Sunset was a special occasion every evening.

Please don’t expect luxury in the cabins. My double bed took up most of the room. There was adequate closet space and drawers. The bathroom had the toilet next to the shower and sink. After the first day I made sure the shower curtain was all the way out so as not to wet the toilet. Cozy but it worked. Since my mid-September cruise was shoulder season there were 60 passengers out of a capacity of 120. Several “regulars” booked because the company sent out e-mails offering heavily discounted rates.
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I arrived a day early in Aruba, staying at the Mill Resort Hotel in the Palm Beach area, where most of the high-rise hotels are located. Even though the fitness center and tennis courts were under construction the AC worked and many rooms faced the large pool. The room and bathroom were large and there was a full kitchen. It was early to bed after dinner in the inexpensive open-air restaurant. Your tour of the island should include: Arikok National Park, Donkey Sanctuary, Butterfly and Ostrich Farm, California Lighthouse, Natural Bridge, Alta Vista Chapel, Fontein Bat Caves, Casibari Rock Formation & Indian Drawings, and International Raceway Park. Eagle Beach was called one of the 10 best in the world by Travel & Leisure Magazine. The so called “Baby Beach” has such shallow water that children can walk out a hundred yards and still not be submerged.

Aruba is the heart of the southern Caribbean only 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Under twenty miles long and just 6 miles wide it has around 100,000 inhabitants. Seventy percent of the over 700,000 tourists that stay at least one night (plus 550,000 cruise ship passengers, an increase of 88 percent over the last ten years) come from the United States. With an average temperature of 81 degrees, these islands are in the same time zone as NYC, and with the US Dollar accepted everywhere, I can see why Americans feel at home. They use the same electric current as does the US, and with the world’s second largest desalinization plant, the water is pure. The Valero Oil Refinery replaced the closed Standard Oil facility and is the island’s second largest employer, after tourism. Aruba and Curacao were refuges for Jewish settlers fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and later the Holocaust. In 1754 Jewish settlers came to Aruba from Curacao and built what is now Beth Israel Synagogue.

Aruba means “well placed” and their license plates read “One Happy Island.” It is one of six Dutch possessions in the Caribbean. In 1986 it seceded from the Antillean Federation (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatus and Saba). The Spanish arrived around 1500 and found the Arawak Indians who had come over from South America. In 1636 the Dutch came to power, and Europeans arrived at the end of the Eighteenth Century. With European, Indian and African roots, English is widely spoken as well as Dutch, Spanish, and the native language Papiamento. A fifth of the island is protected from building, and we had to use a four-wheel drive vehicle to get around that part. I dropped my bags at the dock and walked around the capital Oranjestad.
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Since it was Sunday most of the shops were closed, but they do open when cruise ships dock. Then it was dinner and overnight aboard the ship. Monday morning gave me a chance to visit the shops before our departure for Curacao.

That first night at sea was the roughest weather of the trip. I am glad I bought the patch and wrist bands. After this unsteady period I was fine the rest of the trip. The Tourist Board of Curacao had the most intensive day and a half schedule for me. We were docked in Caracais Bay, a 15 minute drive from the capital Willemstad, which is a UNESCO World Heritage City Site. Curacao was discovered by the Spanish in 1499. They called it Corazon (heart). The Dutch conquered it in 1634, with the British ruling in 1807. By 1815 it was returned to the Dutch. The island is 38 miles long and 7 ½ miles wide with a population of 140,000. 35 percent of the 510,000 plus tourists are from Holland and 20 percent from the US (less frequent flights). Of that total 276,000 come by cruise ship. The Eastern side of the island is filled with hotels, clubs, and shopping, and the Western side is secluded and rugged with mountains, caves, and beaches. Did you know that baseball is the number one sport and that the Curacao team were the 2004 Little League World Champions? Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves and Randall Simon of the Philadelphia Phillies are from the island.

Congregation Mikve Israel was founded in 1651 and dedicated in 1752. In 1964 it united with Temple Emanuel and is the oldest in continuous use in the New World, while the Toro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island is the oldest in the US (1763). In 1969 the Jewish Cultural Museum was opened next door to the temple. Things to see on the island include the Curacao Liqueur Factory with Rum Raisin, Chocolate, Coffee and Blue Curacao produced. The Spanish brought Valencia oranges with them,but they had a bitter taste. When these oranges grow wild people found that the peels dried by the sun contained aromatic oils that made a liqueur using added spices. The Open Water Dolphin Dive allows you to swim with dolphins in the open ocean. The dolphins are kept in a habitat, but during the open water encounter they are free to return to the aquarium of their own free will. The same goes for the sea lion experience. There is an Ostrich and Game Farm with over 600 birds. Great views of the city can be found from Fort Nassau. The Floating market brings fish, fruits and vegetables from Venezuela and is positioned around the corner from the Floating Bridge. When the bridge is in the open position free ferries take people to the other side.
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In 1981 Dinah Veeris started planting medicinal herbs. Her Den Paradera Herb Garden now has over 300 different herbs for sale (I bought four). I spent most of the first day at the Kura Hulanda Hotel & Museum in Willemstad. The hotel was developed from 16 Dutch Colonial houses that were converted into an eight-block historical preservation project. With two pools and a spa it is a member of the Leading Small Hotels of the World. Curacao was one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean, and the museum was built in 1999 next to the hotel with the best collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean. Many people walk right through the historic area not realizing it is a hotel. There is a sister hotel, Lodge Kura Hulanda on the western end of the island that opened in 2005 with 74 suites and guest rooms. I had dinner at the Avila Hotel which is a 4 Star boutique resort on the water. Privately owned they are adding 68 luxury rooms and a pool and spa (to their present 100) to their new Octagon Wing that will be opened by the time you read this story.

Another night sail and we arrived in Bonaire. In 1499 Amerigo Vespucci discovered Bonaire and found the Arawak Indians already here. From 1527-1633 it was Spanish territory; the Dutch came in 1634; the British in the 1800’s and the Dutch returned in 1816. These dates are similar to those for Aruba & Curacao. My morning tour, courtesy of the local tourist office, covered the high points of this very laid back island of just 13,600 people. It is 24 miles long and 3 to 7 miles wide and located 50 miles north of Venezuela and 38 miles east of Curacao. Their license plates read “A Divers Paradise” and all over the island are signs showing the 86 diving areas. Bonaire is considered one of the finest SCUBA and snorkeling areas in the world. There is also windsurfing, ocean and sea kayaking, deep sea fishing for Marlin and Sailfish, and land sailing (moving over sand using a sail). The world’s largest track is located here.
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I had lunch with Laura DeSalvo who, with her husband, left the American corporate world and spent five years sailing. They fell in love with the tranquility of Bonaire and settled here. She publishes the English language weekly newspaper The Bonaire Reporter. Since 1979 all waters off the island’s coast have been declared a marine park. Tourism, salt harvesting and oil storage are the main sources of revenue. The 13,500 acre Washington-Slagbaai National Park occupies the northwest part of the island. There are 200 species of birds, including the signature pink flamingo. At breeding time there can be up to 10,000 present. I learnt that flamingos are born white then turn grey. The carotenes in the shrimp they eat turn them pink. The Cruise Market Place in the capitol of Kralendijk comes alive when the 86 cruise ships that docked at Bonaire in 2005/2006 arrive delivering 56,500 passengers for a few hours of shopping. Forty percent of the 60,000 overnight visitors are from the US; forty percent from Holland.

Each of the three islands is different, yet the same. Great weather, the US dollar is welcome and the people are genuinely warm and friendly. Don’t forget your ABC’s.