Our Trip to The Netherlands & Belgium

Background

My (now ex-) girlfriend (Lisa) and I had originally discussed taking our children on a horseback riding vacation to Ireland - but when it came to pricing summer airfare to the U.K., the cost was simply unreasonable.  So we began to look for options - one of which was a$598 round trip air (including rent car) package from Miami to Amsterdam on Martinair.  Why Miami?  Simple, really... the deal was only available from there, and we were hoping to go there anyway to enjoy a few days lounging on the beaches of South Florida.  And, since Lisa had spent a rather substantial amount of time in Amsterdam, not only did she want to go back we felt it'd be a great opportunity to have a built-in tour guide.  So we booked in June and waited impatiently for the appointed hour to arrive.

My daughter Jordan arrived in Atlanta late on Sunday evening 08/10/03 and spent a sizeable chunk of the next three days visiting with her grandfather.  Then, after boarding the dog and locking-up the house, we drove down to Lisa's horse farm where she had the opportunity to explore Lisa's farm and go riding in the cooler evening hours. I put myself to bed quite early, as our plan was for me to drive from Atlanta to Miami... not only to save money but so we'd have transportation for our couple of days there.

 

Thursday, August 14, 2003 - En Route to Miami Beach, Florida

The day began way too damned early with a 3am alarm clock ringing loudly in my ear.  After rounding-up the rest of the women folk and slugging-back two large cups of coffee, we departed at almost exactly 4am for the lengthy and boring drive to south Florida.  Allowing for both a breakfast and lunch stop, we arrived at The Fountainebleau Hotel at just a bit past 3pm.  I expected to need a nap but caught my second wind after checking into our rather plush accommodations (adjoining rooms 725 and 727) and decided to join everyone poolside for the remainder of the afternoon.  We later cleaned-up just a bit, then headed down towards South Beach for a lovely Italian meal at one of the local eateries, followed-with a little wandering for sightseeing and light shopping.  That said, after returning to the hotel, I was pretty much outta gas and retired fairly early.

 

Friday, August 15, 2003 - Touring Miami & South Beach

As Jordan had never previously been to south Florida, I kidnapped her just a bit past 10am - we first headed into downtown to drive around and just see the area (downtown Miami is just plain gorgeous, by the way).  From there, we drove-over to Key Biscayne for more sightseeing (including getting-out and looking at a few sailboats / marinas ... she's good at humoring her Dad that way) which also included stopping at a small Cuban Cafe where she got what she called the "best hot turkey sandwich of (her) life" (my traditional Cuban sandwich was equally blissful).  Next, we headed south towards Coconut Grove, then over to Coral Gables, then slowly back north towards Bal Harbour and then finally back to the hotel mid-afternoon to pick-up the others.  The original plan had us heading-down to Key Largo - but since Jordan is, shall we say, less than fascinated by most water sports - it struck me as a needless waste of time (besides, we'd had quite enough riding in the car from the previous day).

We snagged our other partners in crime (Lisa, her eighteen year old daughter Alexandra and her six year old daughter Rose) and headed back to the Lincoln Road area for some SERIOUS shopping (having done some of that just prior to departing for this trip Jordan felt weird about me buying her even more stuff... but managed to keep that ill feeling in check long enough to pickup another pair of jeans and a shirt or two).  We then returned to the hotel to await the arrival of Betty (Lisa's mother) from her home in Kansas City.  Once settled into Lisa & Rose's room (Alex joined Jordan and I, which was to be the room arrangements for the remainder of this holiday) we departed for yet another Italian meal down on South Beach (what can I say?  they're Italian... they like Italian food!).  That evening Lisa & I decided to take a late-evening dip in the ocean while Alex & Jordan walked the beach (Grandma Betty was babysitting for the now exhausted Rosie) - and (in retrospect, stupidly) we assumed our stuff would be safe lying on a beach chair.  WRONG!  Some petty thief took a pair of jeans, a pair of cheap sandals, Jordan's library book, my cigar lighter, and a couple other minor items.  I just thanked my lucky stars I didn't have my digital camera with me!  At any rate, easy to replace... though it definitely put something of a damper on the evening's joy.

 

Saturday, August 16, 2003 - Relaxing on Miami Beach; then
En Route to Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We finagled an extension of the usual 11am checkout time to 4pm for Lisa's room - that way, we were all able to lounge poolside for the brunt of the day and still be able to shower prior to departing... which we did.  After checking-out, we drove back to the shopping area to replace the (now) stolen pair of jeans and Jordan's book (it also afforded me the opportunity to buy "da kid" one more pair of jeans prior to departing the states), then wandered just a bit before settling-on a somewhat continental-themed cafe for our lengthy dinner.  We then made a quick stop at a local market for some bottled drinks, then drove the short distance over to Miami International Airport to begin the international check-in process.  Because of the power outage that had occurred all through the northeast two days earlier there had been a delay on the arriving leg of our flight - which forced an hour's delay on our departure.  By the time flight #644 got airborne (shortly after 1am) we all were fast asleep shortly thereafter... it certainly made the flight go faster!

 

Sunday, August 17, 2003 - The Park Hotel, Amsterdam

Our flight was to have arrived at 2:45pm local time (8:45am Miami time)... but because of the delay we didn't land until almost 4 o'clock.  No problemo... we really had very little planned for the remainder of our day anyway.  After going through relatively quick immigration we got our minivan (a 7-pax Opel from Sixt - which I figured was plenty given we only had 5 1/2 people... except that the back two seats take the entire luggage compartment - so Rose ended-up riding on her Mom's lap whenever we traveled by car), then immediately made a wrong-turn out of Schiphol Airport that found us heading south (away from Amsterdam) towards Den Haag.  Little did we realize that this directional miscue would set the tone for the entire holiday!

At any rate, I turned-around a few kilometers down the highway then headed back towards Amsterdam - following turn-by-turn directions I'd culled from the internet.  It was then we discovered that turn-by-turn doesn't work as well in Europe as it does in the U.S.  We kept driving by the address that SHOULD have been our hotel, but it was nowhere to be found.  After dropping Betty & Jordan to wander the streets looking for our accommodations, it was then that we discovered that a repair scaffolding had been erected in front of the hotel sign - obscuring our view of it - and by making one simple turn we were then ready to check into rooms 235 and 236 at The Park Hotel Amsterdam.  The rooms were quite lovely - two story suites, with twin beds on the first level and a small slightly spiraled staircase leading up to a second half-level that had a double bed and the bathroom.  Only problem (we later found out) was that it had no air conditioning - and given Europe's heat wave this summer it meant opening the windows to try to air-out the place before that upper level became tolerable in the late evening.  But, no worries.  It was otherwise quite plush - especially by European standards!

After getting settled, we decided to venture out for an early bite of dinner - we settled on a small Dutch eatery just a few blocks from the hotel, with really excellent food.  One of my goals for this trip was to try "sinking a herring" - the local practice of eating an entire raw herring accompanied with raw onions.  Therefore, that was my appetizer for the evening.  It tasted great - not wholly unlike sashimi - but it quickly became kind of a running joke with Rose that David would eat anything handed to him (the fish eyes especially grossed-her-out... guess no matter what I continue to be a viable candidate for "Fear Factor"!).  I then enjoyed an entree of grilled sardines (five big boys, not the canned variety you get in the states) and some blanched string beans.  All-in-all, quite impressive!  Afterwards, we walked the area just a bit before accompanying Betty & Rose back to the hotel; then the four of us departed for a much longer walk in a meandering direction towards The Red Light District, stopping along the way for drinks in a local bar.  With our bodies six hours behind us, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself feeling sleepy by about 1am - for some reason, I always adjust much easier to west-to-east travel than the (typically) easier east-to-west.  But apparently that was just me - Rose was STILL awake when we returned, having driven her poor grandmother completely looney! =:-O

 

Monday, August 18, 2003 - Touring Amsterdam

Typically, when planning a trip of this magnitude - both in scope and cost - I pre-plan exactly what I hope to see and do during my holiday - and this trip was no exception.  So, it was both with shock and horror that I realized that Jordan - but especially Alex - simply refuse to get their day started before mid-morning... and then want to go for a sit-down meal to break their fast.  By the time they get going, half of the day's plans were already up in smoke.  Therefore, I started my Monday pretty bummed, thinking everything I wanted to see-and-do during this trip was quickly going-up in smoke.  Thankfully, Lisa talked me through it, and convinced me of the wisdom to just go-off on my own and do my own touring.  Which I did.

After "breakfast" I walked for 30min or so towards the Central Terminal; while there I bought a canal tour ticket and took a one-hour boat tour.  I then took a four-hour walking tour that was both beautiful and enlightening.  Only thing I really bypassed was actually going-inside the Anne Frank House - the lines are simply horrific if you arrive after it's been open for a few hours.  But I especially enjoyed a leisurely stroll down various sections of the Prinsengracht, the Kaisergracht, and the Herengracht, before heading into the shopping district to find some Cuban cigars (for you aficionados out there, I treated myself to a Punch, two Cohibas, two Hoya de Monterey No 2, and three Partagas Limited Edicion No. 4 that I mailed back to myself - they were all simply divine!) and tour some of the beautiful cathedrals.  I also toured a strange little place known as The Torture Museum, then before getting back to the hotel stopped by theConcertgebouw to buy six tickets (fifth row left!) for Wednesday night's performance by the Helsinki Festival Orchestra.

While I was touring, the women-folk basically made-it up to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, where they apparently had a good time(you see why I was bummed, having arrived with three pages of to-dos and hear that their afternoon consisted of only one stop... sigh).  After getting back with them late afternoon both Alex and Jordan had in their minds that The Hard Rock Cafe Amsterdam was going to be tonight's only possible dinner selection.  No problem for me, but Betty seemed less than thrilled with the choice of American food and loud rock-n-roll music.  Afterwards, Lisa took Rosie back to the room in an attempt to get her to bed while Jordan, Betty & I went for a lengthy, brisk walk through nearby Vondelpark.  The hope was that we'd be going-out for drinks, but it never came to pass... from what I'm told, it was nearly 2:30am before "wild Rose" finally went to bed.

 

Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - More Amsterdam Touring

Today's plan was to take the minivan southwest towards Den Haag (The Hague) and Scheveningen.  Unfortunately, only Lisa & I seemed interested in this option, so it was bypassed.  At this point, I'd simply tossed-up my hands and begun ignoring my itinerary, trying not to get frustrated with another twelve-noon start to our day.  What did we do?  Honestly, as I sit writing this recap the only things I can recall is a trip to the Rijksmuseum (most of which was closed due to renovation - although they did have their most popular works on display in the one remaining section), a 75min canal boat tour that departed from right in front of our hotel (which was better than the one I'd taken the day before), and then a Rijstaffel dinner (kind of a 20-30 course sampler feast) at a local Indonesian restaurant.  Alex and Lisa headed-out about 11pm towards The Red Light District, to poke-around and to go to a coffeeshop... funny thing - each thought the other wanted to go smoke some marijuana, but once there and looking at the menu neither was interested.  They say they got back one-ish, but I was fast asleep by that time (Dutch TV isn't all that interesting if you don't speak the language and I'd long-since finished photoshopping the day's digital pics). Those of you who know me - or know me by reading my other trip reports - realize that I was very frustrated at this point by the snail's pace of this vacation...

 

Wednesday, August 20, 2003 - The Last Day in Amsterdam

Stoically accepting the immoveable inertia of this group, I awoke just after seven to wander alone the streets of the Museumplein for an hour-or-so, then returned to my room and just laid in bed watching CNN International for the rest of the morning... that is, until it was time to go to breakfast late that morning with the rest of the crew.  From there, Jordan & I ventured-out solo so that she could see some of the highlights of my walking tour on Monday (and to take her photo in front of such landmarks as Anne Frank Huis, Rene Descarte's home, Westekerke Cathedral, etc.) - then returning mid-afternoon to snag Alex and go to the Van Gogh Museum (it was incredible - even "not so fond of museums" Jordan enjoyed it!).  From there, we returned to the hotel to get cleaned-up then went to a nearby Italian restaurant prior to the evening's classical music concert by the Helsinki Festival Orchestra.  This last evening in Amsterdam, Lisa & I were finally able to sneak-away to The Red Light District for some couples-only time, but by the time we got there the various open air cafes, et al, were closing-up (so we elected to take the long walk back to our hotel to prolong our time together).  Alone time simply wasn't in the cards for this holiday...

 

Thursday, August 21, 2003 - En Route to Brugges, Belgium via Gent Belgium

It was a pleasant surprise to actually be checking-out of the hotel by 10am for our trip southward into Belgium (only two hours after my itinerary-intended departure time... not too bad, huh?).  In (now) typical fashion the first thing we did included a wrong turn that snowballed and ended-up having us drive rather out of our way to get back on track.  Unlike the U.S., it's simply impossible to make a couple of left turns and reverse back to your starting points - there are too many one way, meandering roads that just don't get you there from here.  If I ever go back, I'll rely on trains and bicycles instead.

Our first stop was Muiderslot - about 15-20min east of Amsterdam.  I was particularly interested in touring here - not just because I'd never seen a real castle "in-the-flesh", but also because this was one of the finish stops for the CBS TV Show "The Amazing Race".  I wasn't disappointed... well, except for the edict that pictures weren't permitted inside.

The original plan then had us stopping in Utrecht, but we drove-through because of our late departure - arriving (and getting somewhat lost in the process... surprise, surprise!) in Gent mid-afternoon.  Here we had one intended touring target: Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts).  I was, quite possibly, the highlight of the trip (although, as was now the established pattern, the turn-by-turn directions sucked and we just wandered the town until we found it)!  I also fell-in-love with Gent, lamenting that we didn't lop-off one of the Amsterdam days and stay a night there instead.  C'est la vie... file that information away for future use.  Afterwards, the group was getting hungry and we decided to take a chance on Belgium-prepared Mexican food.  Good thing we did - it surpassed anything you can get in the Atlanta area (when in Gent, be sure to give Pablo's a try... you won't be disappointed!).  We then drove aimlessly around Gent, trying to find a way to the highway (which we finally did) to finish wandering the streets of Brugges around nightfall looking for The Hotel Novetel Centrum.  It was a very pleasant surprise (at least for me) to find this hotel air conditioned and resembling Europe's version of a Holiday Inn.  Given the day's tension of getting lost so often, I bought the girls a Pay-TV movie and proceeded to go out-like-a-light rather early!

 

Friday, August 22, 2003 - Touring Brugges, Belgium;
En Route to Enkhuizen, The Netherlands

I was again surprised to be up-and-at-'em once again by 10am - late by my standards but early for this crew... we wandered a block-or-so up the street to catch a canal tour boat - nowhere near as good as the ones taken in Amsterdam, but (then again) the canals and the city are much, MUCH smaller than those of Amsterdam.  That said, the entire town is so very photogenic, comprised of buildings dating-back (quite literally) hundreds of years.  While the eaters in our group insisted on an early sit-down lunch, Jordan and I opted to make maximum use of our minimum time and tour the town a bit further - buying chocolates and post cards as gifts to take-back to the states with us.  We also saw some of the most wonderful cathedrals and enjoyed a Belgium Waffle unlike anything I've ever tasted stateside (light as a feather, not the heavy Aunt Jemima taste you find in the U.S.).  I wish we had spent another full day in Brugges as well, rather than just giving it this glancing blow... but (again) we'll just file that info away for future use...

BTW, it's an interesting choice of words in writing "glancing blow".  Upon exiting Brugges we saw one of the few gasoline stations in a town area, and while making a right turn into it felt something go thud into our passenger side as a bicyclist collided with us.  He wasn't hurt, and was in very good spirits given that he had right-of-way (not me)... but the collision left a pretty big ding in the lower front part of the front passenger door... god only knows how much I'll get socked for on that (or, more precisely, how much Diner's Club will get socked-for with that).  Sadly, exiting Brugges was the easiest of the trip - it's a shame the departure was marred by this incident.

This was the worst drive of the trip.  Remember, Rose is sitting on everyone's lap in the back seat, and it was nearly a four-hour ride north to Enkhuizen.  Don't really blame her for being cranky... I likely would've been as well if I was that uncomfortable for so much time.  We did take a scenic route that went well east of Amsterdam and afforded the opportunity to drive across the IJsselmeer - I was enthralled with the extreme number of sailing vessels that were still on the water at the late Friday evening hour.  But that euphoria was tempered when (once again) the turn-by-turn directions failed and we went on a wild-goose chase to find our hotel.  If I could change one thing in The Netherlands it'd be to give them American-style road signage!

We did finally locate the Apartment Hotel Driebanen, which was a wonderful family-run establishment with a new wing (we were in room 209 while Mother / Daughter / Granddaughter were in room 204).  I would highly recommend it, and the others in our party fell in love with Enkhuizen (yours truly didn't do so badly building this stop into our itinerary).  Betty, Lisa, and Rose ventured-out for dinner and a two-hour walk; Alex & I ventured-out (first) to find soft drinks and sandwiches, then (second) to meet an internet buddy of ours (pictured below) who lives about 20min away from Enkhuizen (in Zwaag).  Jordan opted to stay-in (no doubt this only-child was, by now, feeling rather overwhelmed by the chaos surrounding her... and the solo unwind time seemed to do her a lot of good).  Alex & I stayed at a nearby bar getting to know Mitchell a bit better... until they started putting-chairs-up on the tables around 1:15am (signaling closure of the establishment).  Mitch is saying he may visit the states next year - if so, I hope we get to see him once again.

 

Saturday, August 23, 2003 - Touring the Zuiderzee Museum;
En Route back to Miami, Florida

After a completely dry week (exceedingly rare in this part of the world during this time of the year), we awoke to a light-to-moderate rain that portended a miserable day.  But, like all coastal communities, within two hours it was blue sky and (perhaps) the prettiest day of the trip.  We arrived at the Zuiderzee Museum shortly after it opened at 10am - and, like so many more times during this trip we lamented that we didn't have more time available to see it in some depth.  Basically, it's akin to Colonial Williamsburg - an entire fishing village recreated for you to wander about.  Both fascinating and beautiful.  But, with the luck we'd been having navigating we opted to depart a bit after 1pm, and good thing we did... no, not because we got lost, but because a minor five-car wreck created such a severe traffic backup (combined with the highway leading most directly to the airport being closed) that we were sweating making our return flight.

As was also the norm on this trip, there were no gasoline stations visible within miles of the airport - so along with whatever kind of damage cost will be charged for the bicycle ding I'm sure my card will also be raped for the cost of a 5/8 tank refill.  So be it.  When we finally got into the airport, it's worth noting that Schiphol don't bother saying what airlines are located where - and the information desk gave us bad directions both times we asked (okay, I gotta ask... is the entire country of Holland directionally retarded? - because I've never had this much difficulty finding things anywhere else in the world I've traveled, including driving all over the Scottish countryside several years ago.  In this last case, isn't it common sense to tell you what check-in terminals house which airlines???).  Finally, wandering about on our own, we located the Martinair counter in Area 3 - only to be pulled aside so all of our checked-baggage could be gone-through.  Sigh.  But no worries... by this time we discovered that departure had been delayed almost an hour, so the rush wasn't quite so pronounced any more.

Bye bye, Amsterdam! :(

Flight 643 finally departed a bit before 7pm - since I had an all-night drive ahead of me, I popped a couple of sleeping pills as dinner was served, then proceeded to fitfully sleep (with Rose yakking and kicking the back of my seat) for most of the rest of the flight. Somehow, despite headwinds, the crew managed an on-time arrival at 10pm Miami time; immigration and customs was pretty much a breeze, and we were back in the SUV by 11pm.  Since everyone but me had stayed-awake for the flight home, they (thankfully) slept 90% of the drive - which I'm sure made the hellishly boring return home much easier.

 

Sunday, August 24, 2003 - En Route back to Atlanta, Georgia

For me, the drive was no fun.  It had rained heavily and with much lightning off to the west for the first half of the trip, I had the nagging worry that more heavy rain would be soon rolling-in.  Combine with this an overcast sky and pretty-much a new moon, and it was SO dark that the road markers were doing their best to hypnotize me (Jordan awoke a couple of times to inquire if I was okay, as I'd gently drive all over the road).  For the second-half the fog was rolling-in rather thickly.  All-in-all, not what I'd hoped - and I doubt I'd drive those kinds of distances again just to save a few hundred dollars in airfare.  But, it's done - we arrived safe-and-sound at Lisa's farm about 9:30am Sunday morning.  We walked to the barn to check on the horses; Jordan and I then came back to the house and repacked her bags for the flight back home to California, after which we took about a 90min nap.  Showering, changing, then saying our goodbyes I took her to the local Super WalMart to buy a couple more necessities - then drove through McDonald's so we could each have some good-ole, supersized, American junk-food ("supersized" in Europe is medium-sized in the states).  JP's flight home departed just after 5:30pm, whereupon I drove home and fought to stay awake until 10pm.  As I type this, I'm still somewhat affected by jet lag (as I mentioned, for me the change from east-to-west is by far the worst).

Would I again go back to Amsterdam?  Dunno, but I rather doubt it.  Lisa loves the place and is already talking about a return in the next couple of years; my attitude is more that I've seen it and would like to go elsewhere (four days was plenty - in retrospect I would've traded the Wednesday night in Amsterdam for an overnight in Gent).  But I'm glad I went and would definitely encourage anyone who enjoys traveling to give that part of the world a try - especially if museums and old buildings are your thing.

   
 

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