Amsterdam

Amsterdam

In June, my husband and I took another epic world trip with my mom and a long-time lady friend whose younger son I grew up with. Different combinations of the four of us have traveled all over the globe together. We love to see, hear, eat, shop, experience, and learn in places far away. This time we decided to do it in The Netherlands, formerly known as Holland, then take a Holland America cruise up the coast of Norway on a “Viking saga.” Both countries, with chilly weather even in summer, proved to be beautiful and friendly, leaving us with fond memories of the kind people and the spectacular sights.

The Netherlands

found at the Flower Market

found at the Flower Market

We spent a few days in The Netherlands, both before and after our Norwegian cruise. We stayed in Amsterdam in a cute hotel along one of the many canals that define the city’s spider-web-like map. When you say you’re going to “Amsterdam,” you’re bound to hear a joke about smoking pot. But as I read before my trip and soon discovered for myself, there’s much more to Amsterdam than marijuana, though the drug and other controlled substances are quite prevalent wherever you go — you can buy hemp brownies, hashish, energy drinks, magic mushrooms, and all sorts of associated accessories and trinkets in shops on just about every street and open to anyone. We saw people smoking marijuana in a “coffee shop” but didn’t spot anyone out in public who was obviously stoned. Even the beautiful row of outdoor, covered flower stands set up like a farmers market but called Flower Market sold cannabis seeds for your home-growing pleasure!

leaning buildings along canal

leaning buildings along canal

But as I said, I fondly remember Amsterdam for being fun, alive, and so full of variety. Historic buildings hundreds of years old — some of them leaning because of the shifting marsh underneath — sit along lovely canals that are popular for short cruises and ducks. Sadly, some of the canals are littered with trash, including a number of plastic water bottles. But flowers (as Holland is famous for tulips) line those same canals. We saw the oldest house in Amsterdam and countless other unique buildings, every one with a different, interesting front door and intricate architectural details. There’s no shortage of cute cafes, enticing bakeries with an abundance of attractively displayed chocolate broodjes and Poffertjes (mini pancakes), and coffee shops with hot, fresh-mint tea. Dam Straat (“Dam Street”) is lined with several Argentinian steakhouses that are so similar, we had to peruse the menus on display in the windows before figuring out which one to dine at — Mas Y Mas Cocina Argentina.

Amsterdam Flower Market

Amsterdam Flower Market

For what we were told by our hotel front desk was authentic Dutch food, we went to Pantry Restaurant; order the Bitterballen and Boerenkoolstamppot. And for Indonesian cuisine, which Amsterdam is also famous for, Sama Sebo is a good choice, serving more than a dozen small dishes so we could sample a bit of everything in one meal. Oriental City Restaurant is great (and very busy) for dim sum or other Cantonese food, which we enjoyed on a Saturday for lunch. While most things are quite expensive in Amsterdam, thanks in part to the weaker U.S. dollar as compared to the Euro, we found some incredible deals and sales in department stores and other retailers.

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nightlife in Amsterdam

nightlife in Amsterdam

1. National Monument — In the middle of Dam Square, this structure is a hodgepodge of art that locals have found humorous and disappointing.

2. Dutch East Indies — The origin of the multinational corporation and the board of directors structure. You read about this trading company in history books in school, so to see where it all began is quite something.

3. Red Light District — Prostitution is legal but regulated. No photos allowed, but we saw pretty ladies standing in windows and doorways trying to entice customers, even early in the morning when we took a walking tour. We also saw a retirement-aged man get rejected by a prostitute. The prostitutes are choosy.

4. Anne Frank Huis (House) & Museum — An eery walk through the building and secret annex hidden behind a bookcase, where the Jewish family hid from Nazis during World War II and where a teenage girl wrote her later-famous diary which her father helped get published, The Diary of Anne Frank. The line to get in consistently wraps around the building and past the next street corner, so buy your tickets in advance online to reserve an entrance time, like we did, and you can walk straight in without waiting.

outside Van Gogh Museum

outside Van Gogh Museum

5. Van Gogh Museum & Rijks Museum — We made it to the joint gift shop and the “i amsterdam” sign outside, not the museums themselves. I can only take so many museums in one vacation, but plenty of other people enjoyed these famed attractions.

6. Vondelpark — The largest and most popular park in The Netherlands. It’s conveniently located in a busy part of town on the way from our hotel to many attractions.

7. History Museum — Among the interesting displays is a David and Goliath former (and rather ancient) amusement park attraction, in which a child could stand inside the Goliath statue and use puppet strings to make it move like a human and which is now operated by a remote control by the security guard.

8. Churches Old and New — Creatively (sarcasm), people gave these churches the names of Old Church, New Church, North Church, South Church, East Church, and West Church. The design and architecture of the historic churches are to be admired, even if you’re not religious.

9. Magna Plaza — Location of a former post office, now a shopping mall. Another building with gorgeously ornate architecture. As in most other public places (other than restaurants), prepare to pay (sometimes as much as the equivalent of $1.50) to use the restroom.

Rotterdam Centraal

Rotterdam Centraal

Amsterdam is, in at least the following ways, like the Hong Kong of Europe: It doesn’t sleep, is very crowded, and is easy to get around on various modes of transportation — by bus, bike, tram, train, car, or on foot. Many restaurants and bakeries stay open until 3 a.m. It’s not so strange when we could dine outdoors and enjoy the setting sun at 10 p.m. Coming from the U.S., it’s easy to navigate because English is widely spoken and people drive on the same side of the road as in the U.S. A couple of things that are not easy are trying to scale the steep, narrow indoor and outdoor staircases, and to cross the street. It can be very confusing because there are lanes shared by cars and trams, and separate bicycle lanes. But for a newcomer, it can be very confusing and dangerous because some bicycle lanes are in the street and others are on the sidewalk. So we noticed tourists (included those in our group) almost getting hit by fast-approaching bicyclists, some of whom don’t stop, even when pedestrians have the “walk” signal from the digital sign. Since we walked a lot — for hours on end — we had to look both ways with every step we took to cross a street or even a sidewalk. Also, cars could drive right onto sidewalks at intersections to continue down a nearby street — very deceiving if you think you’re safe on a sidewalk and something I haven’t seen in any other place which I’ve been. Bicycles are an extremely popular mode of transportation. In fact, the car traffic isn’t bad in a city so populous.

The Dutch people, for the most part, are very kind and helpful. When you start discussing with your family which train stop is the right one, they jump in to inform you when they notice you’re about to get off at the wrong one. And when you finally get off the train at the correct stop, they jump in to grab your luggage for you when they see you struggle to carry it onto the platform. Great ambassadors for their hometown.

We took a train from Amsterdam Centraal (central station) to Rotterdam Centraal — a scenic ride through the suburbs and smaller cities in between. We didn’t get to spend much time in the city of Rotterdam, except just a drive through the city. It’s where we boarded the ms Rotterdam with more than 1,000 other people ready for a Nordic adventure.

boulder field, Stavanger

boulder field, Stavanger, Norway

Norway

Like my fashion statement found at Saga Souvenirs in Flam?

Like my fashion statement found at Saga Souvenirs in Flam… and my Holland America tour sticker?

From childhood books to film portrayals, Norway has always seemed to me like a magical place with treacherous seas and extremely large (Vikings) and small (trolls) creatures. There are definitely elements of all of those, but the country turns out to be more peaceful and pretty these days. Just about everything is very expensive. A $30 (about 150 Krone) individual bowl of soup at a casual cafe is commonplace. A double shot glass souvenir you’d find for $4-6 in other countries costs $9-15 in Norway.

Having cruised with Holland America before, I sort of knew what to expect. Of course, 11 years later, the ships are more updated. The things that remain the same, which are why I’m loyal to this cruise line: The passengers tend to be older (retirees), tamer, and classier. The activities are fun, the food fine and elegant, the entertainment tasteful, and the accommodations clean and comfortable. We’re not into the party ships. On this particular summer cruise, because we were so far north, we found ourselves playing tennis on deck while the sun was still out at almost midnight and enjoying the sun rise just a few hours later from our deck-side stateroom with a sliding glass door and an incredible view of the changing landscape as we cruised along over seven days.

Lysefjord, Norway

Lysefjord, Norway

We stopped at four ports of call as we sailed along the coast of Norway through the often choppy and cold waters of the North Sea, accompanied by the excitement of howling winds that threatened to pull you overboard. The shore excursions we selected took us to six distinct cities and through beautiful fjords such as Sognefjord (the world’s 2nd longest fjord), Aurlandsfjord (a 17-km arm of Sognefjord), and Lysefjord (with steep, rocky walls more than 3,000 feet high).

Oslo

scenic Oslo

scenic Oslo

A charming blend of old and new, the capital of Norway boasts an ultra-modern Opera House built in 2008 to resemble a glacier on the fjord, Barcode buildings named because the series of adjacent buildings have windows in patterns similar to barcodes. We passed by the building where the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are selected, the hotel where the winners stay, and where the award is presented. Cafe Skansen in Oslo serves excellent Norwegian salmon and dill potatoes. For a look at hundreds of thought-provoking sculptures, mostly of parents with children and different representations of life’s struggles, stroll through the 80-acre Vigeland Sculpture Park, named after Norway’s famous sculptor who had a strained relationship with his children. Unlike parks I’m used to, Vigeland surprised me with no insects of the crawling or flying variety. I should have expected it, as Norway is so cold. Be sure to see the Viking Ships Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Open-Air (Folk) Museum.

Drobak

charming Drobak

charming Drobak

A quaint, lush town on a harbor, Drobak is home to the “Christmas House” — a 2-story store full of (expensive) Christmas ornaments and other secular Yuletide decorations themed around the Norwegian Santa Claus “Nisse” and other characters. You can get mail stamped with the official Christmas stamp.

Kristiansand
We took an almost 2-hour boat ride on M/S Maarten among the surrounding skerries and islets to see lighthouses as well as hills and valleys dotted with traditional, small Norwegian homes, including the summer residence of the prince. This port city also has a relatively new performing arts center on the edge of the water, juxtaposed with an older cathedral and other buildings in the city center. We passed by Fiskebrygga, a quaint fresh seafood market with restaurants along the wharf, and Kristiansand Cathedral, the third largest in Norway.

Lillesand

shops in Lillesand

shops in Lillesand

This idyllic vacation spot is known as the “jewel of Sorlandet” and the most beautiful town in Norway. Seagulls fly over the boat dock, as people visit the eateries, shops, and outdoor food stands in Lillesand. The shore is lined with 18th- and 19th-century white, timber houses.

Stavanger
Talk about scenery with a wow factor. We took a drive to Dirdal Valley. Boulders, some as big as houses, cover much of the landscape, and streams run along the valleys of steep embankments. We visited the largest field of boulders, Gloppendalsuren. We had pancakes with sour cream and jam in a mountain tunnel/cave Gloppehallen and saw Byrkjedalstunet, a historical building that was a cheese factory in the 1920s and is now a candle maker’s shop and restaurant. And we ended the afternoon with a stroll through Old Stavanger, passing rows and rows of charming white houses.

Flam

waterfall singer, Flam

waterfall singer, Flam

Flam is marked by extremes — lush mountains with melting snowcaps and bubbling brooks over rocks. We took a lifeboat (tender) from our cruise ship to shore because of the narrow fjord, then boarded Flamsbana, or the Flam Railway. Looking out the window, every moment was picture perfect, as we winded through the mountains and gazed at the many waterfalls. A surreal sight — a woman dressed as a Norse goddess sang from atop the rocky slopes next to the biggest waterfall of them all — Kjosfossen. We stopped for hot tea and waffles with sour cream and jam (sense a theme here?) at the Vatnahalsen Hotel, which offered more picturesque views.

We’ve already put down our deposit for a future Holland America cruise. Stay tuned to see where we go next…

NOTE ABOUT AIRLINES: Three of us flew United Airlines round-trip and direct, this trip. As I experienced several years ago when flying United Airlines overseas, the service is sorely lacking and flat-out rude from some flight attendants. The airfares were cheaper, which is the main reason (and only good reason) we flew a U.S.-based airline. United could really learn a thing or two from its foreign competitors, especially the Asian airlines which consistently win service awards for flight attendants who are so friendly, polite, and respectful to all passengers. It’s a totally different experience. It’s no wonder that many U.S.-based flight attendants are often described by the public as grouchy and a few other adjectives which I’ll reserve here. I will say, however, that one very nice United flight attendant tried to smooth things over after her colleague repeatedly displayed utter unprofessionalism and rudeness. She deserves praise or a raise, and I’ve written the airline.

riding the Flam Railway

riding the Flam Railway

Hungary

Julie Tam & Saqib Siddik, Danube River cruise, Budapest, Hungary

Julie Tam & Saqib Siddik, Danube River cruise, Budapest, Hungary

We departed Croatia and successfully went through the border control to enter the fifth of six countries we visited on our European tour this summer — Hungary. I never knew the food would be so good…

Danube River, Budapest, Hungary

Danube River, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest

Citadella Restaurant, Budapest, Hungary

Citadella Restaurant, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest used to be divided into two cities — Buda and Pest — one on each bank of the famous Danube River. On our first night, we dined at a former prison along the Danube, Citadella Restaurant. The Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra played while Hungarian dancers entertained us over a meal with obvious Asian influences from the country’s ancestry — curry-inspired sauces and spicy Goulash soup. The meal was divine: the chicken ever so tender and the flavors just right. After dinner, we looked out over the beautiful nighttime skyline and snapped the above photo at sunset.

We stayed at the Danubius Hotel on Margaret Island in the Danube River. The next morning, a local guide took us on a bus and walking tour of the city, where we saw the fancy entrance to the Zoo & Botanical Garden, Heroes’ Square, opera house, Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the river, Parliament building, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We drove across the Chain Bridge several times. It’s the most famous bridge in Budapest with a pair of tongue-less lions at the end, as you drive through a lovely roundabout adorned with flowers and a grand arch.

We spent the afternoon on a Danube River cruise, which took us past such landmarks as the royal palace, Margaret Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, a monastery, and Gellert Hotel.

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary

Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary

I returned earlier this month from an amazing, whirlwind 12-day trip to Europe — mostly Eastern Europe. I had traveled to Western Europe (England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Vatican) back in 1999, so it was time to tour six more countries as part of a package deal with my husband and mom: Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and Czech Republic. Over the coming weeks, I will write about each of them, starting with our first stop, Germany, famous for its wienerschnitzel.

castle & homes along Rhine River

castle & homes along Rhine River

Germany

Frankfurt

Frankfurt, Germany: old and new

Frankfurt, Germany: old and new

We landed in Frankfurt, the capital of Germany — the only country on our tour other than Austria (where German also is spoken) where I actually knew a little bit of the language, which I remembered from one semester of German in sixth grade. Like in many parts of Europe, pigeons in search of food on brick paths were a common sight in the historic area that’s home to St. Paul’s Church. With the not-too-distant backdrop of the modern skyline, Germans gathered outside to celebrate a Roman Catholic holiday, St. John the Baptist Day, complete with a choir, ceremonial rituals, and prayer. Memorials and statues to remember the Holocaust were ever-present throughout the outdoor squares. It was expensive to make purchases in countries within the European Union because the American dollar is weak. 1 Euro = approx. $1.50.

Boppard

flowers in windows: common sight (Boppard, Germany)

flowers in windows: common sight (Boppard, Germany)

We ate lunch the first day in the town of Boppard along the Rhine River. Loreley Restaurant served traditional German pork knuckle, fresh fish, sauerkraut, a salty vegetable soup, dark beer, and Spezi (an interesting mix of Coca-Cola and Fanta). Germans eat big, hearty meals that tend to err on the salty side. In the adjacent souvenir store, we saw an array of steel products, which Germany is known for. After lunch we took a cruise down a stretch of the Rhine River with the most castles, including Rheinfels Castle and another impressive medieval fortress (that’s now a restaurant) dating back to the 1300s, high on hilltops with civilian homes in the valleys below. Throughout Germany, and even in all the other five countries we visited, homes, businesses, and churches were always decorated with rectangular pots hanging from window sills and balconies holding colorful flowers in full bloom. Most open land we saw was not wasted but covered in rows of crops.

Würzburg
Now famous for being the home of 2011 NBA champion and MVP, Dirk Nowitzki of my now-home team, the Dallas Mavericks, Würzburg is also home to the Residenz, the former residence of the prince-bishops. The lovely city of about 130,000 people was rebuilt largely by women after many men were killed or taken prisoner of war during World War II. St. Fredericus is among several statues gracing the Main River that runs through the city. A lot of locals walk their neatly groomed dogs and drive small cars (unlike in Texas, where SUVs and large trucks rule the roads). People in Europe also like to bike and walk. Obesity is rare. We went inside St. Maria’s Chapel, which was adorned with red trim and a gold statue at its peak. Dom St. Kilian is another cathedral we visited — with many more ahead of us. We ate lunch at Dean & David, a cafe just outside the Farmers Market with the ever-popular outdoor seating found all over Europe. On our way to Munich, our tour bus stopped at a rest stop, where like in many European cities, you had to pay to use the toilets. In this case, the price was 70 cents Euro, but the return was not only nice, clean bathroom facilities but also a coupon for 50 cents Euro off of any purchase in the convenient store or cafeteria. We found this business model in other cities along our route too.

pay toilets

pay toilets

Munich
In the state of Bavaria, Munich is the headquarters of BMW (Bavarian Motor Works). The city also hosted the Olympics in 1972. Munich City Hall (the newer one built in the 1800s) showcases a performance on the hour of its Glockenspiel (clock tower), where life-sized “puppets” re-enact historical scenes, including dancing at feasts and knocking off opponents in fights. Around the corner is the Residenz Museum, which was being renovated while we were there. Interestingly, instead of just having a bunch of construction equipment everywhere, a temporary facade with an image of the building was placed in front of the actual building to cover up the construction mess and show passersby what the building looked like — helpful for tourists. Also in the vicinity was München Dom (a.k.a. Metropolitan Church of Our Lady), a cathedral also being worked on and known for the “Devil’s footprint” on the stair steps inside.

Füssen

Neuschwanstein Castle, Füssen, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Füssen, Germany

The most picturesque of the cities we visited, Füssen is near the border to Austria and home to beautiful castles, the most famous of which is Neuschwanstein Castle, former home of troubled King Ludwig II, whose cause of death remains a mystery. An inspiration for Disney‘s Sleeping Beauty castle, it sits atop a high rock (essentially, a tall hill) in a fairytale alpine setting. The king’s earlier home was the nearby Hohenschwangau Castle. We accessed both via scenic walking trails and bridges. The king definitely had an imagination in designing the Neuschwanstein Castle, complete with a play cave inside.

From there we ventured into Austria and later, on to the four other countries on our tour. We ultimately returned to Frankfurt on the final night of our 12-day trip before departing for home. But before we get to “goodbye,” stay tuned next week for my blog entry on Austria, the country I found to be the most beautiful overall, among the six on this trip.

Alaska

me aboard a Holland America cruise ship

me aboard a Holland America cruise ship

My mom and I took a Holland America cruise in August 2001 along Alaska’s southeastern coast. It was the most pleasant time of year to visit America’s coldest state. The views were breathtaking in the daytime. One night, we ventured out onto the dock… big mistake. It was freezing cold, terrifyingly windy (howling), and as dark as dark could be out in the middle of the pitch-black waters. We scurried back inside immediately.

 

 

 

MUST-SEE

view of Juneau from helicopter

view of Juneau from helicopter

1. Ketchikan. The salmon hatchery at Deer Mountain offers a good learning experience, since Alaska is famous for its salmon industry. The best fried fish I’ve ever had was at Halibut Hole along the dock. It was heavenly — smooth, fresh, white fish from cold waters.

 

dog sledding with a lady from our cruise

dog sledding with a lady from our cruise

2. Juneau. Go on a salmon bake, if you want to watch a cook make your Alaskan meal in the wilderness and eat it in the same rustic surroundings. Take a helicopter ride over the beautiful, snow-capped mountains, land on a glacier, and go mushing (dog sledding) — we got to experience the speed of retired Iditarod dogs, an exhilarating ride. Seeing Alaska from the air, barely above the mountain peaks, is like watching one of those nature videos that shows sweeping shots from an aircraft, but you’re actually doing it and seeing it firsthand. Breathtaking.

Sitka Pier

Sitka Pier

3. Sitka. Kayak in Wilderness Sea — what a peaceful adventure in crisp, refreshing air. The Sitka pier is picturesque, like a postcard. From there, cruise on through Disenchantment Bay, Glacier Bay, and see Hubbard Glacier. Our ship was so close to the glaciers, I had a Titanic moment; I felt like we could almost touch the glaciers.
4. Valdez. Famous for the big Exxon oil spill but also a nice place for whitewater rafting. The waters are frigid and choppy, which made for a bad combination for me, when the water splashed into my whitewater rafting “warm” suit and ran down my back. Brrr…

Disenchantment Bay

Disenchantment Bay

5. Anchorage. Visit the Alaska Zoo, where you can see animals that roam the Alaskan wilderness, like bears. Of course, you can pay a lot more money for shore excursions that take you on bear-watching expeditions but don’t guarantee you’ll see any bears. From our cruise ship, we did see whales in the waters around us.