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Iceland and Benelux Trip report

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This was our fifth trip to Europe, but this is our first trip report. Let me start by giving you some background on us. We’re in our mid 30’s and have three children ages 3, 5, and 6. We’ve traveled throughout Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, Morocco, and most of Western Europe. When we travel we do so mostly to meet people and experience new cultures rather than to sightsee. For Europe, we always travel off season. We never book hotels ahead of time (although there were two exceptions on this trip), instead preferring to negotiate a good rate upon arrival (we stayed in a hotel in Paris for $50/night that had a view of the Eiffel Tower from our bedroom this way). Also, since our fourth trip the only luggage we take is a backpack. This greatly simplifies customs, means we don’t have to check any luggage, and makes us pretty mobile.

Languages. I speak French enough to understand and be understood and I can read it fairly well. This and English gets us by in many countries. I speak enough Spanish and Italian to count and ask directions. We always try to learn Yes/No/Please/Excuse Me/Thank You in the native tongues of the countries we visit.

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    Money: We travel with an ATM card and two credit cards. We usually get about $100 in local currency from the ATM and use the credit cards for everything else. Any extra cash we have we use to pay a portion of our hotel bill. In this way, we never have to worry about how to get rid of extra local currency.

    We are budget travelers so I’ll try to give the prices of everything in case anyone else wants a good deal. Please note that all currency conversions are done as of 12/14/2000 and are converted to US dollars. Also, all prices include all taxes.

    Election/Florida: Everyone asked us about it. Everyone though it was funny. Everyone hated Bush.

    For this trip we went to Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and France (Paris only). We traveled Iceland Air from Baltimore to Reykjavik and then from Reykjavik to Amsterdam. The cost of the flight was $198 RT, or $233 RT with tax. Obviously with these prices we couldn’t resist! You can find these prices for yourselves at Iceland Air’s website (www.icelandair.com) and looking for Lucky Fares. The fare allows you to layover in Iceland for up to three days (or you can just travel through to Europe with a one hour layover). We spent three days in Iceland, four days in Belgium (with day trips to Paris and Luxembourg) and two days in Holland.

    We purchased a 5-day Benelux Flex Pass for $233 for two people (you get a discount for two adults travelling together). The easiest way to purchase these is through AAA (or any travel agent). To find out about all of the different pass options for train travel in Europe, as well as costs of point to point tickets, use this website: www.raileurope.com/us/index.htm. To find out when trains run use this website: bahn.hafas.de/bin/query.exe/en (note there is no www).

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    We also purchased tickets on the high speed Thalys train from Brussels to Paris (1 hour 25 minutes travel time). If you buy these tickets online or through a travel agent it will cost you about $80 per person each way. If, however, you know someone in Europe (or countries other than America and Canada) you can buy what’s known as a mini-fare. Mini-fares are non-refundable and can’t be changed, but are about 25% of the cost of a normal ticket. It ended up costing us $20 per person each way. The only catch is that the tickets can't be mailed to the U.S. or Canada and that’s why you need to know someone in Europe. We paid for the tickets online and had them mailed to a European address. www.thalys.com can give you information on all fare types.

    Also, to find out anything about planes and airports, go to www.airwise.com. You can find out information about any major airport (layout, transportation to and from, etc.) as well as check flight times (to see if a plane is on time) and schedules.

    I can’t say enough good things about Iceland Air. To start with they were on time for all four segments of the trip - a first for me with international travel. Additionally, the food was amazing. Dishes like salmon for lunch and cheese eggs with ham and hashed browns for breakfast. Throw in the flight attendants walking the isles with baskets of hot rolls, orange juice, coffee and tea which you could help yourself to and you have a nice little meal! Lastly, as a person who is 6’1”, let me say the legroom was great. In fact, the only “negative” thing I’ll say is that they only allowed one carryon and it couldn’t weigh more than 15lbs. This was a problem for us (my wife really) because her backpack was about 25lbs. However, only when we were leaving Baltimore was this a problem and we “convinced” the lady at the check-in counter that we would gate check the bag.

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    Part I – Iceland

    We left on the night of November 29th and arrived in Iceland the morning of November 30th. When you arrive in Iceland you land in Keflavik and must take a bus to Reykjavik (or wherever else you are going). Since Iceland Air owns most of the island (including the tour and airport busses) the busses are timed to leave with arriving flights. We had maybe a 5-minute wait until our bus left. The cost of the bus is 800 ISK (About $9.20) per person each way. The bus ride lasts about 45min.

    This is the first place we ever reserved a hotel room in Europe. We decided that walking around Iceland looking for a hotel room was probably not the best thing to do (grin). You’ll probably want to stay at the Hotel Esja or the Hotel Loftleider. Both are owned by Iceland Air. Both are very nice and have excellent service. We stayed at Esja, but that was a mistake. The reason for this and the cost of the hotel are at the end of this report.

    There are two things you notice immediately about Iceland. The first is the architecture. For instance, the airport looks like a 1970’s movie, but at the same time is strikingly modern. And then there are the houses. There are maybe five blueprints for houses and apartments…it’s “cookie-cutter” heaven. I don’t say this to be derogatory; it all looks very beautiful. It’s just a little weird seeing the same style over and over again everywhere you look.

    The second thing is the people. Again, like the houses, there are maybe 5 different people. The rest are clones. This is going to sound perhaps a bit racist, but they really do all look the same. More the same than you can imagine. My understanding is that this is because the island population (of only 200,000 and change) is 98% pure. I don’t think there is another industrialized country that can come close to that. In addition, most Icelanders can trace their genealogy very far back. This is due both to the purity and to the naming style. Children take as their last name the first name of their parent. For instance, if John Jackson has a son his last name will be Johnson. As you can see from John’s last name his father was named Jack. Needless to say, this can cause confusion at hotels when father, mother and child all have different last names.

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    The naming convention is basically a “law” at this point. During the 1800’s it was “fashionable” to take a family last name, but this died out and is no longer allowed. In fact, for a while it was a law that anyone immigrating to Iceland must adopt an Icelandic name.

    Oh, and let me get this out of the way now: Iceland is not that cold in the winter. In fact, it’s warmer than where we live in Cleveland. Temperatures during the day were low-mid 40’s and upper 30’s at night. Underground volcanoes heat the entire island, which makes their heating bills very cheap.

    The first day in Iceland we explored Reykjavik on foot. The town is great for walking and has two main streets, which make a “V” filled with shops, etc. You are also on the coast so you can walk along the water if you want to. Lastly there is a mall there for the serious shopper.

    The next day we slept the entire morning and didn’t wake up until about three in the afternoon. We were going on the Blue Lagoon/Viking Feast tour that night at five. All of the pools in Iceland are outdoors and the Blue Lagoon is the most famous of these. It’s formed from the overflow of a hydroelectric plant. The water is filled with minerals, which give it a chalky-blue color. And it’s hot - anywhere from 80-90+ degrees. The original pool is so filled with minerals now they use it exclusively as a spa for people with health (skin) problems and have opened another lagoon next to the original one. Being there is surreal, especially at night. Since the water is blue, you can’t see into it. Add to this the fact that your forward visibility is limited to maybe 20 feet due to the steam rising off the water into the cool air. Lastly it’s dark and cold outside. It’s a pretty amazing sight. However, I can’t do it justice, so see for yourself at: www.bluelagoon.is.

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    After the Blue Lagoon we were taken to a Viking Feast. This is a large two-story restaurant that specializes in traditional Icelandic food. It sounds touristy, but I think our group (of six) were the only non-Icelanders there, and it was packed. There was some sort of party going on upstairs and another party downstairs where we were. After being served our food (various fish – including the special “spoiled” shark, salad, and pieces of lamb and pork), we convinced the guy serving the downstairs party to let us try some of their food. Specifically the ham, lamb, and deserts. While our food was incredible, this food was too good for words. I am a connoisseur of meat, especially pork. Let me state for the record that I have never in my life tasted ham like this. It literally melted in my mouth.

    Also at the restaurant were singers dressed in “Viking” attire and, later, a band. What did the band play? Well, they started with some Elvis and finished with John Denver. I asked them to play the Immigrant Song by Led Zepplin (We come from the land of the ice and snow/of the midnight sun where the hot springs blow) but they only knew Stairway to Heaven. I did, however, get them to play some “Viking” songs (dirges?), which I couldn’t understand because the words were in Icelandic (grin).

    The cost of the Blue Lagoon/Viking Feast tour was 7000 ISK per person (approx. $81) and included all costs, food, and drink (one beer and one shot of Icelandic liqueur).

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    The last day we took the extended (7-hour) Golden Circle tour. This shows you some of Iceland’s incredible landscape. I’ve never seen anything like it. In fact, I can’t describe it other than to say it’s beautiful and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I would recommend doing a search on the Internet for “Iceland and Golden Circle” and you’ll get lots of info and pictures. The cost of this trip was 5100 ISK per person (approx. $60) and only included the tour (i.e., no food or drink). The web site for the tour operator (Reykjavik Excursions) is: www.re.is. There are other tour operators too, but Reykjavik Excursions has a wide selection of tours and is operated by Iceland Air.

    Overall impressions of Iceland:

    1) Iceland is expensive…believe everything you hear about that. A beer, for instance, costs about $5. Our last night there we ate Chinese with another couple at a medium fancy restaurant and the bill was $100 (food only, we drank water).
    2) Iceland is beautiful. Stunningly so. The landscape is like nothing you’ve seen before.
    3) The people are nice. Stepford Wives nice. Let me give you an example of how nice. I had problems with my credit card there (because of something incredibly stupid my card company did that still pisses me off). Anyway, when you go on the tours (owned by Iceland Air) they go to all of the hotels (owned by Iceland Air) and pick you up and take you to the Hotel Loftlieder. There you pay for the tour and get in the bus again. Well, for the Blue Lagoon tour, I didn’t take my wallet and only took one credit card (since the Blue Lagoon is a swimming pool and all of our food was included). This was, of course, the credit card that, as I was about to find out, didn’t work. Anyway, the lady at the ticket counter just told me to go on the tour and pay later. Go back and read that last sentence. They didn’t know who I was. Didn’t have my name or any other id. I wasn’t staying at that hotel. They just trusted me. Needless to say there is virtually no crime in Iceland.
    4) Yes there’s nightlife in Reykjavik, but don’t believe the hype. The bars are packed and there are a lot of people out, but everyone is very well behaved (read: no drunks or fights) and nice. Don’t get me wrong, we went out and had a great time, but it’s not the wild scene you might read about.
    5) Be careful making accommodations through Iceland Air. We asked for and were told we had a queen-size bed in the Hotel Esja. Iceland Air gave us a rate of 6500 ISK per night ($75), which included breakfast. This was about $30 per night cheaper than booking the hotel directly. However, the hotel doesn’t have any queen size beds (except in the much more expensive business rooms). They are all rooms with two very small twin size beds. So, book through Iceland Air for a good rate, but make sure you know what type of room you are getting. (Note, the beds in the Hotel Esja can be pushed together to make a slightly larger than double size bed).

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    Part II – Belgium

    We left Reykjavik early morning on Sunday December 3rd and flew to Amsterdam. From Schipol Airport we caught the train to Brussels. Both the train ride and the plane ride were about 2.5 hours. Weather in Belgium was 50’s during the day and 40’s at night. We had some light drizzle a couple of times, but it was mostly clear and sunny.

    There are three train stations in Brussels: North, Central, and South (Zuid or Midi). We took the southernmost one because Brussels was to be our home base and it had the most convenient times to our other destinations. When we arrived at Midi (one of the larger stations in Europe), the first thing we noticed is that there were no ATMs in the station. None. No problem we said, let’s find a hotel and we’ll get an ATM on the street.

    Well, we took a wrong turn out of the station and it looked like we were in a typical American inner city. We couldn’t find a hotel, it was getting dark, and we didn’t feel too safe walking around with backpacks. We decided to catch a train back to Central and look for a hotel there. But then we realized that we weren’t in an American city and that it was probably pretty safe where we were. So we decided to stay and keep looking for a hotel. This was the best decision we could have made, as our stay in Brussels was the highpoint of our trip.

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    We headed back to the station and took a different direction. This time NW. We found a few hotels and ended up choosing the Hotel Van Belle. It was 2850 BEF per night (approx. $63) which included breakfast and a complimentary drink. The hotel was clean and the shower had hot, strong water, so we decided to take it. Also it had a safe deposit box in the room. The hotel was excellent in all respects except for the maid service. One day we didn’t get any new towels (and the old ones were taken) and another day it wasn’t made up at all.

    We unpacked quickly and went out to explore the town. This was the only time we had planned to spend in Brussels. We headed to the Grand Place (the only sight we wanted to see). There we finally found an ATM. We had passed others but they were all either a) broken or b) just for customers of that bank. Needless to say the line at the ATM was quite long!

    The Grand Place was beautiful. It was nighttime now and it was all lit up with lights. In the square itself were dozens of kiosks representing all of the countries of the world, selling Christmas stuff. It was really quite pretty. We didn’t stay there long because we were hungry and everything at the Place is very expensive, but walking one block drops the prices in half. Especially beer. $3-4 at the Grand Place, $1 a block away. We did, however, eat some chocolate there.

    I don’t like chocolate. My wife likes it, but rarely eats it because caffeine gives her a migraine. Well, I don’t know why, but Belgian Chocolate is to American Chocolate as Italian Gelato is to American Ice Cream. We couldn’t stop eating it. For the next four days were gorged ourselves on it. It was sooooo good.

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    We decided to walk back to the hotel (about a 15min. walk) and got some Frites along the way because the chocolate, as good as it was, did not fill us up. OK, this was a problem. I like french fries to begin with and these frites were out of this world. So, on the way back we ate frites, stopped in a bar for a beer, ate some more frites, stopped for a beer, etc.

    When we got back to the hotel we weren’t ready to turn in yet and we both still wanted some “real” food, so we walked around a little, looking for a restaurant. The area of the hotel was a nexus for the African, Moroccan, and Belgian areas of Brussels. We found an African restaurant and fell in love.

    It’s called Le Congo Belge (The Belgian Congo) and no English is spoken there, only French. It’s owned by a man named Roger who also owns the adjacent bar. We stayed there until about three in the morning running between the bar and restaurant, drinking and eating. I had crocodile, antelope, lamb and chicken. Other than the Icelandic ham, it was the best food we ate on the trip.

    We made good friends with Roger as well as some others that appear later in this story. The bar is very integrated with blacks and whites equally coming and going. In fact, most of the couples there were interracial. We are both black and felt very much at home there. I strongly recommend anyone going to Brussels to look for this place. The address is: 8 rue Rospy Chaudron (a cote d’Afrika Moto), 1070 Bruxelles, and it is close to the Zuid/Midi train station. Don’t worry about not speaking French, beer and food are universal languages there.

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    The next day we slept in (of course) and then caught a train to Brugges. Brugges was very nice and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Belgium. However, as far as “medieval” cities go, I think Germany has several better ones (most notably Rothenburg).

    Tuesday the 6th was the day we took the high speed train to Paris. This was our second trip to Paris and the goal this time was to shop. We arrived at Gare du Nord and walked south to the Seine. Along the way we stopped at Forum Des Halles, a huge underground shopping mall. We spent so much time in there having my wife try on different clothes that we had spent half of our allotted time before we knew it! We left the mall and walked along the Seine. Unfortunately at this point it started to rain. Not too hard, but enough to get us wet. Luckily walking along the Seine in the rain is better than working in any weather in Cleveland. We left the Seine at the Champs d’Elysees right where the giant Ferris wheel is and walked down the most famous street in all of Paris. It was beautiful. The trees had lights in them (it was dark by now) and that combined with the lights from the Ferris wheel made it quite bright. We broke off from there and headed back to the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, which was lit up with twinkling lights. From there we walked to the Arc d’Triumphe and caught a metro back to the train station. BTW, if you do a search on “Paris” and “Metro” you will find many nice sights that layout the Paris metro lines for you.

    Wednesday the 7th we headed for Luxembourg. This was a three hour train ride, but well worth it. Luxembourg is by far the prettiest area in Benelux. The City is very quaint and easy to walk around. We did a lot of shopping here, but not much else. We had wanted to see the Cassements, but they were closed. Also the rain followed us from Paris so we didn’t do much sightseeing (we did walk around the old town though which was fun, especially if you like shopping and eating).

    I must say that I’m glad we went to Luxembourg. A lot of people told us not to go and that there was nothing to see, but I think it’s well worth a day trip. The people are fiercely independent (keeping their own language while surrounded by French and German) and are almost as nice as the Icelanders. The countryside is very pretty (reminiscent of northern England) and the old town has a medieval feel to it.

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    That night, our last night in Belgium, we returned to Le Congo Belge. There we met a (white) Belgian man we had met our first night. He was their with (one of) his girlfriends. We ate a little and then he drove us to another African bar. This place was great too, although smaller than Roger’s. There were three couples, two waitresses (one of them being our friend’s other girlfriend!), and three single men in the entire place. All of us spent a few hours drinking and dancing to everything from Madonna to Barry White to traditional African music. Our friend then drove us back to Roger’s where we had a final beer and said our farewells. Roger gave us some beer from Zaire as a gift.

    Overall impressions of Belgium:
    1) Brussels is a party town. Our first night there we were out until three on a Sunday. There is always someplace serving food and drink.
    2) It’s the most culturally diverse place I’ve been. Yes, big cities like New York and London have lots of immigrants, but no one here looked or felt out of place and places were pretty intergrated. Also, everyone spoke one language: French. It really seemed like a melting pot.
    3) If you think the French are rude, don’t feel the same way about the Belgians. Belgium seemed like a laid back France.
    4) We will definitely return to Belgium and to Roger’s place (Le Congo Belge).

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    Part III – Holland

    We left Brussels early in the afternoon of Thursday December 7th and took the train to Amsterdam. Be careful taking the train as there are high speed trains and “normal” trains which make the trip. The only difference is that the high speed trains take 30min. less and cost more. We took the normal train as we would have had to pay for reservations on the high speed train. It was a 2.5 hour trip.

    In Amsterdam was the second time we broke our no hotel reservations rule. This time it was because my wife’s sister in law works at Marriott and she was able to get us rooms at the Renaissance (a 5 minute walk from the train station) for about $55 per night. Needless to say this hotel was impeccable.

    Amsterdam is wild. You really need to see it for yourself to see just how wild. Just walking by the “coffee” shops can give you a contact high. Neither my wife nor I do drugs so we didn’t partake, but if marijuana is your thing, this is your city. There’s even a Cannabis College there!

    And, of course, there’s the sex. Thursday night we were pretty much beat, so we just got some food and did a quick tour of the Red Light district. More on that later.

    I would say that donuts are the specialty food of Holland (probably because of all of the munchies!).

    The next day we walked around the town and did some light shopping. This is going to sound weird, but the shops in Amsterdam reminded me of the shops in Marrakech, only bigger. We wound up in a little bar (which specialized in Belgian beer!) and talked with the bar tender for a while. He called Amsterdam Europe’s social laboratory, and was quite proud of it. In fact, while we were there, Holland had just become the first country to legalize Euthanasia. He told us many other things too, which pointed to Holland’s openness. For example, Holland was the first country to welcome Jews. Also, they recognized that people paid for sex and drugs and legalized it and controlled it to make it safer. And everything that we saw did point to Holland being very liberal but not dangerous or crime-ridden.

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    That night we explored the Red Light district in detail. It’s a place of contradictions. Women standing in red lit rooms offering sex along with video stores and live sex bars line the streets. But there’s also a pretty little canal going down the middle of the street and women walk the streets unbothered (and children too earlier in the day/night). Coffee shops selling marijuana and lots of bars, but no one drunk or stoned causing problems on the streets. It really did seem like a very safe place.

    I asked a few people and the consensus seemed to be that 100 NLG (about $40) was what it took to enter the red rooms. One funny thing about that, my wife though once you went in all the woman did was give you a striptease show!

    While we were there we met a couple from Scotland and had a great time with them. We met them early in the night and spent about 6 or 7 hours with them. It seems that many people from England and Scotland come to Amsterdam for the weekend.

    Other than bar hopping we went to the Erotic Museum and a live sex show. There are two Erotic Museums and we went to the one in the Red Light district. I can’t remember the exact price, but it was about $5 per person. There are five floors and you basically see pictures, videos, and some wax figures. Get a few beers in you and go – it’s pretty fun.

    The sex show was fun too. We paid 75 NLG (about $30) per couple and got four drinks for the price. There are three striptease shows and then the sex show starts. The strippers were the best part of the show, and they got fully nude. The first one was a “normal” stripper. The second took a man from the audience and stripped over him and then placed a pen in her “special place” and wrote on his chest. The last was a huge (fat) black woman who ordered three men from the audience to come on stage and lay down. Then she took a banana and placed it in her special place and made each of them take a bite. Needless to say the last guy had it worst! She was actually the best as she was quite funny and had the audience laughing and cheering the most.

    The sex show came next and it was fairly clinical. Oral sex followed by penetration but no “money shot”.

    Overall impressions of Holland:
    1) Pretty country. And yes, there are windmills and dykes.
    2) Everyone rides a bike. I’ve never seen so many bikes in my life. The funniest thing is that people get tickets for riding their bikes where they shouldn’t. Picture a cop giving a ticket to a woman on a bike with a baby in the “back” seat.
    3) Be careful when you cross the street. Forget the cars - watch for the trolleys and bikes which are plentiful and go in both directions.
    4) Sex and Drugs, but not sleazy at all.
    5) A fun place to spend a night or two.

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    WOW! Kevin, thanks for the great trip report! I've heard many raves about Iceland, and about Iceland Air's prices and service, and you've convinced me that when I get myself to Amsterdam within the next year or two, I want to go via Iceland Air with a Rekjavik stopover. BTW, you're right about the 98% genetic "purity" of Icelanders; because of this, many scientists are conducting medical/geneetic research on the population.

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    Thanks for taking the time to write your trip report, Kevin. It was certainly interesting and the details are appreciated. Your philiosophy of travel is perfect, I think. I just got back from a week in Amsterdam with my 11 year old daughter, so naturally saw a few different things, but the out and out danger of the bikes and trams and the smell of marijuana on the streets brought it back! Reports like yours make this website really worthwhile.

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    An "adult" vacation is one that a couple takes on their own, seeing things that they wouldn't if they were busy being Mom and Dad. Spending time with other adults in bars or restaurants where children are not expected to be part of the scene. Having an opportunity to be treated as individuals instead of as Jenny's Mom and Dad. Sort of like going topless at a beach, or staying out until 3AM. Things you don't DO when you are on a family vacation.

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    Great report!
    My wife and I did a very similar trip last Spring, but only did the Iceland and Amsterdam portions. Like you we flew out of BWI and had very good experiences with Iceland Air.
    I would recommend getting a car in Iceland. We saw essentially the same places as the bus tour, but did it at our own pace. The roads are very well-marked and uncrowded. The only reasons to go to the shopping mall just up the hill from Hotel Esja are to buy tee-shirts at the Hard Rock Cafe to bring back as souvenirs for teenagers and to get picnic supplies at the very good super market. (Buy lots of delicious salmon and eat it 3 meals a day!)

    Amsterdam is fantastic! Very beautiful and photogenic (get a shot of the canals at night!), and wonderful people - friendly, funny, and very "real". We did the opposite of you in the sex and drugs department. We skipped the RLD (I had already seen it many years before), but partook of the very fine merchandise at a neighborhood "coffee shop" and relived those decadent experiences of our long-ago college days. For anyone who has fond memories of such activities, give it a try. I GUARANTEE that it will make the van Gogh Museum even more magical than it otherwise would be. In fact, just walking along the canals with a mild buzz is an extraordinary experience.

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    >Why are you thanking Mr. Mathews for
    >taking an "adult vacation"?

    For not inflicting "three children ages 3, 5, and 6" on the rest of the travelers. I love kids dearly (my own included), but they should be at least 9 or 10 years old before they go along on a European vacation that involves hotels and restaurants. (Renting a villa, on the other hand, would be fine if the kids survived the flight over and back.)

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