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Trip Report Trip report on Northern Europe with a Toddler

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I recently returned from one of the longest and most enjoyable vacations I have ever taken. My wife, son and I visited five countries over the course of 3 ½ weeks by renting cars twice and taking several trains. The itinerary was based generally on places we wanted to visit but was specifically arranged to account for airline tickets purchased with miles and was designed to cover as many Starwood properties as possible in north/central Europe as we were taking advantage of various SPG promotions and points.

We departed from Newark on August 20, 2010, flying Continental first/business class. This was only the second time in my life I have flown in a first class where the passenger can lie entirely flat. The service was very attentive and the lobster and champagne kept flowing. Our 2 ½ year old son passed out about ten minutes after takeoff and slept for virtually the entire flight. We had some problems with a bag that we left behind upon arrival in the very modern but very overheated Oslo airport, but aside from that everything was easy and soon enough we took off in our Avis rental car and drove towards Oslo. We checked into our hotel, the Parc Hotel Rica, which was situated in Holmenkollen area near the top of a hill which has a big ski-jump.

The Norwegians are upgrading the ski jump so there was a lot of construction going on in the area. The hotel room was ok with nice wood paneling but was relatively small and an attempt at an early nap did not work out. We walked a little bit down the hill to a local restaurant which was apparently setting up for a wedding but which was able to serve us some tasty but rather expensive sandwiches. After lunch we headed back to the hotel and drove into Oslo. After some initial confusion about where to go, and what the parking regulations were, we parked the car near the train station, got our little guy some McNuggets from the McDonalds at the train station and walked along the main pedestrian street. The first segment of the street was lined with touristy shops and was nothing special, but after the crest of the hill, it grew more charming with a very nice park flanked by grand hotels and official buildings. This was a lively area and there was a jazz performance in the park with quite a lot of activity all about. We headed a few blocks over to the waterfront area where our son played in a sailboat-themed mini-playground and we enjoyed the view of the harbor at sunset. There were a lot of outdoor dining places at the waterfront and the weather was very pleasant. We walked back near the old fortress overlooking the harbor, through some more quaint neighborhoods and then back to the car.

Breakfast at the hotel was a delight, with one of the best buffets I have ever experienced. There was a lot of tasty smoked fish, fresh fruit and fresh-squeezed juices. We headed to the west of the city to visit an outdoor folk museum. It was a great day to be outside but the folk museum was a bit of a disappointment as there were very few people in costume and no craft demonstrations. There was some dancing, but is was not particularly impressive. Highlights included a horse carriage ride and a visit to an ancient stave church. We walked about ten minutes to the Viking ship museum which contains three ships in various states of preservation, along with numerous other artifacts recovered from the ships. Our son was not particularly interested in the ships, but he liked the sheep which were grazing nearby.

After a family nap in the car, we headed to Frogner Park, which is Oslo’s very impressive main park. Fascinating, and occasionally slightly disturbing, sculptures by Gustav Vigeland are concentrated at one end of the park and along a bridge in the middle. We had dinner at an outdoor restaurant in the park. The food was ok, but quite pricey. Oslo was definitely living up to its reputation as a very expensive city.

The next day, Monday, August 23, my son and I took a swim in the hotel pool after breakfast while my wife packed up. We enjoyed the spectacular bird’s eye view of the city and surrounding area from the front of the hotel (our room was in the back with a view of a wall). We drove to the airport, dropped off the car and relaxed in the business class lounge for awhile before our flight. We flew to Brussels and took the train from the airport to the hotel, which was a bit of a challenge with the large amount of luggage that we were carrying, plus kid and carseat. Fortunately our hotel in Brussels, the Le Meridian, is directly across from the main train station. The room at the Le Meridian was quite nice, a true suite with dormer windows overlooking the old town. At night we could see the main tower on the Grand Place lit up in a light show. After settling into the hotel, we headed out to the Grand Place and surrounding area. We had a semi-decent seafood dinner at La Moule Provencale, a place on Rue des Bouchers, the main restaurant street.

On Tuesday we had to fend for ourselves at breakfast time. We imagined that this home to waffles would be a great place for breakfast, but evidently waffles are more of a later-in-the-day thing in Belgium, so we wandered around for a bit before picking up some pastries and eating them in a nearby park. We were looking for a park with a playground, so we continued up a surprisingly steep hill to the park near the palace, which had a nice playground where our son played with kids wearing various uniforms from their respective preschools. After some time at the playground, we headed through the park, where a music festival was taking place which attracted people significantly older than us. We checked out the monumental area around the royal palace, which had some museums which would have been of interest if we did not have a toddler with us. We relaxed for a bit in the very pleasant Park Sablon and took in a view of the city from a nearby high point near the main court building before making our way back to the hotel, stopping for some very tasty sandwiches along the way.

After a nap at the hotel, my high school friend Eric, who currently lives in Luxembourg, came by to visit us. We headed over to the Grand Place, where we enjoyed a sampling of Belgian beers at one of the cafes. We wandered around for a bit after that, checking out the “Mannekin Pis” and other sites, and then my wife and son headed back to the hotel. Eric and I had dinner at Leon, an outdoor restaurant on the main restaurant street, Rue des Bouchers, which served excellent mussels.

On Wednesday we took a train to Bruges. My son was not very well behaved on the train so it was a bit stressful. Bruges was very crowded with tourists, which made it somewhat difficult to appreciate the charming atmosphere of the town. There was a market in the main square so we bought some bread, cheese and other tidbits for a picnic lunch. We found a nice park with a playground and let our son burn off some steam while we chatted with a family from Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania, near where we used to live. The playground did the trick and our little guy soon passed out in his stroller, so we were able to explore the Memling museum, which is an interesting little place where you can carry a folding seat around with you to better contemplate the artworks. The trip back to Brussels was much more pleasant than the outbound trip and we just grabbed some Greek food from a place near the hotel for dinner.

We took the Thalys train to Amsterdam on Thursday. Although Thalys is an express train, it did not pick up impressive speed until we crossed the border into the Netherlands. Our plans to walk from the train station to the hotel were thwarted by rain, so we took a short but expensive taxi ride. Our room at the Hotel Pulitzer was not yet ready, but we met up with our friend David, who had just arrived at the hotel and we checked out his room. The Pulitzer is made of a block of connected historic townhouses, and many of the rooms are therefore unique. When our room became available it was very impressive – a huge suite which was almost as big as my Manhattan apartment. Supposedly George Clooney stayed at the suite while filming Oceans 12 and perhaps a scene in the movie was filmed there as well (I need to rent it). The rain stopped while we had lunch at nearby Sara’s Pancakes, where we ate what were essentially crepe pizzas – very tasty. Next it was a tour of the red light district, with dozing toddler in stroller. The red light district is oddly charming, something only the Dutch could accomplish. We walked around for a bit and then had dinner at a so-so Tibetan place near the Leidesplein.

One of the many great things about the Hotel Pulitzer was its excellent buffet breakfast spread. As platinum Starwood members, the breakfast was included in the room rate (as was wi-fi). After a few courses of breakfast we headed to the Rijkmuseum, where there was a 20-minute line. The museum is undergoing construction, but a wing is open displaying the “greatest hits” including numerous Rembrants, Frans Hals, and a Vermeer or two. The iPad kept our son occupied so we were able to enjoy looking at the paintings without a problem – a situation that we were not always able to replicate as the trip progressed. We had a delicious Indonesian lunch nearby at Sama Sebo, which consisted of about twenty little plates of food.

Travelling with a small child requires laundry to be done frequently, which is prohibitively expensive at most hotels. Fortunately there was a launderette near the Pulitzer which did a large load for about 12 Euros. The hotel arranged for a babysitter for the evening so we went to see the Anne Frank house and then had a fine dinner at Lucius, a seafood restaurant on the Spuistraat.

On Saturday, we rented a car from Avis, located just to the west of the historic area. Within about five minutes of picking up our Ford C-Max four door sedan, I was pulled over by the police. Evidently I was driving in a taxi/trolley only lane – whoops! Fortunately there was just a stern look and no ticket. We drove to nearby Haarlem, and parked near the town’s historic windmill. The main square had a market, so we bought some bread, chesses and other tidbits for a picnic lunch near the canal. We really enjoyed Haarlem, in my opinion it combined the best of Amsterdam with the charm of the smaller towns in the region. That night we hired a babysitter again and had dinner at Proeverij 274. This was a very charming place on the canal near the Pulitzer. Unfortunately they mixed up our friend David’s order but otherwise the food was quite good.

On Sunday we packed up and checked out of the Pulitzer, dropped David off at the airport and drove to the Hague. The Hotel des Indes had excellent service, although the décor was a bit too 19th century bordello for my taste. There was a book/antique market in the park across the street but unfortunately it was raining so we continued on to the Mauritshuis museum. The Mauritshuis is in a very elegant small palace which contains an inordinate number of masterpieces, including Girl With a Pearl Earring and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. It also had an elevator with no interior door, which fascinated our little one almost as much as the trapezoidal elevator at the hotel. Lunch was at the most elegant Pizza Hut I have ever seen, with crystal chandeliers hanging from 20 foot ceilings adorned with rococo moldings. I assume this building used to contain something slightly more upscale than Pizza Hut in a previous incarnation. We walked around for awhile but most shops and restaurants were closed in this rainy Sunday in a government town, so we had an early bedtime in our very nice but highly over-decorated room.

On Monday we departed the Hague and stopped for breakfast in nearby Delft. At first I considered parking the car by a canal, but unlike Amsterdam there was no barrier at all between the road and the canal and I was not quite that confident in my parking skills to risk taking the car for a swim so we ended up parking a few blocks away near the train station. Delft was quite charming, but rather empty on a drizzly Monday morning. We explored the New Kirk (church) which contains the tombs of the House of Orange and stained glass windows celebrating the triumph of Holland over Spain in the Dutch war of independence. Unfortunately we could not spend much time in Delft as we had a long road trip ahead of us to get to Weimar, Germany.

The Ford C-Max that we rented was a fine little car but I would not recommend it as the first choice to take on the autobahn. Many times I was in fifth gear with the gas pedal pressed firmly to the floor, desperately trying to merge without committing suicide; meanwhile Audis, Mercedes and BMWs were whipping by in the passing lane in a blur as if I were not moving at all. The drive was surprisingly hilly and at times mountainous, which caused more than a little digestive trouble for our little passenger in the car seat. Suffice it to say that I would not want to be the next one to rent this car unless it gets a very, very thorough cleaning. Construction crews are everywhere expanding and repairing the autobahn. Angela Merkel is obviously spending a lot of stimulus money fixing up Germany’s superb roads, but somehow construction does not seem to cause significant backups as it always does at home.

The Hotel Elephant in Weimar upgraded us to a huge suite which may have been even larger than our George Clooney suite in Amsterdam. This suite was filled with pictures of Lili Palmer, a German actress who filmed a movie about Goethe in Weimar. Goethe is the big home-town hero in this cultural Mecca, along with Schiller, Liszt and other 19th century Teutonic celebrities. Unfortunately I must have missed that class in college as I am rather uneducated about Goethe, Schiller & co. An excellent audio tour of the town was provided by the tourist office which narrated the sites of the town by means of a humorous (and sometimes bitchy) dialog between Goethe and Schiller. Our attempt to learn more at the Goethe museum did not pan out as we had hoped due to the lack of any English explanation and a broken elevator which prevented a stroller tour. The museum did not refuse to give us a refund, but simply could not figure out how to do it on the credit card. I have to remember to dispute that charge.

Well, even if we never quite figured out the whole Goethe thing it was a very pleasant town in which to stroll around, nibble on bratwurst and sip some excellent local beer. We did some laundry at an unnecessarily complicated coin-op launderette which we never would have figured out until a friendly local with a “Brooklyn” sweatshirt explained the ten-step process to us.

The Hotel Elephant had a fine breakfast spread, although not quite as fantastic as the Pulitzer. The breakfast had a level of formality which, even for Northern Europe, was a bit intense for me to deal with first thing in the morning. There were no other noisy children about and most of the guests seemed to be university professors speaking in very hushed tones while wearing cashmere sweaters carefully placed over the shoulders, just so.

Goethe-mania has clearly pumped a lot of Euros into this former East-German town and most everything is quite spiffy and first-world. However, the service at times still has a bit of a Soviet edge to it and certain things have not been fully upgraded to western standards. For example, during a visit to the park we checked out the playground, as we tend to do. The playground primarily consisted of a few irregular gray cement blocks, one of which had a tattered rope running through it. Welcome to Stalin-World, kids!

After two nights in Weimar, we got on the road again and headed to Munich on Wednesday, September 1. The Le Meridian Hotel was located near the main train station and the area was a bit gritty. The hotel itself was ok, but breakfast was not included and wi-fi was only available in the lobby, and even then an unnecessarily complex password process had to be re-done each time by the sometimes overwhelmed front desk staff. We headed to the historic center and had a very good schnitzel, beer and pretzel lunch at the Augustiner beer garden. We wandered around the various pedestrian streets, checking out the sites and window shopping. Our little one had a great time in the gardens of the palace, interfering in bocce-ball games, tossing gravel into fountains and generally causing trouble in ways that well-behaved German kids would never dream of. Later in the evening, we briefly checked out the cavernous Hofbrau house but just grabbed some falafel and headed back as our little one was fading and could not handle another big protracted meal.

On Thursday morning we had breakfast outdoors at the victuals market. Since it was after 10:00 a.m. it was time for a beer (well, it is Munich) along with the mandatory sausage and giant pretzel. We spent some time wandering around the hundreds of fantastically ornate rooms of the former Bavarian Royal Palace (Residenzmuseum) and then plopped down in the English Gardens, which is the giant central park of Munich. Nude sunbathers abound in this park and they like to stroll around, stretch and do all sorts of other completely uninhibited things. Fortunately our little guy did not seem to notice the lack of clothing on many of his fellow sunbathers, as he was more intent on terrorizing the geese and other nearby birds. We continued to the center of the park where there is a huge Chinese pagoda and a vast beer garden. As with many of these beer gardens there was a playground attached, and our little guy ran around kicking soccer balls with the locals while we attempted to digest yet another beer, bratwurst and giant pretzel carb-overload.

The next morning I took the little one for a swim in the very warm indoor pool at the hotel before we hit the road again. The drive to Salzberg was quite scenic and took less than two hours, including a stop to buy an Austrian highway sticker for the windshield. The Sheraton Salzberg was located near the Mirabel Gardens, slightly out of the historic center. The club lounge at the Sheraton was so good that we hardly ate anywhere else during our stay – we needed a break from schnitzel and bratwurst anyway. In addition to a wide selection of good food at all hours, there were two beers on tap, many other bottled beers and wines, and an array of other beverages. The only downside to the Sheraton was that, like all continental hotels, the room was over-heated so we had to keep the windows open. This was a problem since there was a Lomborghini rally in town and at one point four of these somewhat pricey vehicles were revving their engines right under our window. The next night we moved to the other side of the hotel, but it turned out there was some kind of loud wedding or other celebration in the outdoor restaurant under the windows on that side of the hotel which was just as bad as the revving engines.

Salzberg was wonderfully charming and we took the amusing audio tour from the tourist office (featuring a delightfully bitchy dialog between Mozart and the Price-Bishop who essentially built the town) which highlighted all of the major sites. The playground in the ornate Mirabel Gardens near the hotel played Mozart opera music for the kids to listen to as they scampered around on various potentially dangerous towers, see-saws and other fun but possibly injury-inducing things which could never exist in the US thanks to our ever-vigilant tort lawyers.

On Sunday we packed up and took a short drive into the mountains to spend one night at the Schloss Fuschl, a Starwood Luxury Collection property on a breathtakingly beautiful alpine lake. Our room had a little balcony with a fine view of the lake and surrounding mountains. The room itself was well appointed, if a tad McMansion in décor. The hotel has an extensive lakeside deck, although it was a bit too cool to lay out on a deck chair and the water was freezing. Numerous types of fish swam about in the crystal clear water, to the delight of our little guy.

Dinner was two lakes over at the Drachen Wand (Dragon Wand) in St. Lorenz. The scenery was spectacular as we drove around hairpin turns to this charming little inn. It took a little while to get served but fortunately there were two outdoor play areas to keep our son occupied while we waited for what turned out to be one of the better meals of the entire trip.

Monday we drove a few miles east to the Wolfgansee, a fantastically scenic alpine lake, and stopped at the lakeside town of St. Gilgen, home of Mozart’s in-laws. There is a gondola to the top of the mountain which I would love to take one day, but I did not think our little travel companion would be up for that on this trip, so instead we headed down to the lakeside and let him scamper around in the playground. It was a beautiful day but unfortunately we could not stay for long, as our trip had reached its further south-east extent and it was time to head back to the north-east. We drove back past Munich, took in a portion of the Romantic Road and arrived in Rothenberg, Germany in the early evening.

In Rothenberg we checked into the 600 year old Golden Griffin hotel (our second non-Starwood of the trip). We had a good dinner at the hotel’s restaurant and did some exploration of the town before it was time for bed. The bed itself was not particularly comfortable and there was quite a bit of noise from the creaking of the ancient floorboards above and beside us. In the room was a print of the Girl With a Pearl Earring and we wondered if she was following us since the Hague.

In the morning the hotel washed and folded a substantial amount of our laundry for about 12 Euros. Breakfast, which primarily consisted of cold cuts, was a bit less lavish than some of the Starwood breakfasts we had enjoyed, but breakfast at least gave us the energy to… go out into the rain. Unfortunately it rained most of the day, but generally it was just drizzle. The town walls have a covered walkway, so we were able to stay high and dry while getting a bird’s eye view of the town. In the evening we had the three-course meal included in the hotel price, which was one of the least enjoyable meals of the trip. This was unexpected since dinner the previous night had been quite good. After dinner we took the excellent Night Watchman tour (also included in the hotel rate, but no problem to do it independently). The Night Watchman gave a very unique and amusing tour which really brought the medieval town to life.

The next morning we did some souvenir shopping - Rothberg is apparently world famous for Christmas ornaments and I also had to pick up a couple of beer steins. After some tasty Turkish kebob and some difficult backing out of the hotel’s very tight parking lot, we were back on the road. It took about three hours, in fairly heavy rain, to reach St. Goar on the Rhine valley. The Hotel Am Markt (our third and final non-Starwood hotel) is situated on the main square and we had a small room facing the river. Unfortunately the room also faced a green neon “Hotel” sign which glowed in the room even after we closed the curtains. Although less creaky than the Rothenberg hotel, there was plenty of noise from the street and the mattress was barely more than a cot. My son and I walked along the river about a kilometer or so, taking in the dramatic vistas of castles and terraced vineyards. We had a good fish dinner at the hotel restaurant and we enjoyed some nice Rhine wine. The restaurant staff were very nice to our son, providing him with toys, treats and entertainment.

The next day, Thursday September 9, we took a short cruise on the D-K line on the Rhine River from St. Goar to Bacharach, past the dramatic Loraley cliffs. The boat had a mini-playground on the top deck, much to the enjoyment of my son. The weather cleared up and we had a wonderful river cruise. Unfortunately, we were not able to spend much time in the charming medieval town of Bacharach before we had to get back on the boat, or wait a few hours for the next boat. We had lunch on the return boat, but had to gulp it down since the return trip is with the current and thus is almost twice as fast as the journey upriver. Upon our return to St. Goar, I climbed up a steep hill to the ruins of the gigantic Rhenfels Castle which towers above the town. The Rick Steves guidebook has a very good self-guided tour to these extensive and very impressive ruins. We had a final beer and schnitzel dinner at a pleasant beer garden by the riverside while our little guy played with the owner’s son.

On Friday we packed up the car and drove back to the Netherlands, dropping a couple of deep storage bags at the airport Sheraton and the remainder at the Pulitzer in downtown Amsterdam. We dropped the car off and checked into a much smaller room than what we had a couple of weeks before at the Pulitzer, but it would be nice to sleep on a firm mattress in a quiet room for a change. We headed back to Sara’s pancakes for more of the delicious pizza crepes. Although the food was very good, service was quite slow, which tried the patience of a certain two year old who had spent hours in the car. In the evening we got a babysitter and we went out to see the Van Gogh museum. Like many Amsterdam museums, the Van Gogh is open late on Fridays. We had dinner at an outdoor tapas place on the Spuistraat which was quite good.

There was some rain on Saturday morning so we lingered over the wonderful Pulitzer breakfast buffet and got a late start. I took my son to the Vondelpark, which is the central park of Amsterdam. He had a great time chasing the geese around until he slipped on some wet grass and fell into a shallow pond. He was fine but he was cold and shaken up, so we had to hurry back to the hotel to give him a bath. We went to the Jordaan neighborhood for lunch – we picked up some bread, cheese and quiche at an outdoor market and ate while watching some live music performed in a square in front of a church. Later, I headed out to the Amsterdam history museum, which I had to get through in a hurry as I had less than an hour until closing. As we found at the Van Gogh museum, the Dutch museum guards really do chase you out, herding people to the exit quite a bit before the museum technically closes. The museum was interesting, but the already complicated layout was made more complex by some renovations that were going on and I’m sure I missed a lot before I had to leave. I walked around a bit, checking out areas such as the flower market, the Rembrantplein, and the Mint Tower that I had missed previously. In the evening we got a babysitter one more time and had dinner at a French fish restaurant near the flower market. The food was fairly good but the restaurant was overheated to such an extent that we actually had to go outside for awhile between courses so we would not faint.

On Sunday we had a more successful trip to the Vondelpark and we found a wonderful outdoor café with extensive playground attached which we enjoyed for a couple of hours. In the evening, we went to the Jordaan neighborhood and had some Turkish food while watching a brief rainstorm followed by an incredible rainbow.

On Monday I took a canal tour in a small boat with only eight passengers. This was a highlight of the trip for me and we really were able to see many things that would not be possible in a larger boat. Unfortunately after the boat tour it was time to pack up and check out of the wonderful Hotel Pulitzer. We somehow managed to wheel all of our stuff, plus kid and carseat, about a mile to the train station. We caught a rather crowded train to the airport, where wee checked into the Sheraton, our seventh and final Starwood property on this trip. Kudos to the Schipol Airport Sheraton for excellent soundproofing – my son was transfixed watching dozens of planes take off at very close range, and we did not hear a sound at all. Also, the club lounge was very good, just a notch below the Salzberg Sheraton.

All good things must come to an end so the next morning we boarded our flight back to Newark. This time it was coach (apologies to the very patient woman sitting in the seat in front of our son). It was a great trip.

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