TRIP REPORT THE NETHERLANDS
In September 2017 my husband and I spent three weeks traveling in the Netherlands, with a couple of days’ dip into Dunkirk, France and Ypres, Belgium. Many thanks to Fodorites who helped us plan it. Here was our itinerary:
Sept. 12: Depart Providence RI
Sept. 17: Enkhuizen
Sept. 18-19: Texel Island
Sept. 20-21: Delft, The Hague
Sept. 22-24: Rotterdam
Sept. 25: Vlissingen
Sept. 26: Dunkirk, France
Sept. 27: Ypres, Belgium
Sept. 28: Otterlo (for Kroller Muller Museum)
Sept. 29-30: Utrecht
Oct. 1: Hoofddorp near airport
Oct. 2: Depart Amsterdam
In my planning, I had some trouble finding first-hand info from travelers on some of the places we were going, and I realized that not many Americans spend three weeks in a country a third the size of Pennsylvania! Still, the more I researched, the more I found that we wanted to explore. We had intended to bike some, but decided it slowed down our adventures too much. As you will see from this report, sometimes we were doing three and four significant things a day. We thought our trip was a wonderful combination of art, intellect, seaside, countryside and city. After Amsterdam, we rented a car for the next 15 days, though we only used it during 10 of those. But it made it easier to see Texel, Dunkirk, Ypres and the Kroller-Muller Museum.
SEPT 12: DEPARTURE
First trip surprise: on our American Airlines flight to Amsterdam there was no plug-in at our seats for phones. My books were all on my gigantic iphone. No in-seat entertainment either. Welcome to American’s old 757 planes. No wonder it was so easy to get frequent flyer seats!
SEPT 13: AMSTERDAM & VAN GOGH
At the Amsterdam airport, we tried to buy a train ticket to the Central Station from a machine but we couldn't get it to take our credit card. We finally found a human ticket agent who said you can't use the machines if you don't have a pin for your card. Aargh. We vaguely recalling asking the bank for a pin number after we’d run into the same problem in Sicily but of course we couldn’t remember what the pin is! We took the train to the Amsterdam Central Station in about 15 minutes. Then we got off and SHOULD have taken a taxi to the hotel. But we decided to give the metro a try.
Outside the station we found a metro person in a ticket house who said our hotel, the Intercontinental, was three stops away. We went back into the station, got on in a few minutes, got off at the right stop and asked a worker which way the Intercontinental was. He didn't know couldn't seem to read our printed map, and pointed us — as it turned out — in the wrong direction. The Intercontinental is half a block from this metro entrance. We walked six blocks the other way before it started raining and I turned on my phone gps. We quickly found the hotel, which no one in Amsterdam calls the Intercontinental. They call it the Amstel Hotel. But we were glad to have figured out the metro, which we would use often.
At the Intercontinental, the gracious check-in person told us lots about the hotel as he walked us to our room. He noted that the hallways were so wide because when the hotel was built, women's dresses were very wide. He said that because the hotel was being renovated for its 150th birthday, some of the rooms’ windows were blocked by scaffolding. So he had given us a two-room junior suite to make up for the compromised view. We were staying there on our free credit-card night (if you have an IHG credit card you get one free night a year at any Intercontinental in the world, great benefit!) plus another night on points. Later, I read on TripAdvisor that people were being offered a river view room for an extra 30-50 euros a night (same deal as the Hong King Intercontinental harborfront rooms). The river is quite busy and interesting, we realized later, so that was probably a good offer. But we were happy with our two-room suite, which was luxuriously Old-World elegant. Everything in it was top-notch and ornate. Just a regular room was going for $500 a night at this point; I can't imagine how much the suites were.
I had made 3 pm reservations online a couple of weeks ago for the Van Gogh Museum, the largest collection of his paintings in the world and probably Amsterdam’s number-one sight. From Fodor Forum I figured out that if you're going to buy a Museumkaart — so that you can go into museums all over the Netherlands for the next 31 days for free — you can just make a time reservation at the VG without paying for tickets. You simply buy the Museumkaart at the first museum you go to, and you get into that one for “free” as well. So we took a nap in our posh bed, and then a taxi the mile or so to the Van Gogh. That cab ride was about $15; Uber is the cheaper method in the Netherlands.
We bought our Museumkaarts at the regular ticket booth and procured our Van Gogh tickets there as well; no line off-season. We bought the audio tours, which I would recommend. There was a free coat check and locker for our belongings; the same would prove true at most museums here. It took us a good 2-3 hours to go through the museum and still have time at the end for the fun museum shop. They ask you not to take pictures, and I think the reason is that they don't want to add to the problems of the usually mobbed museum. At some popular points, signs ask you to step aside once you've viewed the painting up close to make room for others to look. (The Potato Eaters was one). It was stunning to see all this beauty and to learn the story of Van Gogh’s tumultuous life.
After, we took a walk, looking for an early dinner. Bicyclists were everywhere; we had to learn that each intersection has stop and go lights for cars, bicyclists and walkers. Bikers come from everywhere so quickly! They are such confident riders. We liked the specials at the Small Talk cafe and so we took a table in the glassed-in front. My husband had goulash soup; I had the 3-fish salad on the specials board, with smoked eel, smoked salmon and tiny local shrimps on lettuce. It was magnificent and one of my favorite dishes in the entire trip. Smoked eel became our new thing. Our middle-aged waiter told us much of the eel comes from the IJsselmeer where we are heading after Amsterdam. He was one of several chatty Dutch men on this trip who would tell us he's divorced but still good friends with his wife. I never hear many American men say that!
We walked back to the hotel as the sun sank, detouring to the last canal of the canal ring, to make it more interesting. So many houseboats and such fanciful architecture on the narrow canal houses, like a fairy tale. In the canal, we saw a dinghy shaped like a wooden shoe. As we turned down along the wide Amstel River, we saw some kind of locks; we learned later they have something to do with letting water in from the IJsselmeer. At the hotel, we shared a dessert in the lounge: apple pie with real whipped cream. The piece was hugely tall, and the apples were stacked distinctly on top of each other. In the US, they would be all cooked mushily together. It was fabulous.
SEPT 14: AMSTERDAM, WWII and BIG SPLURGE DINING
I was enjoying this hotel’s lovely touches. Its elegant elevators have a velvet seat built in; I sat in it every time! In the lobby, we always tried some candy from a group of jars that encourage you to sample Dutch treats. One jar had pieces of stroopwaffle, for example; another had cherry hard candy. We took a cab ($20) to the Anne Frank House where we were supposed to meet Peter, our guide for “Amsterdam in WWII Walking Tour.” We were early, so we crossed the canal to the Tulip Museum to admire the pots of forced tulips outside the store. Nice to see some! We also went into The Cheese Museum, whatever that is. But the store had samples everywhere. I loved the aged goat cheese.
Peter was a wonderful guide to what life was like in the Netherlands during World War II. He enhanced the history with tales from his own family: The Germans demanded everybody's bikes for their own use, but were so regimented that they actually gave a receipt for the bike they seized from you. Peter had his uncle’s receipt. Peter had old pictures of, say, the current H&M store that used to be a Nazi recruiting station to send Dutch men to the Eastern Front. He also took us to a street where he showed us the pictures of the German army marching after the Dutch had surrendered. (It only took them five days to give up; they had a single tank.) He told us how on May 4, Remembrance Day, all of the Netherlands even now stops for two minutes of silence. On May 5, Liberation Day, they party! But Peter also sprinkled random info too; when we passed the Wester Kerk he told us that Rembrandt is buried there and lived on the next street. And we never would have visited the second-floor cafe that Peter took us to for coffee; we were fascinated to see that they had recycled old clothes into chairs.
After we said goodbye to Peter, we strolled back toward the hotel. It was raining, but we had umbrellas and rain jackets. We ended up having a light lunch at Lampecka cafe, across the street from the hotel. Soup, sausage plate, Italian almond tea, cappuccino. We had a table crammed into a corner at the window. It gave us a fine view of the traffic on the Amstel River, but even more interesting was seeing what Dutch bicyclists do in the rain. A few have on elaborate get-ups. But many have nothing to protect themselves. Some are holding an umbrella, talking on the phone AND bicycling. Back at the hotel, we took a jet-lag nap.
Then we were in a cab to De Silveren Spiegel (The Silver Mirror), our Big Splurge for Amsterdam. We reserved online weeks in advance. The elegant restaurant is in a circa-1600 house that you can’t help but notice leans. However, the white tablecloths, heavy beams, Delft tiles, huge old Dutch paintings and soft candlelight make for a romantic setting. The chef emphasizes local ingredients in his inventive Dutch and European dishes. Menus of 4, 5, 6 and 7 courses are offered. We ordered a 4 and a 5, each course paired with a glass of wine; one course was more beautiful than the next. The ingredients ranged from wild duck and local scallops to lamb neck and Zealand mussels.
It was still raining so instead of an after-diner stroll we hurried to the Central Station to take the metro. We bought our tickets from the machine; thank goodness we had finally remembered our credit card pin because there was no human at this hour to sell us a ticket. Back at the hotel I took a long bath in the eiegant bathroom’s huge bathtub; I was so tired I dropped the guidebook I was reading into the water!
SEPT 15: AMSTERDAM, DUTCH RESISTANCE and BOOM CHICAGO
We got up this morning to go to the venerable Rijksmuseum, tho the bed was so cozy we could have stayed in it forever. We had to pack because we were moving today a mile north, to the new Kimpton Dewitt up by the Central Station. When I booked in March, I could only find two nights on points at the Intercontinental; the weekend was booked five months in advance! This is the first Kimpton in Europe. The IHG has just renovated it from an old Crowne Plaza. It will be good to be more in the center of town, but we wanted to finish up seeing the sights down here.
We walked to the Rijksmuseum where we spent about two hours hitting all the highlights from Rembrandts to Vermeers. At a nearby cafe, The Keyser, we had lunch outdoors, a meatloaf sandwich and steak tartare.
From here we grabbed a cab to the Dutch Resistance Museum to get there by 3. We stayed til it closed at 5. I was surprised that a lot of it focused on the moral dilemmas faced by countries that are occupied by another government; as an American I had never spent much time thinking about that. We found it very interesting. Afterward, we went to the cafe next door; the museum had given us a coupon to use for a very tasty combo of apple pie and coffee.
We walked the .8 miles back to the Intercontinental, picked up our luggage and took the metro to the Central Station and the Kimpton. The hotel was modern and sleek, quite a shock after the Intercontinental. I had requested a room on an upper floor, meaning I wanted a view. The young woman behind the desk said instead we’d been instead given a “quiet” room, so she switched us to one with a partial city view. The room was perfectly comfortable tho nothing special (except we did get robes; I always love that). What we would end up liking best about this hotel is the location, the handy public spaces and the lively bar.
I had bought tickets online a few weeks ago to Boom Chicago, a comedy club in English. They have several shows but this one was billed as angry white men and Trump. It was at 9 pm. We used the complementary drink cards that the front desk had given us — because we arrived yesterday just as the daily free happy hour had ended — to have a pre-show drink at one of the hotel bars. Our concierge told us how to take the tram to the club, which we caught just down the street from the hotel. We each had a glass of wine at our seats; some people were having food as well. The two comedians were 30-something ex-pats who live here and have kids. They were quite funny, but I'd been hoping to get a more Amsterdam or European view of the world and it was more like SNL. And Trump’s actions are often so unbelievable he's almost difficult to make fun of.
We were sitting next to a girl from Michigan and her Dutch beau. The pair met on a G Adventure trip to Thailand that they had each gone on by themselves. She said it is quite common for singles to go on group trips with other 20-somethings that they don't know. Now she has moved to Holland and works as an au pair. She likes it but she is quite homesick now. She said she knows the beau will never leave the Netherlands. She said marriage is very low-key here; there is little family pressure to get married, even when you have children. Have you seen any bridal shops here, she asked me. No I haven't! The beau has never even been to a wedding and she's been a bridesmaid 7 times. She's 28. An interesting slice of life here!
After the show we realized we'd like something to eat but everything was closing. Then we headed down into the Red Light District and everything was open! We settled into a semi-greasy spoon at 11:30 called The All Stars Steakhouse. I had a couple of sausages and a salad and fries and Chris had a sandwich and fries. It was decent.
SEPT 16: AMSTERDAM: PANCAKES, SECRET CHURCH, CRUISE
We strolled over to Pancakes Amsterdam on the river for breakfast. A line of 10 people was out the door, but it only took about 20 minutes for us to get in. The pancakes were huge and so varied. My husband had one with pear and cheese and I had a prosciutto and camembert; we liked his simpler one better. My hot chocolate was crowned with a huge puff of whipped cream and a stroopwaffel. It was fun looking at what everyone ordered.
We walked off breakfast by finding the Oude Kerk, whose 13th-century impressiveness was enhanced by an art exhibit involving shiny gold blankets spread out over the floor areas. But we really liked going to the “Our Lord in the Attic” (Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder). It’s a secret Catholic Church hidden inside an ordinary canal house. When the Protestants took over in the 1600s, they were tolerant enough to allow the Catholics to practice but services had to be discreet. Hence, hidden churches, including this one that was preserved as a museum. When you see a four-story church including a soaring ceiling over the altar tucked inside an ordinary house, you begin to understand how Jews and Resistors could be hidden away in canal houses for so long. The tour is self-guided with headphones, quite informative.
We figured we had justified the expense of our Museumkaart already!
It wasn’t even sprinkling for a change, so we had a drink in an outdoor bar overlooking a canal near the red light district and watched the boats go by. We decided we’d like to take a canal cruise on a boat that was open rather than having a roof. We found one in front of the St. Nicholas Church across the water from the Central Station. It was a little more expensive — $25 — but included two glasses of wine. A Coast Guard-type student named Colin was driving the boat and was full of good info, right down to what each prostitute pays to be in a window ($150) and a sketchy study of how many times a week the red light gals actually have intercourse (not many — guys are either too drunk or too scared)! Two young Swiss couples were with us and the guys were so stoned they could barely function.
For dinner we went to Dwaze Zaken, across from Pancakes Amsterdam, because they had cheese fondue, my favorite. Goat cheese, even. My fondue, which I could order for 1 person (unusual in the U.S.), came with a big plate of broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, celery, zucchini, cukes and seeded brown bread. Waiter says fondue is not terribly common in the Netherlands, but we would run into it a few more times on this trip. My husband’s vegetarian curry was just average. We both had a Double Blonde Kleiburg beer, which was like an amber but a bit sweeter. The restaurant had great windows on the busy street leading into red light district, excellent for people watching.
We walked around a bit and then went back to the hotel bar and used our free-drink coupon that the hotel provides with each reservation. The bartender, besides making an awesome Moscow Mule, was quite chatty about being a millennial in Amsterdam. He had traveled quite a bit and dazzled us with his phone photos of Guilin in China.
More to come!
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TRIP REPORT THE NETHERLANDS