Finally, after months of anticipation, our summer trip to Europe has begun!
Traffic to JFK airport was a nightmare, but then again, it always is. At least once we got there, everything was fairly smooth sailing. Luckily for us, Viking took care of all of the airline arrangements when we booked the river cruise, so you only have to decide if you are flying economy or Business Class. This year, we are doing everything top-notch, so we chose Business Class. We were fortunate that we got a great direct flight from New York to Amsterdam, but fair warning, we have read blogs and reviews that if you aren’t flying business class, Viking will often put you on several different connecting flights making air travel less than a nice experience.
With Business Class, you go to the priority bag check line, which in this case wasn’t so prioritized. A large family with several unruly children was ahead of us trying to check in….WITH an unhappy, barking dog in a crate. There appeared to be lots of paperwork for the family to fill out and an equal amount of confusion on the part of the KLM agent. But all good things to those that wait. Once we got to the security line, where there was a massively long line for the “regular” folks, we were able to bypass it all and go through the empty TSA pre-checked line without a wait. If you travel even a few times a year, especially internationally, it is totally worth it to get the TSA pre-check and the Global Entry is great for your return home.
We made our way to the Delta Sky Lounge to hang out until boarding. Delta is the US partner of KLM (our Dutch airline). As far as these lounges go, this was pretty nice, but also pretty crowded. We got a glass of rosé and a tiny bite to eat (we knew we were going to be getting a full meal on the plane). Amazingly, there were no delays with our flight and we boarded right on time, if not a bit early.
Twenty some odd years ago, when I flew to Boston for some job interviews, flying was a different experience. There was still some level of dignity to it. Those were the days before high security…when your family could walk you to the gate to say goodbye, and seats were more comfortable and the whole experience was actually plesant. They also didn’t oversell flights, in fact, I recall several flights when I had a few seats to myself and you coud stretch out in coach and sleep!
Well, in 2018, air travel is a different story. From the minute you enter the airport to the minute you land at your destination, it is essentially a miserable experience in which you are herdied from one line to another. You have to squeeze into a tight seat on an always “full flight”, with absolutely no leg room, while passengers knock you as they try to stuff the overhead bins with their carry-on luggage to avoid additional fees and/or having their bag lost. And then there are the delays after delays for uknown reasons…where you are thanked for the patience that you lost hours ago.
Things are different for those up front in business class. Beyond that curtain or partition that you see at the front of the plane, it’s a different world. If you have never flown business class, especially on a red-eye international flight, you don’t know what you are missing. Besides entering and leaving with all of your dignity, and being treated with the utmost respect, there are a thousand little perks and advantages. As soon as you sit down, you are offered a warm towel and a drink… you have plenty of room to organize your bags….it’s all quite relaxed and civil. You are given menus to choose what you might want to eat and drink during the flight….there seem to be 2 or 3 attendants taking care of you, making sure you are super comfortable. I mean, the first class service is great, but just being able to lay flat, with a comfy blanket and soft pillow and actually get some sleep makes a world of difference when you arrive. On our flight, after our dinner and dessert, they literally turned the lights out so that it was nice and dark, and about an hour and a half before arrival, they woke us up with juices and coffees and a nice, warm breakfast. We arrived feeling charged and ready to see Amsterdam!
Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was pleasant enough….very clean, efficient, modern and organized. After a quick stop at the Immigration counter, we grabbed our luggage and a nice, young lady was waiting in the Arrival section with the red Viking placard. She took us to a seating area nearby said she would return shortly…so we got a coffee and waited. As she said, 15 minutes later, she was back and escorted us to our valet who brought us to a nice Mercedes sedan and made the roughly 20 minute drive to our hotel. I have to say, I had expected to be put on a hotel shuttle bus with a group of other Viking travelers, which would have been totally fine…but we were pleased with the first-rate chauffeur service.
Viking put us up in the Hyatt Regency, a nice, modern hotel located near the University. We weren’t exactly in the center of it all, but everything you would want to see is no more than a 25 minute walk, so it’s perfect, and I actually prefer to not be right in the center of the City with the noise and crowds. The hotel had a nice vibe….and is decorated with a botanical theme. Green walls (literally–with plants), and elevators and hallways celebrating tulip bulbs. As with everywhere in Europe, the decor of the room is modern and the bathroom is sleek…all very comfy.
After we relaxed and freshened up, we went downstairs to the Viking concierge to say hello. The staff took us over to a seating area and presented us with a welcome letter, went over the logistics of getting to the boat on Friday and showed us a map of Amsterdam and pointed out all of the things we might want to see. The Viking rep was impressed that we had booked several of our own tours, one of which was a private canal tour that we would be enjoying later in the evening.
We set out in the absolutely glorious weather. It was about 75 degrees with NO humidity and a nice breeze. This was quite different from the heat wave that we had left back in New York, with temperatures around 98 and high humidity. We didn’t really have a destination…we just headed towards the historic center.
Bikes, bikes and more bikes!
So, I think everyone knows that there are a lot of bikes in Amsterdam. When you see the folks pedaling around the lanes and canals on TV shows or movies, it seems so quaint, but you can’t really grasp how many bicycles there are and how overwhelming it is until you’ve experienced it yourself. No exaggeration, they are everywhere, coming and going in all directions, and they are for sure the Alpha mode of transport. Our valet from the airport called them “terrorists”…which sounds amusing until you try to navigate the tiny sidewalks as they zoom past you. You definitely see more bikes than cars…one of tour guides said that there are over 1.2 million active bicycles in Amsterdam. In most places, including New York, pedestrians are at the top of the roadway pyramid…they always have the right of way….then there are the cars….then the bicycles. In Amsterdam, it’s the flip side. Bicycles rule.
Besides avoiding being run down by bicyclists, you also have to be cautious of the street cars, which also seem to have their own meandering/zig zagging tracks that don’t parallel the roadways. Everything seems to want to mow you down without hesitation, despite how quaint it all looks. With a few exceptions, the cyclists are all exceedingly attractive people of all ages–from they very young to the very old– they sit proudly on their vintage-style bikes, most of which are a bit rough around the edges and typically fitted with some sort of basket or crate, but never overly fancy or sleek. Apparently, bike theft is so common that no one commutes around with anything other than one of these vintage clunkers (but they often have at least one other “nice” bike for going further afield). But it doesn’t really matter how clunky the bikes are….the Dutch riders are all effortlessly chic and cool. Sunglasses on and a scarf billowing in the breeze…and absolutely none of them wearing helmets. Rather, they pedal by, chatting on their cell phones, or texting, or just on their way to meet some friends for drinks by the canal.
That being said, the number of very small children sitting on the front handlebars of their mother’s bike would induce panic attacks amongst many Americans. Josette and I ride our bikes in New York City, and most people wear helmets, but what is certain is that ALL children wear helmets….otherwise you invoke scorn by everyone around you for improper parenting. But I am going to withold judgement….it seems to work for the folks of Amsterdam.
We stopped for a quick lunch, got our bearings, and then continued to walk along the canals towards the oldest part of the City. Without getting into any detail, the canals were built-in a sort of ring that fans out….the oldest are close to the harbor, where the sea meets Amsterdam, and the more recent rings (relatively speaking) are on the outside. All of the habitable rings were man-made with a system of trees piled into the sandy, swampy ground. Venice might have a similar story, but Amsterdam exists in its own very unique and quirky position.
Obviously, the most quintessential hallmarks of Amsterdam are the rows of houses along the canals. Historically, the houses were taxed based on the width, so people built narrow, and tall structures. And for various structural reasons, building facades with lightweight materials and installing large windows to reduce weight was the norm. They say that no two houses in Amsterdam look the same….they definitely all have unique facades and gables.
It’s not fair to make a quick opinion about a city you’ve only just arrived in, or its citizens, but I always do and I will in this case. So far, and as expected, the Dutch are pretty cool people. Everyone seems to speak English without hesitation (and with a super clear accent), they are friendly and direct but with none of the smiling, overly friendly and presumptuousness of Americans. They are also not as unnecessarily formal as the French or British (and I say that with all respect, as France is still my favorite place in the world). They are polite and helpful and exceedingly tall and good-looking people. Everyone seems to have launched from the same winning gene pool.
As far as the City itself….I would say it is quaint. We passed by very interesting, large, modern and sleek architecture outside of the airport and the old City is robust with character and history. The canals obviously give make it a unique place. Outside of the oldest parts of the 16th and 17th century architecture, a lot of the structures remind me of what we’ve seen in London (which makes sense as England it just across the North Sea, to the west).
Before we came to Amsterdam, literally everyone asked if we were going to visit a “coffee shop” (wink wink), and yes, we’ve run across several “coffee” shops (where you can buy and smoke pot) but we have found that besides in the red light district, they are scattered about and blend in with the rest of everything else….I think travel guides make way more of them than necessary. To be perfectly honest, we smell more pot on the streets of New York than we have in Amsterdam. And FYI, no, we have no intention of visiting a coffee shop. We’ve both sowed our wild oats 25 years ago….we don’t smoke pot in New York, so we have no intention of doing so in Amsterdam. But pot aside, so far, Amsterdam has a great vibe. The City center isn’t small by any means, but compared to Paris, London or Rome, it is perfectly sized to allow walking or taking short tram rides to wherever you want to go.
Eventually, we made it to Dam Square….which is historically an important square with the Palace fronting it, but we found it completely over run with tourists and a bit too Times Square-like to enjoy it–there were the horse drawn carriage rides for rent and there is even a Madam Toussads flanking one side. We did manage to stop in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) which by American standards is very old….consecrated in 1409. This is probably a generality, but the Dutch aren’t particularly religious, as a whole, and in fact, this church is no longer even used as a church…it’s an exhibition center, but the bones of the place are still interesting to survey.
As is typical on the first full day in Europe, jet lag started to creep into our brains and we were getting slower and slower and less interested in sight seeing…plus Josette had made arrangements for a private canal tour for later in the evening, so we wanted to rest up before that. We went back to the hotel to shut our eyes for what we said would be 20 or 30 minutes. But 2 hours and several snoozes later, we woke up to get ready for the canal tour.
Later That Evening…
Josette has a knack for finding really unique tours, probably the most memorable being two summers ago when we took a boat tour from Marseilles to see the Calanques where we jumped into the Mediterranean Sea and swam through a minuscule hole into a blue cave. It was insane but something I won’t forget. This year’s tour wasn’t quite that exciting, but was very special. She booked a private boat that took us around the canals…the boat was also stocked with a full bar and provided us with a nice spread of food. Apparently, our little boat was built in the 1920’s, and politicians who didn’t want to be overheard with their deal making would hop on a little boat (like ours) and go out into the canals to have a private discussion…and of course when you are making such deals, you might want to enjoy a stiff drink, hence the bar.
We had pre-chosen the type of food we wanted…I selected seafood….and they gave us lobster salad, smoked salmon, crab meat, oysters, shrimp, calamari….as well as some asian style spring rolls and a few Dutch treats such as the Bitterballen…the round ball you see in the upper right part of the photo.
We enjoyed a bottle of rosé, which may be an insult to the Dutch with all of their famous beers such as Heineken, Amstel, and Grolsch, not to mention a hundred other small and craft brands. We may choose to dabble in more beer when we get into Germany or Austria, but for tonight we stuck with wine. We glided along the canals and sipped our wine enjoying the beautiful architecture and the gorgeous light of the sun. We passed hundreds of other boats with 20+ passengers…but the other boats weren’t nearly as pretty or charming and having our own private tour guide on our own private boat made for a special evening. We were lucky enough to travel along a good part of the canals to get a great overview of the city.
One of the questions I asked our tour guide is “do the canals ever flood or dry up?” which is a pretty good question, I think. And surprisingly, the answer is no….at least not anytime recently. The Dutch are masters at controlling water…and with their elaborate system of sea walls and locks and dredging…they pretty much maintain the canals at a 3 foot depth.
Throughout the entire tour we passed couples sitting on the canal walls enjoying one another’s company, drinking a beer or having a picnic. Apparently, this was the second week of picture perfect weather (which we are happy to have been part of). Sunny skies and temps in the high 70’s is not normal and definitely not a persistant thing. So everyone in town seemed to be out taking advantage of the lovely weather.
And thus was the end of our first day in Amsterdam. We finished our tour at 10PM, and because we so far north in Europe, it was still very light outside….they have very long summer days and very long winter nights.
With that, we walked back to our hotel, climbed into bed and literally slept like bricks until the next morning.
Tomorrow , we will meet our fellow Viking travelers for a walking tour through Amsterdam and then we plan to do more sightseeing on our own, including a tour of the Anne Frank house.
Until then….Happy 4th of July!