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 to there, everything was smooth sailing. Viking takes care of all of the airline arrangements when you book 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.
With Business Class, you get to go to the priority bag check line, which in this case wasn’t so prioritized. A large family with children was ahead of us also trying to check a dog in a crate, and there appeared to be lots of paperwork and confusion on the part of the KLM agent. But all good things to those that wait. Once we got to security, there was the massively long line for the regular folks and a stark empty line for TSA pre-checked folks (us) so once again…we sailed right through without a wait.
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. We got a glass of rosé and a tiny bite to eat (we knew we were going to be getting a full meal in Business Class). Amazingly, there were no delays and we boarded right on time, if not a bit early.
Let me say that if you have never flown Business Class, especially on a red-eye international flight, you are definitely missing out. Besides all of the little perks and the first class service, the ability to lay flat and actually sleep makes a world of difference. Red-eye flights are rough…you are jet lagged, you can’t really get in a comfortable position to sleep, you arrive feeling groggy and stale…all I can say is that Business Class is the opposite. We had nice blankets and pillows, they literally turned the lights out so it was nice and dark, and about an hour and a half before arrival, they woke us up with juices and coffees and then a nice breakfast. We arrived feeling charged and ready to see Amsterdam!
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 Viking placard. She took us to a seating area and said she would return shortly…so we got a coffee and waited. 15 minutes later, she was back and escorted us to our valet who drove us the 20 minute ride to the hotel in a comfortable Mercedes sedan. 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 what we got.
Viking put us up in the Hyatt Regency, at a nice hotel located near the University. 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 has a nice vibe….and is decorated with a botanical sort of them. Green walls, and elevators, hallways and rooms 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. She was impressed that we had booked several of our own special 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. Quite different from the heat wave 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, but you can’t really grasp how many bikes there are until you’ve experienced it yourself. They are everywhere, coming and going in all directions, and they are 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 the City.
Besides avoiding being run down by the street cars, you have to be 100% aware of the cyclists at all times. They will mow you down without hesitation, despite how innocent they all look. With a few exceptions, the cyclists are all exceedingly attractive people of all ages–from they very young to the very old–and 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 fancy or sleek. Apparently, bike theft is so common that no one commutes around with anything other than one of these vintage clunkers. But it doesn’t really matter because the riders are all effortlessly chic and cool. Absolutely none of them wear helmets….rather, they pedal by, chatting on their cell phone, 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 Americans. Josette and I ride our bikes in New York City, and most people wear helmets, but ALL children wear helmets….otherwise you invoke scorn by everyone around you for the improper parenting. But it seems to work for the folks of Amsterdam, so no judgements from me.
We stopped for a quick lunch and continued to walk along the canals towards the oldest part of the City. The canals were built-in a sort of ring that fans out….the oldest are close to the water (where the sea comes in) and the more recent (relatively speaking) are on the outside rings. All were man made with a system of trees piled into the sandy, swampy ground. It makes Amsterdam very unique and sort of quirky.
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 but tall structures. And for various structural reasons, building facades with light weight materials and installing large windows to reduce weight was the norm. They say that no two houses in Amsterdam look the same….they 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 do and I will. So far, the Dutch are wonderful people. Everyone seems to speak English without hesitation (and with a super clear accent), they are friendly and direct without the aloofness or stuffiness of Brits. But they are also NOT over-friendly and assuming like Americans. They are also not as unnecessarily formal as the French (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…we passed by very interesting, modern and sleek architecture outside of the airport and the old City is robust with character and quaintness. The canals make it unique. Outside of the oldest parts of the 16th and 17th century architecture, a lot of what we have seen reminds me of London, which makes sense as England it just across the Sea.
Before we came, 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. We smell more pot on the streets in New York than we have in Amsterdam. And FYI, no, we have no intention of visiting a coffee shop. We’ve both sowed 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, we love it here. 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. 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 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 hit us a bit 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 Day
Josette has a knack for finding really unique tours, probably the most memorable being two summers ago with a boat tour from Marseilles to see the Calanques where we jumped into the Mediterranean Sea and swam through a minuscule hole into a cave. 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 wanted to make deals in secret would get on our boat and go out in the canals…and of course when you are making such deals, you might want to enjoy a stiff drink.
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 on tours…but their boats weren’t nearly as pretty 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?” and 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.
The entire tour we passed couples sitting on the canal walls enjoying one another’s company, drinking a beer, 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 a normally continuous thing. So everyone was out taking advantage of the weather. [ Side note: Hello, Climate Change Deniers!! Wake up! The weather is changing all over the world].
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 long summer days and very long winter nights.
With that, we walked back to our hotel, climbed into bed and literally slept like bricks.
Tomorrow morning, 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!