By: Georgette Diamandis
I recently visited the Netherlands in association with the NY400, marking the 400th anniversary of Englishman Henry Hudson’s voyage to North America. Hudson was in search of a northern route to the East Indies while working for the Dutch East India Company. And although his third and final attempt failed at finding the route, his effort was the reason New Amsterdam was established, what is known today as New York.
The KLM flight was pleasant and relatively quick (7 1/2 hours from New York) but seating on the older 747 was tight. However, the Dutch flight attendants are lovely and the food was actually some of the best I’ve ever had in coach. Also, right now, you can buy a round-trip ticket for under $600. Holland is extraordinary. Its old buildings, fashionable fit people riding bicycles everywhere, fabulous food and incredible museums make this place amazing. The weather held up while I was visiting (March) and although it was cool, it was sunny most of the time and it never rained. With the Iamsterdam card (38 euro for 24 hours includes free tram tickets, a canal ride and entrance to 27 museums) you’ll save a bundle, especially if you’re a voracious tourist like me.
THE GRAND HOTEL AMRATH AMSTERDAM
When I arrived, I slept for three hours in the morning since my room atThe Grand Hotel Amrath Amsterdam was ready at 9am. The Amrath Hotel is a unique five-star hotel in a former office building for shipping magnates. Built in 1913, its design is influenced mainly by the principles of Art Nouveau. The ceiling on the top floor is magnificent stained glass and depicts all the shipping routes of the world along with the stars the captains used for navigation. My room was immense. The ceilings were at least 18 feet tall and the 10-foot high curtains opened and closed with a remote control. The bed was a comfortable king, with six down pillows of various sizes. The antique room had modern amenities such as a flat screen TV and a Nescafe espresso machine. And guess what? The mini bar is free! Yes, you read me correctly. I met the owner and he said it was his son’s idea to have guests feel at home and not be charged for drinks at the end of their stay. I wish more five-star hotels understood how key this is when it comes to customer satisfaction. I slept off my jet lag and went down to the new wellness center and had a half hour massage (30 euro) and a dip in the pool and Jacuzzi. The steam room was large with psychedelic lights on the ceiling that changed colors and looked like a giant sunflower emerging from the steam. There were three saunas, lots of towels and several showers. The wellness Center and WiFi are free, plus there are three computers for guest use in the business center with free Internet. The breakfast was a buffet with everything you can imagine eating in the morning. Rates start at $179 euro.
TIP: Be sure to check out the old continuous paternoster elevator, left over from the old shipping office days. You have to jump on and off while it is moving!
WALKING TOUR OF AMSTERDAM
We had a fabulous guide, Yvonne Zumpolle, who toured us through some famous and infamous parts of Amsterdam. We went by some very old buildings, some dating back to the 14th century and received a crash course in Dutch history along the way. The Catholic religion was banned in Holland in the late 16th century and Catholics had to resort to practicing their religion in secret churches like Our Lord in the Attic, which is a real surprise on the top floor. The ornate and beautiful paintings and carvings make this secret church a must for serious art historians. We also toured through the red light district, which has working girls who are regulated by the government. It’s funny … you weren’t allowed to be a Catholic in Amsterdam at one time and now everything goes!
THERE’S A FLY IN MY SOUP
For dinner that night, we went to The Five Flies, a restaurant in a building dating back to the 17th century, named after the original owner whose nickname was Fly. The chefs here are dedicated to using organic food in rich European-style cooking.
THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT FROM CANALS
It was fun to go by the Red Light District in the salon boat at night and hear Captain Eric’s anecdotes and prices for sex! There was something Fellini-esque about the overwhelming number of white swans in the river outside of the prostitute’s windows. The boat is available for pick-up outside of Five Flies, or anywhere else easily accessible, and price information can be found on the website. We went by several “coffee houses,” which sell marijuana and other substances illegal in the States. I’m sure a lot of young and not-so-young Americans will go to Amsterdam for this purpose, but I can’t imagine walking around Amsterdam stoned without getting run over by bicycles! Everyone bikes and you tend to forget that the sidewalks are interspersed with two lane bike paths. Several times my colleagues saved my sober butt when I forgot to look both ways! You can easily rent a bike at many deposits around the town using a credit card for 8 euro per day.
VAMPIRE IN AMSTERDAM
One thing that really impressed me was the great care that has been given to the old buildings. Yes, I felt like the Vampire Lestat roaming the city, but Amsterdam is very clean. It was like walking in a living museum … and I was! Everywhere, history beckons. One night we had dinner in the oldest shop in Amsterdam, The Ship Chandler’s Warehouse. It is now a private dining room right in the original shop where sea captains had come for the last 400 years to purchase supplies and enjoy the tavern before their long journeys east. The table seemed like it was set for royalty with silver and crystal. Very old paintings hung on the walls. Upstairs, we had cocktails in a room straight out of Ralph Lauren on Madison Avenue, and it turned out he was there the year before (maybe an inspiration for his latest home collection). The salmon was so fresh it was unreal. The Dutch in general don’t like to rush a fine meal and their motto: Arrive at seven, leave at eleven, is true. The main course was beef Wellington and for dessert, a chocolate mousse cake. INTERESTING FACT: The painter Rembrandt was a frequent customer of the tavern.
ALL DRESSED UP WITH THE DEAD
The Amsterdam Historical Museum (adult admission: 10 euro; with Iamsterdam card: free) houses many important paintings and Dutch artifacts, including an original room from The Burgher Meister’s (meaningmayor in Dutch and fun to say!) office. The Old Masters are featured now through August and included in the collection are the famous paintings of “Anatomy Lessons”, as well as the one that powered Rembrandt’s career. These larger than life, and in some cases disturbingly graphic, show elegantly dressed doctors casually taking apart dead bodies. We decided to take a break after the exhibit so Yvonne led us to Café Papeneiland, a pub since the 17th century, and had some wonderful Dutch apple pie, coffee, beer and aged Gouda cheese. To see a photo of one of the most photographed places in Amsterdam, go to brownglasses.com.
SIDE TRIPS FROM AMSTERDAM
Between Amsterdam and The Hague is Keukenhof Gardens, an 80-acre flower bulb extravaganza. It’s twenty-five minutes from Schiphol Airport or take a bus from Centraal Station in Amsterdam. The gardens open from March 18th until May 20th with over 7 million tulip bulbs. This year, Queen Beatrix celebrated its 60th year anniversary with the blessing of a new tulip and later, The Dutch Eagles rocked the house! We were there a little too early to enjoy the tulips, but the crocuses were splendid. They are also celebrating the New York/Amsterdam 400 by displaying 50,000 tulips in the shape of the Statue of Liberty.
If you are a serious flower aficionado, you also need to visit Aalsmeer Flower Auction to see how the industry works. The best time to go is in the morning to watch the men (I don’t know why there are only men, but it started 100 years ago in a bar and the tradition carries on) bid on the different types of flowers. It starts at 6am and is finished at 11am, closed on Saturdays and Sundays and slow on Thursdays. The two buildings combined are bigger than Monaco. Nine million roses (450 varieties) are auctioned every day. The flowers are from Holland as well as Kenya and Ecuador. The tulips come out first thing, being the most volatile and are shipped out immediately. I have to say that I look at the Dutch tulips on my counter with awe, now knowing all they have traveled to get to my kitchen! Tourists can walk above the action on elevated walkways and have a self-guided tour. With 4,000 mini trucks whirring around, the whole building buzzing with flower transporters, I felt like I was inside a beehive! The bus leaves from Centraal Station and takes 45 minutes, or stop by on the way home since it’s only 25 minutes from the airport. 5 euro for adults.
Next week: Rotterdam and The Hague.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hi, I am Georgette, a writer and artist (here’s my website) based in Connecticut. I am also Johnny Jet’s older sister, who quite possibly ignited his first spark of interest in traveling to exotic places, when at the impressionable age of 14, he saw my trip to Australia last three years! Whether skiing in the mountains, snorkeling in the tropics, or exploring faraway cities, I am always game for traveling and the privilege of writing for my baby brother’s website JohnnyJet.com. Of course, coming home to my husband Cam, our dog Baci, and three cats – Ace, Arrow and Wizard – is great, too!