I love Costa Rica. I love to travel there, and it is my business. But my wife and I are now “empty nesters”, and are finally getting the chance to travel to some other destinations. I thought it would be fun to share some of our experiences to other places.
Every year, I arrange a large group trip to somewhere fun for the gang in my Mardi Gras krewe. The groups have at times exceeded 40 people, but most of the time we have 12 to 20 people. Since we now had a little experience in Amsterdam, we thought that this would be a fun place to take the gang. On this trip, eighteen of us traveled to Europe.
We worked it out so that most of the group would spend a full week in Amsterdam. Everyone then went in different directions. Some went to Paris, others to Rome, and some to Germany. We went to Prague after Amsterdam with three other couples. My Prague experiences are detailed elsewhere in this blog.
We flew overnight from the US. We arrived at the Amsterdam airport at 7:00 AM. We then took the local train to the Central Station in downtown Amsterdam. This was pretty easy, except that it seems that the ticket vending machines were experiencing problems with credit cards. We learned later that this was indeed the case. But at the time, we figured it was just “operator trouble” brought on by jet lag. We finally were able to get some euro change and purchased our tickets. After a short train ride we arrived at the Central Station. From there we walked the short distance to our group’s lodging, “Amsterdam Escape”.
We had stayed in Amsterdam Escape (http://www.amsterdamescape.com/) the previous year, and had a very positive experience. This year was no different. We rented the “Chillout”, “Nest”, “Home” and “Suite”. The apartments are a little pricey, but this is such a great way to go. Especially with a group. The apartments are fully furnished, and include computers with Internet access, stereos, full kitchens, cable, DVD players with movies, game system, etc. Two of the units even had full laundry facilities. Everyone quickly made themselves at home. These apartments are located in the Nieumarkt area, right next to the red light district. This was a group that likes to have a good time, and the close proximity to bars and restaurants was just the ticket for them.
This is a fun group, and we had some good house parties. We would also meet at different apartments in the mornings for coffee to compare experiences, and to plan our days. Our first night, we had an amazing throw down dinner at Restaurant Gusto (http://ristorantegusto.com). This is right next door to the Chillout. We have eaten here on previous visits, and highly recommend it. The house specialty is pasta, that is finished by placing it into a huge hollowed out parmesan cheese wheel. The hot pasta melts the cheese, and it is all scraped together on the plate. They have lots of delicious Italian specialties and appetizers. We ate until we couldn’t eat anymore, and washed it down with copious amounts of red wine. It didn’t really cure our jet lag, but it sure was fun!
Within a day or two, the members of our group started to do their own thing. My wife and I spent a day in Haarlem, only a 15 minute train ride away. We had visited Haarlem last year, and had been unable to get inside the ancient church that dominates the town square and skyline. We were luckier this time. They were getting the massive 300 year old pipe organ ready for a concert, and we were lucky enough to hear the “sound check”. Some of the pipes are 30 feet tall, and the rumbling sound was nothing short of amazing.
Some of us also took a day trip to Zandvoort aan Zee, a beach resort. It was freezing cold and rainy in early October. But we were just there for the mussels. It cleared a little, and we had an opportunity to walk on the beach.
We also took an afternoon to go to Zaandam. There are some authentic old windmills here, and scattered nearby there is the Dutch equivalent of a colonial Williamsburg. The little village has a pewter shop, with ongoing demonstrations, and cheese factory, a wooden shoe factory, several old buildings, and of course a gift shop. We got the chance to crawl around inside an old windmill that was grinding chalk for paint. It was fascinating to see how these actually worked. My wife is an amateur artist, and this windmill had actually produced pigments for paint used by Rembrandt. She was thrilled for the opportunity to buy some pigments here. I am waiting for her masterpiece!
Our own apartment at the Amsterdam Escape actually fell through. The apartments are scattered over several buildings, and our building failed the annual fire inspection. So we were forced to scramble a little at the last minute. But it all worked out. My wife and I were able to obtain lodging at a very small B&B, called “Sunhead of 1617″ on the Herengracht (http://www.sunhead.com/). This is only about a block from the Anne Frank house, and considered one of the better neighborhoods in Amsterdam.
This really wasn’t a bad thing. I love my friends like family. But escorting any group is a little stressful. This B&B was located about a mile from our group. The separation was good for all. They learned that they did not need us for every little thing, and we were able to enjoy some private time in what has become our favorite European city.
The rooms at the Sunhead are small, but well appointed and decorated. I had to keep in touch with my office. I had my laptop, and found the free WiFi a huge plus. Of course, the stairs are a killer. But that is typical of 400 year old houses in Holland! The B&B is owned by a gay couple. One of the guys is Dutch, and his partner is Filipino. We enjoyed our mornings chatting with Carlos (from the Philippines) and savoring his fabulous breakfasts. We enjoyed the other guests as well. Over the course of a week, we shared meals with Russians, French Canadians, and Brits. It was a wonderful way to start each day.
After breakfast, we had to walk a bit to meet up with our friends. We found that we enjoyed our morning strolls across Dam Square and through the neighborhoods to Nieumarkt. Because this was our second visit to Amsterdam, we had done much of the major “tourist” things. So we were able to slow down and enjoy Amsterdam. We enjoyed eating in the neighborhood restaurants, and actually started to establish a relationship with the staff at a local pub. We would stop by for a last drink every evening on our way back home. After a few nights, they would have our favorite drinks ready within a couple minutes of us hitting the door. We had arrived!
All in all, we always found our Dutch hosts to be friendly, and they always seemed to approach everything with a sense of humor. They were usually very willing to have a conversation, and were happy to share history and insider tips about their city. I can’t share all of our memories here, but suffice to say that Amsterdam is the perfect introduction to Europe. Easy and forgiving. We found that almost everyone we encountered spoke some English, and most were quite fluent. Even a rookie traveler can feel comfortable here.
We have so many places to see, and we have been to Amsterdam twice now. So I guess we will have to put it on the back burner for awhile. That is hard to do. It is a wonderful place, full of history and interesting people. I do not know when I will return. Actually by the third or fourth day, everyone in our group was musing about living there and scheming about how to make it happen. No solutions yet!
From Amsterdam, we flew to Prague for a week. Look for that trip report on this blog!