Monday, July 26, 2010

Searching for a Travel Bargain? Amsterdam's For You

With the Euro down and the dollar up, now is the perfect time to plan a trip to Europe.

Some travelers hesitate about visiting Europe if English is their only language.  Good news.   In Amsterdam, English is the second language. So don't worry if you need help. You don't have to ask, "Do you speak English?" because everyone does.
Barely seven hours from New York city, with easy access through Schiphol airport, Amsterdam is a compact city, hosting dozens of world class museums, miles of picturesque canals, well-maintained parks, narrow streets with old-world charm, hundreds of outdoor cafes and bars.

The scale of the city is people-friendly.  Most buildings in the old city around the canals are only three to five stories tall.  Cars and trucks avoid the narrow cobblestone streets, leaving pedestrians and bicyclists in charge. Every few blocks there is a central square ("plein") with shops and markets. If you’re out walking and you want to take a break, you’re only a few steps from a cozy cafĂ© or a bar where you can refresh yourself with a beverage and a snack.

If you want a cup of coffee, though, don't ask for directions to a "coffee shop" because you'll find yourself in one of the many shops where people go to have a joint or smoke hash. "Koffie houses" serve coffee.  Don't expect to find a Starbucks. There are only three in all of the Netherlands.  

Contrary to popular opinion, marijuana is not legal in Amsterdam.  You can buy it and smoke it in coffee shops but don’t try going for a walk along a canal and lighting up a doobie.  You might get arrested.

The Red Light district is one of Amsterdam’s top tourist destinations.  Window-shopping here takes on a whole new meaning. 

One very big no-no is taking photographs of the women in their windows.  If you do, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised by a large Eastern European gentleman who will throw your camera and maybe you into the nearby canal.

During the summer holiday season a lot of tourists are in town.  You'll see mobs of young men and women from the U.S., U.K., Italy, and Spain partying together--usually drinking and often singing--in bars, around the squares and walking through the Red Light District.  Keeping to the quieter parts of town, families with kids visit the museums, go on canal cruises, and hang out in entertainment centers. Couples get around town on bicycles or take long walks, hand in hand, along the canals, taking in the sights and enjoying being together.  

What's great about Amsterdam is that the city works for all of them.

Amsterdam is home to dozens of great museums, not the least of which are the Amsterdam Historical Museum (Kalverstraat 92) , the Dutch Resistance Museum (Plantage Kerklaan 61), the Filmmuseum (Vondelpark 3), the Foam-Fotografiemuseum (Keizersgracht 609), the Royal Palace (Dam), and the remarkable Hermitage Amsterdam (Amstel 51). 

Ongoing renovation has temporarily closed the Stedelijk Museum (Museumplein 10) which houses an impressive collection of modern art. The national museum, the Rijksmuseum (Jan Luijkenstraat 1) is also undergoing renovations. 

Even though you can't see all the collection, the oil paintings by the Old Masters are on display and well-worth the visit. Don't overlook the decorative arts collection, especially room 3 with the amazingly detailed dolls' houses created for Petronella Oortman.

The Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7) houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of the famed artist’s work.  Light, airy, and spacious, a walk through the exhibit space is invigorating. The museum is one of Amsterdam's most popular.

The centerpiece of any trip to Amsterdam is, of course, a visit to the Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht 67). There is usually a line to enter the museum, so bring something to read and an umbrella, because there is always a chance of rain, even in summer.

Visitors take a self-guided tour through the beautifully preserved house. Moving together in small groups, sharing the small spaces, ducking under the low threshold of the hidden doorway, and climbing the impossibly steep staircases, it is easy to feel the claustrophobia that the Frank and Van Pels families experienced.  
Walking through the house is an emotional experience shared with Anne herself. Her words are etched onto the walls and her diary, with its delicate, precise handwriting, is displayed for all to see.

In an attic section of the annex, portions of a 1967 filmed interview with Otto Frank are projected on the wall.  He talks about reading Anne's diary for the first time after the war and being surprised by her deep thoughts and self-criticism.  The Anne he read in the diary was "quite a different Anne than the one I knew."  From that fact he comes to a realization felt by most parents who have lived far more ordinary lives, "My conclusion is that parents don't know really their children."

Getting around Amsterdam can be confusing at first, especially if you live in a city based on a grid, like New York or Los Angeles. The streets are not laid out in a simple north-south, east-west configuration.  In fact, the streets go every which way.

That's because Amsterdam is organized around the four original, beautifully preserved 17th century canals--Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht--that encircle the old city like rings. Starting on the north-western side of Amsterdam, the canals curve south and then circle up to the north-eastern edge of the city.  

All those curving canals mean that the streets running alongside will do some acrobatics themselves. So if someone tells you to meet them on Singelgracht, they could be in the western, southern, or eastern part of the city.

To make matters more confusing for first-time visitors, streets change their names without warning.  In the center of town, even a major thoroughfare like Rokin changes its name to Damrak when it travels through Dam Square.  Imagine if Broadway changed its name when it passed through Times Square.

So if you get lost, don't blame yourself. It's not your fault. What you need is a good map, like the "Cito Plan Amsterdam" (15th edition), a large map that won't fit in your back pocket but shows most of the streets in Amsterdam as well as the stops on the tram (electric streetcar), metro (subway), and bus routes, with an easy to use street index on the back. The map is widely available in department stores, tourism offices, tobacco shops, and gas stations, as well as on line

Restaurants are not cheap in Amsterdam.

Asian food, for example, is priced higher than Americans would expect. Dishes that cost $7.00-10.00 in New York, might cost double in Amsterdam.

In any case, most travelers agree, you don’t visit Amsterdam for the food. The museums, no question. The canals and parks, absolutely. The Red Light District and the "coffee shops," sure, if that's your thing. But the food.  Not so much.

The restaurant food is hit-or-miss. Most dishes are under seasoned, but that doesn't mean you won't eat well.  You'll have good cafe food--great sandwiches, delicious cheese, excellent coffee, and lots of really good breads, rolls, and desserts.

But track down outdoor markets like the Northern Market, New Market , or Albert Cuypmarkt and you’ll find vendors selling the most delicious cheeses, meats, fish, and baked goods.

If you want to eat like a local, you’ll want to try smoked eel and raw herring at the herring shacks that dot the city.  Most visitors eat the lightly pickled herring on a plate, sliced with chopped onions and pickles.  Locals, on the other hand, eat their herring Amsterdam style in which the herring is kept whole.  You bend back your head and lower the fish into mouth as you greedily ingest its sweet flesh.

When you are paying the bill in a restaurant or a cab, don't tip.  The tip is almost always included in the charge. If you liked the service, the polite thing to do is round-up the payment.  Leave €2.00 for instance on a €1.75 bill.

Amsterdam is getting a face lift.   Important public buildings are being renovated, including Centraal Station and the Royal Palace in Dam Square.  Subway construction is very visible in the busy commercial district on Rokin and Damrak.  For the most part you'll only be mildly inconvenienced, although the city isn’t as beautiful as it can be.

Don’t assume that your American credit card will work in Amsterdam.  At high-end restaurants and hotels, your credit card might be honored, but maybe not, so ask before you run up any bills.  When you're walking around town, stopping in cafes, or shopping in small stores, you'll definitely need a pocketful of Euros.

Most American cell phones don't work in the Netherlands.  The ones that do, carry hefty roaming charges.  Unfortunately disposable cell phones aren't readily available, so you might have to get used to living unplugged. Mostly, that's ok, but if you're meeting a friend or family member and you're running late, you won't have a way to connect so it's good to meet at a cafe where if one of you is late, it won't matter.  You'll have a second beer and another plate of bitterballen, a deep-fried, crunchy local taste treat.

Buses, trams, and the subway criss-cross Amsterdam in a very efficient way. Since June 1st, to use the public transportation system, you have to buy a Chip Card (OV-chipkaart) which can be loaded with any amount.

Single rides are expensive (€2.60). If you're only in town for a short amount of time and want to see as much of Amsterdam as possible, an economical way to use the Chip Card is to buy a time period during which you have unlimited rides: 24 hours (€7.00), 48 hours (€11.50), 72 hours (€15.50), up to 120 hours (€23.00). The clock starts the first time you use the card. At Metro stations and on the tram, you will need to use your Chip Card to enter and exit.

Another option for tourists is the I Amsterdam Card which allows for unlimited rides during 24, 48, or 72 hour periods, plus a number of discount coupons to local businesses and access to almost all of the museums (except the Anne Frank House). The cost is considerably higher.

Chip Cards and free copies of the tram, bus, and subway routes can be picked up at the GVB store across from Centraal Station or online and also at the many information kiosks, indicated by signs with an “i”.  

Taxis are plentiful in the old part of the city but expensive. Before the taxi moves a foot, the charge is €7.50 Euros, which makes even the shortest trip cost at least $15.00-20.00, depending on the distance and current exchange rate.

Renting a car is not recommended.

Trying to navigate the narrow, pedestrian and bike clogged streets of Amsterdam is challenging at best and after you arrive at your destination you’ll be confronted by a bigger challenge, parking.

Amsterdam's canals are not only picturesque, they're functional. Canal tours, water taxis and canal buses leave from Centraal Station and offer a unique view of the city. Canal-Bus' Hop on, Hop off Canal Cruise is a good way to see the city and visit major museums like the Hermitage, Rijksmuseum, and Anne Frank House.

Amsterdam is bicycle heaven.

If you rarely bike, you have to try it in Amsterdam.  Bicycling is the best way to see the city.  And because bicyclists have the right of way, you’ll feel greatly empowered as you buzz around the city, zooming in and out of the narrow streets and alleyways.

Bike rentals are widely available.  At Centraal Station where all the trams, buses, subways, ferries, canal tours, and trains stop, there is also a MacBike store (Stationsplein 5), so when you arrive in town, you can pedal away and start your tour of the city.

In a city of 750,000, it is said there are probably that many bicycles and many of them have been stolen at least once. When you rent a bicycle, it would be wise to buy theft insurance and to listen carefully to the instructions about how to double-lock your bike.

While streets may be marked one-way, that only applies to cars and trucks. Bicycles and Vespas, which share the bike path, can go whichever way they want. So when you’re crossing a one-way street, be sure to look both ways.

The Dutch are a generous and polite people, but not when you violate their right of way.

When you’re walking, stay on the sidewalk. If you hear a bell ringing in your left ear, it’s not tinnitus.  Move to the right, a bicycle is about to pass you. If you don't move quickly enough, you're likely to hear the Dutch equivalent of "Are you deaf?" or worse.

If you are riding a bicycle yourself, remember what you learned as a kid.  Don’t stop suddenly and always use arm signals so you won’t cause an accident.

If you’re like most visitors to Amsterdam—myself included—you’ll have one thought at the end of your trip.  You want to come back.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Summertime Fun: U-Pick Blueberries on the 101

For most people, summer means vacation time and, more than likely, that means a road trip. We started early this year and took a trip up the coast for a long weekend.

Driving from Los Angeles to Northern California, we usually take the 5.  A boring drive, the 5 is all about getting up the coast as quickly as possible.

This trip we decided to take the 101. A bit slower, but a lot more scenic with the opportunity to interact with the communities along the way.

When I was growing up, my mom’s favorite thing to do when we hit the road was to stop at the roadside stands and buy fruit and vegetables from the local farmers.  What she dearly loved was when we could actually stop at the farm and do the picking ourselves.

One of her favorite places to visit was Cherry Valley, east of Los Angeles, where she would find an orchard that let us kids climb up the ladders, buckets in hand, and pick and eat as many cherries as we could handle.

Heading up north I remembered those experiences when I saw the signs for Restoration Oaks Ranch's Santa Barbara Blueberry Farm, with its U-Pick option.

Thirty minutes north of Santa Barbara and three miles south of Buellton (home of Anderson's Pea Soup), from May to early August, keep a lookout on the east side of the highway.  There are signs on both sides of the highway but the turn off comes quickly, so be alert, especially on the southbound side where the exit is from the left lane.

Protected from birds by a high wall of netting, the farm grows several varieties of blueberries: Bluecrisp, Emerald, Jewel, Star, Misty, and Sharpblue.  The plants grow in long rows, stretching from the highway back into the hills.

Blueberries grow on low bushes, the fruit gathering in tight clusters on the branch ends.

Walking up and down the rows we passed couples feeding each other berries as if they were on a romantic date.  Then there were the families with kids, who rushed from plant to plant, picking and eating berries, yelling out, "I found the best ones."

For our part, my wife and I approached the task with deliberation. Mostly that meant picking berry by berry, but when we found a perfectly formed cluster, a quick sweep of the branch yielded a handful of berries that clattered satisfyingly into the bucket.

Harvesting blueberries is sweet work. You pick a few and eat a lot as you walk down the rows. We enjoyed them all the more knowing blueberries are healthy and nutritious.

The best berries are plump, firm, and colored a dark shade of blue. Ripe berries are on the top of the plant but also down below, so it's worth the effort to crouch down and check the lower branches.

In addition to all those nice plump, ripe berries, you'll also see ones that are slightly wrinkled.  We had a difference of opinion about those.

My wife didn't care for them, but I did because they have a thick, jammy taste, reminding me of homemade blueberry pie. Because my wife didn't want any wrinkled berries in our bucket, I ate them as I picked.

My wife wandered off in one direction.  I, in another. We walked up and down the rows, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun and the easy quiet of the rolling hills surrounding the farm.

Walking down the rows, I couldn't get over that there were so many berries!  How could I pass by ripe, perfectly formed blueberries, sweet and luscious and not pick every one in sight?

With a quick grab, I could fill my mouth with great tasting blueberries.  So delicious, so available.

With blueberry stained fingers, I placed yet another handful of berries in my mouth when my wife called out to me.  Actually she called several times before I heard her.  "David," she said, "Come on, you've had enough."

I nodded in agreement but managed to run my hand along another branch and enjoyed a last mouthful of berries before I re-joined her. With our buckets filled, we walked hand-in-hand down the dirt road, stopping at the outdoor sink to wash the blueberry stains off our hands, and then to the shack where we paid for our blueberries.

In 30 minutes my wife and I had filled our buckets.  At $15.00 a bucket (about 2 quarts), the blueberries are a bargain, considering that at farmers' markets small containers cost $3.00-4.00.

At our friends' house that night, we proudly served the berries as the crowning topping to a pineapple-strawberry fruit salad.  The combination was perfection.  Each fruit had a different tartness and sweetness.  Their flavors melded beautifully.

With a large bowl in the refrigerator, everyone in the house made frequent stops to grab a handful.  In no time at all, we had eaten all the blueberries.

With a short growing season and given that it was unlikely we would drive up 101 anytime soon, when we headed back to LA, we left early so we could stop at the blueberry ranch and pick another bucket.

Back home I remembered all those ears of corn, peaches, and cherries, I used to pick with my mom and sister and I was very happy to have a bucket of blueberries in the refrigerator, a great way to start the week with a breakfast of fresh blueberries, yogurt, and cereal.