More Adventures of the Road – The Netherlands

More Adventures of the Road – The Netherlands

 

One of the most remarkable things that we experienced in the Netherlands was, in our entire time driving around the country, that the Dutch know how to drive. I don’t mean they know how to steer. I mean they understand the logical courtesy rules of the road. Maybe better than any other country we’ve visited (and that’s a lot!). In nearly a month, we only heard three people honk their horns, and all were deserved. We also only heard one group of motorcycles revving their overly loud engines, and it felt out of place (and was likely tourists, if I’m being honest). Drivers understood how to use lanes! This may seem like it’s no big deal, but it was huge. They would use the left lane for overtaking only, then return to the right lane to continue driving, leaving the passing lane empty. Traffic was never too congested, probably because of all the bicycles on the road. I’ve never seen such orderly roundabouts. I didn’t fear for my life in the car like I do in Bulgaria, London, Israel, Taiwan and even parts of America. I normally make my husband drive everywhere. Here, I was fine behind the wheel.

People, in general, are courteous in The Netherlands, yet rarely feel fake. Customer service is good, and of a high standard. I loved watching all the cyclists on their daily commutes, riding by with bemused smiles on their faces. I called it their “Mona Lisa” smiles. Especially on sunny days, which we experienced a lot. The entire country is manicured and well looked after, with gorgeous flowers, green grass and healthy, happy animals. I’ve never seen such happy cows grazing (or dozing!) on the sides of roads! The farm animals and zoo animals all had bright eyes, full of life. It was invigorating to see nature and man live in such harmony.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is common there, from their cycling to their food, and down to their desire to live with minimal environmental impact. Everyone recycled. It was not uncommon to see houses with solar panels on the rooftops, no matter what economic class the neighborhood was in.

Now, be aware of a few things you should know. The Dutch don’t use credit cards like a lot of other places do, especially America. In fact, outside of touristy areas, it was very difficult (nearly impossible) to find a place that would take a credit card, regardless of whether it was Visa, MasterCard or American Express. They take their Dutch bank issued debit cards, or cash. We even encountered some places that didn’t even take cash – only the local debit cards! So do beware of that. I suppose for the Dutch people, this is a good thing, as it means they are not swimming in debt like many others are. But for the traveler who wants to go off the beaten path, it does make for quite a challenge.

Also, be aware that the cyclists rule the road. I’m not sure who legally has the right of way, but the cyclists take it, over automobiles and pedestrians, both. That was a bit frustrating when pushing a toddler around, but we quickly got used to it and learned how to assert our pedestrian rights when necessary. Another thing to watch out for is that trams pull up quickly at their stops, often without any curbs or “shoulders” (and normally silently). For foreigners, it can be shocking. Some other European countries have a similar system, but this was the first that made me feel like I had to really be paying attention or risk getting hit. In fact, I think every American I know has almost gotten hit by a tram their first time in Amsterdam. I’m honestly surprised we don’t read about American tourist tram accidents more often. Watch for that.

On top of all this, as an American, my mind was blown more than once by the realization that so much of what we think of as American is actually Dutch. I think of America as having its roots more in England than anywhere else, and I didn’t really think of the fact that the Dutch were in the States first. I knew that New York was once New Amsterdam, but I didn’t realize that Harlem, Brooklyn, Bushwick, the Bronx, Bowery, Gramercy Park, Wall Street, and so many other places were named after places in The Netherlands (as well as the concept of sitting on a stoop, which is a New York staple!). It never occurred to me that our beloved Hollandaise sauce on delicious eggs benedict actually originated as a Dutch sauce (duh – HOLLAND-aise!). I had more than a few instances where I stopped in my tracks and said, “wait a minute – this came from here?!” A few examples: bowling, pancakes, cookies, ice skating, compact discs, cassette tapes, WiFi, Bluetooth, the atlas, telescopes, microscopes… and orange carrots. Yes. You read that last one right. In fact, they’re orange as a nod to King William III, aka William of Orange, who was a key player in getting the Netherlands their independence. I guess we should be glad he wasn’t William of Dark Brown With Weird Mustard Colored Spots.

All in all, we had a tremendous time visiting this under-appreciated gem. We can’t wait for our next visit.

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EXPLORING THE NETHERLANDS – THE WIND POWER MASCOT OF THE DUTCH

EXPLORING THE NETHERLANDS – THE WIND POWER MASCOT OF THE DUTCH

 

The Netherlands really cares about green living, being eco-friendly, sustainability and conservation. Just think about how the windmill (and therefore wind power) is basically considered the unofficial mascot of the Dutch!

There are more zoos/wildlife parks here than I ever imagined, and all of them I visited are in superb condition. They all have some connection with wildlife conservation and education.

I was truly impressed with the habitats for the animals in each of the zoos we went to. My favorite was Burgers’ Zoo, south of the Hoge Veluwe National Park. I commented that it seemed like we were in the animal’s natural habitat with every site we visited.

It really feels as though you’re walking in different climate zones and just happened to come across the animals in the wild. They’ve done such a good job. The animals there are the happiest I’ve ever seen in captivity, and animals in “bad” zoos don’t have enough space to exercise (I hate seeing what I call “dead eyes” on animals in zoos), and Burgers solves both problems by giving them a lot of space to move in an environment that feels authentic, but without having to worry about survival. The combination makes for some very happy animals.

Another fantastic zoo, is the Apenhuel Primate Park, just to the east of the Hoge Veluwe. This was a wonderful experience, with capuchin monkeys greeting us upon arrival. And when I say greeting us, I mean crawling on my head, my husband’s arm and all over our pram Lemurs were also free roaming, and other primates had amazing enclosures/open air habitats.

It is set in a beautiful park that would be lovely to take a day and picnic, or ride a bike, have a romantic date and finish off at the restaurant. Speaking of food, if you want to eat while in the zoo, you need not worry about finding healthy fare. Most of the zoos in The Netherlands offered organic meals! In fact, Apenheul only offered organic ice cream! Quite a contrast to zoos in the United States, for instance, where you’re basically going to solely find the worst kind of fast foods, and inevitably leave feeling a little sick.

Exploring the National Park took us to Kootwijk, a small village that lies in the middle of the park, and is filled with farms that house gorgeous horses, ponies, sheep, goats, cows, llamas and even a few wallabies (which we spotted from our car as we zoomed by, then turned around to make sure we weren’t hallucinating). We hiked a bit, finding our way to the famous and beautiful sand dunes along the coast (who knew The Netherlands had sand dunes?!).

I can’t forget about our trip to Efteling, the oldest amusement park in Europe, which predates Disneyland by 3 years. You can see that Walt Disney got lots of inspiration from this park, which is far less commercialized than any Disney park… as well as less crowded, cheaper and way more magical. Despite not being able to do the big roller coasters (thanks to having our toddler with us), we still immensely enjoyed every moment of it – especially the Enchanted Forest and carousels.

Before our visit to the amusement park, we stayed in Tilburg, a small university city located just a stone’s throw from Efteling, as well as the Safari Park Beekse Bergen, which had African animals, as well as all sorts of ungulates, walking around. I recommend doing the drive-through section on a weekday, not at a peak time. We learned this the hard way, getting stuck in traffic, with no room to pull over at a whim to admire an animal for more than a few seconds. Our experience here was not ideal, but I imagine if you go when it’s not packed, it could be lovely. If you must go at peak time, opt for the walk-through or boat tour instead of the drive through safari.

We then traveled to Drachten and stayed onboard a yacht for a few nights. Odd as it sounds, this is Airbnb-able. It was great fun, and my daughter decided she wants to live on a boat after that experience. We even found fantastic food in the city center there, enjoying the best mustard soup (a Dutch favorite) of our entire trip.

Not too far away is the charming town of Giethoorn, which is inaccessible by car, so you need a boat and/or bicycle to get around. We rented a small boat and took a couple of hours sailing through the canals, admiring the beautiful thatched roof homes, perfectly manicured with fragrant flowers on the lawns and lily pads in the water. Giethoorn is a busy touristy town, but it’s easy to find your way into your own bubble, if you just exit the main area and venture off in your boat or bike or on foot for 20 minutes or so. Idyllic. In fact, I imagine that Giethoorn is where the word “quaint” originated. It should have been, anyway, because that’s what it feels like when you’re there. Quaint in the best way possible.

Driving west, we stopped to visit the Castle De Haar, a fantastical castle, complete with moat and drawbridge, perfectly manicured lawns, and the best kept castle I’ve ever seen. The Dutch do take pride in their country, maintaining their historic buildings and manicuring the landscape in ways that many countries don’t. Everything is taken care of and maintained so well. Even the neighborhoods we were told were lower income still looked beautiful, and were exceedingly well kept, including the roads, buildings and sidewalks. Visit this castle and be blown away by its grandeur.

Of course, we had to visit Gouda on our trip. We did, and we learned that Gouda is not only known for cheese, but also candles and ceramic pipes. I learned all about the Gouda cheese making process, and the different types, based on age. We had one of our best meals in the town, and left with a suitcase full of cheese, vacuum sealed and ready for our flight. You likely think I’m exaggerating. I am most certainly not.

Finally, we stayed in a farmhouse just twenty minutes drive from Schipol Airport, and our toddler enjoyed the chickens while we enjoyed the fresh eggs each morning.

We left The Netherlands after experiencing so much, yet feeling like we only skimmed the surface of what the country has to offer. We need to go back, especially during springtime to see the tulips, and also during winter to skate on the canals in Amsterdam when the water freezes over. It sounds like a dream – but in reality, it is already calling us back.

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Traveling The Netherlands is More Than Just Amsterdam

Traveling The Netherlands is More Than Just Amsterdam

 

When our work took us to Amsterdam for a film festival (which we had entered and won, by the way – woo hoo!)

My husband and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity of being in Holland and take a couple of weeks to travel around The Netherlands. In that time – our first time exploring the country together – we fell in love with the place. And not just its capital.

When tourists think of Holland, they instantly think of Amsterdam, conjuring up images of weed cafes and legal prostitutes as far as the eye can see, with tulips, canals, trams or bicycles, but all still through the prism of The Dam (as the locals call it).

It does indeed go far beyond the tulips and canals and really is worth planning a trip to this amazing country – sooner rather than later.

Many of the places/attractions we visited are fun for both adults and kids alike. As the saying goes, The Netherlands is for ages 1-100, which was just as well as we were also travelling with our young toddler daughter Xena.

Public transport is a breeze in this country. Getting from city to city couldn’t be easier, and their trains are prompt and clean. We left Amsterdam and hopped on a train to The Hague. Even with four suitcases, a pram and a toddler, it was painless.  We opted to stay by the beach, which was beautiful and highly recommend. Even in the warm summer months, it means lovely cool breezes at night. The weather was especially fitting for rolling up our jeans and wading around through the soft sand of the flat beaches that seemed to extend forever, creating mini ponds and ocean water puddles throughout.

There were restaurants along the beach, and the harbour, where you could go for fresh and fried fish and seafood.  It reminded me of New England, with the same quality to the sand, the water and even the seagulls, but with far less congestion and pollution.

It was simple to get into the city center via bus and/or tram, and we headed in on most days, enjoying fantastic coffee. The third wave coffee movement is alive and well in The Hague. In fact, The Netherlands in general is one of the best countries in the world that I’ve visited with consistent quality coffee throughout.

We also explored the culinary scene, which was stellar. The food in this country is really great, and you will appreciate it even more if you are a foodie.   Wherever we were, it was possible to find a good quality restaurant serving sustainable, fresh food. Even most conventional grocery stores offered a decent organic (bio) section, including meats. There were also a few fully organic supermarkets to be found, even in smaller cities.

The City of The Hague is gorgeous. There’s greenery all over, smooth roads with bike lanes and quiet trams weaving in and out of the architecturally impressive homes. In the center is the Hofvijver, a beautiful pond adjacent to the Binnenhof (government office) and the Mauritshuis (the museum that is home to “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”).

Not too far away is the Escher in Het Paleis, where you can see M.C. Escher’s original artwork while wandering through the magnificent palace that houses it. Sheepishly, I’ll admit that I had no idea Escher was Dutch! I am a fan, though, and it was really special to see original works of such famous paintings, especially after being exposed to prints of them on the wall of every college dorm I’ve ever been in (alongside Ansel Adams, Bob Marley and Albert Einstein posters).

A trip to Den Haag wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Madurodam, a miniature replica of the entire country. My young 2 year old daughter Xena loved it, but I think my husband and I enjoyed it more. The detail is insane and settled in amongst the miniatures happens to be some giant tulips, perfect for unforgettable photo ops. Do not miss. I have no idea why, and no one could quite explain it, but Dutch people love miniatures. As if one theme park made up of a small version of the country isn’t enough, there’s also Miniworld in Rotterdam! It’s not nearly as majestic as Madurodam, but still fun to see, if you’re in the area. Which we were!

In fact, Rotterdam was our next stop. We enjoyed this bustling, hip city. If The Hague is a classy, bourgeois Grand Dame (thanks to all the diplomats, expats and government officials living there), then Rotterdam is its art-school attending, aspiring musician, younger cousin. It’s very multi-cultural, with a lot of cool shops and artsy vibes. It also, like most places in The Netherlands, has great cuisine and top-notch coffee. Another plus is the Rotterdam Zoo, considered one of Europe’s finest (my favorite part was the Oceanium).

To be continued ……………

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