Interesting sidelights

by Bob Hoelscher 15. May 2013 20:07


Plenty of ice to go around (the River Duchess)

I spent almost the entire month of March traveling internationally to experience the vessels and hospitality of four different cruise lines…SeaDream Yacht Club (SeaDream II) on the Upper Amazon River in Peru and Columbia, plus Vantage Deluxe World Travel (River Splendor), Viking River Cruises (Viking Aegir) and the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection (River Duchess) on the rivers and waterways of The Netherlands and Belgium. 

Although my detailed reports on these programs will appear in our publications during the coming months, I thought it might be of interest now to share a few unusual occurrences I encountered along the way.

1.     I went through TSA screening at Miami International Airport soon after the notorious Congressional “Sequester” that promised layoffs of numerous federal employees. Immediately after going through the multi-million dollar, full-body screening equipment, all male travelers were being frisked by a TSA employee. The only conclusions one can draw from this situation are (a) the expensive electronics we have all funded either don’t work, or (b) TSA personnel previously accustomed to standing around were now being given unnecessary duties to make them look busy in an apparent attempt to avoid staff reductions.     
    
2.     Speaking of fancy electronics, US Airways’ deluxe boarding pass “reader” (complete with conspicuous flashing lights) allowed a Copa Airlines passenger bound for Panama City, Panama, to board my flight to Charlotte. It also boarded another passenger assigned to a seat that didn’t exist.

3.     Kudos to South American airline LAN for exceptionally clean and well-maintained aircraft. They also served a very tasty and filling dinner in coach, quite unusual in a time when tasteless, 99¢-TV-dinner-sized meals are the norm. United Airlines earned my “chutzpah” award by following a video presentation boasting of their celebrity chefs, flight kitchens and exciting new menus with a coach meal featuring the same nondescript “chicken or pasta” entrees they served a generation ago aboard DC-8s.

4.     I witnessed the captain (who will remain nameless) of one of the ships I cruised upon this month badmouthing his competition in front of several media representatives, on more than one occasion. This is just about the most unprofessional behavior in which a travel company employee can be engaged, so I hope that his employer sets him straight. Furthermore, if something does appear to be lacking or wrong with an industry supplier’s product or service, it is the responsibility of an unbiased media (people like me) to disseminate that information.

5.     In between a morning excursion and an afternoon concert of Amsterdam’s world-renowned Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, I stopped off at a McDonald’s in a residential neighborhood for a burger to tide me over until dinner. Needless to say, it was startling to see the restaurant’s counter employees (apparently legally stoned) stumbling around aimlessly in a daze like zombies, and accomplishing very little in the process. I left hungry after standing in line for 15 minutes and getting no closer to placing my order.

6.     If you thought that winter had long since worn out its welcome here in the U.S., take a look at the accompanying photo which I took in Hoorn, The Netherlands, on the seventh day of spring, Tuesday, March 26.

7.     I am not a big fan of the fancy duvets (“comforters” to us Yankees) that are seemingly very popular these days atop beds in European hotels as well as on numerous cruise ships. Not being a small person, I have found that these padded “appliances” usually end up in a heap on the floor during the night, leaving my bulk uncovered.  Thus it was indeed a pleasure to find some of the most luxurious, high quality bedding I’ve ever snuggled underneath, tucked firmly under my mattress aboard Uniworld’s River Duchess. See the photo for a “happy camper” preparing for a night of restful sleep.


The author ready for a good night's sleep

Interesting People

by Bob Hoelscher 15. May 2013 20:05


John Harwood

Among the many nice folks I met in March, the following particularly stood out:

1.    John Harwood, a multi-talented Brit who resides in Manaus, Brazil…botanist, author, poet, troubadour and a member of SeaDream II’s Expedition Team

2.    Carl and Judy Eben from San Francisco: Very experienced world travelers and simply one of the nicest couples I have ever been fortunate to meet

3.    Myriam Hembrechts, lecturer aboard Vantage’s River Splendor, who appeared to know more about the subject of Belgian chocolate than would be thought humanly possible 

4.    Neil Oliver, archaeologist, BBC Television personality, and Viking River Cruises lecturer, who gave a fascinating presentation on the history of the Vikings

5.    Rik Sprengers, Cruise Manager aboard Uniworld’s River Duchess: The embodiment of cordiality, knowledge and customer service after 11 years on Europe’s rivers and waterways


Carl Eben (on Monkey Island, Colombia)


Myriam Hembrechts


Rik Sprengers

Interesting Places

by Bob Hoelscher 15. May 2013 19:56


The Leticia Fish Market

What would the travel industry be without unique places to visit? Sometimes it is the unexpected out-of-the-ordinary destinations that stand out in your mind after a trip.

Here are just a few of the gems I discovered during March while traveling internationally to experience the vessels and hospitality of four different cruise lines to the Amazon River in Peru and Columbia and to the rivers of The Netherlands and Belgium.

1.    The Leticia Fish Market in Columbia is where I learned that, contrary to popular belief, residents along the Amazon River actually eat a lot more piranhas than the other way around.

2.    The Enkhuizen Museum in The Netherlands’ is the picturesque answer to Mystic Seaport, Old Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg.
 
3.    Museum Het Schip (The Ship) on a Viking River Cruises excursion is a fascinating example of social housing and Amsterdam School architecture dates from the beginning of 20th century.

4.    The Grand Café Horta in Antwerp is the site of a outstanding dinner gala and entertainment included for participants in Vantage’s Naming Ceremony and pre-inaugural cruise of River Splendor.

5.    De Doelen, Rotterdam’s performing arts center looks like an ugly box on the outside, but oh what aural pleasures await inside! The center boasts incredibly fine acoustics for a thrilling Rotterdam Philharmonic concert.


Enkhuizen (Zuiderzee) Museum


Museum Het Schip


Grand Cafe Horta

Rhine River Cruise Day 3

by Mac Lacy 5. November 2009 22:22

We traveled on to Rudesheim, a beautiful village that climbs up the banks of the Rhine and is framed in vineyards.  Siegfied's Mechanical Music Musical Instrument Museum is a world-class collection of music boxes and mechanical music machines.  Rudesheim coffee is a local hot drink made with brandy, whipped cream and spices and makes a perfect outdoor drink on a brisk day.  

We sailed toward Koblenz through the Rhine's fabled gorge, where medieval castles and churches dot the countryside and stand like sentinels above the Rhine.  Many are privately-owned and well maintained, others are in ruin.  It was cold during this leg of the trip, but some of us sat on the bow viewing area of the Creativity and braved the elements to enjoy these magnificent structures as they passed.

We enjoyed a free afternoon in Cologne, and after taking in its incomparable cathedral, we walked the streets in a welcome sunlight.   The change in weather warmed everyone up and brought the local residents out into this large city's shopping district for a Friday afternoon stroll.

Our trip ended in Amsterdam, a delightfully liberal city.  After a canal tour, four or us caught the tram to the city's museum plaza, where we toured the Van Gogh museum.  The permanent collection there provides an endearing study of this troubled artist's life and concludes with a poignant photograph of his grave beside that of his beloved brother's, Theo. We had dinner that evening in the red light district with a few friends.  While the scenery was mostly tawdry, the Tibetan restaurant we found was superb and filled with local diners.

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Rhine River Cruise

Amsterdam in photographs

by Brian Jewell 12. August 2009 06:44

This morning I leave Amsterdam to return to the United States.  Before I do, though, I'll leave you with some scenes of Amsterdam's beautiful canals and historic neighborhoods.

Remembering Anne Frank

by Brian Jewell 11. August 2009 22:27

All photos appear courtesy of and copyright Anne Frank House/Anne Frank Fonds.

A walk through modern Amsterdam is a charming way to spend a morning or afternoon.  The city’s famous canals and pedestrian-friendly streets can create a feeling of perpetual peace. But we must not forget that Amsterdam has seen its darker days as well.

Today I visited the Anne Frank House, which is one of the city’s most important historic structures. The world knows Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl originally from Germany, from the famous diary she wrote during her family’s hiding from the Nazis in the early 1940s.

Because there was no bombing in Central Amsterdam during World War II, it is easy to forget that this city ever saw the scourge of war. Anne Frank’s father Otto moved his family here from Germany in 1940 to flee Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime in their native Germany. But by 1942, the Nazis had taken over the Netherlands in a five-day blitz, and began to round up Jews in Amsterdam and send them off to concentration camps.

Four employees of Otto Frank helped the Frank family and four other Jews to hide in a secret apartment behind the warehouse and offices where Otto worked. They managed to stay sequestered for more nearly two years, and Anne, a 15-year-old girl, kept detailed, moving diaries about the family’s time in hiding. Unfortunately, the “Secret Annex” was eventually found, and the Franks sent off to Auschwitz. Anne and her sister Margot were later sent to camp Bergen-Belsen, and died there of illness, one month before the camp was liberated by the Allies. Of the eight people who had been hidden in the "Secret Annex," only Otto Frank survived.

After his return to Amsterdam, Otto received Anne’s diaries from Miep Gies, one of the helpers and had them published. The work presents a moving portrait of the struggle and fear that the family faced, and helps readers to understand the grim realities of the times. Later, Otto established a museum at the former company, where today visitors can walk through the hiding place and learn about Anne’s life there.

The Diaries of Anne Frank became an worldwide bestseller, and the Amsterdam museum is equally popular. When I toured the house this morning, it was packed with visitors. We saw the small rooms where the families were forced to spend their days behind blackout curtains, without ever peering out into the streets below. In video exhibits throughout the museum, friends and contemporaries of the Frank family tell their stories about Otto, Anna, and surviving the Nazi regime.

Whenever you visit a place like the Anne Frank House, or another site associated with sweeping human atrocity, it can be difficult to process – sometimes, it’s simply too much to take. Your emotions begin to shut down, as a defense mechanism. But the images you see will remain with you, and in the coming days and weeks, they will come out of your subconscious in new thoughts and feelings.

I’m a firm believer that when we travel, we must take time to visit these difficult places. These visits are not fun, but they are important.  These experiences sow the seeds of compassion, understanding and, oddly enough, hope – the hope that one day, we may reap a harvest of peace.

Visions of Van Gogh

by Brian Jewell 10. August 2009 20:19

Photos Courtesy Van Gogh Museum

If there’s one thing you must experience during a trip to Amsterdam (besides a Dutch pancake), it’s the city’s Van Gogh museum.

Art lovers will immediately recognize this famous Dutch painter who, along with Rembrandt, is one of the Netherlands’ most prominent cultural figures. But even if you’re not brushed up on your 19th-century European impressionist painters, with a visit to this museum you’ll discover how much Van Gogh influenced the way in which we interpret images in the world around us.

Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps most famous for his colorful, swirling and surreal Starry Night. You won’t see that on display at the museum in Amsterdam (it resides at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), but you will see a wide-ranging catalog of his other excellent work, including numerous self-portraits and a famous scene he painted of his bedroom. The Van Gogh Museum has some 200 paintings and 500 paintings by the artist, as well as 700 letters he wrote to his brother Theo and others.

The museum presents these works in chronological order, displaying them with parallel stories of the artist’s life and struggles. He took up painting as an adult with no formal art training, and went most of his career without ever selling a single painting. In his late 30s, he struggled with epilepsy and mental illness, famously cutting off part of his own ear and eventually taking his own life. It would only be later that the art community would recognize him as one of the foremost fathers of modern painting.

Though the story is dark at points, the museum’s exhibits are beautiful. Walking through, I see how Van Gogh was a master of Impressionist-inspired techniques.  From a distance, his paintings all look perfectly clear and in focus; when you take a step closer though, you see that they are all composed of thick, short and colorful brushstrokes. The strokes by themselves could pass for haphazard, but when you take them together, you see that they are carefully and deliberately designed to depict farmland, cityscapes and human portraits in a colorful, innovative way.

The Van Gogh Museum is just one of many art institutions in Amsterdam, which is celebrating its artistic heritage this year with a variety of special exhibits and events.

Pancakes!

by Brian Jewell 9. August 2009 18:12

Today I enjoyed one of Amsterdam’s most surprising and delicious treat’s – the Dutch pancake.

Although we know pancakes as an American breakfast food, in Amsterdam and throughout the Netherlands they are favorite dishes for lunch or dinner. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pancake houses throughout this city serving locals and tourists alike – wherever you go, chances are you’re not very far from one.

I’m traveling in Amsterdam with Monograms, one of the companies in the Globus family which gives visitors a wide-open itinerary with a local host to help them find their way around the city. Because these trips give travelers total flexibility during the day, I was able to eat at “Pancakes!,” a small restaurant in an old historic home that would not hold a traditional group. But one of my fellow travel writers had read about this particular one in the New York Times, and so a foursome of us made the special trip halfway across town to try it out.

All I can say is – I’m hooked! Unlike their thick, fluffy American cousins, Dutch pancakes are wide, floppy affairs that cover a dinner plate from rim to rim. They are a bit spongier than their American cousins, and more chewy, perhaps. But their real strength is in their diversity – at Pancakes!, along with other pancake houses around town, the dish is served with a wide variety of toppings and fillings. Guests can order traditional combinations, such as pancakes with strawberries or bananas, or more savory and spicy combinations.

Today I opted for #126 – a pancake full of shredded fried bacon, sliced bananas and ground red pepper. These ingredients weren’t piled on top of the pancake, but rather cooked right into the batter. It may sound like an odd combination of flavors, but drizzled liberally with maple syrup, this pancake was a sweet, spicy and savory delight.

(Full disclosure: “Pancakes!” was not my first Dutch pancake experience – I had a bacon pancake at a local restaurant shortly after my trans-Atlantic flight landed in Amsterdam. And I may very well have another one before I leave to fly home.)

Christening the Creativity

by Brian Jewell 8. August 2009 09:00

 

 

I’m in Holland (or the Netherlands, if you insist), for the christening of the ms Creativity, the newest ship to join Avalon Waterways’ river cruising portfolio.

Along with a handful of international travel journalists, I’ve been on the ship for about a day now, getting to know the beautiful new vessel, and to experience some of the advantages of river cruising. Our short weekend journey has taken us from Amsterdam to Hoorn, a scenic and historic city, and now to Volendam, a small village where today’s christening took place.

The ms Creativity is the third in a class of five sister ships, and the eighth to join the Avalon fleet. The 110-meter ship holds 140 passengers in 70 state rooms, most of which are equipped with floor-to-ceiling windows and French balconies. River cruise ships are much more intimate than the superliners used for most ocean cruises; still, the Creativity features a well-appointed dining room, two lounges, an internet café, a fitness center and salon.

Though our journey has been short, I can already see why river cruising has become so popular. The river is calm, so there is no seasickness. And the small size of the vessel makes it easy to get to know a number of people on board, without feeling overwhelmed by the crowds.

But perhaps the most impressive facet is the destination itself. River cruising allows you to experience Europe (or China or the Nile or other destinations) in a way that oceanliner cruising cannot. Our itinerary includes stops in a number of charming small towns that a cruise ship could never reach. The Creativity is specially outfitted with a collapsible wheelhouse and deck railing so that it can be navigated under some of Europe’s low bridges.

When we disembark, we blend into the town like locals, instead of overwhelming it as swarms of thousands of cruise passengers also do. The city tours, like everything else on a river cruise vessel, seems more intimate and more casual. Even today’s christening ceremony was fun and understated – dignitaries kept their remarks brief, and everyone enjoyed the popping bottle of champagne against the ship’s hull.

Tomorrow, I’ll disembark for a three-day city tour of Amsterdam, while the Creativity gears up for its inaugural cruise on the Rhine toward Germany. While I won’t have time to come along, this experience has vaulted river cruising toward the top of my list of much anticipated travel experiences.

 

 

 

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