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

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.


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.)

Volendam: A breath of fresh air

by Brian Jewell 8. August 2009 18:02

Sometimes a good walk can clear your head and help you see the things around you in a new and fresh way. In Volendam, a small fishing village outside of Amsterdam, a simple walk through town gave me a new perspective.

It’s a Saturday, you see.  And that’s important.

I don’t want to be jaded, but I couldn’t help but to feel like I’ve seen Volendam before – in Germany, in Switzerland, in Ireland, in Mexico, in Canada, in New England… even in Florida. Charming, yes, but not unique. And the sad part is that when tourists begin to discover these wonderful little places, their charm becomes a commodity. The towns no longer seem as authentic – instead, they are caricatures of themselves, peddling a certain image for tourists, all so they can sell t-shirts and ice cream.

Walking along the dock in Volendam, my spirits sank a little, as I saw the typical throngs of tourists crowded into sidewalk cafes, eating their frozen treats and stopping for photos in the most inconvenient places.  So I decided to just walk by, and I kept walking.

This is where the charm of Volendam comes into focus.  In just a few minutes, I was clear of the dockside, of the tourist district, and all of the trappings of the cheap commercialism. Just a few blocks away, I found myself in a local neighborhood, of cute Dutch style houses with peaked roofs and immaculate gardens, laid out along the sides of a canal. Down a side street, a local weekend market was taking place, where neighbors met while browsing cheese, nuts, crafts and handmade clothing. No one was there to put on a show for tourists, and no one was speaking English. This was just life in a Dutch village.

Walking through the neighborhood for half an hour or so, I saw all of the trappings of normal life on a Saturday afternoon – teenagers riding bikes through the streets, mothers on an afternoon walk pushing toddlers around in strollers, and old couples enjoying a stroll down the sidewalk on a sunny, 72-degree afternoon.  As I took it in, I remembered one of the reasons that I love travel so much: When you get past the business and the hospitality and the hassle, travel reminds us how connected we are to people of different races, different nationalities and different languages.  We are so different in so many ways, but in the end, there is so much more that we have in common.

I returned to the ship with a new spring to my step. It’s a Saturday, and I feel privileged to have enjoyed a little bit of it with the good people of Volendam. This is why we travel, and this is why those of us who get to work in tourism are blessed beyond belief.

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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