Monday, 13 August 2012

Eric’s Uninformed Travel Tips: Netherlands Edition

I debated calling this one Netherlands Edition or Amsterdam Edition, and splitting this post into several smaller posts with Amsterdam, The Hague, and rural Netherlands, however laziness ultimately ruled the day (It always does!) and I decided to cram everything into one post.  It may not be as comprehensive, but dammit…I don’t care!  It’s summer and I am lazy…I will however point out right at the outset that these three locations are very different, and if you only go to one, don’t assume that you have seen Netherlands, it is worth going to these other locations as well.
Houses and Canals, a staple of dutch cities
 I should also point out that after research I have found that although 99% of the world’s English speaking population says “The Netherlands” it is actually just “Netherlands”.  In fact, according to the BBC, CIA Factbook, and US department of state (that’s right, I actually did research…, Bam!), only two countries officially have “The” in their names…The Bahamas and The Ghana…while “The Netherlands” is officially, Kingdom of the Netherlands…whoda thunk it?  I should also point out that Netherlands is strictly the English name of the country as in Dutch it is Nederlands and in French it’s Pays-Bas…all of these meaning “Low country” in their respective tongues.  To add to this confusion, the city of The Hague (this one does officially have a “The”) is also different, as in Dutch it is Den Haag and in French it is La Haye.  I have decided I will use all these names interchanging throughout the article just to keep people on their toes…ha!

Locations visited in March, 2012:  Den Haag, Amsterdam, Zaanse Schans, Volendam, and Edam, Nederlands.
Dates of trip: March 10-13, 2012
How did we get there: Train, about 2hrs to Rotterdam then a change and 30mins to La Haye.  The Hague to Amsterdam was then 45mins by train, and then we took a bus tour to the small villages…the trains were about 300/person when you factor in all the smaller legs and the bus tour was about 35 Euro/person.
Where did we stay:  In The Hague we stayed at a Novotel in the center of town and it was about 100/night, but then in Amsterdam we stayed at an Ibis (which is a discount hotel), right over the train station for only about 85 Euro/night…In my experience, this is by far the cheapest hotel in Amsterdam that is not spelled with an “s” between the o and t, and in fact it was pretty nice, I would recommend it.

This trip was actually taken with my parents who were visiting us in Europe for the first time and it was their choice to do Pays-Bas.  Julia had to get back for work and so, she only joined us for the part in La Haye and returned afterward to Paris while my parents and I went on to Amsterdam.

Our first impressions of Den Haag were not that great, but we have learned in doing a lot of train travel that you should never judge a place based on what you see from the train as 90% of the time, the worst part of town is the part near the railway.  And the same rang true here; once we got into the center of town it was actually very nice.

La Haye was split into what I saw as 4 distinct parts:
1.      The downtown area (Old town, if you will), which is where a lot of the shopping, hotels (including ours), and restaurants are.
2.     The park areas:  which are where…well…the parks are.
3.     The residential/international area:  This was cool, if you are not aware, the Hague is the home of the world court…and so, pretty much every nation that has regular dealings with the world court (let’s just say the…not so nice nations) have consulates around there and they are all in this really nice part of town with canals and great streets…very nice digs these horrible 3rd world dictatorships have…very nice.
4.     The beach: Huge, huge beach…really impressive…it is also lined with casinos, restaurants, and amusement rides…really, I wish we were there when it was even remotely warm because it could have been very fun.

Just chillin' at the Lebanese embassy
In general, each part had its own charms; however, they were relatively separated, to the point where it was quite a hike (about 45min-1hr) to get from the downtown to the beach.  Once we figured out the transit system life was a bit easier, but this was limiting at first. 

Being that I am not a huge, beach or park person, I must admit that these parts were not the most interesting to me…although the amount of distractions (casinos, aquariums…other crazy stuff) at the beach could keep me entertained.  Also, in the downtown there were not the regular wealth of old buildings etc. that there are in most European cities…and so, I found that the part of town that most interested me, was the part centered around the world court…I had fun seeing the consulates homes and walking the canals…but ultimately, more than a few hours of this and I would be bored.

After two days we were ready to leave La Haye, so we caught the local train from Den Haag to Amsterdam…the trains ran every 20 minutes and were much like the Go Train in Toronto…the trip between the two cities was only about 45 minutes in total.  The system was really super easy to use and I highly recommend dutch train travel.

I am not going to go into every detail on Amsterdam, so instead I will go through some of my favorite experiences there in my two trips so far:

1.     Boat cruise on the canals: These are great, cheap, and leave constantly from just outside the train station…highly recommended.
2.     Anne Franck House:  The lineups can be long (we waited about 45mins) but the payoff is one of my favorite museums in Europe and a truly moving experience.  I honestly think people should have to see this…it is a part of history we should never forget, lest we repeat it.

Really moving
3.     Houseboat museum:  This tiny privately run museum is on Prinsengraacht St. (in a boat) and is still the only houseboat I have ever been in, and for that reason it’s a must-do…plus it was 2 Euros.
4.     Red Light District: What to say here…?  Hmmm….?  Well, let me just say this…you need to see it.  It is unique, fun, weird, a little gross, and at the same time infinitely entertaining…also, there are some great bars in this region if you are not interested in the weed and/or prostitutes.
5.     Shopping:  Holy crap the shopping…for my money, it’s better than Paris, but not as good as London.
6.     FEBO:  Greatest invention in fast food since the burrito.
7.     So very many more things:  Seriously…go there.

So, eventually we did have to venture forth into the world outside the cities and we decided to do this as part of a bus tour leaving from Amsterdam.  You can book the tours on any travel site, the one we did was called: “Windmills, Edam and Volendam”.  I will just say a few brief things about each of the three main stops.

Zaanse Schans: This is really just a historic recreation village outside of another town.  The main highlights were a wooden shoe maker, a cheese maker, and 3 of the last remaining working windmills.  It was a more museum-y experience, but worth it for the opportunity to see these 3 different industries up close.

Edam:  The sleepy town of Edam didn’t have much going on when we were there, and we only really did a quick walking tour to the center of town then left.  It was a beautiful place though, and what it lacked in any form of entertainment, it made up for in charm.

Volendam:  Finally, we visited the port town of Volendam.  This was my favorite stop for several reasons…1.  There were actually bars, restaurants, and other things to entertain me.  2. It reminded me of towns in the south of NS… 3. It was a great opportunity to see the famous dikes in action…really impressive.

Finally, when we returned from our bus tour we spent one final night in Amsterdam and then returned to the big smoke (that'd be Paris for those not following along).  Overall, a very good trip.

For the rankings, I am actually going to split these locations up into 3, Den Haag, Amsterdam, and rural Netherlands.

The Hague:
Affordability: 7/10 (it was March, keep that in mind)
Entertainment: 7/10 for a beach holiday, for everything else...5/10…seems like a great place to live…not the most interesting place to visit though.
Ease of travel: 7/10, there is no direct train, but once you get in Nederlands, the train system is amazing and pretty easy to use.
Overall: 6/10, In March the beach scene was not too great…perhaps if we had gone in summer this could have been a 7 or even an 8.

Affordability: 5/10, getting around and eating are not expensive…but hotels are ridiculous…
Entertainment: 10/10, there is really something for everyone in Amsterdam…it’s not just hookers, clubs, and pot…although it is that as well.
Ease of travel: 9/10 2.5hr direct train from Paris Gare du Nord.
Overall: 9/10, I only marked this down from a 10/10 because the party scene is not for everyone, and although there is a lot to keep you entertained outside of that scene, it is impossible to completely escape it.

Rural Pays-Bas:
Affordability: 8/10 I can’t say anything about lodging as we didn’t stay there, but as usual, once you get to the country things are cheaper.
Entertainment: 8/10 if you have wheels. 5/10 if you don’t…this is always the problem with travelling in the country.
Ease of travel: 4/10…you better have a car or be on a tour.
Overall: 8/10, you just don’t get to see the stereotypical Dutch things (windmills, tulips, dikes etc.) in the cities and so you need to get into the country.

Got wood?
And for the whole trip: 8/10, the weather was a bit iffy, and it was not a good time of year to visit The Hague, but other than that it was a really fun trip.

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