On a first-class tour of Holland, Zalina Mohd Som plays pampered tourist and revels in what the capital has to offer
I NEVER dreamed that one day I would be a guest on what’s been claimed as one of Europe’s first-class holiday tours.
The seven-day Best Of Holland by Trafalgar Tour takes me on a luxury coach, puts me up in four-star hotels, treats me with good food and takes me on fantastic sight-seeing tours.
I don’t have to do anything or worry but to just enjoy the tour.
I meet tour director (Trafalgar’s term for tour guide) Ananda at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and join other travellers on a Trafalgar coach.
From the moment we take our seats in the luxurious 40-seater coach, everything — from checking in and out of the hotel, handling the luggage from the coach to the room and vice versa, and making dinner reservations — is taken care of.
We just have to take care of our hand luggage and make sure we get on the bus on time.
After my usual budget, do-it-yourself trips, it is great to be treated like a queen.
Besides its maze of canals, Amsterdam is famed for its red-light district and its tolerance for cannabis. That’s about all I know about the city.
However, the short drive from the airport to Manor Hotel Amsterdam doesn’t allow me to make any impressions about the city.The view along the way is also limited to that of industrial areas.
The grand Manor Hotel welcomes with its beautiful late 1800s architecture but inside, it takes on a chic, quirky design that fully uses Amsterdam’s official coat of arms, the triple X design in bright red, white and black.
The official tour starts with a candlelit welcome dinner cruise along the canal.
The two-hour scenic cruise gives a glimpse of Amsterdam, passing through famous landmarks and acts like an introduction to the city.
From the water level, I can see that the city is mainly made of charming centuries-old buildings that flank the canals while the roads are full of bicycles, bicycles and more bicycles.
At a certain part of the cruise where quaint, colourful buildings with distinctive Dutch-style roofs flank the canal, I can’t help but feel like I am in Malacca.
As a country that’s home to some of the world’s greatest artists, and with unique architectures, the old city of Amsterdam is picturesque at any turn.
From the top of the hop-on, hop-off city sightseeing bus, the city takes on a different character. It’s busy and chaotic, with thousands of bicycles and traffic snaking through narrow lanes and roads.
With pre-recorded commentary in different languages, the bus makes the best choice for those who want to see the city and to learn more than what meets the eyes.
The second day of the tour ends a bit early and that gives us a chance to explore the city on our own. With complimentary tickets for the sightseeing bus in hand, we plan our route.
My roommate, Phe Be Bay from Singapore, and I choose to walk down the street after we finish the complete loop of the hop-on, hop-off bus.
We walk from Dam Square to Centraal Station. This stretch is a popular tourist street with a number of souvenir shops, food outlets and money changers.
From there, we enter a smaller lane that leads to the most-visited area in the city — the red light district. The area is a main attraction as most tourists are curious to check it out for themselves.
The district covers a large area of the oldest part of the city, with 300-year-old gabled buildings, all tall, thin and crowded together, overlooking tree-lined canals.
Besides the famous high windows with sexy girls dressed in eye-popping garb, there’s a host of sex-related theatres, shops and museums. There are also coffeeshops for those looking for something “high”. Coffeeshops in Amsterdam don’t only sell coffee but (light) cannabis too.
I prefer to discover Amsterdam on foot. It’s more intimate, impromptu and adventurous.
Night Watch & sunflowers
Amsterdam isn’t all about the red light district and cannabis. It’s also a place where art lovers can feel at home. There are many museums and art galleries but two are considered a must-visit — Rijksmusuem in the city, and Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, a two-hour drive from Amsterdam.
The former is the national museum dedicated to arts and crafts. It houses a vast collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age with works by Rembrandt, Vemeer, Hals and Steen.
The hall with Rembrandt’s giant painting, Night Watch, is the most popular.
At Kroller-Muller Museum, attention is mostly given to beautiful paintings by Van Gogh and Piet Mondriaan. Though Van Gogh’s famous 12 Sunflowers is not displayed at the museum, the Four Cut Sunflowers is enough to pacify his fans.
The museum is also known for its large sculpture garden which is set within the lush forest of Hoge Veluwe National Park. The garden reflects founder Helene Kroller-Muller’s conception of a relationship between art, architecture and nature.
Tulips And More
WHAT is a visit to the land of tulips without seeing one, or even visiting its many gardens, parks and farms?
Our tour includes a visit to the two world-famous parks — Keukenhof which only opens in spring and Floriade 2012, a horticultural expo that’s only staged once every 10 years.
When I find out that we’ll be spending more than half a day at each of these gardens, I wonder if the parks have enough attractions to occupy us.
But when I enter Keukenhof entrance, the sweet scent of blossoming tulips entices me. I stop every five steps and spend at least 10 minutes to take close-up shots of the colourful tulips.
Of different colours, sizes and ranges, the tulips are beautifully spread all over the park, making it a huge 32-hectare of colourfully landscaped garden. If I had walked on all its footpaths, I would have covered 15km!
Floriade is a different setting. The unique gardening expo offers flower lovers more than 100 gardens and pavilions filled with the world’s unique flowers and plants. Located about 90 minutes from Amsterdam, the expo is made of five themed gardens — Relax And Heal, Green Engine, Education and Innovation, Environment and World Show Stage with more than 100 exhibitors.
There are also cable cars, themed restaurants and cafes, children playgrounds and interactive activities. Floriade 2012 ends on Oct 7.
DO you know that Amsterdam is home to many world-famous museums? Mind you, there are over 50 museums dedicated to arts and crafts to cats, sex and cheese. The city has museums and galleries for almost every interest. Besides Rijksmusuem and Kroller-Muller Museum, other popular ones are Anne Frank House, Stedeljik Museum, Heineken (yes, the beer company) and the Sex Museum.
Next week, the journey continues up north to Groningen.