An Hour to Amsterdam

Rotterdam is a fine city, don't get me wrong, but when you are in the Netherlands, you can't pass up a chance to visit one of the greatest cities in the world–Amsterdam.

Eurodam is docked in Rotterdam, a little more than an hour's drive to Amsterdam. Our group of journalists climbed into a motor coach early Monday morning (I mean 8 a.m. early) and began our journey.

While not as bad as L.A., let's say, there are traffic jams in Holland. Just thought I'd mention that.

By the time we reached the city, we were anxious to head out. Luckily, the Netherlands Tourist Board provided us two of the greatest guides I have ever met--Diana, easy to pronounce; Bergtje, a little bit tougher. I directed all my questions to Diana, of course.

To put it succinctly, Amsterdam is just a cool city. It's quite easy to walk (watch out, though, for trolleys and ubiquitous bicycles that I think outnumber cars) and has such sensory appeal. The streets are vibrant, there are outdoor restaurants and cafes everywhere and, so it seemed, everyone speaks English. That is great for American tourists.

After some walking and taking in a few sights, we enjoyed lunch aboard a canal boat hosted by the Canal Company, which also provides lunch. Amsterdam is bisected by a series of canals (similar to Venice, but still very different). Traffic is quite heavy on the canals that it is almost like a normal road: Canal boat captains often signal their presence by blowing their horns and it is not uncommon for boats to collide. Just hope you don't run into some one's home: Yes, Amsterdam is famous for houseboats on the canals. I hear rents are still cheaper than a studio in New York.

After lunch it was time to visit some of Amsterdam's treasured places. While some in the group heads to the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh museum, I and one other journalist took a walk to the Anne Frank House, which is about a 30-minute walk from the museums, but trams are available.

For anyone, visiting the very house Anne Frank lived and wrote her diary in is chilling. Do note that it is a very popular landmark and the line to get in sometimes snakes around the corner. From the time we queued up, it took about a half hour to get in.

It's worth the wait. Much of the house and secret annex have been kept fully intact and there are small exhibits as well inside (videos and literature, etc.), which give some historical perspective. This is a must see if you have the time.

Later in the afternoon, we were given a tour of Gassan Diamonds, where we learned everything you could squeeze into 45 minutes about diamonds. I had no idea Amsterdam was such a hot spot for diamonds. I assumed Antwerp in Belgium was the place. Gassan assured me they had the best diamonds, of course. I didn't argue.

Before dinner we had some more free time. I got "lost" in the Red Light District, the infamous couple blocks of legalized prostitution and other tawdriness. Our guides told us that the city was trying to curb what goes on, but I think it actually gives the city a kind of sordid charm. It is a bizarre area. Instead of prostitutes out in the open, they are confined to storefronts and forced to sell their wares behind glass windows. I made a quick walk by a few such windows, never stopping a beat, and concluded that it is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen.

Then there is the business of the "coffee shops." Now, these are not Starbucks, mind you. A coffee shop is code for: Yes, come in, we sell marijuana!" Don't be alarmed though, it's quite legal in Amsterdam to do so, which, for an American, again, is--well--weird. Again, I'd walk by without skipping a beat just to see what it was like. Ironically, just on Tuesday, the Netherlands joined other EU counties in its tobacco smoking ban in bars and restaurants. Marijuana, it seems, is still legal. Go figure.

For dinner, we ate at a great authentic Indonesian restaurant called Restaurant Selecta. We enjoyed what is called a "Rijsttafel" or rice table, which is composed of many small dishes originating from Indonesia, a former Dutch colony. The whole spectacle was fantastic, from the rice to the beef and everything in between.

As I stated earlier, our day began at 8 a.m.; it ended at 10:30 p.m., which is when we made it back to the ship. I concluded that it was the longest shore excursion ever and intended to tell Guinness, but before I could pick up the phone, I fell asleep. Amsterdam was awesome!

Back to Eurodam news. Today, Tuesday, is the christening of the ship, presided over by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. It begins at approximately 4 p.m. local time, 10 a.m. EST. Holland America will stream the event live on its website, If you have the time, take a watch.

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