Hello from Holland! Read Kevin Sjuts' Travel Blog

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Kevin's Travel Blog: April 16

Ahhh, clean American air! We're back home safely following a lengthy return trip from Amsterdam. The itinerary didn't look so bad at first glance: arrival time only two hours after the flight's departure. But add on the time difference and you have a nine-hour overseas trek. It wasn't so bad and I think we're all anxious to get back to reality (kind of).

On the trip home, we took the time to reflect on our adventures in Holland. A wide range of answers were given when asked a favorite attraction: Van Gogh museum, Keukenhoff Gardens, the foooood! Everyone leaves this experience with only positive memories. Our group, in fact, was the first to go to Holland through Holiday Vacations. The company recently put the package together and many other groups will follow our trail during the spring. That said, Holiday Vacations is eager to get our feedback. Many of us don't know what to change! The trip was spot-on: full of action, great sight-seeing, and exciting activities. Not to mention we had some incredible built-in backdrops such as downtown Amsterdam and the spring blooms of Keukenhoff Gardens. It's as if Holiday Vacations has been doing this trip for years!

Speaking of Holiday Vacations, our tour guide this trip has been fantastic. We've been spoiled with Cheryl, who's been so kind and helpful over the past week (we didn't hold the fact that she's a Wisconsinite against her). Cheryl came up with some fun games to pass the time while on bus rides, never seemed stressed when a ticket (or person) got left behind, and was genuinely interested in each person in our group. We wish her the best in the future...and Holiday Vacations is lucky to have her on staff.

Now it's time to start sorting through all the pictures - and there are plenty of them. I think one lady took over 500 photos! We've made some great memories, but it's the people on this tour who have made it so enjoyable. To each of you, my wife and I say thank you. It truly has been a week to remember.

Signing off from Lincoln,

April 14

Goodnight Holland. We got to see a marvelous sunset this evening aboard a canal cruise in Amsterdam. Talk about a perfect ending to our stay in the Netherlands. Yes, this is our final night in Holland, so there were plenty of stories shared over a 5-course meal on the boat.

The guests also discussed their day, as we had no set itinerary. Each of us were free to go our own separate ways and enjoy Amsterdam. And enjoy we each did. There obviously is no shortage of attractions, so there was a wide-range of activities amongst our group. Many went to the Van Gogh Museum; some went to quilting stores; others shopped. Now, we have to find a way to get all of this newly-purchased stuff in our luggage!

Our "Amsterdam at Leisure" day allowed us all to further learn about the unique culture here. Its a totally different lifestyle and we've been told by multiple locals to expect anything. So here are some observations from today on the town:

- It seems nobody stays inside on Saturday. It felt like everybody was out and about.
- While the Dutch have their own language, they also speak English. Not once on this trip did we need an interpreter.
- The Dutch listen to American music almost exclusively. What you hear on your radio in Nebraska, plays here in Europe.
- The Dutch are very fit nation. Not sure if we saw any obese people.
- The Dutch are a fashionable nation. Lots of good clothing.
- The Dutch make perhaps the best desserts in the world. You can't go a block without finding a bakery.
- Water is not served free at restaurants like in America. Safe to say that's something we take for granted.
- Coffee shops don't exist to serve coffee.
- A cafe doesn't exist to serve sandwiches.
- Open-air urinals can be found around town. That's not a typo: an outdoor urinal which doesn't have a door or roof. It might help if they would drain or clean them more frequently...
- A man tried on a pair of jeans in the middle of the store. Didn't care that many others were around.
- A young girl (guessing 7 years old) went to the bathroom outside in the middle of a highly-populated area.
- Carhartt clothing is sold in Europe. Who knew!?!?! A pair of jeans cost 99 Euros ($130)
- The canals are lined with houseboats, which people use as their primary residence year-round.
- The architecture in Holland is remarkable.
- Bicyclists are everywhere. Remember, its the primary mode of transportation for many.
- Amsterdam seems to have a younger population base.
- The main sport in the Netherlands is soccer (futbol). And #10 for the orange team must be really popular.

I got a bit of a sports fix this afternoon when sitting down for a quick meal. Nearly every television was turned to a rugby game. Many at the bar were cheering and over half the restaurant was watching closely. Not like O Street on Husker football game Saturdays, but they were into it.

And speaking of the Huskers, turns out I didn't miss my first spring game since moving to Nebraska. We're aware of the severe weather situation, and we're thinking of all of you back home. Stay safe.

Signing off from Amsterdam,

April 13

Say cheese! Pictures were a-plenty on Friday at one of Europe's oldest cheese markets. Our group traveled to Alkmaar, Netherlands for this unique experience on the outskirts of Amsterdam. We had fun, took tons of photos, and, of course, ate tons of cheese.

Woodenshoe Workshop

The Alkmaar Cheese Market is held on every Friday during the summer and began its 2012 festivities just last week. Great timing on our part to be in the area. The Alkmaar Cheese Market has been in existence since 1635 and many of its traditions are carried on today. Its a major tourist attraction, but is more important to the locals. They flood the streets in Alkmaar and turn this event into a big-time show. There were multiple TV cameras on hand shooting video, so it must be a big deal.

At the Cheese Market, local producers lay out Gouda (the natives say it: "Howw-duhhh" with the "H" sounding like you're trying to spit) cheeses. The cheeses, which are circular packages around 24 pounds, are then sold. When the deal is complete, the cheeses are put onto a sledge which is lifted by 2 men. They then quickly carry the sledge to the weigh station. The cheeses are weighed - not electronically, but with a balance (traditional methods must not be broken!) The cheeses are then returned back to their original place and ready for pick-up when the Market is over. The men, known as porters, wear white shirts and pants along with a colored straw hat. They belong to an ancient guild - its quite an honor to be a porter! We got to meet a few of the porters, along with some members of the group getting to be honorary cheese testers. To test, they would use a special tool that goes about 6 inches deep into the cheese square and pull out a sample. Kind of like a syringe. And yes, it would be accurate to say "They cut the cheese." Those activities are only a portion of the cheese market.

The event also includes street vendors everywhere, cafes opening early with outdoor seating, and other exhibits throughout the street. You can purchase anything from cheese to a dog collar to pottery. Think Lincoln's Farmer's Market in the Haymarket times 25.

Woodenshoe Workshop

This all took place in the city of Alkmaar which our group fell in love with. Its a quaint, historic town that makes you feel like you're living in a movie. The ladies loved the countless boutiques. The men loved that most shops weren't open long while we were there. In all seriousness, Alkmaar has a great shopping and dining scene. Not to mention, they know how to entertain tourists for a few hours.

Later in the day, we toured Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum which is a major attraction for art enthusiasts. The museum has an impressive collection of Dutch art - most notably the works of Rembrandt. The paintings are mainly from the 16th and 17th century. We were able to browse at our own leisure and enjoy the paintings. But if you take a picture - make sure your flash is off (oops).

Our sight-seeing for the day came to a close on a somber and humbling tone. We visited the Anne Frank House. Many are familiar with her story, writing in a dairy while in hiding from Nazi persecution during World War II. We walked through the room she spent many cold and fearful nights. The furniture has been removed and many of the walls/floors have been restored. Still, the house (annex would be more appropriate) strongly depicts the tight quarters in which Anne and her family lived. We even got to walk up the narrow staircase to the attic which was hidden behind a bookcase. You talk about a powerful experience.

The house, which is now a museum, has some excerpts of Anne's book painted on the walls. The sentences are appropriately placed, summarizing something Anne did or felt in that particular room. Away from the main floors, there were videos playing to help further describe Anne's story. One was of an interview from Anne's father years after being released from a concentration camp. He said in the interview he never truly knew Anne and didn't discover her inner-most feelings until reading her diary. Anne died at the young at of 16. Her father was the only member of her immediate family that survived the war. Anne Frank statues can be found in multiple locations throughout Amsterdam.

It was an emotional end to our day in Alkmaar and Amsterdam. And it was an experience none of us will ever forget.

Signing off from Amsterdam,

April 12

Sports fans have to wait 4 years for the Olympics. Horticulture enthusiasts have to wait 10 years for their big worldwide Expo. Call it a coincidence, but Floriade is going on in Holland the same time as our visit. So, naturally, we had to pay a visit to this much-awaited festival.

Floriade is the World Horticultural Exposition which will attract over 2 million visitors in 2012. We contributed 25 to that attendance number. Our group, along with our tour guide and bus driver, made the 2-and-a-half hour trek to Venlo, Netherlands. The drive allowed us to see the beautiful countryside and learn more about Dutch culture outside of Amsterdam. Like:

- They grow asparagus in the Netherlands
- Some sound-blocking walls have been built on both sides of the highway for the betterment of lifestyle
- Traffic is not terrible. Or if someone Dutch disagrees, he's never been to Chicago.
- Of the cars on the highway, nearly 0 are SUVs
- Most cars are small and fuel-efficient
- That's because gas is 1.87 Euro/liter. Which converts to roughly $9.50/gallon. Yes, $9.50/PER GALLON!!!!
- Which explains why most kids ride bikes to school (up to 15 miles one way)

Back to the Floriade. What an amazing experience. Good thing everyone had their walking shoes on...the event covers 265 acres. The exhibit covers all grounds (pun intended) in the horticulture world. Annual flowers, perennial plants, futuristic designs, international art - Floriade showcased everything. Perhaps the most popular display was Villa Flora, the biggest indoor flower show. Here, visitors could take part in an imaginary flower auction, learn to make a bouquet, and plant a Dutch tulip. And that was only one of five themed zones at Floriade. More than 30 countries had displays of their finest bulbs, flowers, and plants. Much like Keukenhoff Gardens yesterday, there was something for everyone (even the non green thumbs) at Floriade.

After an event-filled 5 hours at Floriade, we had worked up quite the appetite. Dinner took us to a small village midway between Venlo and Amsterdam. The food was great; the conversation was even better. Our group has come together quite nicely. There are 23 guests (myself and wife, Michelle, included). We have a nice blend of friendly, genuine, sweet, funny, and well-traveled people. All but one are from Nebraska. The other is from Rochester, New York, who is along on the trip with her mother and sister - both from the Cornhusker State. We also have a 3-generation trio traveling with us. And a sister-brother combo along with his wife. Not to leave out husbands, wives, friends, and others here to enjoy Amsterdam. Its been fun watching the group come together; they've certainly added to the experience.

Following a delicious (and very filling) dinner, we safely returned to Amsterdam and night was setting in. Call it a successful day - Floriade visited and friendships forged.

Signing off from Amsterdam,

April 11

Green thumb or not, Wednesday's activities were enjoyed by all here in Holland. We were surrounded by some of the most beautiful flowers in the world, and it doesn't take a florist to appreciate these blooms. So much color and variety, we were in for quite a treat.

Field of flowers

Our day of flower power first took us to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Here, over 20 million flowers from across the globe exchange hands daily. Its the world's largest flower auction...and we got to see it live! The daily event takes place in a massive indoor warehouse sized at over 900,000 square meters (more than 10 football fields long). Motorized carts zoom across the building, moving bundles of flowers from one area to another. At some point, they'll enter the auction room where bidders look to make a deal. Its nothing like Wall Street. It's quiet, everyone is seated, and all bids are placed electronically. In fact, the bidding process takes only seconds.

The auction, unlike in America, goes from the top dollar down. A suggested retail price is named; then each bidder places his or her offer. Highest offer wins. There is no one-upping or back-and-forth. Once bids are in, the deal is closed. Onto the next item. Or in this case, the next long-stemmed tulip.

Speaking of tulips, they were in large supply at our next stop: Keukenhoff Gardens. They set quite the scene at this 70 acres of horticultural heaven. Rows upon rows; fields upon fields; the flowers had everyone in awe of this European park. The Keukenhoff Gardens is known as one of the most photographed places in the world. My dead camera battery would agree. Even a journalist has difficulty putting it into words what Keukenhoff was like. Just think hundreds of thousands of flowers; not a dead bulb; precisely planted; precisely placed; and perfect walkways to enjoy the majesty of it all. And don't step on the grass.

Keukenhoff Gardens has attractions beyond its flowers. There was a castle you could tour (we found out you must pay an entry fee), a flower maze, streams for "whisperboat" rides, and various shops and eateries. All told, you could spend multiple days at Keukenhoff Gardens and not get bored. And it'd be the perfect setting for a wedding.

Next up was a tour of Amsterdam. Though we have been staying in the Netherlands' capital city, we hadn't seen much of it until this afternoon. Our tour guide's name was Bia Bea, who puts Amsterdam's Wikipedia page to shame. She knew facts about each building, the history of the city, the recommended restaurants (sorry, another food reference), if there was a question, she knew the answer. We toured the city's north and south sides, along with some suburban areas of Amsterdam. Among the highlights would be seeing the Reichsmuseum, shopping districts, the old Heineken brewery, Dam square, and statues of Anne Frank. More to come on the latter two in the days ahead.

For now, its time to sort through hundreds of flower photos.

Signing off from Holland,

April 10

Greetings from Europe! 4,000-plus miles, two planes, and multiple doses of caffeine later, our group of 23 has arrived in Holland. It's already quite exhausting, yet the excitement is carrying us through the first days of our Amsterdam journey.

If you think springing ahead and advancing your clocks can be challenging; try moving up seven hours in time. That's what our group did with an overnight flight (receiving breakfast at what would've been 2 a.m. Nebraska time). And upon our arrival to Amsterdam, our sightseeing began immediately. The travel pros say it's best to get yourself onto European time as quickly as possible. So call it jet lag, lack of sleep, an Easter hangover - there are some tired folks right now.

Smooth and safe travels got us into Holland at 10:45 a.m. (think 3:45 Central time). We then met our bus driver Hans. He was not accompanied by a friend named Franz. And we were pumped up to meet him. Hans took us to our first of many stops here in Amsterdam: Zaanse Schans. It's a restored Dutch village that was once home to the oldest industrial area of the world. The labor centered around windmills - 12 of which still stand and operate today. We were able to tour some of the windmills. Many in our group climbed inside the De Kat windmill, which was processing fine chalk dust that will be used in crayons and also to help mark yardage lines on a football field (it always comes back to sports with me!)

One of the trademarks here in the Netherlands is wooden shoes. So, naturally, we got to see this phenomenon on the first day of our journey. Absolutely amazing. A gentleman carved a wooden shoe, starting with a block of wood about 1x2 foot, in a span of minutes! Rounded the edges, flattened the sole, cut out a hole for the toes, and voila - a wooden shoe. The store/museum was filled with a collection of shoes - many of them painted; some with intricate designs carved out. There was even a pair of wooden roller skates!

Other attractions included a stop at the Zaanse Schans museum, a boat ride down a canal, and an introductory meal at our hotel. It's safe to say we're all eating just fine. The day concluded with some members of the group making a quick trek through part of downtown Amsterdam. It gave us a sample of what we can expect over the next few days, and at the pace this city moves, it may be hard keeping up. Amsterdam is quite vibrant.

So, in sum, a double-dose of blog to begin our Holland excursion. As a guest put it: "It feels like we just spent 48 hours in one day."

Needing some rest,