My Travel Map

My Travel Map

27 June 2012

Amsterdam



I was a little dismayed when I first found out that I had only an 18 hour stopover in Amsterdam on my way back from Vienna.  I'd always hoped that I would be able to devote more time to my first trip to the Netherlands.  However, I made the best of it and got out to see the city as soon as I dropped my bag off at my hotel near the airport.  I loved it immediately and ended up spending around 13 of those stopover hours wandering this incredible city...



Amsterdam is possibly most famous for these places... coffeeshops.  Don't mistake these for something like your neighborhood Starbucks, though...oh no...that's not why Amsterdam's coffeeshops are famous.  Amsterdam is one of the few places in the world where smoking marijuana is legal (though the rules are getting a little more strict now), and coffeeshops are where you go to relax and take a nice smoke. 


This is the Amsterdam I was hoping to see...the canals, riverboats, and characteristic, gabled houses.  I must say, I wasn't let down.  I fell for the city as soon as I stumbled upon the Brouwersgracht.  I must say, I was a little biased coming into Amsterdam.  I had never met a Dutch person while traveling that I didn't like.  Nor had I met one that spoke less than four languages (at least conversationally).  I wasn't let down at all by what I found in Amsterdam.  The people were friendly and helpful, and most spoke excellent English.  I was also very pleasantly surprised to find such a multi-ethnic mix of people wandering the streets...something that is truly lacking in most European cities.  I liked Amsterdam right away.


Again, there may be some bias in my take on the city.  I was very fortunate to have my very long stopover occur on Queen's Day eve.  Queen's Day is the celebration of the Dutch Queen's birthday, and they don't take it lightly in Amsterdam.  The whole city was partying!  It was incredible.  This is one of many floating parties that I saw go by on the canals. 


The city was also done up in all orange or the tri-color (sometimes seen with the lion as shown on the banners here).  It was very relieving to see a country as proud as we often are in Canada...especially when it is a country with such a great modern reputation for tolerance and peace.


And back to the canals... several parts of the city center are just stunningly beautiful.  This has turned into a picture-heavy post because of that simple fact...  Anyway, the canals were a planned addition to the city in the 17th century.  They served the city for defense, water management, and transportation.  The canals form concentric half-rings around the old city center...they have also very effectively cut off most efficiency of having a car in the center, leading Amsterdam to be one of the most bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly (but after the bikes, of course) major-cities in the world. 


Gables on Amsterdam's buildings started showing up in the early seventeenth century.  They were basic at first, but then got more and more elaborate over time.  Now they are seen on the vast majority of Amsterdam's most picturesque canals.  Many incorporate cantilevered pulley systems too, which are supposedly still functioning and used to move heavy furniture into upper level apartments!


One of the things I liked most while wandering the city were all the little quirks and fine touches... like these traditional clogs turned flower pots decorating a wall.


Near the Jordaan area, which is also famous for its bric-a-brac (odds and ends and/or antiques) shops, there were plenty of cool art galleries scattered about.  I didn't get the chance to go into any though, since they were all closed for Queen's Day!


Now back to the canals...and the party.  As I mentioned above, the whole city seemed to be out enjoying the festival.  There were several places where bar keeps or boat owners or just locals set up loud speakers and were blaring party music.  These inevitably gathered crowds of revelers and ended up shutting down entire intersections.


There were some very pleasant, quiet parts of the city too.   I particularly enjoyed my stroll through the Brouwersgracht, Jordaan, near Spui, and...


near the Westerkerk (West Church)...an immensely photogenic section of town.



Again here, as in many of the pictures...bicycles (and the Westerkerk).



Amsterdam is also home to the previous residence of Anne Frank... during the very dark occupation years of WWII.  There was an immensely long line, so I ended up not getting inside, though I've heard the museum is quite touching.  They have preserved the secret annex that her and her family hid away in.  The entrance was hidden behind a hinged book shelf, which still conceals the entrance today.


If you haven't already noticed all the bikes...seriously... keep track.  They are EVERYWHERE.  Everyone uses them and pedestrians must be wary of the ringing of bells (and walking around blind corners).  Everyone has a bike rack over the back tire too...or even a seat on the front (like the bike seen here) to carry goods and people.  It is apparently a fine skill to be able to ride, while drunk, with a drunk friend on the back rack...I saw plenty of that while I was there and even had the honor of having a Canadian guy I met at the brown cafe (see below) show me his skills (with me on the back and him driving).


In the late afternoon/evening, the lighting was just perfect...




How awesome is this?  Note the orange bow tie... the people of Amsterdam literally went all out for Queen's Day celebrations.  There was barely an alley that didn't have at least a flag or orange banner hanging somewhere.


Along Spui.  There were a few neat book shops along here, but of course, they were closed for the celebrations.  It was a neat little section of the old city center though...one I'll have to make my way back to when I get back.


Amsterdam isn't very car friendly, but there is a great network of street cars.  Just be careful as they tend to zip right along and it is up to pedestrians and bicyclists to get the hell out of the way!


Triple-X flag and coat of arms of the city.  Notice how crooked this building is...I don't know if it is the unstable, soft ground or just shoddy construction, but there were A LOT of crooked buildings around town.


Reflections in the canals...


These are many of the things that Amsterdam is better known for...for better or for worse.  The city is incredibly liberal, but I didn't find it at all to be a bad thing.  There was definitely an interesting mix of people there, but the good ones were easy to find, and the seedier ones were easy to avoid.


This rickshaw summed up what many young tourists are probably looking for.


Ahhh, here we go, FOOD!  I found this awesome street south of the city center courtesy of my Rough Guide.  I had one goal in mind...


...Indonesian food.  Due to it's colonial-era history, the Netherlands has some very strong connections to Indonesia, and thanks to this, Amsterdam is blessed with some of the best Indonesian restaurants outside of that archipelago nation.  I had actually never had a legit Indonesian dinner before.  Satay skewers yes, but the rest of the fixins, nope.  Boy, was I happy with it too...delicious stuff.  Peanuts were a dominant flavor in the noodle and beef dishes, but there was also coconut rice, flaked coconut chicken and a spicy sauced chicken.  There were even pickled veggies.  Amazingly good stuff!  And of course, Bintang beer to wash it all down. 


Being so far north, night settled in late, but that didn't stop any of the Queen's Day celebrations.



If anything, the setting sun actually brought more people out into the streets.  There were certain areas that were just a sea of people.  I ended up getting lost multiple times just wandering and taking it all in.


I stopped for a beer in one of the city's lesser-known (to outsiders) brown cafes...so named for the color of the interior.  Legend has it that the interiors are brown from decades of smoking, though that is now illegal indoors.  And don't get these places confused with the coffeeshops...you can't buy any ganja in these places.  The brown cafes are just great, atmospheric little bars to enjoy a beer or cocktail while listening to some chill music or chatting with friends.


Prime example of a crowded square full of Queen's Day revelry.


I'm already looking forward to returning to Amsterdam sometime in the near future.  I REALLY enjoyed the city.  It is beautiful and the people are just wonderful.  I hope to have more time next visit to explore a bit more (and definitely eat more).  I also want to take some time to explore the rest of the Netherlands when I get back...flying out, I was treated to a colorful show as the plane passed over the brilliantly bright, multicolored fields of tulips.  Just a great end to a good trip.

11 June 2012

Jamaica




We spent a week on the Caribbean isle of Jamaica for our wedding.  We were based out of Negril, and we rented a van for the week, so we were able to get around to explore a bit of the western and southern parts of the island.  This was the morning view from our room at the Beach House Villas in Negril...a great place to stay, one that I would very highly recommend; it's also known for the coldest Red Stripes (which I can confirm, and greatest bartenders and staff, I might add) on all of Negril's world-famous, 7-Mile Beach!
 


Negril has a city ordinance stating that no building can be taller than the tallest palm tree, and this law has done great things to preserve the local feel of Negril's 7-mile-long stretch of white sand and protect it from the massive, corporate all-inclusives.  This view is looking north along the curving beach from the Kuyaba hotel and restaurant (which has great jerk sauce by the way).  It is so refreshing to look at a beautiful coast-line and not see it marred by massive, monstrous hotels and resorts, each vying for the most height with the "best views".  Instead, the beach is dominated by green, with only hints of the buildings poking out here and there to remind you that you are still surrounded by civilization.



No matter which part of the beach you are on in Negril, however, you are reminded of the Jamaican resort civilization that is just a few steps away.  One thing that is seemingly omnipresent throughout Jamaica is the Rastafarian flag and colors (seen here as the tri-color behind the Red Stripe bottle and "Welcome" sign).  Interestingly, these are actually the colors of the Ethiopian flag, since Rastafarianism has its roots in Africa and is in fact centered around African culture.  Some have taken the religion to an extreme, promoting African supremacy, but these tend to be restricted mostly to groups living isolated in the central mountains.  The vast majority of practicing Rastas are very friendly and helpful people. Unfortunately, Rastafarianism has been associated, by those unfamiliar with it mostly, with smoking copious amounts of marijuana, but while this is not a baseless stereotype, the religion is much more than that.  For example, most people don't know that Rastas are often vegetarian and know about all types of juices and herbs that are good for various ailments or just general health.  Every day we were there we were offered some juices good for various things, carrot and ginger, mango and orange, and a variety of others that showcased just how much grew on the island.   



Looking south toward central Negril.  7-Mile beach is lined with entrepreneurs, those offering glass bottom boat rides, rental jet skis, banana boat rides, snorkel tours, handmade jewelry, souvenirs, all kinds of drugs, sex (both female and male...Negril is famous for its Rastatutes), and of course restaurants and food shacks.  Many of these people resort to hustling, which can be quite annoying.  As always, try to stay firm but polite when insisting that you aren't interested in whatever you are selling.  A firm "no thank you, I don't want any" with a smile and the offering of a closed fist to bump and praise "Respect" will go a very long way for you...



Looking out towards the sea from Negril, you will be facing west, so sunsets there are often second-to-none.  Here are just a few samples from our trip...




At a certain point in the day, the sea seemed to turn to mercury...the sunlight just reflected perfectly off of it and gave the appearance of a massive sea of liquid metal.  It was one of my favorite parts of the day to just relax and take it all in.  This picture doesn't really capture it, and I don't think any picture really can, since they can't demonstrate the dynamics of the system...how the mercury sea changes and glistens with the waves and wakes and how it seems so much more dense since it is no longer transparent in the shallows.



OK, enough sunsets for now.  This was a great mural at a restaurant near the Beach House Villas.  It seemed to be a pretty typical scene for life in Jamaica: the Rasta man pushing his cart selling juice and fresh fruit picked from the local trees (literally, there were fruit trees of all kinds, EVERYWHERE).  Another man selling some sugar cane, and others are just talking or hanging out in the colorful village with the beautiful backdrop.


Now, a not so typical road scene.  I mean, yes, the people walking on the side, the small motorcycle (probably with two or more people on it), and the guy on the bike are all (very) regular things to see on the road.  The thing that makes this unusual is the quality of the road.  This was just outside of Negril, heading south on the main highway that circumnavigates the island.  The roads around Negril benefit from tourism, particularly the money the government has invested in infrastructure around main tourist hubs to help boost Jamaica's image with visiting foreigners.  Just a few more miles down the road though, and everything changes.  The scenery and others on the road are still there, but all of the sudden the road has pot holes that will swallow a car whole.  Being the entrepreneurial people they are, there are also a massive amount of tire-repair shops along the highways.  It is a bit of a conundrum though...a real chicken or the egg problem if you ask me...how the roads always seem to be the absolute worst within a mile of the shops.  It really makes one wonder... 


Scene at Font Hill Beach park...nice place, definitely frequented by locals, but really not worth the admission fee.  There are plenty of very beautiful and very free beaches elsewhere on the island.


The lovely Bluefields Bay.  This little area seemed particularly blessed...with absolutely perfect waters, pleasant small towns, and apparently good fishing.


We stopped here in Bluefields Bay for lunch after soaking up some sun and enjoying the snorkeling at Font Hill.  Man, was that a good decision!


Feel like some jerk chicken or other street meat?  No problem mon, there were plenty of steel-drum grills and various other treats lining the beach at Bluefields.



Or do as we did and check out the Fresh Touch restaurant, by the buildings at the gate/entrance to the beach walk.  This place was amazing...and the food was legit.  The menu is seen here (above).  I had the curried conch with festivals, bammy, and rice and peas (really black beans).  Festivals are little sweet fried dumplings served with all manners of meal.  Bammy is a very dense, doughy dumpling made from casava...they are perfect for making a little stewy/saucy food go a long way (an ubiquitous quality of staple starches in poor areas of the world).  The conch was some of the freshest I've ever had.  It was so good and in massive portions for only a few dollars.  It had such a laid back, care-free feel to it as well, as is evident in the picture of their local bar below.





 Further south to the Black River area.  The Black River is the longest, and deepest, river in Jamaica.  It is aptly named for the dark color it gets from tannins (the same as what dyes black tea) in the local vegetation.  The river deltas near the coast (at the town of Black River) and is brackish there, but upstream it is fresh and clean (though still deep, dark brown in color).  We took a boat ride here with Captain Lloyd of Irie Safaris.  It was a great way to spend a couple hours learning about the river system and the local (and very interesting) flora and fauna.
 

The Black River is home to the rare, American crocodile.  The boat drivers know where the less shy guys hang out.  We saw several on our trip, though this guy, who was sunning on a dock right near where we launched from, was probably the biggest...maybe around 8-10 feet.


Further upstream, the river was just beautiful... a bird-rich system of mangroves and canals.


We stopped a few miles upstream so those of us brave enough to test our nerve against the "crocodile-infested" waters could go for a refreshing swim.  Of course, in reality, the crocodiles are at least as afraid of us as we are of them and will avoid humans.  The water was very refreshing on the hot, muggy day, and as promised, it was indeed exceptionally fresh and clean.  It was incredibly clear too.  We were swimming in about 18 feet of water (the river is very deep, up to 30 feet in places, which is remarkable considering that it is not really that wide in most places!), but you could open your eyes and see the bottom clearly enough by diving down (everything had a brown tint to it though of course).


Many locals live and die along the river.  This man was a local fisherman, who literally relies on the river's wealth for his sustenance.  Pretty humbling for us to see.


We saw several species of bird along the river as well.  The neatest was definitely the osprey (not pictured here) and the "Jesus bird" (which is named such since it literally walks on water taking advantage of submerged lily pads and its very light body).  The guide knew all of their names and characteristics too...most enlightening.





Now, inland and on to YS Falls.  The falls are located on ranch land, and it is especially beautiful ranch land in the mountains at that.


After arriving at the main station, a tractor takes you onto the ranch to the site of the falls.


Jamaica is blessed with many waterfalls...several of which have become tourist attractions.  After seeing YS, there was no doubt why.  They were beautiful...in such a lush and perfect mountain-jungle setting.  The water is crisp and cool and there are plenty of pools to jump in and lounge around in.  There was even an awesome rope swing into one of the bigger pools...a feature I took full advantage of!

 

After the falls, we drove south to Treasure Beach, with the aim of negotiating a reasonable ride out to the Pelican Bar for drinks and sunset.  The Pelican Bar is a neat and unique place: a ramshackle bar 1 km out to sea, accessible only by boat.  Unfortunately, the local boaters charge an unacceptable amount for access...around $30-$40 PER PERSON!  Yea, for a 1 km boat ride?  I don't think so.  That price doesn't even include your drinks at the bar!  So, instead, we wandered over to Jack Sprat's restaurant and bar, which boasts it's own small beach and cove and another perfect place to catch sunset.  Jack Sprat's is EXACTLY the atmosphere we were looking for.  Other than a couple, friendly locals, we were the only people there.  It also provided me with one of the best meals I've ever eaten... jerk lobster.  The lobster was super fresh and buttery, and it paired soooo well with the perfect, thick, spicy-savory jerk sauce.


This was one of my favorite stops in Jamaica.  It just had this "forget the world and relax" feel about it.  It was sleepy and forgotten...just you and the locals and a few other random travelers who managed to get the hell off the beaten track and travel south to the middle of nowhere Jamaica.  It was perfect.


Jack Sprats had so much character too.  One of the local guys who we met while trying to bargain for the ride out to the Pelican Bar was very proud of Jamaican artists...using the various decor around the bar to tell us all about Marley and the classic Jamaican crime film, The Harder They Come.

The kind-of black beach at Jack Sprats.  There is supposedly an actual black sand beach just further east along the road from here that is supposed to be very photogenic.  We never made it that far...I'll have to save that for my next trip.  Overall, I was very happy with what we got at Treasure Beach and Jack Sprats.

And...more sunset photos.  This was the show nature put on for us as we ate the phenomenal dinner at Jack Sprats.  Just the perfect way to cap off the time there.



After a few days of hard bargaining, we got our group onto a small catamaran for a snorkeling and island party trip.


Stop 1: drop off the chefs and food at the small island off the northern tip of 7-Mile beach (not far), but man was that water perfect.


Chefs preparing Caribbean lobster and jerk chicken and fried rice on the grill under the trees on the island beach.  This food was SO good...and so simple.


While waiting for the food, we went snorkeling.  There was an old pirate ship that had wrecked on the reef here a long time ago...a cannon (seen here) and the anchor can still be found amongst the urchins, coral, and bright fish.


The super-touristy and oh such a ripoff Rick's Cafe.  Still, that cliff diving was a highlight of my trip and that cove is something out of my own personal heaven.


The water there at the cove at Rick's was really deep...20 or so feet I'd guess.  Boat trips would pull up to let people swim and cliff jump, and the growing crowd at Rick's would enjoy the show.

These brave local kids would do all sorts of aerial acrobatics and dives into the water across the way.  They were quick though...they have spotters to pick out any tourists at Rick's who take pictures of them.  If they see you snapping a shot during a trick, then they expect to be paid for the privilege.  Makes good sense to me...I was happy to support them for the entertainment.  Some of them had some incredible diving skills.


Across the way, where the kids set up shop, was also a beautiful view of the lighthouse and Negril's southern tip.


Rick's Cafe: I'd recommend going there...for the cove and cliff diving definitely.  I'd recommend against eating there though...it is stupidly overpriced and the food isn't anywhere near as good as you can get for 1/10th the price just out on the street.  Still, enjoying a US priced Red Stripe while taking in the sunset after a dive and swim in that perfect cove is highly recommended.


And a shot from the main event...one of my favorites.  We had a beautiful day, perfect sunset, and the wedding was everything we wanted.  Overall, we had a great time in Jamaica.  The island is stunningly beautiful, both along the coast and inland.  The only thing I didn't like were the hustlers, but that will come naturally with bold and terribly impoverished people whose home is relentlessly inundated by wealthy tourists.  However, those disreputable few can't tarnish the overwhelming warmth and kindness of the vast majority of the Jamaicans we met.