Saturday, May 23, 2020

Pandemic Travel: Beyond Amsterdam in an Armchair

In the midst of a pandemic, planning a trip might seem foolhardy, if not downright dangerous. But I’m re-learning how to appreciate travel the way I discovered it—in an armchair.

Whether I’m reading—or writing—about places, I’m transported. And these days, we could all use a little healthy escape. And when we’re once again able to board a plane and start exploring again, we’ll savor the experience that much more. In the meantime, I plan to armchair travel regularly. 

Holland, my first shelter-in-place stop, is so chill an ottoman is required. Just as there’s more to America than New York City, there is more to Holland than Amsterdam. When I first visited this northern European country at the end of college, though, I was most interested in its largest and most famous city. With its brown bars, Heineken Brewery, Old Masters’ art, and quaint canals—not to mention those unconventional cafés that served space cakes—Amsterdam monopolized my imagination.  

The Keukenhof Gardens live up to the hype.
Sure I knew about the famed tulip fields and windmills in the adjacent countryside and I’d heard about The Hague and Delft, but that’s about as deep as my knowledge went. During a recent trip, however, I made up for my youthful ignorance by exploring a little of the wealth of the Netherlands outsideof Amsterdam. 

For starters, I did more than check a box by visiting the famed Keukenhof Gardens with its acres of brilliant tulips. Despite crowds that sometimes seemed nearly as abundant as the blossoms on display, I found the gardens to be almost overwhelming—in a good way. Over the years I’ve seen plenty of Instagram-quality photos of fields of tulips, but none of these prepared me for the sheer scale and number of flower beds lining the park’s meandering walkways and tucked into its woods. Of course, it helped that I’d visited on a perfect late spring day that offered brilliant sunshine, mild temps, and a gentle breeze, but I’d return again in any sort of weather. 

A house in Breukelen.
After strolling the colorful garden paths of Keukenhof, we drove along the banks of the nearby Vecht River (one of the joys of exploring this petite country is that nearly every destination is nearby.) Running from the Rhine and Utrecht to the former Zuyderzee, the Vecht served as a main traffic route for thousands of years. Possibly the inspiration for illustrations in fairy tale books, the river delights as it skirts medieval villages, an occasional windmill, tidy farms, and vibrant green pastures occupied by goats (frolicking, of course), lounging cows, and bleating sheep.

One village worth a visit, Leiden, dates to Roman times, though it looks hardly older than the mere Middle Ages. Narrow cobblestone passages and streets built for pedestrians can scarcely accommodate cars, making them extra fun to stroll. Equally quaint and historic is Breukelen—predecessor to the New York version minus the hipsters and a few million people. (Think medieval—instead of edgy—charm.)

The banks along the river were first discovered during the 17thand 18thcenturies when the wealthy of Amsterdam and Utrecht built stately manor homes with en
A 17th century weekend home along the Vecht River.
tea houses. While the tea houses sat mostly empty when I visited, nearby bars, restaurants, boats, and bike lanes were full of life. On weekends, the Dutch book horse-drawn cart rides along the narrow road or boat excursions on the river and the mood is celebratory and pastoral. 

After exploring the area, have lunch or dinner at Michelin-recommended Slangevgt on the banks of the Vecht. Oysters, seafood, local meats, and bread that must have been baked in heaven make for a menu of options that provide for agonizing decisions. In my experience, though, there are no wrong decisions. Sit outside on the riverbank or in the conservatory-like section of the restaurant which provides the best of both worlds.

Closer to Amsterdam you’ll find Het Bosch which you can reach by boat, car, or bike (of course). Serving French/Dutch cuisine with stellar views of the water and sunsets that seem to last for hours, Het Bosch is a little outside of town but worth the effort to find. The best season to visit is summertime when sunsets last for hours and are reflected in the nearby water. Caution: GPS sometimes has difficulty finding this spot (ours took us to a cottage in the woods). 

Finally, no visit to the Dutch countryside is complete without a visit to the fairytale Castle De Haar. With its intact moat, acres of gardens, towers, and bridge guardhouse, the historic fortress screams Middle Ages.
The Castle de Haar features two rarities: an intact moat & bridge guardhouse.


Pulitzer (see my recent post on this unique hotel).


Visiting the Dutch countryside is possible via rental car or by booking a half-day or full-day excursion through a local tour agency. For a bespoke tour and insider’s look into the area, book a tour through Delta


Slangevegt on the river. 
Het Bosch on a waterway on the outskirts of Amsterdam. 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Alaska’s Hotel Captain Cook: Delight-Inducing Homage to the Age of Exploration

In the past few decades I've visited Alaska four times—but three of those visits were taken around 1990 (yes, essentially 30 years ago, if you’re doing the math). During those trips, I explored the Kenai Peninsula, Denali, Anchorage, and pretty much any spot accessible via paved road. I even drove the spectacularly scenic and solitary highway that parallels the Alaska Pipeline and links inland Fairbanks to coastal Valdez on Prince William Sound.

After three trips, I decided I’d seen everything there was to see, including every corner of Anchorage, the state’s largest city.

When I visited Anchorage recently, however, I realized I’d overlooked a spectacular spot smack dab in the city center.  Despite at least six previous stays, I somehow missed the sublime and historic Hotel Captain Cook. Set on the edge of downtown and overlooking the Cook Inlet, Anchorage’s best hotel is named for the British seafarer who explored the area and the Pacific Ocean in the 1700’s.

To me, history and pedigree are all good, but what sets the hotel apart is that quality that’s difficult for hotels anywhere to attain: absolute uniqueness. While Captain Cook’s exterior is rather bland and unremarkable (which might be the reason I overlooked it during previous visits), its interior, inspired by the classic wooden ships Cook sailed, couldn’t be more spectacular.

From a beamed breakfast room that resembles a below deck dining mess to corridors lined with original oil paintings depicting Cook’s travels and the peoples he encountered, the hotel is a romantic tribute to the Age of Exploration and a celebration of the rich cultures and dramatic landscapes of the Pacific Rim.

While the lobby and public areas were the chief sources of my delight, the rooms weren’t so bad either. With stylish and Pacific-themed décor, rooms approximate posh but lack the original art of the hotel’s public areas. That’s okay, though, as many offer dramatic views of the adjacent Cook Inlet (look for the ghost-like shapes of beluga whales in the water just below and snow capped volcanoes in the distance).

The restaurant that crowns the hotel offers the best views and finest fare in the state. On the main floor, expertly poured cocktails in the English pub-like restaurant are matched with decent food, though bar TVs distract from what is otherwise an aura of a previous era.

The hotel’s service is sometimes spotty. But that's easily overlooked, given the hotel's art and unique atmosphere. If you like hotels with a scintillating sense of place, don't follow my lead--visit on your first trip to Alaska.

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