11 ways to experience the maritime tradition on a trip to the Netherlands, part 2

During June and July, I finally made my first visit to the country whose strong maritime tradition resulted in my ocean voyage of last year. The first half of my post on the Netherlands can be found here.

7. HOORN

Henry Hudson's historic Half-Moon.

Henry Hudson’s historic Half-Moon.

I was astonished when I learned that this coastal village 30 km north of Amsterdam had given its name to the place that has struck fear in the hearts of generations of sailors. to the point where they get tattoos to commemorate their rounding of the cape off South America–if they survive at all.

In 1616, Willem Corneliszoon Schouten  first rounded the southernmost tip of South America. He named it Kaap Hoorn, aka Cape Horn. During the Dutch Golden Age, this was also the center of the Dutch East India company and the center of trade–basically, it was the crossroads of the world, long before other ports usurped it. This is a wooden ship lover’s paradise–you could walk around here for hours. The sheer number, and the uniqueness of the vessels on display, is just so far beyond anything you would find in the U.S. Here, a schooner incites awe wherever she goes, but this is just par for the course every day in Hoorn, where there people who actually live in schooners permanently anchored, and dinghy into work each day.

Oh Captain and I met some friendly sailors just hanging out on the quay, offering us a ride on their water taxi, which gives you a canal’s-eyes view of the Hoorn waterfront, and some champagne. Although we didn’t have time for the taxi, one of them also happened to be one of the crew members of the replica square-rigger Half Moon (Dutch: Halve Maen). This was the ship under command of Anglo-Dutch explorer Henry Hudson when he sailed into New York Harbor in 1639. It’s now on display in Hoorn as a partnership between Albany, New York’s New Netherland Museum and the Westfries Museum, and is available for public tour. Inside, it’s tricked out to look historical, with bear and beaver furs, sacks of grain, and replica cannons (but no gunpowder, which as our friend is explained, is illegal in the Netherlands, though not in the U.S.).

To get to Hoorn, there’s a bus route that runs back and forth from Amsterdam Central Station roughly every ten minutes, so it’s an easy side trip if you’re in the capital.

8. See Amsterdam Canal Tour 

The view from the canal--another canal tour!

The view from the canal–another canal tour!

This is sort of a no-brainer, but worth it, especially if you have an engaging–and cute!–tour guide. He, of ourse, was actually the same guy who offered me champagne in the marina in Hoorn (he told me which boat he’d be on the next day, and where). It’s a hop-on, hop-off tour–pay 22 Euros for a 24-hour pass and you can get off at the Anne Frank house, wait in line for the three hours it generally takes to get through the queue, and then get on again to continue your trip. You can also get off or on at Central Station, Leidsestraat, Museum District, and City Hall. I ended up stayed on for almost three go-rounds–by the time I was finished, the guide was handing me the mic and letting me give the tour!

For me, the highlights were the view of the curch steeple where the ladies used to watch for their young men who went to sea (swoon, so romantic!) and the hundreds of canal boats that used to haul cargo on the waterways, but that have now been converted to the most popular real estate in Amsterdam.

9. Scheveningen, The Hague

The world championships of beach volleyball were going on while i was there.

The world championships of beach volleyball were going on while i was there.

This may not be the end of the world, but it feels like the end of the Netherlands. A former fishing village turned Belle Epoque bathing resort, it’s technically a district of The Hague. There’s also a popular piano bar on the beach there, Crazy Pianos, though unfortunately, we didn’t get there in time to see the pianist. But luckily, on a beautiful summer night in late June, you can watch beach volleyball players and surfers–yes, surfers! in Holland!–and feel like you’re somewhere very far away from home indeed.

Of course, my friend and I had to test the water, which was, of course, freezing–shattering my illusions that I had magically been transported back to the South Atlantic. But you can still enjoy a beer or five and a fresh seafood meal, and delight in the knowledge that you’re enjoying this country at its summery best.

The Hague (like every Dutch city) is delightfully compact, so it’s not hard to get to from wherever you’re staying–just walk toward the water, look for the Grand Hotel, and you’re bound to find it.

10. PANORAMA MESDAG, The Hague 

One angle of the Panorama Mesdag.

One angle of the Panorama Mesdag.

When Oh Captain first told me about this; I had no idea what I was about to see. When I arrived, the guide gave me a free audio tour and told me to hang around in the lobby long enough for the big group that just went up to see the panorma to disperse. Downstairs, the museum is a remarkable introduction to 19th-century The Hague school of painting, which was founded by Hendrik Mesdag. He specialized in moody, dark-toned scenes of rumpled fishermen and their wind-powered vessels, which had to be towed upon to the beach by horses (more of these paintings can be viewed in the Rijksmuseum (below), and reveal a bygone way of life. Sadly, none of these boats seem to exist anymore–except for the ones converted into houseboats in Amsterdam.

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An example of a Hague School painting.

As I made my way up the rickety wooden staircase, I noticed light filtering in from the canvas, changing the view depending on what the weather is like outside. Sanding inside, turning around in this 360-degree canvas, which Mesdag completed with the help of his wife, in 1881, you genuinely feel like you’ve trudged up a sand dune and emerged in 1881. It’s like seeing all of Scheveningen laid out before you–bathing machines on one side, fishing boats on the other, evoking a bygone time.

11. The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Prins Willem, who sailed from Middelburg to the East Indies in 1651.

The Prins Willem, who sailed from Middelburg to the East Indies in 1651.

After you see the Night’s Watch, the cavernous Rijksmusem holds numerous treasures for the ship geek. I was staying only a few blocks away from the Museum District with another friend (ship friends are more valuable then you could ever imagine!). I enjoyed seeing the ship’s model of the Prins Willem, and treasures from the Dutch colonial period.

The hats of the unfortunate frozen whalers.

The hats of the unfortunate frozen whalers.

Most poignant was the rather grisly display of knit caps that were worn by a 17th-century whaling crew who froze to death in Spitsbergen, identified only by the patterns thereon–both in life and in death. Like the “weeping tower,” it reminds me constantly that unlike today, sailing wasn’t all fun and games. The jolly bold sailors of the past (and their women) paid a steep price for following the wind and earning their coin. But they did it anyway, and that’s why we love them.

11 ways to experience the maritime tradition on a trip to the Netherlands, part 1

By the time I debarked from my two-month tall ship journey, not only did I know how to belay, sew sails, and polish brass, I had a healthy curiosity about the Dutch–this strange, tall seafaring race that taught me how to do all of that stuff. It was weird that I’d spent two months learning about this culture, but had never actually visited the country.

Last month, I remedied that. Word somehow got around that I was in the country, and my trip was soon full with reunions with shipmates-turned-friends-for-life, beer and gossip flowing, and (just like on the ship) plenty of tears (long story, but what can I say? The sea, even the memory of the sea, makes me emotional). Oh Captain, My Captain was on hand to squire me around, introduce me to virtually everyone in the country ever associated with ships, and show me a few spots I never would have found on my own.

That aside, if you’re just there to take in the sights (probably a safer option), you don’t have to go far–from the canals to the museum art, the sea is never far.

1. THE NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, Amsterdam

Exterior of the National Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvartmuseum).

Exterior of the National Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvartmuseum), with the ship Amsterdam visible.

Of the two maritime museums I visited in the Netherlands, this was my favorite. Het Scheepvartmuseum, as it’s known, is located in a formal naval storehouse constructed in 1636, and you can tour the replica of the 18th-century East Indiaman Amsterdam. The audio tours are free!

It also has a first edition of Maximilian Transylvanus’ work, De Moluccis Insulis, which described Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the world.

My favorite was the starlit navigation room, which had old-fashioned astrolabes and compasses, and reminded me of long, cloudless nights at sea, searching for constellations like Scorpio and the Southern Cross.

2. MUSEUMHAVEN, Amsterdam

One of the Museumhaven's grand dames.

One of the Museumhaven’s grand dames.

If you’re traveling with a kid, you might be on your way to the science museum Nemo, a truly astonishing feat of engineering sticking out from the Oosterdok area. But on the way, you can check out the Museumhaven, a little piece of (free!) ship geek heaven. Long gone are the days when sailing ships transported freight along the inland waterways, and if you travel the canals, you can see what happened to a lot of them. But the ships here still have their masts attached and give you a glimpse of the way things used to be, as they wait to be restored to their former glory. You can stop and read the placards about all of them.

3. THE FERRY, Amsterdam

DSCN1830

The view of Amsterdam across the river IJ, with cruise ship.

Another awesome free way to get a sailor’s-eye view of Amsterdam. The ferries are free and leave frequently just north of Central Station, are often packed with pedestrians, cyclists and motorbikes. There’s not a whole lot to see in Noord, separated as it is from the rest of Amsterdam by the river IJ. But what more do you need than to sit on the bench, admire the Amsterdam skyline, and watch the ships go by? When I was there, a gigantic passenger ship was blocking part of the view–just a sign that Amsterdam is regaining its place as a cruise destination. There’s a conveniently placed bar there, too–you’re never too far from a place to drink a beer in Amsterdam.

4. MARITIME MUSEUM, Rotterdam

The view from the museum harbor.

The view from the museum harbor.

The whole city is like a living maritime museum exhibit, given that it was the world’s largest port for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, you won’t see the working port if you stay within the city center. However, you can experience the historical part of it by visiting the Maritime Museum (just don’t go when there’s a birthday party going on, yikes!), which is located just a few blocks from Central Station. The focal point is the museum harbor outside, where you can tour a grain elevator and any other ship that happens to be open at the time–which isn’t always easy to tell.

Grain elevator you can go onboard and tour.

Grain elevator you can go onboard and tour.

5. Offices of Rederij Bark Europa and Oosterschelde, Rotterdam

Of course, this won’t mean as much to someone who, like me, didn’t spend two months on one of these ships, but since I did, it was like visiting an old friend. The ships themselves weren’t there–the Oosterschelde was spending the summer cruising in Norway. But I did get to see sister ship the Helena–which met the Oosterschelde when it returned to Rotterdam from its circumnavigation. Plus, their office is on a boat, and it’s right in the museum harbor, so you don’t have to make another trip.

Knock knock! Anyone home?

Knock knock! Anyone home?

Warning: Don’t bother with buying a water taxi ticket in the museum. I waited in line for 30 minutes only to have my spot taken by a bunch of rowdy schoolkids and their teacher (getting on the boat with hem would have been fairly close to my personal definition of hell, so I didn’t even try). Instead, wait for the other water taxi (below). It won’t take long, promise!

Anchors aweigh.

Anchors aweigh.

6. Water Taxi and Hotel New York, Rotterdam

The view from the Rotterdam water taxi.

The view from the Rotterdam water taxi.

The water taxi delivers you to the very Art Deco Hotel New York. It’s a short ride and the cool breeze of the harbor feels incredible, especially if you happen to be there, like I was, during the biggest heat wave to hit Europe in a long time. No ticket required–you can pay cash to the taxi “driver,” and one leaves just about every few minutes. “You come back, there’s a boat,” as the guy put it .

Enjoying the summer heat wave in front of the hotel.

Enjoying the summer heat wave in front of the hotel.

Plus you get to see the Hotel New York, former HQ of the Holland America Line, which is only accessible this way. Supposedly there’s a great view from the top, but I couldn’t find the way up. I was on my way to Brussels so I had to keep to my schedule, but I would have loved to linger here longer and have a drink. Plenty of others were!

Hotel New York

Hotel New York

To be continued…

It happened to me (oh boy, did it!)

Mermaid returns to sea.

My adventure to the Netherlands (with stopovers in Iceland and Belgium) is in the record books, and I’m preparing a longer blog post about what I found in The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and beyond. Word gets around remarkably fast in a tiny country, so I met up with no less than 5 former shipmates (3 more than I expected)! At last, I could drink too much, surround myself with people who “get it,” and shamelessly try to recapture the time in my life when I was most happy, and most at peace, while simultaneously feeling like my world might fall apart any moment.

I know, it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.

Anyway, upon my arrival home, I found that the article I wrote for XOJane’s It Happened to Me section, based on some incidents from my book, is now live, so I invite you to check it out. Consider it a sexy little taste of the sexiest parts of my book–eet smakelijk, as they say in Holland.

I’m never leaving home again! The perils of the cautious adventurer

cropped pic free people

Home sweet home.

Just kidding. I think anybody who’s had an exhausting/depleting/demoralizing/expensive/unforeseen/confusing time while traveling, has had this thought. When I made it home from my sailing trip, I had missed two flights, gotten stranded in the Azores, been rerouted to Lisbon (this was a good thing in “Casablanca,” but it wasn’t for me) and exchanged what I thought would be a cozy hotel room in Boston for a hard airport floor in Toronto.

I think I slept for a week when I finally made it home, 2 days later than I was originally supposed to.

But the thing about pirates is that they go where the wind–and the treasure–takes them.

So that’s why today I’m head to the Netherlands, to reunite with some of the kindest, most generous, and most entertaining people I’ve ever known–my fellow sailors, and to see the place that gave birth to the ship I spent two months on, and maybe see what that Dutch maritime tradition is all about. I’ll be staying with Oh Captain, My Captain up north in Groningen for a few days, then going down to Amsterdam to stay with another former shipmate (one of the Estrogen Triad), to check out Anne Frank’s hideout; the Rijksmuseum; and hopefully some other things I’ve read about but never experienced (there’s a lot of those, but someday, I’ll check them all off my list).

And believe it or not, I love adventure. But I’m also an ENTJ, which means every one of “spontaneous adventures” have to be planned out two years in advance.

But that’s the thing about travel–the more you do, the more you want to do, and the more people invite you to do.

And I’m going to do it all–or attempt to do it–while working. That’s the good thing about NOT being on a ship, is that I won’t have to cut all earthly ties with the world for two months, and I won’t have to start from Square One when I get back. Of course, there’s a chance I could miss out on opportunities, or my computer could break down and I’ll go out of touch unexpectedly and make my editors mad.

I’m terrified, of course. I was born afraid, and I probably always will be.

And I don’t have a return ticket yet, and my parents don’t want me to go, and my dog will miss me.

Naturally, I’ve been drinking since 11:30.

I’m never leaving home again.