Alaskan-Dutch Connection

Our next destination was a quaint country town called Sint Oedenrode, a city certainly off the tourist path. The reason for our visit originated from a chance meeting of a Dutch family aboard a cruise ship bound for Alaska in 2011 on which we commemorated mom’s 80th birthday. Olivia met their daughter, Sophie, at the kids’ camp aboard Holland America’s Volendam. Although the two girls couldn’t able to speak the same language they created a lasting friendship that fostered a relationship between the parents. The parents, Martina and Joop, are interesting and kind people who extended an invitation to visit (Sint Oedenrode) upon hearing of our adventurous travel plans.

They made a BIG effort to make us feel welcome – like allowing Caroline and I to sleep in their bed as they slept on the sofa. They organized a personalized guided walking/canal boat tour of the historical city named Hertogenbosch. (If you are Dutch, you know the place. If you are not Dutch, well you’ll never read the name again.) At the time of our visit the city was hosting a fringe festival in the town square that was backdropped by an ominous gothic cathedral. The cathedral was a mix of old and new. It contained many icons of current happenings sprinkled among the classic marble carved artworks. Like a 911 aircraft colliding with the twin towers as part of the stained glass pictogram that hung over the entrance, or a statue of a young woman wearing jeans while talking on her mobile phone positioned amidst many classic-type statues. It was a memorable visit that touched our hearts and solidified a friendship that we hope lasts a lifetime.

Olivia was reunited with Sophie while William connected with Janic and Lukas, their two teenaged boys. We credit the boys with introducing William and Olivia to Mine Craft, the delightfully addictive computer game that allows players to construct 3D buildings while avoiding deadly zombies.  Fun. We ate herring and BBQ’d mixed grill in between going for great walks through the local countryside. The kids played in the park and visited the local petting zoo. Our three-day visit seemed much longer because of the wonderful bond that was created.

One of our significant discoveries was a restaurant chain called FEBO that sold freshly fried croquettes and awesome fried potatoes dispensed via vending machines. For the remainder of our time in the Netherlands we stopped each and every time we happened to pass a FEBO. The simple joy of giving the kids a euro coin so they could get a tasty snack is a lasting memory.

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Premonition of a good time

Olivia came running up and exclaimed that William and she had found 50 euro on the ground. I thought she meant a 50 cent coin. I was wrong. It was a 50 euro note folded in quarters just laying there. Followed by screams of adulation. The kids had indeed found a 50 euro note on the floor at Antwerp’s central train station. Little did we know at the time, but it was a premonition that this portion of our trip and the Netherlands would deliver unexpected treats that would create lasting memories for the whole family.

Our trip had three distinct segments: In order of our visit they were: Bergen op Zoom, the village of Sint Oedenrode (near Eindhoven) and then up to Amsterdam. Entering the Netherlands from the south and not through Amsterdam, as we usually do, allowed us a better opportunity to introduce the kids to my Dutch heritage.

Our Dutch adventure started with a six-day visit to Henny and Kees’ place in the southern city of Bergen op Zoom. Yes, that’s the name of their town. And their exquisite home was built in 1378. Can you imagine? The house had been standing for over a century before Columbus set sail for America.

Kees kindly picked us up in Antwerp, Belgium, as it was the closest high-speed-train station to their city and location of the aforementioned 50 Euro note. Our arrival coincided with Bergen op Zoom’s annual summer arts festival. Streets were closed off and the downtown core was converted into a pedestrian-only market zone with live entertainment stages erected throughout. Party time in Bergen op Zoom! Their home was at the centre of it all.

I must digress to tell the story of my connection to Henny and Kees. We first met in Chaing Mai, Thailand on January 21, 1983 and shared Hill Tribe trekking stories over lunch. Our second chance meeting was on the tiny island of Koh Samed two weeks later. My late evening arrival was preceded by a murder of a local villager. I clearly recall the bloodstained street leaving an indelible impression on me. Kees and Henny shared their humble thatched hut with me that night to ensure the three of us remained safe from any possible fallout of the incident. It was a hair-raising experience that forged this lifelong relationship.

Kees is a master guitar builder with a measure of patience that Gandhi would appreciate. Olivia and William constantly clambered over him to demand his attention. Together they planted seeds in earth laden egg cartons and visited his workshop to design and cut wooden toy figures – from scraps of black walnut no less. We spent days exploring the region in their car, or riding bicycles through the pancake-flat Dutch countryside. Again, never passing a FEBO without stopping.

It was a memorable visit for all of us. If you were to ask William what he liked best, it would have been the drum kit located on the third floor of their home. Open windows ensured the entire neighbourhood had ample opportunity to hear William’s latent talent develop. Olivia loved squishing juice from oranges each morning. Together we watched London’s Olympic opening ceremony seated deep upon their extra-plush-purple couch sipping home made port. Their hospitality set the stage for a most ideal Dutch connection.

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Paris Inspires Energizer Bunny

It is my opinion that the Energizer Bunny was inspired by Paris. It just keeps going, and going, and going…
This is our fourth visit to the “City of Lights’ and it has been a different and enriching experience every time. There’s something about the grand boulevards, each with a famous landmark along the way, that just seems to conjure up romantic images of walking hand-in-hand along the Seine or kissing under stone archways of prominent buildings. It’s just so damn cool that you cannot be impressed by Paris and its grandness.
Our arrival coincided with the final stage of the Tour de France. We dutifully made our way to the Champs-Elysées two hours before the racers’ arrival and muscled our way to the edge of the course. By pure luck we happened to be at the finish line across the street from a Jumbotron that kept us with a continuous view of the cyclists at all times. You could sense the crowd’s anticipation and its transformation into joy when the pack screamed past at high speed. The tension build with each lap and the noise increased in volume accordingly. William and Olivia took turns sitting on my shoulders so they could get a good look at the activity. By the end of the race, I was exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. It was a jovial street scene event with much of downtown Paris closed to vehicle traffic. Buskers, musicians and food vendors kept the energy flowing. Post race we walked over the Pont Alexandre III bridge (which many people consider the most beautiful of Paris’ many bridges) along the pavement and wandered alongside the Seine without a destination until we realized we had come close to the base of the Eiffel Tower.
The more you explore the more you realize that Paris is like no other city in the world. Sure Rome and Venice are spectacular, but in those cities you know that you are part of the transient mob that shuffle from magnificent site to magnificent site. In Paris, although there are the same amount of tourists, you don’t feel as if you are part of the visiting throng. You just blend in with the locals. Even if you end up soaking your tired feet in the fountain ponds at the entrance to the Louvre, you’ll do it sitting besides a Parisian.
We loved walking down streets packed with restaurants’ overflowing patios filling the entire sidewalk; or spending a couple of worthwhile hours in a number of Paris’ numerous and well-stocked book stores; and stopping in too many patisseries that impressed us with their chocolate and macaroon selections. It just seemed right.
One bright sunny day we picnicked on the grass under a tree within the Luxembourg Gardens. The kids made a video of being chased by dragons while, in ear-shot, an orchestra played Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Caroline and I lounged on the grass with book in hand.
The Notre Dame continues to tell her amazing story 850 years later. The more you study her, the more she reveals. The sculptures themselves are story boards that wait to be deciphered. What a place.
We stumbled upon bridges loaded with tens of thousands of pad-locks. A Paris tradition has it that should you declare your love, then secure a lock to a bridge and cast the keys into the Seine, your love will last a lifetime. The romantic notion is so right for Paris.
Momartre’s plateau overlooks all of Paris and the basilica impresses with her stature high above the city. Even the Irish pub adjacent one entrance doesn’t seem out of place. Street Artists abound in the many markets that encircle the glorious hill top. The area beckons for memories to be made, while restaurants easily handle the busloads of visitors as if they were locals.
We spent a lazy afternoon walking with the kids from the Louvre to the Arch de Triumph along the manicured gardens through to the Champs-Elysées. There was a large pond where we were able to rent a sailboat for each of the kids. You know those toy sailboats
that you push from side to side with a stick. It was delightful to watch William and Olivia run incessant circles around the pond waiting for the wind to propel their boat to-and-fro. It was a balancing act that required patience to ensure an exaggerated reach wouldn’t send one of the kids into the pond. That was until William’s patience ran out and a reach became a plop-splash-wahhhhhhh.
The Eiffel Tower continues to deliver memories, even if it is not your first visit to the top.
Did I mention the art galleries? Wow what a city.












































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Bye-bye Sand Castle

In the following photos you can see the destruction of Olivia and William’s sand castle. Time lapse at its finest.





















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A Perfect Beach Vacation

The sun was setting as we walked single file down the narrow laneways, luggage in tow, from the Les Sables d’Olonne train station to our beach side hotel. We were pretty excited to be revisiting the resort town for the second time in three years. Our arrival coincided with a magnificent firework display that established the tone for our week-long stay. It was going to be a magical time for all of us.

The city is located on France’s Atlantic coast just north of the famous La Rochelle. It has a two kilometer long crescent shaped, gently sloping fine sand beach that exposes a tremendous amount more real estate when the tide is out and compresses everyone to the top 20 meters when the tide is up. It is off the track of international tourist route and well supported by Frenchman from all over their country. It is also the home to the Vendee Globe – a sail boat race of Everest proportions. Check out to get a sense of this amazing spectacle check out their 2012-2013 teaser video on YouTube:

Moving along…
The beach has a number of kid’s clubs that offer supervised and structured beach activities for children. We found one that worked for us. It was impressively cheap, had the well organized program and was the closest club to our hotel. It was an easy decision to register both Olivia and William for the week. You can see by the photos that they had a memorable time. They swam, made huge sand castles, netted fish in tidal pools, competed in team games, bounced incessantly on trampolines and made solid friendships. It was the best €100 we spent on the entire trip.

During their time at the kid’s club, Caroline and I had mornings to ourselves exploring the town on foot in search of the best croissant/coffee combination. Afternoons involved lounging on the beach with a book in hand. In the evenings the police stop all vehicular traffic along the main beach road to convert the area into a pedestrian-only zone and restaurants extend their patio seating out onto the pavement. Competent street performers take to their asphalt stage and entertain the gathered visitors in hopes of collecting a big fee by passing the hat.

Whether our daily meals consisted of crepes, mussels, lasagna or salads we fared well and didn’t blow our budget on food yet we ate very well.

If you are looking for a great place to spend time with your family, consider this place on the sea. It will leave you wanting more.


































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Cevennes? Where the hell is the Cevennes?

My thoughts exactly. As it turns out, the Cevennes is France’s largest national park and Is located in the Languedoc Roussillon region. As such it is France’s least populated region and the towns we visited didn’t have the tourism buzz we found elsewhere – a welcome change to our travels.
Its is a mountainous region often referred to as the “Land of Shale and Granite” rising above the plains of the Languedoc and the Mediterranean. The Cevennes is a maze of deep valleys with winding rivers of clear waters and hill slopes covered in forests of sweet chestnut. A country of rebellion and tradition, the Cevennes gradually reveals a bit more of itself at each bend in its winding roads or on a path where it is pleasant to stroll. And strolling they do. It is a favourite destination for hikers who walk from village to village through some pretty spectacular scenery. With the kids we were limited to only a couple of hours of hiking, but did sample some beautiful vistas.
We had rented a three bedroom country house with friend Pierrette and daughter Lea. There was a large swimming pool that kept our body temperatures regulated and kids entertained for hours of splashing, swimming and playing “Marco-Polo”. The home was a couple of kilometers from a village called Cardet and located across the street from a beautiful, but abandoned elementary school. I wonder what’s going to happen to that beautiful structure? It would be an ambitious renovation into a country home, but the efforts would be rewarded.
The Languedoc region is renowned for wine and the endless vineyards supported the reputation. There were vast fields of sunflowers disbursed amongst the vineyards and the narrow winding roads were lined with tall trees. It was a pleasure to go for a drive through the countryside.
We visited mountain sites where dinosaur footprints, dating back some 30 million years, are visible in the sandstone; we road a steam train along a meandering river through an awesome mountain pass; explored ancient towns in search of a great meal; and saw so many fish clearly visible in the crystal blue water that it was a challenge to restrain William from jumping in the water with thoughts of bare-handed fishing.
We spent a day in Avignon and visited an amazing aqueduct called Pont du Garre that was build during the Roman times.
We discovered that the Cevennes branded lamb was a delicacy. To achieve branded status, the sheep must have lived within the national park boundaries and fed a strict diet of local chestnuts. The flavour was like no other lamb we had ever tasted.
The day of our departure, the Tour de France was passing through, which created an excitement of our arrival in Paris to catch the final stage of the race.
The introduction to the region has left us with a desire to return one day. So much to discover.




































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Cannes is so GLAM

Every glamorous place on the planet tries to emulate Cannes. But really, this is the place where it all started. As far back as 125 years ago the place was recognized as extra special. The nice thing about it is that its over-the-top affluent is easily accessible. For the price of bus fare a double decker you are given a bird’s eye tour of the Croisette (beach front boulevard). It stretches along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and is about 2 km long. The Croisette is known for the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, where the Cannes Film Festival is held. Many wildly expensive shops, restaurants, and hotels (such as the Ritz-Carlton, Majestic, JW Marriott Cannes, Chanel and Martinez) line the road that is littered with Lamborghini, Bentley and Ferrari. It goes completely along the coastline of Cannes and has as many ice cream shops as St Mark’s square in Venice.
Our main attraction was the beach. During our stay we visited three of them, each offering a slightly different perspective. It was great to see how clean the water was despite the amount of development and people along the shore. We snorkeled to nearby man-made islands, swam great distances (William included) to rafts anchored 100 meters out taking turns being the King of the Castle.

Our one bedroom apartment had an awesome balcony view that overlooked the whole city basin and was a quick 20 minute bus ride to the bustle of the city and throng of the croisette.
Our morning ritual was to walk over to the patisserie and buy a supply of fresh baguettes and croissants which we’d eat while soaking in the morning’s sun in the front room. After fueling up we’d slather on the sunscreen and walk across the street to catch our ride to the beach. We’d set ourselves up on a beach. While the kids played in the sand we’d watch the people or read a book. When it got too hot, we’d slip into the water and cool ourselves down. It was a good routine. We also made an effort to see a movie while we were here. It was fun to think that we were following famous footsteps into the theatre. We explored back streets and discovered that the famous city has a wonderful friendly village feel once you step away from the crowds.

Since being on the road, we have become increasingly dependent on WIFI access to the web. It wasn’t a problem in Asia as all accommodation offered it free. But, Europe is a different story. It’s not a widely available and when it is, the costs to access are exorbitant. Canne was no different. Instead of paying, we discovered that the city hall offers free WIFI if you are in their proximity and, of course, McDonalds’ free service is always there when you need it.

We made a day trip to Nice that became a more complex adventure than we had anticipated. The kind lady at the tourist office told us Nice was just a 15 minute trip along the beach and the ride was included in the local bus fare. Sounds good huh? Upon further investigation we discovered that 15 minutes only applies when there are no people on the road and that the Nice bus could actually take up to two hours with the summer congestion. We opted to take the train that was guaranteed to take 30 minutes and purchased a round trip fare with advice from the ticket agent that the returning trains depart Nice almost every hour.

We wondered around Matisse’s favourite city soaking up the goodness of the wide car-free streets embellished with statues that glowed brightly at night. We visited an art gallery, explored the back streets in search of the perfect tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and endured a walk on the stony beach to frolic in the famous beach. It was a very memorable day.
Upon returning to the train station at 9:30PM for our return to Cannes, we discovered that the trains were no longer running as we were advised, no busses were making the trip and that we were indeed stranded in Nice. Our only option was to take a taxi back at the cost of 100 Euros. Ouch.
Our first attempt at hiring a cab for the return trip is the best example of French arrogance we have encountered to date. Once we had loaded ourselves into the small taxi and were on our way, the driver then informed us that he was picking up another fare and was taking them to the airport before taking us to Cannes. William would have to sit on Caroline’s lap for that portion of the journey. This was absolutely unacceptable to us. The driver responded by promptly stopping the car and letting us out on the street to find another driver. French Bastard.
Our next driver was much more professional, and was very happy to take our money in exchange for a 20 minute car ride down the highway.

Our last night in Cannes made up for the Nice taxi incident. As mentioned, our apartment had a wonderful balcony. It overlooked an adjacent park where the Gypsy Kings performed that night. We left the windows open and were serenaded to the fresh Latin sounds wrapping themselves around us as we laid in bed reading. An appropriate finish to a memorable week-long visit.

Our next destination is a country home in the Cevennes – France’s largest national park.



















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Bienvenue a France

After two wonder weeks in Italy – four days in Rome, three in Venice and a week in the castle, we headed to France. The drive from Montetrusso took us through the impressive Frejus tunnel that straddles the Italian/French border. The tunnel is 13Km long and took six years to construct. Typically when driving through a tunnel we all hold our breath to see if we can make it to the other side. This was obvious a tunnel that beat us hands down.
Our destinations was Grenoble to reconnect with family and friends who live in the prosperous university town. It is a thriving and trendy place nestled in the foothills to the Alps and home to Pierrette and daughter Lea. We were showered with gifts and welcomed with wide warm smiles. A music festival in the town’s square greeted us and, with some connections, we were invited back-stage where Olivia, William and Lea felt quite at home just hanging out amongst the sound equipment watching the show.
Grenoble is a walking city with a great street cafe scene where we watched a number of the European Soccer Tournament games. It was cool to be in Europe for the event as people as so passionate about their team. Everyone has an opinion on their teams’ performance and game nights had cars racing around the city until the wee hours honking horns in celebration of their team’s victory.
We made a day trip to Chamonix-Mont Blanc and were awestruck by the sheer presence of the glacier capped mountains. Mont Blanc’s peak is at 4800 meters and sits above the town like a gentle giant. The city itself was bustling with summertime visitors overflowing restaurants and curio shops. One can certainly imagine the place in the height of the winter season with skiers and boarders over-running every corner of the cobble-stone town.
Our timing in Grenoble coincided with Pierrette’s birthday and we were treated to meeting her friends while sipping champagne and eating too much food. All in all, It was a memorable visit.






















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We stayed in a castle!

We stayed in a castle!
Just the thought conjures romantic ideas of grand times during the middle ages. Kings and queens frolicking in grassy meadows while servants prepare outrageous feasts. Well, those were my thoughts anyway.
As we were planning our itinerary a year ago, Caroline’s colleague Dominique suggested that we pay her a visit at the family castle in Montestrutto, Italy – located just north of Torino (you know the city that hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics) during her annual stay in June. Now, when someone asks you to visit them at their castle “in ITALY” you automatically say YES. A resounding YES, very loudly, but not too enthusiastically as to put them on guard for misbehavior.
It was a magical experience that touched our hearts. Firstly, we didn’t know anything about the region, thinking maybe was some backwater village in Northern Italy. This was so far from the truth. The Piedmont area is stunningly awesome. It is at the gateway to the Alps and the villages that are sprinkled throughout the countryside have huge terraced vineyards that snake their way up the rugged mountainside. It is as impressive as the terraced rice paddies in Bali that are recognized as a World UNESCO site.
The castle itself is perched 238 steps above the hamlet of Montestrutto, an area well recognized as a rock climbing mecca of the region. The structure itself is in great shape and has all the attributes you’d expect from a medieval castle. A fresco of nobility attending a jousting match welcomes you upon entering. Large rooms are appointed with period furniture. The walls, if not hand painted, are wainscoted in solid wood with hand carved patterns. Ceilings are rich with stenciled patterns that connect seamlessly to the wall decor.
We ate luscious meals that took hours to prepare. We sat for hours around the steel table on the terrace overlooking the many communities below. The highway was off in the distance with the train tracks halfway between. We watched with delight as the commuter trains would trundle their way through the countryside, crossing guards down halting the traffic as they approached.
It was idyllic in so many ways.
A stone-constructed hiking trail lead to villages further up the mountains. That in itself was an engineering/construction feat. We explored with caution as not to encounter poisonous vipers that would certainly put an end to our adventure. Apparently wild boar (or sanglier as they are called in Italy) abound in the forested hillsides, but we did not have a sightings. There were fig, apple and olive orchards everywhere to complement the splendid terraced vineyards.
We did day trips in the rental car exploring the region and visited moth-balled ski villages that must have been inspiration for Whistler’s community planning. We were treated royally by Dominique and her brother Maxim who plied us with great local wines and creamy cheeses making us feel as if we were family. William set up a croquet court in one of the gardens which allowed us to feel genteel yet competitive. It was so appropriate.
There was an ancient church just to the edge of the property whose bell tolled every hour a gentle “BONG” informing us that more time was slipping away and the next meal was on the horizon.
The icing on the cake, so to say, were the resident dogs. Large yet cuddly; gentle and obedient there was an instant bond between our kids and their new-found animal friends.
Our friend Pierrette, from Grenoble France, joined us for the last few days at the castle. A warm reunion ensued, more food, more wine, intense hang-over…
All in all we had a blast. I must admit, that after a week and we were packing up for the next destination on our adventure, I was choked with emotion. Was this because we had such a memorable castle experience, or was it because we were headed to Grenoble? Perhaps a little of both?
Enjoy the photos. A wonderful as they are, they do not do justice to our stay in Montestrutto.





























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Voluptuous Venice

This city delivers a visceral experience to all of the senses. Sights, sounds, colours, smells, and surfaces combine to create a rich tapestry of emotional texture.
When describing Rome I wrote that it is “Disneyland for adults.” If that is the case then Venice is Wonderland. Everything here takes on a magical aura. It must be the light reflecting off the Grand Canal onto the decaying building facades.
As we walked down a street that first morning Olivia had an epiphany exclaiming, “Daddy, there are no cars here!” So right. As such that whiney ambient background noise is absent. Instead you hear the put-put-put of boat motors as they ply the canals. It was a discovery for me as well realizing that beer deliveries, DHL Couriers, plumbers, taxis, buses and garbage pick-up (et al) must happen using a boat. I found it funny seeing the many boat drivers working their way across the city while talking on their cell phones. Just like cars, but in slow motion.
St Marks Piazza lives up to its reputation as one of the best places in the world to just hang out and watch people. Always teaming with throngs of overseas tourists mingling with resident pigeons (and camouflaged pick pockets blending into the scene) while orchestras play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on opposite corners of the courtyard. We fed the birds, danced cheek to cheek and ate our weight in gelato as we made our way from one end to the other. We were captivated by the Basilica and its conflicting architecture styles with the four bronze horses atop, but somehow it all comes together in a very elegant manner. Just how do the Italians apply a savvy design sense to everything they do?
For our Venice visit we stayed three nights on Lido Island, just a quick 15 minute ferry ride from St Marks. It was nice to be one step away from the throngs of people. It also allowed us to see a different side to Venice than if we had stayed in the city itself. We spent a lazy afternoon on the beaches (that I didn’t know existed) collecting shells and skipping stones. We also rode the ferry as it made its way around to all the outer island communities. We especially liked Burano. A historic fishing village with its brightly colouful houses that springs from the horizon. Our favourite non-Venice visit was to Murano. It is renowned for its glass blowing studios that make everything from luscious chandeliers to kitschy sculptures.
We were never more than 10 steps away from a restaurant and were never disappointed with our meals. In the end it was an awakening to see the variety of experiences that Venice has to offer.










































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