You gotta love the internet. I couldn't sleep, it's 4 a.m. here. The hotel has free computer access in the lobby. The hotel clerk is snoring in his chair behind me. AJB has just joined me on the other computer to MSN his friends.
We were pretty fatigued after the plane ride (19 hours total transit time, door to door) but we've had good experience so far here. Our flights were on time, our layover in London was uneventful except for taking a wrong turn that required us to clear security twice. That whole process was a little like going through a Disneyland queue but without the fun ride at the end. Add the very personal pat-down by security folks the first time and you know how glad I was that they barely looked my way the second time.
Our first hotel is in Haarlem, just outside Amsterdam - a town known as the "best shopping in Europe" (measured by having the most shops, and greatest variety of dining within walking distance). It's really unbelieveable. Restaurants of every type of ethnic food you could want in some of the coolest old buildings (up to 700 years old). Last night we ate at a Mediterranean restaurant run by an Egyptian, tonight: an Indonesian restaurant with the tour, a great American style breakfast buffet in the hotel, plus, there are mexican, italian, belgian, croatian, American (Macdonalds), Thai, Chinese, but come to think of it, I haven't seen a Japanese one - yet - I could really go for some vermicelli and spring rolls.
Every store you'd want too... need I say more?
Today in Haarlem (outside Amsterdam) before we joined the tour, we toured the Grote Kerk (Great Church) which houses the largest pipe organ in Europe and is a landmark which can be seen for many miles due to its great size. Both Mozart and Handel played it the organ in their day. Construction began in the 1300s. Our choir sang here in 1990. We also toured the house museum of Corrie ten Boom - where the family assisted the resistance by hiding Jews during WWII. The entire family was put in concentration camps and all but Corrie died. She was released through an administrative error only days before everyone over age 50 was gassed to death. She was 52.
There was an amazing market in the square. When we started a walking tour with the group, they were just beginning to tear down after a day of selling (farmers market/flea market combined), after we got back 30 minutes later, the square was clear and the city sweeper was cleaning up the last of the garbage.
Tomorrow we tour Amsterdam. Anne Frank's house. Museum of the Masters. Canal cruise. And if AGB gets his wish, a long bicycle ride. We'd hoped to do that today but other things took up most of the time - the bike rental shop closed quite early.
There are two other young people on the tour - a brother & sister with their parents from Florida. The boy is 12, the girl is 16. They will be good companions for AGB - very nice kids. There are 20 people in total on the tour, we three from Canada, two sisters from Mexico and the rest from the states. So far, I count four teachers in our group, one retired FBI agent, three students who just graduated from university (2 of them are twin sisters traveling with their mother who just retired), a travel agent (and friend) on her 30th tour of Europe and a carpenter. A few others but I don't know their occupation yet.
Based on our interactions so far, it seems like a great group: well educated, amiable, great sense of humour. Terrific guide - a German by birth married to an American, living in Washington state but has lived with her spouse in France and Italy nearly a decade previously. Speaks many languages and was an art history major in university.
One "policy"of a Rick Steves' tour is "No grumps!" I'm good with that. Now to live up to it....