What is an escorted tour anyway?

Endless Travel Blog

What is an escorted tour anyway?

--by Sheryl Fick

With the Internet, there are so many choices of what to do and how to do it, that at first glance, you may not feel the need for a professional travel consultant. I hope, however, this will explain some reasons to consider Endless Travel. Normally, there are no added planning fees, so see what you think, and see if an escorted tour may be what you want.

First, an escorted tour is when all of the components are bundled together in a form where you, as the traveler, really do not have to pre-plan anything—just show up for the time of your life without any of the hassles of planning and hoping things work out. Of course, that is why you may want to consider the option of a fully escorted tour nearly any place in the world. With the help of Endless Travel to qualify your travel needs, we do the work (or we work together) to plan the perfect vacation.

We work very closely with the Globus (Cosmos is their sister company at a lower price point) family of brands, which include the wonderful Avalon River Cruises and Monograms, the land package we can add on at any time. Globus/Cosmos escorted tours are very popular in Europe, but did you know you can also go to Israel, Jordan, Scandinavia, Iceland or Russia to name a few other destinations? The beauty of an escorted tour is that you can simply sit back, and let Endless Travel do all the work with the help of Globus/Cosmos—you can also be as involved as you choose. This means that if you want to arrive earlier than the tour starts, or stay after the tour, or take a river cruise on Avalon, it can be done. And the pre and post sections can be done with the help of Monograms.

This is a special air rate you can only get by going through a tour company like this...

Several years ago, I experienced an escorted tour in Europe for 12 days. I have to say, it was so relaxing to let someone else drive while I was a tourist and got to hear all the wonderful information presented to me while touring. This tour was during a public wedding in London, and could have been a serious problem, but Globus/Cosmos pre-reserved hotels in the center of each city I visited. So I sat back, and was not concerned with other events potentially disrupting my tour. Such an event could be something like the Rome Jubilee, where hotel space is nearly impossible to find; but not to worry on a Globus or Cosmos escorted tour.

You can have your airfare booked by Globus/Cosmos if you want, and you probably did not know that they offer something you can’t get yourself, which is contracted air. This is a special air rate you can only get by going through a tour company like this, and most times, the prices are much less than you can find. Don’t worry if you do have free air on points. That is something that can be done separately.

This is how it works:

lourveYou contact Endless Travel, and we discuss your itinerary and which escorted tour works best. We can add air to any city you want (arrival transfers). Then you are shuttled to your selected hotel while your luggage is handled for you. Next, you meet the rest of the group and your tour guide for the trip, and are given more details of all the sights you will be seeing. There are no lines to wait in if you choose tours like the Louvre in Paris, the London Eye or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, to name a few. Let’s say you want to visit Venice, but your tour ends in Rome. No worries! We can arrange a train first or second class, with transfers from the tour to the rail station, and again upon arrival in Venice. The choices are endless! We take the stress of planning away, and Globus/Cosmos does the rest. You can have as much fun as you want planning additional options.

So if you want the ease of not having to plan a trip on your own, perhaps an escorted tour may be a viable option for you. We see people of all ages now doing escorted tours, as they are hassle free, and everyone gets to enjoy the journey. I am still in contact with friends I met from South Africa, as that is one of the many perks.

Why not call your travel experts at Endless Travel? We have over 100 years of travel expertise, and if an escorted tour is not what works, we ‘sell the world.’ Let us help you plan that trip of a lifetime, and remember we, as Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon, are teaming up to provide the perfect vacation with lasting memories!

Ready to schedule your escorted tour?

Drop us a line today to book your trip!


Endless Travel Blog

Viva Cuba!

--by Susan Hammond

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, and located just 90 miles south of Miami, has much to offer for those seeking a world of contrasts and authentic experiences. I had the opportunity this past November to fulfill a personal dream, and escorted a group of 12 clients to three Cuban cities (Havana, Varadero and Vinales) on a 9-day, fully escorted, people-to-people experience offered through Cosmos Tours. It was amazing to actually take a step back in time, allowing us to observe the allure and unique lifestyle of the Cuban people.

Cuban law, while relaxed some for American tourists, still places strict limitations on what we can do when traveling to Cuba, requiring cultural exchange activities for many travelers. The travel restrictions and U.S. embargo, which still remains in effect, means travel to Cuba is not easily planned on a whim.

cuba capitolUpon arrival, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the architecture, the delicious cuisine and my warm welcome from the people. I quickly learned that the Cuban people I interacted with were very inviting and friendly in their responses to questions from our group about their country.

Upon landing in Havana from Miami on a charter flight, we were picked up by our 33- year-old Cuban Tour Director, Limon. As we headed east, we drove through picturesque countryside to a beach destination called Varadero, which is a hotspot for tourism because of the beautiful Cuban beaches. We kept busy that day visiting a local artisan shop called Taller de Ceramica Aristica and enjoyed a pottery demonstration by the owner and, of course, shopping opportunities.

We next traveled to a nearby city called Matanzas, known as the Athens of Cuba for the many renowned artists and intellectuals it has produced. One of the most fascinating stops that we made was at a print and binding shop called Ediciones Vigia. This independent publishing collective began making homemade books in 1985. They are truly creating books that are not only of literary value, but also unique works of art. Each book published is beautiful to behold, fit to be displayed, and work to be treasured.

cuban manThe anticipation of traveling back to Havana was high as we prepared ourselves for a walking tour of Old Havana. Cosmos Tours arranged for a local architect to give us a lesson about the history written in the stones of the 400-year-old streets and colonial buildings. The Havana UNESCO World Heritage Site centers on three historic plazas, each distinct with a church, slave market, and fort. Among the bustle of people, we witnessed one of the most confounding paradoxes of Cuba. Gaily dressed peasant women and old men with fedoras and big cigars posed for photos for a dollar each. They easily made $10 a day, $300 a month. Yet the average government salary is $20 per month. The Cuban people are definitely very resourceful.

While in Havana, we visited a daycare center filled with 50 two-year-olds. Caring nuns and their helpers run this center. Only mothers who are willing to go back to work are allowed to put their child in this free childcare program. The children delighted us with a few songs, and we then returned the favor by singing “Old McDonald” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” This exchange was heartwarming and definitely a highlight of our day.

Next, we were off to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home where he lived for over 30 years, and penned some of his most favorite novels. We saw tombstones where he buried four of his beloved dogs—Black, Negrita, Linda and Neron. It was also fascinating to see his fishing boat, El Pinar, which was used to patrol for German U-boats during WWII.

Next, we were off to visit Ernest Hemingway's home...

As we wrapped up our 9-day tour, we traveled to the western end of the island to the lush province of Pinar del Rio. On the way, we visited a local primary school and interacted with fourth-graders working on math problems. Since this is a state owned school, we were not allowed to donate money to the school, however school supplies were much appreciated. As the children introduced themselves, they told us what they wanted to be “when they grow up.” We heard the typical professions such as police officer and school teacher. But one young man said he wanted to be a driver, and his buddy sitting next to him boasted that he was going to be a mechanic. These two professions in Cuba are very important to this nation due to the vast number of vintage cars throughout the country.

As we checked into our pre-assigned bed and breakfasts in the small town of Vinales, we had the wonderful opportunity to interact with host families and continue immersing ourselves in the local Cuban culture. From the feedback I received from my clients, this part of the tour was one of the highlights of the overall trip. My husband and I stayed in a home where the host was an English teacher. He enjoyed educating us on the everyday challenges of his community, and demonstrated excitement towards the American tourist and what we bring to their country.

A thrill for the men in our group was a visit to a tobacco farm and the opportunity to puff on much coveted cigars while watching the proprietor roll these Cuban novelties. Also, we toured an organic farm where we chatted with the staff and were treated with a delicious farm-to-table lunch.

cuban carCar enthusiasts in our group were totally surprised to see the large number of vintage cars throughout the country. The streets of Havana are congested with Soviet-era trucks, boxy Chinese cars, horse-drawn wagons, and chrome-gilded Buicks and Chevrolets. For those who love history, we explored the different facets of the historic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Also, Cuba is an expert and amateur photographer’s dream by offering opportunities to capture life unfolding naturally for the locals.

In my opinion, Cuba has something for everyone who is willing to remain flexible and “go with the flow.” As a travel consultant, I am often asked, “What is your favorite destination?” Until now, I always struggled with this question since I have had many favorite experiences. Now, without any hesitation, I can confidently say that our Cosmos Cuba People-To-People Tour was a trip that I will never forget. In fact, I am planning to go back in a year or two to explore the eastern side of the island including Trinidad, Bay of Pigs, and King Ranch.

Ready to visit Cuba?

Drop us a line today to book your trip!


Endless Travel Blog

The Unspoiled Paradise of Belize

--by Susan Hammond

I had the opportunity just a few months ago to participate in a guided tour with National Geographic by G Adventures to the country of Belize, allowing our small group of travel professionals to discover and connect with the wonderful local people in a way that was truly meaningful. This adventure took us deep into the Belizean culture, offering a greater hands-on exploration, interactions with local experts and the freedom to roam, all within the structure and security of travelling in this intimate group. This authentic nine-day experience consisted of exploring the Mayan ruins, a visit to a hot sauce factory and excursions to small local villages to get up close and personal with island life.

Formerly known as British Guatemala, Belize is a country on the eastern coast of Central America. It is the only country in Central America whose official language is English, though Belizean Creole and Spanish are also commonly spoken. Belize is bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. Since this small and diverse country is approximately the size of Massachusetts, we were able to explore a lot of it during my very first visit. What I truly love about Belize is that in just over a week, we spent time in the lush jungle of the west on the Guatemalan border, ending our journey with beach time on Caye Caulker, which is truly a tropical paradise on the Caribbean Sea.

After arriving in Belize City, our group was transported about 20 minutes from the airport to the centrally located Burrell Boom Village, which is right on the Belize Old River. We stayed in a charming jungle resort offering comfort and convenience in an exotic, tropical rainforest setting.

Our first day consisted of a full-day excursion to the Lamanai Ruins, a renowned Mayan ceremonial site consisting of over 800 structures surrounded by lush jungle. Lamanai (“Submerged Crocodile,” in Mayan) was occupied as early as 1500 B.C.

First of all, getting to Lamanai was half the fun! The short van ride led us across rivers and vast expanses of land, providing us with a true Belizean country tour. We arrived at the Tower Hill Bridge where we boarded a motorboat for a spectacular ride upriver, continuing our journey to Lamanai. The boat tour was by far the highlight (except for the Lamanai Ruins, of course, but we had to flip a coin...) of the full-day excursion. The ride was a wonderful opportunity for wildlife spotting, as well as spotting many tropical birds and spider monkeys. We even saw a couple of freshwater crocodiles floating near the river’s edge.

These caves, called ‘Xibalba,’ meaning ‘Mayan hell,’ are fascinating underground worlds.

As we continued on our journey to the western side of Belize to the city of San Ignacio, we stopped along the way to cave tube (which is an activity very specific to Belize). First, we walked approximately 30 minutes through the jungle alongside the river carrying our inner tubes (yes, we had our mosquito repellant close at hand), then happily launched the tubes in the welcomed cool water passing through dark caves and their wonderful cavities that we discovered thanks to our headlamps. These caves, called “Xibalba,” meaning “Mayan hell,” are fascinating underground worlds. In my opinion, cave tubing is a not-to-be-missed activity in Belize that you have to add to your bucket list!

After completing our drive to San Igancio and checking into our rainforest hotel on the outskirts of the city, we enjoyed a couple of free days to individually choose how we wanted to explore the surrounding countryside and attractions. Most of us chose to cross the border into Guatemala (which was an experience in itself) to visit Tikal National Park, which is the largest excavated site on the American continent, containing some of the most fascinating archeological remains of the ancient Mayan civilization. On the way back from this all-day tour, we stopped for a late lunch in northern Guatemala at a local restaurant right on Lake Peten, which is the second largest lake in Guatemala. A dip in this lake was very refreshing, plus the local cuisine was outstanding!

The second day in western Belize consisted of some of the youngsters in the group participating in a cave excursion to Belmopan, Belize’s Crystal Cave. Since I am not a millennial anymore, and spelunking is not my idea of a good time, some of us chose to go to Chaa Creek Lodge (a wildly civilized luxury resort) for the day to explore the Blue Morpho Butterfly farm, where we observed the “Belizean Blue” during every stage of their life cycle. Of course, while we were at the beautiful Chaa Creek lodge for the day, a site inspection was in order after our delicious jungle cuisine. This lodge is very proud that they were chosen to host Prince Harry a few years ago when he visited Belize as part of a Diamond Jubilee tour representing Queen Elizabeth. I came home telling my husband that I could live at Chaa Creek forever, and of course he reminded me that I still have two boys in college, so now is not a good time. Plus, he knows that I would miss the Rocky Mountains and having four seasons, so I was instantly jerked back into reality.

Leaving western Belize and travelling along the Hummingbird Highway, we headed toward the small Garifuna fishing village of Hopkins about three hours by road, south of Belize City. On the way, we stopped at the Hot Mama’s hot sauce factory, which is a true institution in Belize. This tour was a can’t-miss for anyone looking for a genuine taste of Central America. We toured the factory before indulging in some spicy flavors, and of course brought plenty home to enjoy ourselves and give as gifts.

Arriving into Hopkins later that day allowed time to explore the fascinating Garifuna culture. The Afro-Caribbean Garifuna people originated with the arrival of West African slaves who washed ashore on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent around 1635, while likely on their way to New World mines and plantations. We had a delicious dinner at the Sandy Beach woman’s co-op. They served a dish called hudut (a creamy fish stew served with mashed plantain and distinctive local flair). After dinner, we had fun taking a drum lesson and enjoyed a demonstration by these amazing local artists.

belize hammocksUpon leaving Hopkins, we drove back to Belize City and then took a short ferry ride over to Caye Caulker. This small laid-back island, consisting of 1,000 or so residents, displays the ‘no shirt, no shoes, no problem’ attitude throughout the island. The only traffic sign instructs golf carts and bicycles to “go slow,” a directive that is taken seriously. The island is an ideal base for snorkeling and diving adventures at the nearby reef. The northern part of the island—a tempting destination for kayakers—is mostly mangroves, which are home to an amazing variety of birdlife. Other than that, all visitors should be sure to schedule in plenty of time for swinging on a hammock and enjoying the breeze (which is indeed a legitimate activity on Caye Caulker).

In conclusion, my first journey to Belize allowed me to step away from my daily routine to a special place in the sun. I also got to experience some soul-recharging beach time, but with added cultural experiences that gave me a look at what life is like living in Belize. So if you enjoy photographing wildlife, hiking in the jungle or just exploring one of the longest barrier reefs in the Western Hemisphere, Belize has got it all!

Ready to visit Belize?

Drop us a line today to book your trip!

Christmas with Santa in Olso, Norway

It’s the end of summer. The Halloween decorations have barely hit the stores. Why would anyone do a travel blog about Christmas NOW? Well, it’s warm. Summer is almost over. And no one wants to have to put together a last minute trip for the Christmas holiday. So, what better time to be thinking about it?

Founded in 1040, Oslo was original spelled Ânslo or Áslo. A fire destroyed large parts of the city in 1624, after which the city was rebuilt closer to Akershus Fortress. Since then, it has become home to the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, Frogner Park (the world’s largest sculpture park), and the Viking Ship Museum displaying 1000-year-old, fully intact ships. 

“But why,” you may ask, “would anyone want to go to a country that finds ⅓ of its land area north of the Arctic Circle? Isn’t that cold?” There’s a Norwegian saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” So bundle up and book yourself a new, incredibly beautiful, and fun way to spend the Christmas holiday!

Earlier in December, Oslo’s Christmas Markets are in full swing, and they are less crowded than closer to Christmas.  Winter Wonderland, one of Oslo’s Christmas fairs goes on for well over a month, and is not too far away from the Royal Palace. The fair combines delicious food and delicacies (local holiday treats like bacon chips and glogg), high-quality craft (wool slippers, hats and sweaters), a Ferris wheel, and a free public ice skating rink.

Christmas in Winterland (Jul I Vinterland) is the main Christmas market in the city. You’ll find traditional candles in windows welcoming visitors, and INCREDIBLE, hours-long sunsets thanks to the limited sunlight this time of year. It also allows for elaborate light displays, bringing an unearthly feeling to the fantastic snow sculptures. If you’re not ready for full on ice rink skating, you can also skate (or skate with just your shoes) on many of the local ponds.  And when you’re all tuckered out, find yourself some fruit with God Jul (Good Yule) messages and relax.

Take the bus to the Norsk Folkemuseum (Folk Museum) Fair and spend an entire day walking through the historic village with local foods like lefse, folk dancers and music, open fires to warm up, and artisan crafts. The candle factory, potters, silversmiths and weavers all sell their own handmade products in the Old Town, where homes decorated for Christmas showcase the holiday celebration according to old local tradition. And many of these markets actually have live reindeer to visit with! Watch out for the costumed children who are recruited to chase about, throw snowballs, make faces and make traditional mischief.

When you’re all marketed out, you should most certainly hike to the top of the opera house to see the view of the harbor. Words don’t do it justice at Christmastime.  And finally, for a true taste of the holiday in “The Land of the Midnight Sun,” join the locals and brave a sauna on a boat followed by jumping into the ice-cold bay! Whether you’re going for the markets, the sunsets, or just to relax, Endless Travel can help you plan the perfect stay, well before the holiday pressure kicks in.  So reach out today.


Further Reading:

Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve? – Jan Betts
The Snow Sister – Lisa Aisato & Maja Lunde
Keep Saying Their Names – Simon Stranger
Grown-ups – Marie Aubert

Adventures in Athens

It is said that the area than the city of Athens encompasses has been inhabited for over 7,000 years, continuously. Because of its age and history, the city is home to a multitude of architectural styles and its historic sights are some of the best known by the modern world. In fact, the number of tourists who visit Greece every year is higher than the actual population of Greece.

Thankfully, as with many places that have relatively temperate climate year-round, visiting Athens in the off-season provides you a glimpse of the birthplace of Democracy with NO crowds, and some exceptional lodging options. And even when there are few tourists around, there are still street vendors offering fresh fruit, nuts and olives for a nice afternoon snack. One of the other benefits of visiting Athens in the off-season is that the usually pushy restaurant hustlers generally offer your discounts and freebies if you are polite to them, but begin to walk away.

Most people, when they think of visiting Athens, think of the Parthenon. And for good reason. Perched atop the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Propylaia date back to the 5th century BC. Over the centuries, the Parthenon has served as a temple, a church, a mosque, military barracks and a munitions dump. It has been set on fire, shaken by earthquakes, looted, defaced, and it was blown up when the munitions stored inside it detonated during the Turkish and Venitian fight over Athens.

In fact, the Parthenon itself has so much history it is generally a wise idea to take a trip through the Parthenon Museum before you actually visit. You’ll get a much better understanding of exactly what you’re seeing while you’re on the Acropolis, and don’t forget to visit the outdoor (free) section of the museum which features uncovered ancient ruins. If you’re looking for a historic tour like no other, book yourself one of the Segway tours of the Parthenon and other historic sites. It is well worth the cost, and fun for everyone in the family.

Athens features other historic sites as well. Pnyx (pronounced “nix”) Hill is about half a kilometer west of the Acropolis. Athenians used to gather there to discuss politics and make decisions pertaining to the city itself. Pnyx Hill is the actual birthplace of democracy, for it was here that all the male citizens of Athens were declared equal and given the right to vote and take part in the decision making. It also sports a pretty fantastic view of the city.

There are modern locations to visit as well. Pay a visit to the Olympic Track and run a lap, or stand on the medals podium for a pretty great photo op. When Athens was modernizing their infrastructure for the 2004 Summer Olympics, subway construction and modernization unearthed over 50,000 artifacts buried beneath the city. There were so many, in fact, that six of Athens subway stations are museums unto themselves. So when you’re getting ready to take a trip on Athens’ very clean and timely subway (don’t rent a car unless you absolutely have to), leave a little extra time to check the exhibits.

For a breathtaking walk through ancient ruins strewn among vegetation, rare plants, and saplings, pack a lunch and make an afternoon trip to the National Garden. The garden is home to 519 species and varieties of trees, bushes and other plants from around the world. Beautiful during any season, the Garden is just off the Syntagma subway station, and is open from dawn until dusk. It also features a conservatory, children’s library and a small cafe.

Finally, when you’ve had enough of ancient ruins and beautiful gardens, you should take advantage of Athens burgeoning street art scene. Several neighborhoods have been transformed into open air art galleries with phenomenal graffiti murals. In fact, several tour companies offer guided street art tours that will cap your visit with a taste of modern day Athens. So when you’re ready to travel back in time to the days of Aristotle and Plato, reach out to Endless Travel to help put together the perfect visit.

Recommended reading:
  • Kassandra and the Wolf, Margarita Karapanou
  • Red Dyed Hair, Kostas Mourselas
  • The Other Alexander, Margarita Liberaki
  • Something Will Happen, You’ll See, Christos Ikonomou

Western Austria

If ever there was a place where the fields truly were alive with music, it is Western Austria. From cowbells on the hills, to concertos from native son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to actual people playing actual alpenhorns, the hills teem with enough songs and sights to satisfy even the most discerning traveler.

Western Austria encompasses the high Alpine peaks of Tyrol and Vorarlberg as well as the rolling mountains of Salzburgerland and Carinthia. Nestled among the mountain tops and valleys are flush with castles of every size and style. As you make the stunning drive through the Alps it’s not difficult to stumble upon a “Burg” (military/government castle), “Schloss” (palace), or “Schlössl” (manor) in any state of ruin, repair or resplendence. There is even a bus ride up to Kehlsteinhaus, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest above the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden.

Between castles are beautiful mountain villages with white walls and dark, ornate trim and flower boxes. They are the traditional “gingerbread houses” of Hansel and Grettle fame. It is not unusual to stumble upon a village festival, where you can fill yourself with bratwurst, sauerkraut, pretzels, schnitzel and beer along with local specialties influenced by German, Hungarian and Italian tradition. Knowing how to say “Bitte” (please) and “Danke” (thank you) will thrill the locals, who will be more than happy to go above and beyond to help a friendly traveler.

Outside of the grand castles and picturesque villages, there is still a lot to do and see in Western Austria. Former volcanic zones have dappled the countryside with spas (thermen) and hot springs (thermalbäder) which have spawned a whole industry around therapeutic treatment and rehab programs. They are, however, still open to everyone just looking to swim in steaming hot water any time of year.

Tauren Spa

Therme Aqua Dome” in Längenfeld is your typical example of a modern-day Austrian spa, featuring a sauna village, a beauty farm, pools to swim in outside, and the Aqua Dome itself. Less touristy, but just as well equipped is Tauren Spa in the heart of the Hohe Tauern National Park. Tauren’s waterslides and huge indoor pools are only eclipsed by the stunning views and vistas everywhere you look.

For those who prefer a bit more adventure than hot springs, adventure also awaits beneath the mountains. Deep beneath the mountains surrounding Salzburg, you can tour the “white gold” mines in Hallein and Berchtesgaden. Ride a small mine train deep inside the salt mines (Salzkammergut) to see mines which have been in operation for over 500 years. A 36-meter long miner’s slide, a subterranean salt lake, and the famed Salt Cathedral are all just a short bus ride from Salzburg.

Ice Cave

And if one underground excursion isn’t enough for you, be sure to check out Eisriesenwelt, the World of the Ice Giants. The largest ice cave in the world, Eisriesenwelt is a 42 km deep, natural limestone and ice cavern inside Hochkogel mountain. Even though the cave was long known to locals, it wasn’t explored until 1879 because Austrian legend had dubbed it “the entrance to hell.” Now it plays host to over 200,000 visitors between May and October every year.

Finally, no visit to Western Austria would be complete without watching a sunset over Königssee, a natural lake within the Berchtesgaden National Park. The cleanest lake in the country, only electric and human powered boats are allowed to set sail on it.

No matter what song you sing, Western Austria will provide wonderful accompaniment for your journey. Endless Travel will gladly help you set up your Alpine music debut, so contact them today!

Recommended Reading:

The Habsburgs: The History of a Dynasty – Benjamin Curtis
Brother of Sleep – Robert Schneider
The Painted Kiss – Elizabeth Hickey
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution – Nicholas Meyer

Spring Among the Tulips in Holland

Holland is the name given to the western part of the Netherlands that includes Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. One of the most densely-populated countries in the world, the Netherlands is also one of the most tourist-friendly, with most cities, towns and villages sporting at least one tourist information office providing maps and free brochures. Ocean currents keep the spring and summers very temperate and pleasant, but be prepared for the weather to change at the drop of a wooden shoe!

With over 800 bridges more than Venice, Amsterdam also sports nearly 900,000 bicycles. That’s more bicycles than inhabitants and four times the number of cars. This has led to the city being EXTREMELY bike friendly. In fact, one of the most photographed sights in Amsterdam is the bicycle parking in front of Central Station. Renting bikes to explore the city and take advantage of the more than €120,000,000 invested in bicycle infrastructure is a great way to experience life as a native. Amsterdammers bike approximately 2,000,000 kilometers (1,200,000 miles) every single day. There is even a bike-friendly museum in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, which is the only museum in the world you can cycle through.

There are 51 museums in the city (the highest concentration of museums in the world), which make it a wonderful place to explore art and history. The Netherlands lays claim to some of the world’s most famous painters: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Steen, van Gogh and Mondrian. Besides the Rijksmuseum, people flock to the van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank house, so be SURE to get tickets in advance. The van Gogh museum tickets are available online and give you an assigned start time in order to control the flow of visitors through the museum. Don’t be late for your entry time, or you may not be able to get in. The Anne Frank house releases 80% of their tickets two months in advance, and the other 20% at 9:00 AM the day of.

For those with a more than passing interest in history, a canal cruise is a perfect way to explore the city and see the sights. There are over 60 miles of canals in Amsterdam, separating it into 90 different islands, and Grachtengordel, the historic canal belt, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many locals actually live in one of the 3,000 houseboats on the canals, and some of them are even available for tourists to stay in rather than bunking in a hotel.

Dining in Amsterdam is an exploration of world cuisine. There are the traditional Dutch foods such as Bitterballen (deep fried crispy meatballs), Frites (thick cut Dutch fries served with mayo), Snert (a thick green stew made from split peas, pork, celery, leeks and onions), and Stroopwafels (two thin waffles with a sweet syrup holding them together). But you can also get an Indonesian Rice Table dinner (25 to 30 small plates of veggies, meats and other delicacies), a Javanese Bakabana (fried plantain in peanut sauce), Tibetan Dumplings, and Eritrean Meat Stew (with beer served in a coconut shell).

For those looking for a shopping experience, there are numerous department stores and shopping centers, most notable De Bijenkorf in Dam Square and the spectacular Magna Plaza. Kalverstraat and Leidstraat sport numerous exclusive shops such as Paul Warmer, Filippa K and Shoebaloo, as well as more of the typical European fare such as Zara, Esprit and UNIQLO. For antiques and art, be sure to visit Spiegelkwartier. And no visit to the city would be complete without spending some time at Bloemenmarkt, the floating Flower Market and one of the most fragrant places in all of Amsterdam. You can even find flower bulbs certified for export so you can bring some of Holland’s colorful Tulips home with you. You can find tulips in every color in a 64-crayon box, and then some more colors and patterns Crayola never imagined!

A short tour bus ride from Amsterdam is Lisse, home to the famous Keukenhof, the largest flower garden in the world. Hyacinth, tulips and daffodils can be found in spectacular arrangements of colors, creating a display like no other. There are bikes available for rent which you can ride through the fields and surrounding gardens. But the garden is only open a VERY limited amount of time each spring, so if this is one of your chosen destinations, plan carefully, and be sure to take your allergy medication so you can enjoy the incredible smell without sneezing for days.

When your historic, artistic, floral and dining senses have all been overwhelmed, Amsterdam sports the ‘Literary Landmarks Walking Tours’ focusing on libraries, book cafés and the city’s most important writers. Holland’s industrial and mercantile history fostered a robust book trade, which wasn’t subject to the same degree of control that was imposed in countries such as France and England. This brought about a very stimulated cultural and intellectual life for the cities residents, one you are sure to fall in love with as you explore this phenomenal city.

Recommended Reading:

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, Russell Shorto
The Coffee Trader, David Liss
Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City, Geert Mak
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

A Month in Italy – Florence

Florence, or Firenze, was the center of European trade during the Middle Ages. The constant influx of people and knowledge (and wealth) birthed the Renaissance, and it continues to be a cultural Mecca even today. It is commonly believed that Florence has the greatest concentration of art per square meter of any city in the world.
Founded atop Etruscan ruins as a Roman garrison in 59 BC by Julius Caesar, Florence is a treasure trove of Renaissance buildings. The many self-guided and guide-led walking tours of the city will thrill anyone with even the slightest interest in architecture, especially in the city center, which still contains glimpses of medieval, Baroque and Neoclassical styles.

The many palaces and historic buildings provide a breathtaking view of Florentine history, and there are numerous museums scattered throughout the city, including the town hall, Palazzo Vecchio, which does double duty as an art museum. It was here that Michelangelo’s David was installed in 1504. While the statue currently in place is a replica (you must travel to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the original), there are numerous other statues by Donatello, Giambologna, Cellini and Ammannati as well.

A simple, unassuming building, Galleria dell’Accademia, is a must for any aficionado of Renaissance art. Along with the original David, the Gallery of the Academy of Florence also hosts other works by Michelangelo as well as a plethora of historical art from the 14th and 15th centuries. There is even a “skip the line” guided tour of the museum, which will give you priority entrance to the Gallery as well as historic information on the life and times of Michelangelo.

The city is dappled with numerous squares (piazze) such as Piazza del Duomo in the center of town, home to Florence’s Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly referred to as Il Duomo. One of the most celebrated cathedrals in the world, it is visible for miles as it looms over the surrounding buildings. Choose one of the piazza’s coffee shops and sit outside to people watch as you sip an exquisite Italian caffè. Tourists can climb up into the top of the dome, with its incredible views over the cathedral and the city. These tours are breathtaking and inspiring but they are not for the faint of heart!

Florence also offers unique opportunities for tourists to experience what the old city was like. Perfume has played an important role in the history of the city with aristocrats demanding new and personalized scents to modern day visitors wanting to enjoy the unique and new scents. If you look, you can find master Perfumiers leading short workshops where each participant designs their own personal scent and leaves with a bottle of their creation and a recipe for future batches.
Major thoroughfares connect Florence’s piazze, which include Piazza della Repubblica (home to several bourgeois palaces), Piazza Santa Croce (named for the Basilica of Santa Croce), Piazza Santa Trinita (a triangular square featuring the church of Santa Trinita), as well as Piazza San Marco, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Piazza Beccaria and Piazza della Libertà. If you are traveling by car, however, pay special attention to streets which are often restricted, one way and/or bus-only roads. A traffic ticket is a pricey and unpleasant souvenir.

For those who prefer a little shopping with their tourism, Florence has been a center of textile production since the year 1300. Currently, the city is home to fashion companies such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and Emilio Pucci. You will want to visit Via de’ Tornabuoni with its luxury fashion houses and elegant boutiques.

Before you depart Florence, be sure to walk up the shady via Michelangelo from Piazza Ferruccio to visit Piazzale Michelangelo. The panoramic views of the city’s skyline are wondrous and inspiring for any photographer. No matter the time of day, the views are breathtaking and not to be missed. So, let Endless Travel help you plan the perfect Florentine vacation.

Recommended Reading:

The City of Florence, R. W. B. Lewis
Dark Water, Robert Clark
The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel
Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri