Amsterdam, the Netherlands

AMSTERDAM, in the Netherlands, has a certain reputation (which is part of its charm) but it’s the bikes, art, beer…and ducks…that demand attention.

Left to Right: Poffertjes; Bikes and canals in abundance. Photos by Kirsten Rodenhizer.

The first lesson you learn when you set foot in Amsterdam: watch where you walk. There are 880,000 bicycles in this city (more bikes than people!), and it’s clear from the moment we step out of Centraal train station and see the crammed four-level bike park that cyclists rule here. Yet later on, gazing at an adorably tilted canal house, I miss the ‘ding’ of an oncoming bell and narrowly avoid being mowed down—by an entire family on a single bike; kids tucked behind handlebars and the day’s groceries on a wooden barrow up front. It’s all part of the Dutch capital’s charm.

Visitors can rent their own two-wheeled transport for touring (bikeisready.com). But it’s best to start on the water. Amsterdam is home to a 17th-century network of canals that ring the city centre, fanning to the outer boroughs. We orient with an hour-long cruise, putt-putting under arched bridges and among bobbing houseboats as a sonorous-but-informative guide points out the major ’hoods, plus landmarks like Golden Age gabled houses; Westerkerk, the city’s tallest church, and the 1655 Royal Palace. Then there’s Anne Frank House, where the young diarist lived in hiding 1942–1944; now a must-see museum (annefrank.org).

Clockwise: Rijksmuseum; Muscovy duck in Amstelpark; Lowlander beer sampling. Photos by Kirsten Rodenhizer.

Hopping off the boat, we turn to gallery hopping. The gothic-castle-like Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl) houses thousands of works by Dutch masters, the most gawped-at being Van Gogh’s 1887 self-portrait, Vermeer’s 1657 “The Milkmaid” and Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece “The Night Watch.” Our group snags a Night Watch study sheet and joins the clutch of tourists examining the 1642 painting for details that reveal the artist’s mastery of light, shadow and three-dimensional rendering.

Farther along the grassy Museumplein, or Museum Square, lie The Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk modern art museum. But Moco Museum,
a private gallery opened last year in a 1904 townhouse, offers a quirky counterpoint to the big institutions, showcasing what it calls “the rock stars of art.” The big draw these days is Banksy—90-plus pieces by the enigmatic UK street artist, including his famed “Girl with a Balloon” (until May 31; mocomuseum.com).

By now, stomachs are growling. Dutch delicacies like pickled raw herring and poffertjes, chubby mini-pancakes dusted with icing sugar, only get you so far. Fortunately, the city is a hot-pot of cuisine from around the world. Its Indonesian food scene—a byproduct of Dutch colonial history in Southeast Asia—is feast-worthy. Tomorrow we’ll try a rijsttafel, or “rice table,” a Dutch-Indonesian spread of small plates and rice, at Sampurna (sampurna.com), near the flower market, or Restaurant Blauw (restaurantblauw.nl), west of Vondelpark.

But we’re headed to Amstelpark, a south-side oasis with meandering walking paths, willow-lined ponds, gardens and wandering Muscovy ducks. It’s also the site of Taste of Amsterdam, an annual food fest that brings a sea of food trucks and tasting tents, along with celebrity chefs, cooking classes and demos (June 2–5; en.tasteofamsterdam.com). We start by devouring organic salad wraps, then get straight to sipping: cold Batavia Dutch coffee and genever, a Dutch precursor to gin, from local distiller Hoog Houdt. Then it’s on to Lowlander Beer; brewed with botanicals like chamomile and coriander. We raise our cups, toast the day and promise to step carefully on the way home. — Kirsten Rodenhizer

For more, check out iamsterdam.com.

Portland

PORTLAND, Oregon, has serious cool factor—and great food. Instead of sitting on its hipster laurels, this PNW city keeps pushing palates…eat it up!

portland6Portland is still the new frontier. Here, amidst the tattooed, bearded, thick-framed-glasses-wearing crowd—it’s as if this Pacific Northwest city, tucked under Mt. Hood, is a homing beacon for hipsters—there’s the warm embrace of creative types with some robust entrepreneurial spirit. “Keep Portland weird,” states a legendary mural (and adopted city slogan of sorts). Another long-standing emblematic sign: the neon white stag. And this odd factor is just plain charming—with some rather tasty side dishes.

portland2Because this oft-satirized hipster-haven is the happening food-and-drink hub of the PNW—think farm-to-fork, branch-to-bottle, leaf-to-cup. From ramen bowls at Noraneko (where you can also have a soju chuhai, the Japanese version of an after-work cocktail) to doughnuts (skip the line at Voodoo for a Dirty Wu at Pip’s), Portland puts on an unrivalled culinary show of which the following is just a small sample…

EAST BY WEST The Southeast Asian street-food cuisine of Pok Pok blew open a burgeoning Asian-fare scene in Portland (and now has recent Brooklyn and LA outposts beyond its PDX birthplace). There’s also Han Oak (named for traditional Korean “hanok” homes), Langbaan (a culinary speakeasy that means “back of the house” in Thai), Hat Yai (Langbaan’s counter-service off-shoot) and the first North American locations of Marukin and Afuri, Tokyo ramen houses with a cult following.

SAMPLE: Korean bibimbap (“mixed rice”) and steamed buns at Kim Jong Smokehouse, a collaboration between a few of Portland’s hottest chefs housed in the new Pine Street Market food hall.

DRINK ME Like the Alice in Wonderland directive, Portland encourages serious sipping. Besides the well-known coffee scene—this is the home of Stumptown Roasters, after all (also a moniker for the city itself)—there’s also a tea movement. This is where Tazo tea started, the founder of which went on to quietly create Smith Teamaker—the best in America, some say. There’s also, of course, kombucha (try Brew Dr.) and distilled tea spirits (at Thomas and Sons Distillery), made with varieties like pine-smoked Lapsang Souchong, that simply don’t fit neatly into any existing category—much like PDX itself. SAMPLE: The new fernet-style digestif by Thomas and Sons Distillery, redolent with local ingredients of Douglas Fir, Willamette Hops and birch bark.

POD CAST Portland was an early adopter of food trucks or carts. And with more than 600 citywide, from Viking Soul Food (lefse and gravlax) to newer kid-on-the-block Chicken and Guns (oak-fired Latin chicken), the options are limitless. Which is why this Portland particularity makes perfect sense: food-cart pods. Clustered in empty lots, the congregations of carts become al fresco dining and community spaces, PDX style. Cartlandia is a “super pod” of some 30 carts (featuring fare from 15 countries) and a full-on bar (with 18 beers and ciders on tap). Cartopia has outdoor movie screenings and is a late-night stop, while Tidbit, the newest pod, goes beyond the food and drink with pretty lights, picnic tables, a fire pit and Airstream boutique.

SAMPLE: A Smaaken waffle sandwich (made with local, organic, heirloom varietal wheat, of course)—try the bacon-forward Van Gogh or the veggie Popeye—at the Tidbit pod.

portland3And, now, after all that feasting, “go by bike,” as they say in Portlandia. — Barb Sligl

For more on all the weird and wonderful things to do and sample in Portland, go to travelportland.com.

 

Grand Cayman

GRAND CAYMAN has all the Caribbean musts—beach, snorkelling, marine life, sunsets…and enough food and drink to warrant an annual festival.

grandcayman01

Ensconced beachside, on an alabaster swath of sand guarded by elegant hotels, stretching 10 km along Grand Cayman’s west coast, nuzzled by waters so clear you can see starfish on the bottom, I wonder how I’m going to fill tomorrow.

grandcayman07Right now, entertained by a perfect sunset (one of the Caribbean’s best), I don’t feel like doing anything, though tonight it’s fine dining at Abacus at Camana Bay (camanabay.com), a modern town centre boasting boutiques and other fine dining options beside the water. Wherever I dine, I’ll be sated: many consider the Cayman Islands the Caribbean’s culinary capital. It’s also home to the annual Cayman Cookout festival with renowned host, Chef Eric Ripert (this year it’s on from January 12–17, @caymancookout).

Tomorrow’s first stop, I decide, will be a helping of history. Pedro St. James (pedrostjames.ky) is both refurbished 17th-century great house and host to an interpretive centre worthy of Disney World. I’ll stroll here by the sea amid stands of banana and mahogany trees, tour the outdoor kitchen and then explore the furnished house itself.

Then maybe bond with nature. Welcome to the Cayman Turtle Centre (turtle.ky)—combination wildlife sanctuary, turtle hatchery and theme park—where I’ll learn about efforts to save the sea turtle, pet these huge animals and maybe even swim with them. Or maybe I’ll just cross the road and swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery.

Or I’ll get really close to nature—and bond with the sea. Maybe book a catamaran tour to Stingray City (stingraycitytrips.com) , snorkelling with those graceful creatures—or take a side trip to Starfish Point where I stand in water up to my waist as the stingrays wheel and soar between my legs.

grandcayman04Then it’s time for some R and R. Make for Rum Point (rumpointclub.com) . Stake out a claim in the shade near a congregation of pastel-painted picnic tables; do frosty Caybrew beers at Wreck Bar, once rated among the world’s top-50 beach bars. Go for a swim in bathtub-warm waters.

After some downtime, maybe I’ll take things up a notch: the Cayman Islands are considered among the world’s best dive destinations. I’ll take a lesson in the pool at the Westin Grand Cayman (westingrandcayman.com), then out on—or in—the water. Maybe I’ll dive Babylon or Ghost Mountain.

grandcayman05We’ll stop en route back to our hotel and be mesmerized by the beauty and might of the Caribbean at Blow Holes . Then, it’s home James, for ringside seats to another spectacular sunset , the perfect finish to another perfect Grand Cayman day. — Mark Stevens

To discover even more activities to round out perfect stay here, go to visitcaymanislands.ca.