A Tonic European Vacation
Amsterdam, Ischia and Rome
Regular Tonic readers know that we usually publish a “what I did this Summer” family vacation article. But as time moves on so does our family. My eldest child, Sarah is studying abroad, doing a term at the University of Amsterdam, and Naomi and I recently celebrated our 25th wedding Anniversary (feel free to email me with your “you’re too young…” comments). So instead of the standard cram-the-kids-in-the-car road trip, this year I’m writing about Naomi and me travelling to Europe to visit Sarah and celebrating our anniversary...in nine days.
Day 1 - The Red Eye To Amsterdam I took some pills and don’t remember anything.
The Real Day 1 - Amsterdam. Those pills I took did not help my usually excellent sense of direction. So when we got off the streetcar for the “short walk” with luggage to our hotel, I not only didn’t double check the address of the hotel, I stubbornly refused to monitor the google map. On the bright side, the Dutch are very good natured about tired and frustrated travellers dragging their suitcases back and forth over the cobblestones early in the morning.
After the miscue we eventually found and checked into the Banks Mansion - a very well located boutique hotel right on one of the canals in the centre of the city. We were a short walk to every restaurant and museum we visited. The room was large and well outfitted. Sarah joined us for our complimentary buffet breakfast. Naomi went native and had some toast with Hagelslag. Yes, they really do eat chocolate sprinkles for breakfast in the Netherlands.
After some obligatory canal pics, apple cake and stroopwafels on our afternoon stroll with Sarah as our tour guide, we went to Restaurant Max for some Indonesian food. This was a communal meal in the rijsttafel (“rice table”) tradition with lots of small dishes of food like Nasi Goreng, chicken satay in peanut sauce, beef Rendang etc. that filled the table...and our tummies. Spicy and delicious.
Day 2 - Tulips We knew that our trip coincided with King’s Day celebrations (imagine Victoria Day and Canada Day wrapped into one) which meant that the locals would be out in droves during our visit. But we didn’t appreciate how that might impact our day trip to “see the tulips”. The most famous spot for this, Keukenhof Gardens, is actually about 45 minutes out of the city. And unbeknownst to us, going to see the tulips, is a favourite pastime of the locals...on King’s Day weekend.
To say I’m not good with lines or waiting is perhaps the most understated thing I’ve ever written in this magazine. The line to wait for the 45 minute bus trip was the longest line I’ve ever waited in. It might be the biggest line I’ve ever witnessed. It spanned the entire airport and it took me well over three minutes just to walk its length. But yes, the tulips were beautiful.
Day 3 - Museums (and more lines). Amsterdam is a beautiful, walkable, culturally significant city. I could actually see myself living there. One of the world’s best museums, the Rijksmuseum, is filled with works from the Dutch masters and right next door is the smaller, but powerful Van Gogh museum, both worth the price of admission (and if you book ahead, virtually no lines).
We underestimated how far in advance you need to buy tickets for the Anne Frank House; a remarkable Holocaust Memorial, that seems to qualify as the only “must see” tourist site in the city. I won’t bore you with the details of the length of the non-reserved line. Suffice it to say that the moving experience was worth the wait.
Day 4 Ischia: Planes, Trains, Automobiles and...Boats Because we combined the visit with Sarah with our anniversary celebration, we had one wickedly wonky travel day. There’s no easy way to get from Amsterdam to Ischia (a fantastic island off the coast of Naples). The following took twelve hours: a cab from the hotel in Amsterdam to the airport, a brutal hour through airport security, a two hour flight to Rome; a commuter train from the airport to the train station; an hour on the high speed train from Rome to Naples; a harrowing twenty minute cab ride from the train station in Naples to the ferry dock, an hour wait for the boat and then an hour hydrofoil ride to the island of Ischia...perhaps the nicest place I’ve ever been to.
Days 5 and 6 Heaven We spent three idyllic days at L’Albergo della Regina Isabella Resort and Spa in Lacco Ameno, Ischia. I thought it would be impossible to bounce back from the brutal travel day, but the minute we stepped into our room (the “Richard Burton” suite btw), the fatigue melted away. How could you not feel relaxed with a bedroom terrace that overlooks the green mountains, and a glorious shore town that overlooked the Mediterranean? Our room was gorgeously appointed with a separate change room, two bathrooms and a second terrace with private mineral spring spa.
While the nearby island of Capri, Positano and the Amalfi coast are well known to North Americans, the considerable charm of Ischia, a favourite vacation spot for Romans, is relatively unknown outside of Europe. It shouldn’t be. The Regina Isabella is a glamorous throwback, meticulously maintained. It is a true five star property.
We spent our time the first full day walking around town (the charming Lacco Ameno) and in and around the forests and natural spring spas that dot the island. We lucked out and found an amazing little bakery that had a hot table of antipasti and took lunch on their patio. Later in the afternoon we had our treatments. Regina Isabella houses a true spa with its own mineral springs. I first met with a doctor to assess whether I was healthy enough to undertake the hot mud treatment - then on to the private room where I was covered in hot mud and wrapped in sheets. An odd, but not unpleasant experience. A quick rinse and then into the mineral spa. Invigorating. Lastly I had a relaxing fascia massage while the music of Ennio Morricone (the Spaghetti Western Score Master) played in the background!
Most of the other guests at the Regina Isabella were attending a convention of ballroom dancers (so the pool area was filled with gracefully beautiful but somewhat intimidating sunbathers). They were treated to a magnificent traditional Neapolitan Buffet, which we were encouraged to also partake in. Although we opted for some delicious fresh grilled fish and vegetables, our team of waiters insisted on sneaking us some goodies from the buffet. And because of that I consider each of them among my closest friends. Truly, the food at the Regina Isabella was uniformly excellent, and we didn’t even get to their Michelin Star restaurant. Each morning we had our choice of the local breads, pastries, preserves, fruits, fresh squeezed juices, (and fish, cheese, meats, eggs) at the complimentary buffet that stretched across the room.
On our third day, after the concierge heard that we wanted to do some hiking on the island, we got a surprise. We were told to go to a local bus stop, where the resort had arranged for us to meet up with a tour group hiking around the island. Allesandro of Platypus Itinerary took us on a 90 minute hike up into the mountains. And when we got to the top, there was an amazing restaurant serving food grown on its own farm; bruschetta, fennel salad, grilled pork loin, sausages, tiramisu. Forget 100 mile diet. This was 100 meter diet! And we still had room for an amazing dinner of antipasti, risotto and local fish at the top rated restaurant on the island, the tiny family run miracle, Le Stufe.
Day 7 When In Rome… We reached the “Eternal City” mid-day and checked into our boutique hotel, up near the Spanish Steps, the Hotel degli Artisti - very lovely and very well located for traipsing around Old Rome on foot. Or by bike too. Because not long after we arrived we scheduled a bike tour of the Appian Way and Catacombs tour with Silvia, owner of A Friend In Rome. We’d been to Rome years before and seen the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain etc. With the bike tour, we not only got some exercise, we also got to see ancient Rome from a uniquely new perspective. We covered a lot of ground...and got a figurative “crash course” on navigating Roman traffic on two wheels.
Atop everyone’s “must go” culinary list of Rome is Salumeria Roscioli. The venerable butcher and specialty cheese shop has its own little restaurant (with reservations near impossible to get). If you skip the pizzas and pastas and stick to the charcuterie, cheese and wine, I guarantee you an authentic Roman meal not to be missed.
Day 8 More Food I made a pledge that when in Rome I was going to have gelato whenever I felt like it. So while on the amazing Eating Italy Food Tour of the Trastevere - four hours of noshing at some seriously old school establishments sampling pecorino, porchetta, pasta, cookies etc. - I was very pleased to get some of my beloved Pistachio gelato at Fatamorgana (which is all artisanal and organic). And some hours later, after we went to nearly every dress shop on the Via del Governo Vecchio, we made sure to stop by Gelateria Giolitti on our way back to the hotel for some more. Giolitti may make the best Pistachio gelato I’ve ever had.
Here’s the thing about restaurants in Rome; their menus all look the same. I guarantee you that you can find the same four sauces; Cacio and Pepe, Amatriciana, Gricio and Carbonara everywhere. So we thought we were being edgy and clever in going to vegetarian restaurant Il Margutta (near the Spanish Steps)...until we saw their vegan Cacio and Pepe...and yes, it was good.
Day 9 Sunday, Funday - While it can be hard to find good restaurants that open on a Sunday in Rome, we had no trouble finding things to do. All the museums were free during our Sunday in the city. So for a change of pace we walked through the pastoral Villa Borghese park to the National Gallery of Modern Art. Only in Rome does Van Gogh qualify as “modern”. Later, after lounging at our hotel’s rooftop bar, where I taught the bartender to make a Paper Plane (or two), we caught our last meal in Rome at Nonna Betta in the Jewish Quarter, famous for the Roman style (deep fried) artichokes...and then one last gelato from Giolitti, because a pledge is a pledge.
Jamie Bussin is the Publisher of Tonic Magazine. He defiantly ate the entire portion of Mortadella at Roscioli because he got over-excited and didn’t consult with his wife before ordering. He regrets nothing.
Banks Mansion https://www.carlton.nl/en/banks-mansion-hotel-amsterdam
Restaurant Max http://www.maxrestaurant.nl/
Van Gogh Museum https://www.vangoghmuseum.com/en
Anne Frank House http://www.annefrank.org/
L’Albergo Della Regina Isabella http://reginaisabella.com/
Hotel degli Artisti http://www.hoteldegliartisti.com/en/
A Friend in Rome http://afriendinrome.it/
Restaurant Roscioli http://www.salumeriaroscioli.com/booking/
Eating Italy http://www.eatingitalyfoodtours.com/
Il Margutta http://www.ilmargutta.bio/
Nonna Betta http://www.nonnabetta.it/en/