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Europe: Holland, A Dutch Treat for Kids

Our Dutch host raised his eyebrows when our kids took their fourth slices of fruitcake in the hotel breakfast room, lectured them when he caught them jumping on their beds, but when they tried to bring buckets of oyster shells, fresh from the North Sea, into the hotel room for a scrub-down in water and vinegar, he positively had a fit. They and their stinking oyster shells were sent to the courtyard. Despite his initial horror however, he set them up with a garden hose on the flagstones so they could achieve the pearliest shells on earth. In the end, our kids got to practice their trampoline skills, clean their shells and eat their cake too.

It's this kind of tolerance toward families that made our visit to Amsterdam such a treat. Yes, a man yelled at the kids when they ran onto some prohibited grass, but ten minutes later, a woman was showing them how to put money into a booth to activate the puppet show. Of course, this tolerance also allowed hippies to use the city's main square as a campground in the 70s and permits ladies of the night to display themselves in the windows of certain downtown establishments. But Amsterdam, Venice of the North, is one of the few world cities we've visited where I could move right in. From the canal boats floating past tall gabled houses to the floating flower markets and , I found it an enchanting environment. How could families not love a country where you can still hear a barrel organ being played on the sidewalk, where nearly everyone rides a bicycle and where St. Nicholas, the first Santa Claus, actually celebrates in person each December? If your family is perhaps thinking of taking advantange of KLM's off-season packages (call ), then here are some must-dos in this tolerant and humane city:

CANAL TOUR: We started our visit by hopping onto a glass-covered canal boat and cruising some of the 50 miles of waterways. The kids were keen to see some of the thinnest houses in the world-hardly wider than a width of a door squeezed between two neighbours. The boat tour take you past elegant merchants' homes, houseboats where families actually live year-round and even a jail cell under one of the bridges where a ghostly figure still waits for release. Then it's out to the sea for a brief look at the city from the water. Even young children will understand the importance of the story of the boy who put his finger in the dike and saved the day when they see how much city was claimed from the sea.

ANNE FRANK'S HOUSE: A woman from America was really upset and lit into me for bringing young children to the place where Anne Frank hid out from the Germans and recorded each day in her diary. If you've got a daughter like mine who is fascinated with Anne and her story, this famous house at 263 Prinsengracht will leave an impression. But it's also a history lesson and an important example of how a young person influenced the world. People still bring flowers every day to lay on the statue of Anne in front of the house.

BICYCLE RIDING: After seeing some of the more common tourist attractions such as the Artis Zoo or Madame Tussaud's wax museum near the pigeon-covered Dam Square (where your kids can say Dam as many times as they want-it means "dike"), it's great to be able to rent bikes and ride on some of the most bike-friendly streets of the world. Some 15 million people here own 12 million bicycles (that's like 24 million Canadians travelling by bike) and cyclists here have their own paths and traffic lights. Best of all, there are no hills! You can rent bikes at the rail stations but don't leave them lying around. Like Toronto, Amsterdam is a magnet for bicycle "borrowers."

MUSEUMS: With more than 800 museums to visit in Holland from a piggyback museum to the Hans Brinker museum that displays ice skates of every description to the Music Box to Barrel Organ museum, it makes sense to get a museum pass. If you visit even three or four of them, you'll save money. Kids should see Rembrandt's Night Watch or Van Gogh's Sunflowers, but chances are they'll be more interested in the sidewalk chalk paintings of the masterpieces or the painted city trams.

MADURODAM: We set out for a peek at this world's largest miniature village near the seaside resort of Schevin (about an hour and a half's drive from Amsterdam) and ended up staying for most of a day. The kids couldn't be pulled away. This history of Holland in miniature has harbours with moving boats, including one on fire that gets doused with water, marching bands, amusement parks with ferris wheels and even a forest with a cable car donated by Canada in memory of its soldiers who died in Holland. On the side in an exhibit of sculpted sand castles to represent the struggle of the Dutch against the sea.

EATS: There's such a choise from restaurants with Oriental rugs on the table serving vegetable soup to corner sandwich shops selling bite-size broodjes to such famous establishments as the Green Lantern, the world's narrowest restaurant, three paces wide. We also drank delicious hot chocolate and appreciated the cheese, meats, hard-boiled eggs and fruitcake of a Dutch breakfast. It meant we didn't have to buy lunch.

Of course, there's so much more including the new Holland experience, a multidimensional film and theatre show, the new Science centre, and restored castle hotels where your damsel or knight could sleep in royal splendour. But it's the little things like that make Holland worth a visit.





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