With a home-base in Gaiberg, Germany, just a few miles east of Heidelberg, we had a very advantageous central location to access Europe from. Italy? About five hours away. Switzerland? Only four. Paris? Four and a half hours with traffic. With so many options yet limited time, we made the choice any 20-something year old American would, Amsterdam! At a mere five hours away on the autobahn, we would be silly to skip out on the opportunity of a lifetime to see this amazing city! We drove north, rejoicing at the signs welcoming us to the Netherlands with our excitement growing as we passed more and more signs for Amsterdam. Being on vacation, we did not have our professional cameras with us. Only a small digital, and good, ole-fashioned disposable cameras. This is why the picture quality on this post may differ from our usual.
Entering the city was pure chaos. We were relying on the GPS to tell us which way to go, all the while getting honked at by cars for letting the bicycles go, then receiving a chorus of bells from the bicyclists we upset by not moving by fast enough. Amsterdam hosts over 3 million bicycles on average, with them littering the streets at every direction. We even saw one bike chained to a bridge, hanging over the edge. Signs for hotels were everywhere, but there was absolutely no parking to be had. After several nerve-racking minutes of negotiating our way on cobblestone side streets through crowds of pedestrians, bicyclists, and unattended children on roller-blades, we spotted a familiar American hotel name that appeared to have a parking garage. We made a bee-line and managed to check in to one of the most beautiful views of the city we could ask for. On the twelfth floor, there is an excellent bar with nothing but windows for walls, so that one may enjoy a full panoramic view of the city. In one look, you can take in a gorgeous cathedral, glows of red from the red light district, the sun flickering its reflection on the city’s canals, and a wonderful mix of old and new architecture spanning across the horizon. Day or night, Amsterdam is a beautiful city.
We took the advice of a bartender and left the hotel in search of a coffee shop called The Bulldog. It was touted as one of the best in town, so we were on a mission. After several blocks of wandering through a city I could only compare to Bourbon Street, New Orleans, I was ready for a break. We had not found The Bulldog yet, but I noticed a heart-shaped sign with the name “Sheeba,” and the title “coffee shop” underneath. This was to be our first Amsterdam coffee shop, and easily became our favorite.
Offering THE BEST cappuccino I have ever enjoyed, delicious side-treats, and a kick-ass atmosphere, Sheeba is my highest recommended coffee shop. They have several televisions through the shop which are always playing old concerts by artists such as Santana, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Marley. Occasionally, one TV will be used for soccer, but the chillax music continues. There are also murals painted around the shop featuring musical artists, soccer stars, and Hollywood celebrities. The employees are friendly, helpful, and know how to make an American feel welcome. As a first-timer going into a coffee shop and having no idea what to expect, Sheeba treated us with respect and made itself feel like a home-away-from-home; a place we can go to to relax and enjoy ourselves, undisturbed.
There is far more to Amsterdam than just the coffee shops, so after we had officially settled in, we hit the cobblestones again in search of adventure. There is an entire row of sex shops, the Sex Museum, the Human Torture Museum, more sex shops, tourist shops, and hey, another sex shop, with the occasional restaurant in between. Personally, seeing how many groups of men would stand gawking at the miscellaneous display windows was even more entertaining than the content within!
Most restaurants we found offered fast food, such as easily heated pizza slices, hot dogs, hamburgers, etc. There were also many ethnic foods available, ranging from Halal shoarmas to sushi to roasted ducks hanging in windows. There were even several Thai restaurants as well as American-style steakhouses.
With all this great food available, you need something to wash it all down, right? Cue the countless bars littering the downtown streets. Irish bars, dive bars, speakeasy-style bars; every bar you could hope for featuring beers from just about every continent! That’s not all; Amsterdam is also home to the Heineken Brewery, which offers daily tours through its “Heineken Experience.” For a low fee, you get entry wristbands, about four fresh, 3-day old beers, a tour of the facility, and access to all sorts of fun Heineken-related games. This was a fun behind-the-scenes look at the process of a brewery, as well as a great opportunity to try some of the freshest beer of our life! It was crisp, flavorful, and refreshing.
Amsterdam is famous for many reasons, but I had never heard of its canals. The city is intertwined with a canal system offering boat tours, romantic boat houses, and a beautifully rustic taste of old Europe. To get anywhere, you will at one point cross a bridge. They are arched gracefully to allow enough room for the passing boats, and give the city such a historic flavor. I had always associated canals with cities like Venice, but never Amsterdam. They were an excellent surprise an addition to this amazing city.
The streets are lined with eye-catching buildings left and right! There is a wonderful blend of old and new, with classic architecture proving its strong influence. There are several areas under construction, but upon closer inspection, they appear to be under renovation. The locals take great pride in their historical buildings and put great effort into keeping them available for future generations to cherish.
We discovered that the most intimate and efficient way to see the city was with bike-taxis. Whizzing through the crowds and buildings as gracefully as a bird flies through the sky, bike-taxis offer a ground level perspective at low enough speeds for you to take the sights in and enjoy yourself. The fares are usually quite reasonable and the bicyclists are fairly eager to share tour-like information while taking you to your destination. After several hours of wandering from our hotel, we had no earthy clue how to get back. What did we do? Hail a bike-taxi, get an awesome tour-like ride, and we got back to our hotel safely and quickly. One could compare it to restarting a video game; we wandered until we were lost or tired, got a bike-taxi back to the hotel, recharged and hit the streets again!
One bike ride led to adventure; we were casually riding down a cobblestone street as a policeman on horse passed us, going the opposite direction. Instantly, he turned the horse around and took off in a thunderous gallop on the cobblestone street. He and another policeman on horse had just cornered and apprehended a man who had apparently just robbed a tourist. Our bike-taxi driver was just as stunned as we were, as he sat there less than two meters away from the scene, until we ushered him to pedal forward. Just minutes later, a taxi car swerved off of his road and into the bike lane, forcing our driver to an abrupt stop nearly jumping the curb to avoid being hit. The car driver was texting, and only realized his swerve at the last minute. Texting and driving causes trouble, no matter what country you’re in!
Another coffee shop I would like to recommend is the Coffeeshop 36. It backs up to one of the many canals and offers two large windows for patrons to look out and even hang their feet out. With a strange heat wave hitting Amsterdam during our visit, the open windows and cool canal breezes were very refreshing. Not to mention their extraordinarily delicious “green cake” brownies, made locally and holding a strong potency. There are also many hand-painted works of art through the shop, creating a very relaxing atmosphere.
It seemed as if everyone was in a good mood thanks to the weather and the natural good vibes that the city has to offer. With hot days encouraging locals to rest, it made the night life even more exciting. Back to my New Orleans comparison, the streets light up with a neon glow and herds of people roam from bar to bar, coffee shop to coffee shop. Whereas most of New Orleans’ activities are centralized on Bourbon Street, all of downtown Amsterdam is a part of the party. Every few feet, you hear a different genre of music blasting and see a different crowd dancing. With so many cultures meeting and partying in one place, Amsterdam truly is a melting pot.
As we walked, we would hear a group of British men signing a drinking song, then a group of French girls giggling and doing shots off of each other, then a group of Turkish men arguing outside of a red-light window, about who knows what. Moving deeper into the heart of downtown, we inevitably ended up in the infamous Red-Light District. There are glass doors decorating alleys and business strips, each holding a lovely lady in skimpy clothing. Some would be brushing their hair, others giving tourists a come-hither finger and flirty smile, and even some sharing a window and teasingly playing with each other to lure customers. There are also a variety of shows, ranging from comical to full-on XXX hardcore. There are countless toy shops, another sex museum, and many entertaining displays.
Feeling comical myself, we approached a group of three officers, standing on a bridge observing the crowds. Two men, one woman. Earlier we had witnessed this trio subdue an angry drunk Scottish man in a quilt, who had gotten upset about something and was yelling belligerently. After getting him to calm down, they simply instructed him to go home. No beatings, no tasers, no handcuffs and no paperwork. The way police work should be when dealing with fun-loving tourists. Now to the female officer; she had curly blonde hair and an official hat on, as well as her tool belt fashioning a gun, baton, handcuffs, and a taser. I approached her with a question in mind, and at the time, it seemed like a great idea.
“Excuse me, do you know where the lesbian sex show is?”
This truly shocked her. Just think of what this woman sees on a weekly basis while patrolling these streets, and my question was able to shock her. She required a moment to gather herself enough to say “Sorry, I don’t.” Already pleased with myself, we began to walk away when the older gentleman of an officer to her right nodded his head down the way saying “There. They do the lesbian sex shows down there.” He had such a matter-of-fact tone I had to question whether or not I had just imagined that response, but I can honestly say that an Amsterdam policeman directed us where to go to see the lesbian sex show.
At another point in the night, we had just come through an alley and made it back to a main street when Captain Jack Sparrow jumped out from the darkness. We were startled, then tickled at the idea of such an elaborately dressed pirate popping out of nowhere in downtown Amsterdam. This seems to be a town where truly anything can happen! We had discovered a true adult playground, now reminiscent of the City of Lost Boys from Pinocchio, where indulgences flourished and no one ever wants to go home.
With the sun setting at about 11pm during this time of year, it was easy to lose track of time while out enjoying the city. We ended our last night there around 3:30am, hailing one last bike-taxi to get us to our hotel. We certainly couldn’t have navigated our way back at that point, even with a map. Many neon lights had been turned off, the half-moon was shining brightly in a cloudless sky, and all we could hear is the pleasant buzz of the chain on the bike as we drifted through the darkness back to our hotel. Majestic, romantic, refreshing, and truly peaceful; we had fallen in love with Amsterdam.
Being American, we had mixed expectations for what we would and would not have access to in Amsterdam. We discovered that we had access to anything and everything our hearts could desire. We had access to things we didn’t even know existed! The most important thing is to act with respect. Respect for their city and their country, respect for their welcoming outlook, and respect for America and how we represent it. This blog is only the tip of the iceberg of our adventures in Amsterdam, but much like Vegas, what happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam! Please feel free to comment any questions you may have- we will be happy to answer!
Recently, Swaggerjack took a vacation. We traveled abroad to majestic Germany to visit family and had a truly spectacular time! The full crew did not go on this trip, and the video cameras barely got any use, but we kept the Nikon going to share Swaggerjack’s German adventure with you!
Our main purpose for visiting Germany was to see and spend time with family, as well as celebrate Davy Crockett’s 50th birthday with style. We were fortunate enough to stay in a beautifully crafted home built on a mountainside in 1979 by a skilled carpenter, who then passed it on to his son. The front door greets you with classic iron-knockers and stained glass windows decorating the front entry wall. Looking up as we walk towards the door, we see a magnificent set of antlers proudly displayed on the outdoor deck above the front door.
Inside, the floors are a blend of classic marble and durable tile. The carpenter must have spent months on the living room alone, as every pane of wood along the ceiling sports a different, intricate, hand-carved design. In fact, even the door frame has its own elaborate designs. The living area opens into a large, full outdoor deck overlooking cherry trees and fields of wildflowers leading into dense, inviting woods. This served as an amazing home-base during our travels in Germany, and offered many tranquil moments listening to the birds and watching the wind make the flowers dance.
No trip to Germany is complete without a visit to a castle, and our first was the Auerbach Castle. Beautifully set on a mountaintop with many hiking trails for access, the Auerbach was an excellent introduction to German culture. This castle does not offer interior tours, but you can easily walk around the property and through various turrets and courtyards. We had a fun time exploring the remains, trying to climb the turrets, and enjoying our time with family.
One day, we had made a trip up to the Netherlands for business purposes, and on the way back we made a detour to the world-famous Nürburgring Race Track. This track is nearly a half-century old and is known as “The Green Hell” amongst racers. Featuring smooth asphalt, clean bank turns, and over 20 kilometers of track to race, Nürburgring holds up to its world-known reputation as one of the greatest tracks out there. Described as “a country road with no oncoming traffic,” the course winds you up and down, left and right through whimsical German countryside, offering spectacular views of wide open fields, towering windmills, and healthy thickets of trees. There are limited days during the year when non-professional racers are allowed to race, as well as limited times. Miraculously, we arrived and purchased our ring pass just minutes before the track was open to the public. When informed that any street-legal vehicle could drive on the track (during the allotted times), we asked multiple times to ensure that the extra-large SUV Nissan Armada would be allowed, not believing them at first. Keep in mind that we are on our way back from an overnight trip to the Netherlands. We are accompanied by my nine and ten year-old brothers as well as their Mom, AND all of our luggage for the trip. As soon as we purchased our ring pass and walked back to the SUV to re-organize some things, other racers began to examine “The Beast.” These drivers had arrived in a Porsche, a Lotus Elise, and a beautiful BMW sports car, all gutted and re-built as racing cars. They exchanged comments, checked the tires, rubbed their chins, and eventually gave us a smile of approval. Surely they were just as interested as we were to see how this gigantic vehicle would handle one of the World’s most famous and dangerous tracks.
Well, it handled well! We only got passed by one motorcycle and a group of three cars (the original drivers inspecting us in the parking lot). After watching the motorcycle zoom by, we managed to keep up with him during several of the following turns. As we blazed through the track, periodic groups of onlookers guffawed and dropped their jaws as they saw the Nissan Armada drive by, with two young boys waving in the backseat. After the car trio had passed us, we even managed to tail them through a few turns before falling behind in the final straightaway. When we all pulled back into the parking lot, we parked The Beast in the lineup with the other race cars. Having won their approval and respect on the track, we were greeted with warm laughter and high-fives. Unfortunately, no passenger cameras are allowed on the track, but we did manage to get some pictures to share with you:
We also made our way onto several American military bases for the basic comforts of home and to learn a bit more about what these soldiers are constantly working towards for us. I had the opportunity to climb on a retired tank and take some fun pictures. We also got to crawl through an Army Stryker, in the garage for maintenance. It was fortunate for us to be able to walk around a military base over Memorial Day weekend, saluting elder soldiers who have served their time as well as young soldiers just starting their tours of duty. Swaggerjack Productions wholeheartedly thanks all men and women serving our country in their own individual ways.
Our last full day in Germany was spent wandering the streets of downtown Heidelberg, admiring the architecture and the ancient castle looming above the quaint city. The whole family made its way through the cobblestone streets exploring different shops, outdoor markets, and historical landmarks. We were fortunate enough to enter a beautiful Catholic Church with amazing cathedral ceilings, artistic sculptures, a live organist, holy water, confessional booths, and even a punching bag! I had never even heard of a punching bag in a cathedral, but there it was, right in front of the rows of pews, hanging just to the Priest’s right as he would be delivering a sermon. After taking some holy pictures, we had lunch with the family at the Schnitzel Haus. Featuring 100 different ways to enjoy your schnitzel as well as many delectable German beers on tap, the Schnitzel Haus was a very appropriate final family meal in Heidelberg. We concluded the day with a lightning-fast train ride up the mountain to explore the beautiful Heidelberg Castle. Even while undergoing restoration projects, the castle was still a sight to behold. The centuries-old rocks and stone formed elegant, stoic walls and turrets surrounding the inner courtyards and buildings. On the east end of the castle, one turret is slowly fading into the hillside and you can see bits of crumbling brick lying dormant at its base. Here you can pay for tours to explore the inner depths of the castle, but we enjoyed our walk along the outer courtyard and surrounding nature trails. Please look for our next post, which will cover Swaggerjack does Amsterdam!
San Luis Valley is North America’s highest Alpine Valley and is home to many attractions, including the Great National Sand Dunes State Park. Massive sand dunes have been created over centuries and centuries of winds blowing through this dusty valley and accumulating sand at the base of the north-east surrounding mountains. These are some of the largest sand dunes in the Americas and starting at 7,500 feet above sea level, they are also some of the most challenging dunes to climb. For every step forward, you slide a few feet back. The sand is constantly moving under your feet and a river of flowing sand falls behind any progress you make up the dune. The view from the top is spectacular and well worth the climb. Not to mention, it’s amazingly fun to run full speed down the dune and have a sandy crash at the bottom. During this time of year, the dunes are usually surrounded by dry creek beds, but due to early warm weather, we were able to wade through the rising creek water, freshly melted from snow in the mountains.
In the main parking lot, we could see reflections of the sun shining on several dozen cars and the ant-trails of crowds making their way up the dunes. Watching the tourists climb up is reminiscent of movies showing the middle-eastern deserts with social castaways roaming through. Climbing the dunes definitely leaves me wishing for a camel!
We weren’t satisfied with the main parking lot -touristy areas, so we ventured to the back 4×4 roads that swirl around the base of dunes following them back to the mountains. This road, as one may assume, is primarily sand and not recommended for everyday vehicles, or drivers for that matter. After a few minutes of winding closer to the dunes, there is a pull-out area with a sign and a gate warning drivers that they are about to enter the “Point of No Return.” Now this is the part of the dunes we want to explore!
There is no camping allowed beyond this point and due to the difficult terrain, it becomes secluded quite quickly. Typically, only locals travel back here mainly due to simple local knowledge and the $400 minimum wrecker fee if your vehicle gets stuck. The Swaggerjack crew drives a 4×4 Toyota Tundra and has yet to find a road we could not handle. Along the rugged, desolate road were many trees and wild brush, as well as several families of wild deer. Being a state park, the area is also a wildlife preserve and you can tell just how comfortable the deer are here. It was early afternoon and hot for this area and time of year, so the deer were laying in the shade relaxing. They looked at us, acknowledged us, and went back to peacefully resting. I was even able to step out of the truck at one point and take a few steps for a better camera angle. One deer was caught in the midst of moistening his nose, so he seems to be sticking out his tongue. There were several babies as well, including one who was particularly camera-friendly.
Once we drove as far as the road would allow, we started to enjoy the dunes. We played in the sand, climbed them, waded in the rising creek and enjoyed the warm weather. There was one mission involved with this trip to the dunes; Oh Long Johnson. South Park had just aired its newest episode the night before and Swaggerjack was ready to make its own spinoff. Please enjoy the video below!
After an extended stay in beautiful Santa Cruz, California, it was time for the Swaggerjack crew to pack up and hit the road. We were Colorado-bound to film some alligator fun at the Colorado Gators farm and set up a display for our Gatorfest DVD’s. Gatorfest is an annual alligator wrestling contest/rodeo between amateurs who have learned to wrestle gators at the farm. They run, jump, and swim through the swamp to catch the largest gators as quickly, and safely, as they can. Currently, Gatorfest 2010 is available for sale and is a 30-minute HD video edited to music from local Gainesville, Florida artists. For purchase information, please visit our website, www.SwaggerjackProductions.com . Our goal was to make the 17-hour drive straight from Santa Cruz to the small town of Alamosa, Colorado. Aside from a wrong turn at the famous Four Corners, it was a rather pleasant and uneventful journey.
The majority of our drive took place overnight, but we were able to enjoy some sights before the sun went down. We saw gorgeous mountains, hillsides, and amber fields of grain. We saw the terrain slowly change from bright green lush vegetation to dry, dusty barren fields with sporadic bushes and the occasional small tree.
The sun rose as we drove through the Colorado Rockies and revealed snow-capped peaks surrounding us and mini-waterfalls on the rocks walls beside us from melting snow above. Fortunately for us, Wolf Creek Pass hadn’t seen much snow in the previous week and was fairly free of traffic. Once we made it through, we knew we were in the home stretch. As we got closer to our destination, we recognized a familiar peak, Mt. Blanca, covered in snow, letting us know we had made it.
We were spending nearly three weeks in Santa Cruz and needed an affordable, conveniently located hotel. Ramada Inn was our answer. Very conveniently located at 516 Water Street, just two blocks away from the famous Santa Cruz Diner, was the Ramada Inn neatly tucked behind a Firestone Tire center. Directly across the street were multiple food options including an Italian-Mexican Restaurant and an Irish Pub; perfect since we spent St. Patrick’s Day in Santa Cruz. What’s better than a bar right across the street from your hotel on St. Patrick’s Day? An Irish Pub right across the street!
The owners of this Ramada Inn are a very nice couple that happily greets you when you enter the office and are eager to meet your needs. Whether it is fresh towels or paper plates to go with our delivered pizza, they were always there to lend a hand. They also respected our privacy, not once disturbing the “do not disturb” sign or questioning our guests even when we got a little loud. This hotel is absolutely perfect for those travelling on business or for fun. If you are with a large group or family, I would recommend requesting a bottom-floor room so that you don’t disturb any downstairs neighbors as the buildings are a little older and the floors do creak. The 9-foot deep pool was closed for the season during our stay, but was open as a winter residence for two beautiful mallard ducks. After being at the hotel so long, these ducks became like pets; greeting us when we returned and begging us for more bread. We appreciated seeing them every day and that the hotel owners allowed them to stay while the pool was closed anyway for the season.
The owners obviously take pride in their property, as this shines through their beautiful landscaping. There were neatly trimmed bushes and hedges, blooming lilies, flowers, and plants galore. There is even a hand-crafted luxury bird house near the lobby, adding to the home garden feel. The rooms meet your basic needs with a coffee maker, mini-fridge, microwave, hair-dryer and cable including HBO. Wi-fi is available throughout the hotel from multiple hotspots to ensure great signal in every room. If you are travelling through Santa Cruz and looking for a nice, convenient place to stay, this is your hotel!
To start, dining at I Love Sushi is nothing short of magical.
For the past 6 years, we have visited Santa Cruz, CA every spring. Early on, we discovered a sushi joint that became a staple part of our visits. This year, however, our sushi joint was not serving sushi. Usually this would cause a great disappointment, but instead, this allowed us to venture out and try something different. This led us to discover I Love Sushi, and we have found a new staple for our visits.
Located at 516 Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz, the restaurant blends in with the side buildings, but caught our eye with a clever name and the promise of good sushi. Walking in, we see a beautifully crafted sushi bar to our right, with the sushi chefs hard at work, and a hostess to our left leading us to the center of the front dining room for our table. Seconds after we took our seats, California Rolls were placed in front of us, and then a spicy-mayo topped mussel, a pre-cut orange, and bowls of Miso soup. Our drink orders were placed, and eel-sauce covered breaded calamari strips were placed in front of us. We had only ordered drinks and had a full spread laid out in front of us. As we looked at each other in silence, wondering if we had discovered sushi heaven, a Japanese man leaned over the table offering sake shots to those who had ordered alcohol, then came back with a full carafe of sake for refills, “on the house!” We learned this man was the owner, and was more than happy to do sake shots or sake bombs with you, always on the house.
Needless to say, we were already impressed and very pleasantly surprised at the new sushi restaurant we had found. Looking around, we see there is another dining room next to the one we were in, and the music we were hearing was coming from one of three karaoke rooms in the back, beyond the bathrooms and kitchen. Three karaoke rooms? That was awesome. From our table, we had a great view of the kitchen. They cleaned the kitchen down and put out fresh lining over the grill multiple times during our visit alone. The kitchen staff values a clean working environment, and their pride shows in their beautifully presented food. Offering traditional sushi and custom rolls as well as hot foods including teriyaki and stir fry, I Love Sushi can please diners from every group.
Saturday morning greeted us with lighter skies and teases of sunshine. It was definitely shaping up to be a better day than Friday. The waves had more of a smooth, glassy surface and the winds were a bit more forgiving, at least in the earlier part of the day. This was the contestants’ last chance to score points in order to make it to Sunday’s finals. The high performance heats put on a great show, dropping in on massive waves and showing excellent control. When the stand-up paddleboarders had their turn, they didn’t disappoint. They braved the growing ocean, thrusting their boards over the incoming surf and scoping out the best spots to wait for the next set.
Even though these great competitors make it look incredibly easy and graceful to pull the stunts and tricks they do in the waves, there are times that they remind us they are human.
Through the day, we experienced sparse moments of sunshine and somewhat of a break from the rain. Low tide brought in slightly smaller waves, but that never stops kayakers or stand-up paddleboards from doing what they do best!
Directly below is Mark Pastick, a veteran kayak surfer, wave-ski surfer, and SUP-er. He has competed in the Santa Cruz Paddlefest for many years and never disappoints. You can always easily spot him by his bright red helmet with a happy blue star. Today is his birthday, so happy birthday, Mark! Thanks for everything!
Between all of the talented kayak riders and SUP riders, it was an entertaining day for all. We saw many close calls between the riders and each other as well as between the riders and the cliffs! As the horns signifying the end of the last heat blasted, remaining competitors headed back to their barracks for a warm shower and a little rest before the planned party at the Cocoanut Grove. We were treated to a “Cajun bluegrass” style band and the winners of the SUP race were announced. Shortly after the heat results and next-day schedules were posted, many rushed home for some much-needed sleep, as tomorrow was the finals; their chance to win it!