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Even allowing for being buffeted by the economic storms roiling the world at the time of writing, the three Benelux countries continue to enjoy an enviable standard of living, and a quality of life that makes good use of it. Their societies become more multicultural by the day, a development that's seen most clearly in the towns and cities -- these lands are among the most urbanized on earth. For the most part, this has only added to their contemporary vibrancy, but the process has not been without stress. Even Amsterdam's famed tolerance has shown signs of strain.

To make themselves even more livable than they already are, the big cities of Brussels, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Rotterdam, and the Hague have been building out their rapid transit systems, redeveloping decayed or decaying inner-city and harbor zones, and expanding their cultural offerings. All the while, more ethnic eateries and shops are springing up. Other cities such as Bruges, Ghent, Li├Ęge, Utrecht, Maastricht, and Luxembourg City (to name just a few!) are doing no less, and some of the essential pleasure of a visit to the Benelux is to get out of the big cities and find out what's up in these other places.

Getting There

The Greek company Superfast Ferries decided that operating on the North Sea was a mite too chilly for them, and withdrew to their Adriatic and Aegean comfort zone (who can blame them?). Norfolkline plans to take over the ferry service from Rosyth (Edinburgh), Scotland to Zeebrugge, Belgium.

Getting Around

An improved Thalys high-speed train service, operating on a new high-speed rail line in Belgium and Holland, is expected to be operational some time in 2010, and will reduce the travel time between Brussels and Amsterdam by an hour.

One leg of Netherlands Railways old triad of domestic train services has been snapped off. The sneltrein, or fast train, which stopped only at decent-sized places on a particular line, has disappeared and an increased InterCity Express service has been introduced.

From the start of 2009, all public transportation in the Netherlands has been using the new OV-chipkaart. This chip-enabled smart card is loaded with a preselected number of euros which are then reduced automatically by electronic readers as you ride.

Smoking

Secondhand smoke no longer gets in your eyes and up your nose as much as formerly in Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, now that restrictions on smoking in restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs, and other places, and in public spaces in hotels have been introduced. In Holland, a typically Dutch compromise applies to drug-selling "smoking coffeeshops," where patrons are still permitted to puff joints, but not cigarettes, cigars, or pipes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.