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, Liège, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Construction continues on the underground stations and tunnels for Amsterdam's Noord-Zuid (North-South) Metro line, slated to be completed in 2015. The line will run from Amsterdam-Noord, under Het IJ waterway to Centraal Station, and from there to Station Zuid/World Trade Center on the city's southern ring-road expressway.
There likely are a few hotel proprietors who would like to take up their beds and move to a new location. Of course, as a floating hotel, the Amstel Botel, NDSM-Werf 3 (tel. 020/521-0350), has some advantages when it comes to mobility, and the retired river cruise boat made light of its voyage from the south bank of the IJ waterway to a new home on the north bank.
The 1885-vintage Rijksmuseum (tel. 020/647-7000) is still mired in a now 10-year renovation effort that's due to end in 2013. Important paintings by the 17th-century Dutch Masters, among them Rembrandt's The Night Watch, and other highlights from its vast inventory are exhibited under the title "The Masterpieces" in the still-open Philips Wing.
Another stellar museum whose premises are undergoing R&R is the modern-art Stedelijk Museum, which has left its temporary home in the old Post building just east of Centraal Station. Its projected date of return to its usual stamping ground at Paulus Potterstraat 13, just off Museumplein, has been kicked back to the end of 2009.
These two institutions are at least faring better than that harbor landmark, the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum), which has secured its hatches entirely until some time in 2010 -- unless contrary winds should cause delay -- while refurbishing of its home in the former Amsterdam Admiralty Arsenal (1656) continues.
In an assault on human trafficking and other criminal activities, the council has cut the number of red-lit rooms in the Red Light District, in favor of small fashion boutiques and other wholesome stores.
The Galerij Prins Willem V, Buitenhof 35 (tel. 070/302-3435), has closed until 2010 because of construction work going on around it. Some of the Rembrandts and works by other Dutch Old Masters have been reinstalled in other galleries around town.
The port city is bursting out of its skin as a party town, and boasts the sharpest cutting-edge nightlife venues in Holland. For some of the newest, head to .off_corso, Kruiskade 22 (tel. 010/411-3897), and the nearby Thalia Lounge, Kruiskade 31 (tel. 010/214-2547). State-of-the-art cocktails are whipped up by "mixologists" at Toko94, Witte de Withstraat 94B (tel. 010/240-0479).
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