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Amsterdam romances guests at a Thanksgiving destination wedding

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When friends heard where my stepson and his fiancée were planning to tie the knot, the inevitable response was: "Cool. Is she Dutch?"

In fact, neither of these two adventurous young people possesses even one strand of Low Country DNA. They just like Amsterdam, a city they discovered a year earlier when looking for a place to spend her birthday. Both had traveled so extensively -- my stepson, starting when he was born in Hong Kong -- that it was hard to find somewhere that neither one had visited.

Six years after meeting on the island of Nantucket, they were crazy in love with each other. In the capital city of the Netherlands, they found a place they could both feel passionate about.

They adored the canals, the museums, the pancake and waffle stands, the medieval architecture and the modern design. They reveled in the restaurants -- tiny corner establishments with glorious soups and hearty breads, and modern, glassy spots like De Kas that specialize in modern, sassy food.

Both are fiendishly chic, with wardrobes that could clothe small (but incredibly fashionable) armies. So the Dutch sense of flair -- a quirky elegance without the attitude of most European style capitals -- appealed to them too. They were mad for the balloon-tire bicycles that keep Holland at a sane and sensible pace, almost like the whole country moves in perpetual slow-mo.

In a typical American family of three mothers, one father, a maternal-unit boyfriend on the groom's side and assorted siblings from assorted marriages, they presented their European wedding plans as a fait accompli. Neither bride nor groom wanted the big, showboat ceremony they thought would unfold on native soil. Along with an unusual location, they chose a novel wedding date, Thanksgiving Day.

Well, Holland? Thanksgiving? There was a sweet symmetry at work here. After all, the Pilgrims did set sail from Holland on the first leg of a voyage that would bring them to the land now known as Massachusetts. Now here we were, wedding pilgrims, reversing the trek as we flew out of Boston's Logan International Airport last November.

In opting for a destination wedding, this couple joined a huge and growing trend. Jennifer Stein, publisher and editor in chief of Destination I Do magazine, said 85% of engaged couples now consider a vacation location; nearly 20% follow through.

Stein, who had her own destination ceremony in 2005, said getaway weddings are especially popular among young professionals who have moved away from home and made their own lives. The last thing they want, she said, is rubber chicken in a banquet hall with 250 of Mom and Dad's closest co-workers, golf partners and church buddies.

Not incidentally, a faraway wedding helps limit the guest list. Random friends and relatives are less likely to show up for cake and Champagne if it means spending $1,000 or more on airfare and hotels.

Certainly this was the case in our family. Like many their age and of their professional cohort, our bride and groom move in a pack made up of friends from childhood, college and their work lives. About two dozen of these hip, successful young people thought nothing of hopping to Holland for a long holiday weekend. Family members accounted for an additional 20 or so guests. Longtime friends of the numerous parents filled out a roster of around 60.

Wedding plans began the minute the engagement ring came out of its box. The future bride's mother accompanied the pair to Amsterdam to lock down settings including the 17th century West Indisch Huis, a splendid mansion where the ceremony and reception would be held. They booked a block of rooms at the Dylan, a max-luxe boutique hotel along the Keizersgracht canal in another 17th century building. Rooms at the Dylan start at around $444 per night.

For the overflow crowd, they recommended the Hotel Vondel, a chic haunt bordering one of the city's most beautiful parks. This is where my son and I booked; it's walking distance to everything, and a comparative bargain at a pre-negotiated price of $216 per night. The Vondel occupies six contiguous town houses built early in the 20th century and lies about half a mile from the Van Gogh Museum.

They also secured rooms at the more modest Hotel NH City Centre, where rooms were priced at around $150 per night. My German sister-in-law trumped us all by reserving at a hostel called the Stayokay Amsterdam Vondelpark, one block from the Hotel Vondel; spare but clean rooms large enough for three were just $27.

While they were lining up caterers, a florist and a photographer, the bride and groom also had to find canal transportation for 60 guests. They contracted with a wedding planner. And to their credit, our couple e-mailed weekly bulletins to guests about what documents we might need, as well as sights we would want to see.

Now you're talking: My husband and I each had visited Amsterdam a zillion years ago. On this journey, our 17-year-old, making his first trip, wanted nothing more than to explore -- well, what substance is Amsterdam famous for serving, in cozy settings called coffee shops? The thick smoke in those places does not come from conventional cigarettes only, let's put it that way. Just imagine my sigh of relief when I learned that these institutions firmly enforce an 18-and-over age limit.

That left the three of us free to wander the city. With the wedding activities so carefully choreographed, my husband's job was to host the rehearsal dinner at De Kas, a converted greenhouse that once was part of Amsterdam's Municipal Nursery. Prix-fixe meals hover at around $60, and chef Gert Jan Hageman's preset dinner with wine costs $160. The twinkling-lights atmosphere was magical and the food sublime, following the chef's practice of serving five courses based on whatever was harvested that day.

In the kind of mild, intermittent rain and silky gray sky that reminded us of Seattle, we took off by foot to see the Rijksmuseum, home of Holland's miraculous collection of paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Steen and others.

Fine art makes us all hungry, so we stopped to fortify ourselves at a nearby cafe called Cobra. If only we could take home a large bucket of Cobra's fresh tomato soup, along with bread made with about 100 kinds of grain yet still somehow light as air. Now is probably a good time to confess that Heineken on tap, in Holland, really does taste better than the bottled or canned stuff we get in the U.S. No room, alas, for Grootmoeders appeltaart met slagroom (that's Grandma's apple pie with whipped cream) -- next time, we hope.

Onward we went, to the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh. Even without the 200 paintings and 500 drawings on display, this building would be worth visiting. Some of the world's most progressive architecture is found in the Netherlands, and Gerrit Rietveld's curvaceous, light-filled design is an artwork in itself. Through Van Gogh's art, the collection tells his tragic life story, from failed schoolmaster to passionate lay preacher to art pioneer -- and, finally, to his suicide. So many of the canvases are self-portraits, we learn, because Van Gogh could not afford to pay a model.

Central Amsterdam is small and despite the circular system of canals -- or perhaps because of it -- remarkably logical. The city maintains an excellent electric tram system, and canal "buses" and water taxis also are available. We found it easiest to hoof it to each location, because that gave us reason to both window-shop (luckily for our strained pocketbooks, we had little time for actual purchasing) and to admire the proud old town houses along the canals.

It was in such a structure that Otto Frank sequestered his family for two years while the Nazis went about their gruesome mission of rounding up Jews throughout Europe. Frank's two companies -- one that made a jelling agent for jam and the other, a seasoning for meat -- were headquartered in a house built in 1635 along the Prinsengracht canal. Behind the offices was a secret cluster of rooms where Frank's daughter Anne kept the journal that would later tell the world what day-to-day life was like as the Nazi horror bore down on the Frank family. "The Diary of Anne Frank" has sold more than 30 million copies.

As our teenager correctly observed, the museum's spare quality makes its message all the more effective. Weird, after a visit, to sit in the museum's first-floor cafe, sipping hot chocolate and thinking about the unthinkable.

Once again, this topic was at the forefront as we visited the Verzetsmuseum, which honors the Dutch Resistance movement from World War II. With wedding events crowding our short stay, we had no time for Amsterdam's other museums, celebrating Dutch culture from architecture to Bibles to trade unions to windmills. Amsterdam also boasts museums dedicated to cheese, erotica, eyeglasses, film and, of course, marijuana. My sister-in-law genuinely made me envious when she found time to visit Amsterdam's handbag museum.

But our purpose was to get this couple married. That meant a lengthy photo session at the Dylan, followed by a lazy canal ride to the West India House (the name definitely sounds better in Dutch). At 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, the female members of the wedding party hiked up long, swishy gowns and tiptoed across the stone courtyard in towering party shoes. Beside the entry, we waved to the statue of Dutch colonialist Peter Stuyvesant, who probably never had to think that hard about his footwear.

Along with a strong sentimental streak, our happy couple have a sturdy sense of humor. The bride entered to the strains of "All You Need Is Love" and readings at the ceremony included selections from her favorite children's stories. A Dutch wedding officiant -- more or less the counterpart of a justice of the peace -- made no effort to break them up when they lingered for a kiss after their vows.

After a feast of a dinner, the party moved to yet another section of the onetime headquarters of the West Indies Trading Co. The last canal boat took most of us back sometime around 1 in the morning, but the newlyweds and their pack of pals moved on to the Holland Casino Amsterdam. Ah, youth.

Post-wedding brunches and museum outings followed as the weekend wore down. Amsterdam is small enough that we routinely ran into fellow wedding celebrants as we explored the fashion and museum districts or explored the many boutiques.

Waiting for our plane to take off early Sunday morning, I thought maybe we should move in to Schiphol Airport. This soaring, massive expanse of cedar-green steel and glass is the most beautiful airport I have ever seen. It even houses a branch of H&M, the trendy European clothing store that now has outposts throughout America. I could feel my credit card twitching in my handbag when, blessedly, the bilingual loudspeaker announced our flight. Just as well: It's cheaper to shop at H&M at home.

Mehren is a freelance writer and professor of journalism at Boston University.

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