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Even great festivals have their detractors

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002

Some people seek tall ships events, and some have tall ships events thrust upon them.

And maybe St. Petersburg's first effort at hosting a "Sail" event (which is what tall ships buffs call these gatherings) came off with a few rough edges, but you have to start somewhere, and it might help the organizers to know that even the best of the tall ships events has its detractors.

I didn't mean to attend Sail 95 in Amsterdam in 1995. I was actually going to the city on the way back from a cruise on the Rhine River to spread my then mother-in-law's ashes on the North Sea as she had requested, and to visit my grandchildren, on the way back from a cruise on the Rhine.

We were met at the airport by a nervous young man from the hotel where I had booked rooms a year in advance. He said it overbooked and that he was there to drive us to The Hague where they had booked rooms for us. I would have gone along except that he lied about how easy it was to get from The Hague to Amsterdam. I wound up in the lobby of the hotel where I had made the reservations, doing my best crazed-American-about-to-lose-it impression until they gave me a room.

But that was only the beginning of my problems.

The Amsterdam event draws around 100 ships every year, more than the seven in St. Petersburg, and it also draws hundreds of thousands -- I've heard estimates of half a million -- of tourists to the city.

Amsterdam has had centuries more experience at being a sailing port. Its harbor is much larger. The city is much larger and -- trust me -- has a much better grasp on hospitality and entertainment than St. Petersburg does.

But even Amsterdam's resources were strained in 1995. Mine wasn't the only hotel that was overbooked. Traffic, even foot traffic, was all but impossible anywhere near the harbor, and, we found to our dismay, getting a boat to take us out to spread ashes was going to be a problem.

Anything in the city that would float was in the water carrying tourists. Even canal tour boats had to cut short their tours because of the congestion.

My stepson had been trying for days to get us a boat, even using his connections with Hells Angels (Hells Angels are a major business force in Amsterdam) who were also unsuccessful.

The best deal we could get was for one, only one, of us to go out at dawn on a commercial fishing vessel in choppy seas, and stay out until after sunset. We passed.

I finally gave up. If Hells Angels can't get you a boat, chances are you are not going to get a boat. My mother-in-law's ashes came back to the States with us and I spread them at a beach on a 1997 return visit to The Netherlands.

I didn't go to the St. Petersburg event this year, but I have read and heard a lot about people who had parking problems, admission problems and who never got seemingly promised tours of a tall ship.

The city's perennial parking problems, which have scared me away from other events, didn't help either. Nothing writes finis to a hot, broke, disgruntled visitor's day quite like a parking ticket under a windshield wiper.

But in crusing the Internet for some specifics about the Dutch event I stumbled into seven years ago, I found the Web site of a Dutch person identified only (and fairly accurately) as "The Complainer."

He or she complains that private houseboats and establishments around the harbor weren't open to the public, that cold drinks were going for somewhere around $1.25 U.S. and it cost 50 cents U.S. to use a bathroom.

I dunno, I don't usually expect to be invited into private places. The drink prices aren't that out of line, and it is not at all unusual to pay to use a toilet in Europe although the going rate back then was closer to a quarter.

There were no water fountains, The Complainer notes; a bank gave away useless binoculars, prostitutes had to be run off a boulevard usually reserved for their trade, and the canals were too crowded with boats operated by people who were drinking and didn't know what they were doing.

So, cheer up, St. Petersburg. You can't please everyone. Learn from your mistakes. And, for God's sake, do something about parking.

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