I awoke, a little disorientated, at 4:30am. We’d been chugging all night, but now the ferry was slowing to a rest on the Dutch coast. Outside the window, countryside as flat as a pancake drifted past a few hundred yards away, cast in a pale blue-grey light, and the waves of the North Sea leapt up the side of the ship.
There are quicker ways to get to Amsterdam than a train from London, a ferry across the North Sea, and one last rail ride from the coast to the Dutch capital. But then you would miss being able to mark the world as it goes by, and that intangible feeling of transitioning between two spaces.
I’d boarded in London the previous evening with my ‘rail and sail’ ticket, and set off for Harwich in search of the Stena Hollandica. By the time I arrived the ship was glowing in the floodlights of the port; men in high-vis jackets were lined along the concrete seeming more interested in loading its bulkier fare, the last of the lorries.
Deck 9 is where the passengers unwind – there are a few bars, a couple of restaurants, a cinema, lounge areas, a duty-free shop, even a casino. It’s not posh but it is very relaxed and fun - sitting on deck with a nightcap, watching the coast slip away was magical, and a painfully beautiful sunset brought everyone up on deck, cameras in hand.
credit: Benedict Cooper
But the best part was waiting on dry land. It’s only a short journey from Hoek Van Holland to Amsterdam, but it is mesmerising. I sat in among the locals, whooshing along on the super-smooth train, watching the gentle Dutch countryside blur past outside. The fields and farmlands, the little towns and villages where I would never set foot, offering up tiny glimpses into unknown lives: on the platforms, across the tracks into houses and buildings, along idyllic canals retreating off into the distance, with trees sprinkling the last of their blossom like confetti on the twinkling waters below.
As the scene outside the window changed from the cool green fields to grey verticals and suburban industrialisation, everyone on the train, the commuters, the kids on school trips, the holidaymakers, started gathering themselves up, and suddenly we were skimming at roof-level past Dutch houses and buildings, over canals, cyclists and cafes below, and the train was slowing to a gentle rest at Amsterdam Centraal station.
credit: Benedict Cooper
credit: Benedict Cooper
That day was the hottest of the year so far, and in the late the morning sun, I was already roasting. My first check-in was to the tourist office at the railway station, where I’d arranged to collect my I amsterdam City Card. It’s well worth getting – one card will get you free transport everywhere in the Amsterdam region, and free entry to almost all the amazing museums and galleries.
On the surface it might seem a little pricey at €77 for 72 hours – the ticket I got – but when you think that a single entry to the Van Gogh Museum will cost you €17, the Tropenmuseum €15 and the Amsterdam Museum €12.50, with the free transport, including to Haarlem and further afield, and a free canal cruise worth €17, it soon makes sense. And it encourages you to keep on the move.
Which I did, for two days. I slung my backpack on my shoulder and headed for my home for the night, the delightfully hip Ecomama hostel, a short walk from the train station. It’s a fantastic place decked out like a Shoreditch bar, with mini shipping-container style rooms and slick, cool decor throughout. And it’s right on the edge of all the Centrum action.
Which is where, after checking in and stripping down to a t-shirt, I went exploring. Amsterdam is as classy as it is lively on the best of days, but on this golden afternoon it was simply mesmeric. The whole city seemed to be kicking back in the refulgent afternoon light; everywhere I strolled there were people laid back outside cafes and bars, on their boats just drifting along the waterways, beers and joints in hand.
On a day like that it’s tempting to join them. But there are plenty of things you could and should be doing. Too many to mention in fact, but the Tropenmuseum is a stunning setting for some wonderful anthropological exhibitions, well worth the trip. The Rijksmuseum is even more grand and rich, but absolutely teeming with tourists. If you want something more off-beat, check out the FOAM photography museum, and the Electric Ladyland mini-museum of fluorescent art.
Rijksmuseum credit: petekarici
Or get a free ferry over to the NDSM district, a bizarre almost barren former shipyard reborn as a hipster playground, with an old factory filled with oh-so-cool artists at work. It’s all nicely scattered around so you’ll see plenty of the city in the mean time, and with the tram and metro system it’s a doddle.
There are those that argue that a trip to Amsterdam isn’t complete without a good old fashioned debauch in the seedier parts of town. You won’t struggle to find all manner of fleshpot, but I stumbled across a heavenly spot for a cold one in the blazing sun, Café De Sluyswacht, which has a garden that looks out onto a junction between two canals, and I made a special effort to visit a truly unique real ale haven, In De Wildeman. I’ll let you discover that one for yourself.
But overall I’d say keep your time to Centrum limited. Through the luck of having my second night at Ecomama’s even more voluptuous sister hostel, Cocomama, I happened upon what must be one of the city’s most cool, least touristy areas: De Pijp, two minutes walk from the hostel. The action all happens around Albert Cuyp street, by day a rackety street market flanked by some wonderful little shops, the main artery of a very, very cool bar district by night.
You could spend a month there and visit a different bar each night, but make sure you check out Miami street food joint Calle Ocho (my mouth is still watering from the salmon taco I had there); sit in a little square where you’ll find Bar Mash nestled among others, or the little strip with Cafe Flamingo on.
Red Light District, Amsterdam credit: Nikada
But if you really want to feel a part of this wonderful city, get yourself on two wheels. A group of boozed-up locals introduced me to what they claim is a tradition, (the “Amsterdam experience!”): hopping on the back of a bicycle while your chauffer is already pedalling away. Needless to say I was poor at this. Or if you prefer to do the leg work, you can hire bikes from hundreds of possible places around town and just join one of the magical streams of human traffic.
It’s the ever-present sight and sound of this wonderful city: day and night people tinkling and rattling along for mile after mile of cycle paths, nattering with friends, zipping along in lines over the junctions and bridges and towpaths. When you’re walking along, or sitting at a cafe, it all zips past you, this eternal stream of people. When you’re cycling you can feel yourself tuning in to the wavelength of the place even more; a city so rich with effortless charm you could pedal forever and not capture it all.
I sailed by the Stena Dutch flyer line, which leaves from Harwich to the Hook of Holland twice a day.