Welcome to the city that lives on water.
Not Venice - Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, which has 165 canals with their own community of 2,500 houseboats. Visitors are used to oohing and aahing at the lifestyles of their inhabitants, but instead of admiring from the shoreline, they could be on board. About 50 canal boats offer accommodations to tourists, inviting us to explore the city with the credentials of an honorary local. And because houseboat living is so much less expensive than hotels and restaurants, you may want to stay longer.
We bite, and split our stay between two houseboats. This is smart politik: Tell Amsterdammers you're living on a canal boat and acceptance is instant. After all, what could be more Amsterdam than waking up to breakfast on the water, on your own private deck, surrounded by high-gabled 17th-century canal houses?
The floating terrace on the Blue Wave Houseboat is precisely such an idyll (and it's just fine for martinis at dusk too). Our canal, the Dacostagracht, is one of the quieter addresses in town, but within easy walking distance of the city's major attractions. Good walking shoes and the therapy's under way.
The Blue Wave, instantly recognizable by its blue trim and wavy roof, is the family home of Hans and Elizabeth Schlager. Live-aboards for 23 years, they found extra space when their daughter grew up and moved out. Now, they play host to travellers from all over the world.
The boat's amenities include a bedroom for up to four guests, a fully equipped kitchen, the aforementioned terrace with dining table and garden furniture, Internet access, DVD player, fresh flowers and, not least, breakfast. Some breakfast: The refrigerator comes loaded with mango juice, five varieties of fresh fruit, eggs, prosciutto, Dutch and French cheeses, bread and butter. Better still, there's an espresso maker and full complement of coffee pods.
Our second houseboat is the Captain's Place in the Eastern Docklands, a residential area reclaimed from a warehouse district on the Amsterdam waterfront. The Captain's Place is one reason foreigners actually come this way. The boat is perpetually sold out, with guests arriving from as far afield as China and Pakistan and staying for as long as two weeks. Only Liverpool hooligans need not apply, says Captain Eugène Reijmers, bemoaning earlier experience.
The former freight barge boasts a 103-year past on the tumultuous waters of the North Sea. It's also a new turn for an old sea dog: When veteran sailor Reijmers acquired it in 2002, he turned innkeeper.
The skipper, who resembles actor Brian Dennehy, maintains high standards and high spirits. He has two suites with bedrooms and private bathrooms. His beds are comfy, his kitchen immaculate. Guests dine in a sky-lit garden room festooned with model ships and souvenirs of Reijmers's years in Greece and Turkey.
The Captain's House doesn't include breakfast. But one aspect we love about renting is shopping in local markets for excellent local ingredients - admittedly, a joy only for people who like to cook. It's one of those things most tourists don't get to do.
We forage. The Schlagers direct us to the nearby Ten Katemarkt, not the largest of the city's street markets, but possibly the best because it's all about food. Two blocks of awnings shade a gauntlet of delights: pungent tapas from garlic-stuffed anchovies to sun-dried tomato tapenade, plump focaccia sandwiches, fresh seafood and ethnic treats from Vietnamese spring rolls to Turkish pizzas that reflect the city's burgeoning immigrant population. For us, the market is an attraction on a par with the Rijksmuseum of Art and History.
But for the itinerant foodie, no words about Amsterdam food are complete without broodje haring, the city's most ubiquitous fast food. Sold across town from kiosks to fish markets, it's a soft white bun stuffed with raw herring and chopped onions. Amsterdam's response to sushi, the herring delivers a silken texture and lightly salty, not at all fishy, flavour.
"Are you English," a fishmonger in the Blue Wave's neighbourhood asks us.
"Never," I respond.
"Good," says the fish guy. "The English hate broodje haring. They think it's undercooked."
On the Blue Wave, we whip up a gastro-storm with fresh fish from the North Sea, superlative cheeses and dairy products and the wines of all Europe at prices to make a Canadian swoon. It's a moveable feast, all right. And we're moving it.
Between meals, we wander. The first stop is a local tourist office to acquire "I amsterdam" packages. Good for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours and the best deal in town, the all-inclusive packet includes a public-transit pass, guidebook and 50 or so discount coupons. The card covers admissions to a vast swath of attractions: 29 museums from the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum to, yes, the Houseboat Museum, canal tours with two different companies and concert halls, plus discounts at a slate of attractions from a candlelight cruise to the Heineken Experience, restaurants and transportation rentals.
The transit card is golden. Amsterdam may be one of the world's great walking towns, but sore feet are all too easy to acquire. The pass allows unlimited public transportation on the city's excellent network of trams and buses. It's also a city of bicycles. Amsterdam has about 600,000 bicycles, more than you'll see in Beijing these days. A three-storey parking lot accommodates a mere 2,500 bicycles - quite a sight.
Our last night arrives not on a bicycle, but with indecent haste. I'm tossing a salad of mâche sprinkled with toasted pistachios and dressed with garlic, lemon and the last of the olive oil. We have wine, lots of it. There will be North Sea turbot, that pricey, princely whitefish my wife will sizzle in butter. Our vegetable is the marine herb sea asparagus. Although cultivated from Mexico to the Middle East, the Dutch have been harvesting it for more than a thousand years. It's theirs. The first bite delivers is a big crunch, followed by a briny rush in the mouth and a uniquely refreshing flavour. It's just the ticket for saying goodbye - on our own, on a boat, on salty water.
WHERE TO STAY
Blue Wave Houseboat Standard rate (which fluctuates according to season) is $196 a night for a minimum of three nights for two people; includes breakfasts. 31 (0) 20-42-789-68; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bluewavehouseboat.com.
Captain's Place Minimum stay here is three days; standard rate is $85 a person a night. 31 (0) 20-419-8119; e-mail email@example.com; www.captainsplace.eu.
Purchase the "I amsterdam" pass online ( www.iamsterdam.com) or at tourist offices throughout the city (while there, pick up the free booklet Amsterdam Surprise).
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