October 28, 2012 by Jools Stone
‘Took a trip on a Houseboat, it was fun, you and me..’
We’re passing through Amsterdam Centraal Station to get to its ‘backside’. (Do stop tittering at the back, that’s what they call it. Those crazy Dutch eh? What are they smoking?) Later we’ll take the night train from here to Berlin, when our InterRail for Grown Ups kicks off in earnest, but for now we’re just passing through, like the wind, whistling our way onto another ferry.
It’s brimming with commuting cyclists and motorbikers, who are all lined up on the lip of the boat like it’s the start of a race for the short, free crossing to Amsterdam Noord. We’re en route to our new home, BnB Noorderlicht, for the next few days.
Ask any savvy Daam local and they’ll you that for an authentic stay in the city you cannot go far wrong with a houseboat. So after searching for a fortnight and pinging off at least 30 rental enquiries to no avail, we were thrilled to finally find this place, via accommodation rentals site Wimdu.
For some reason, we were surprised at just how busy the city was. The high season covers most of the year and hotels are pricey, so make sure you book early.
The Local Advantage
We could not have asked for a better welcome from our hosts Henk and Yvonne. They very kindly picked us up from the ferry, while back at the houseboat, they sat us down over a strong coffee and talked us through thier detailed dossier of local tips and ‘schematics’, as Henk called them.
Thanks to them we discovered that many of the best, affordable restaurants can be found in the Red Light District, leading us to possibly our best meal of the entire trip at Mata Hari, a seriously elegant but unpretentious Euro Middle Eastern fusion place in a cool vintage setting. They also tipped us off about Puspita, a tiny, authentic Indonesian place in the neighbourhood.
Here we sampled Rijsttafl or ‘Rice Table.’ This cuisine is often touted as the best food you will find in the city, since Amsterdam’s colonial history has created a legacy of being the world capital for Indonesian food outside of Indonesia.
It’s tasty, occasionally spicy stuff heavily infused with coconut, palm and satay flavours, but be warned – it’s also a food challenge of Man v Food proportions, with some 8 – 10 dishes laid out – even for just two people! Try and fast before you go.
Interestingly, the owner told us that rice table is actually a Dutch construct, rather than an indigenous import. They simply took all of their favourite foods found on the different islands and made one big feast from them.
This type of local info is one big advantage you can get from renting an apartment where the owners live on site, as opposed to just booking some anonymous hotel room.
Nature in the City
We had the top apartment, which has its own entrance and roof terrace, a lovely spot from which to lazily watch the local wildlife, being careful to avoid the massive spider webs everywhere, which seemed to echo the webby, oft confusing matrix of Amsterdam’s canal network.
A lone heron was waiting to welcome us when we arrived, while lime green parakeets, geese, ducks, swans and jays were regular visitors too. To reach the city we had to cross a densely wooded park (directly behind the houseboat) with a moss-carpeted canal, tennis court and caravan park, Camp Vliegenbos.
Vliegenbos Wood, was set up a century ago as a dedicated rural space for the surrounding working class neighbourhood. These days it’s a popular place for joggers and dog walkers – pleasantly untamed and overgrown, something of an anomaly this close to a major city.
Once a tiny blind shrew ambled his way unsteadily across our path. We knew how he felt later that night when crossing the wood unlit. Although our hosts reassured us it was perfectly safe, we only made half way before we got too freaked out and had to turn back when we swore we saw some torch bearing figures rustling in the undergrowth ahead!
Until fairly recently Noord or North Amsterdam was one of the less desirable parts of the city with not too much going on, but things are gradually changing. Cheap rents and good parking (scarce elsewhere) have apparently attracted lots of arty types to move into the area, slowly gentrifying – or perhaps more accurately – hispterising it.
We stumbled across this interesting little hamlety section, which had some very cute, traditional dutch cottages, was deathly still and had an odd atmosphere, like an abandonned film set. Nearby there were lots of converted industrial buildings, in fact it became hard to tell the artists’ workshops apart from the groovy apartments, many of which looked like they’d been torn straight from the pages of Wallpaper.
Amsterdam Eye Sights
One of the area’s latest attractions is the impressive Eye Film Institute, a cinema museum which opened just a few months ago. The giant white ship-like building – which actually reminds me of the head of a Lego Star Wars battle droid for some reason – is already something of an icon on the landscape while the cafe bar with its panoramic terrace and raked seating is certainly a great place to enjoy an early evening cocktail while the sun goes down. Entrance to the museum’s downstairs exhibits is free with the iAmsterdam City Card, which also gets you a few euros discount on their special exhibitions. The current one on at the time was on Stanley Kubrick.
Back on Board the Houseboat
The houseboat itself was very comfortable, bright, modern and immaculate, with pine flooring and views of the woods, as you can see. We didn’t use the kitchen much but it all looked very swish. The bathroom was all shiny chrome and matt surfaces, with a gratifyingly bracing shower, despite the potential water shortages on a boat. Tea, coffee and accoutrements were provided free of charge, which was a nice little extra.
The only slight problem with it for a short stay such as ours was the location. Getting into the city centre involved a 10 minute walk through the wood and either a bus under the tunnel (10 mins) or a much longer walk to the ferry, then a stroll through the station. On the flipside, the ferry runs all night and is free.
To be honest it was a little further out than what we wanted (and our hosts’ distance estimates in the schematics provided seemed a little offbeam too!) but it showed us a ‘real’ and multicultural neighbourhood, which oddly felt to me like one of the more remote suburbs of west London.
For someone staying for a week or more who wants to explore the city and surroundings, with a bit of nature on their doorstep, while still being far enough away from the madness of the city centre, it could be ideal.
Our hosts were extremely friendly and helpful throughout our stay. They also gave us a lift back and we liked the fact that they were relaxed and didn’t insist on a hefty breakage deposit, as so many seem to.
If you’re staying in the ground floor studio you also get buffet breakfast provided which you’re welcome to bag up and take for lunch, a lovely touch. At the time of booking, the houseboat cost around £110 per night, plus service charges of around £30.
The booking process via Wimdu was smooth enough. It’s easy to create shortlists and pictures are well displayed. I also liked the fact that I could contact the host directly to ask questions before booking, something which not all rental sites offer.
Not all properties’ availability were kept up-to-date. I tried a few which looked free but turned out to be fully booked, but this seems to be a common problem with apartment rental sites. Someone needs to invent a widget which lets owners update their listing on multiple sites at once.
All in all I’d say it’s a fine, authentic base if you want to be outside of the main tourist drags and don’t mind a bit of schlepping about.
We were hosted by Wimdu and booked the property ourselves.