Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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Afloat in Amsterdam

Unlock the city's charms by living like a local on a houseboat

Tell Amsterdamers you’re living on a canal boat and acceptance is instantaneous. After all, the Dutch capital is the ultimate city that lives on water. It has more canals than Venice (165 to be precise). And they have their own community of approximately 2500 houseboats. Visitors are used to oohing and aahing at the lifestyles of their inhabitants.

About 50 canal boats offer accommodations for tourists. They invite us to live aboard a while, get to know our landlords, feel part of a unique community and explore the city with the credentials of an honourary local. And because houseboat living is so much less expensive than hotels and restaurants, you can afford to linger longer. We decided to split our stay between two houseboats and try two different parts of town.

And 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 (bluewavehouseboat.com; €110 to €165 double occupancy, breakfast included, three-night minimum) 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.

The Blue Wave, instantly recognizable from its blue trim and wavy roof, is the family home of the Schlagers, Hans and Elizabeth. Liveaboards 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 accommodating two to four guests, fully equipped kitchen, the terrace with dining table and garden furniture, Internet access, DVD player, fresh flowers and not least, 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.

This 'Dam Houseboat

Our second houseboat was the Captain’s Place (www.captainsplace.eu; €125 double occupancy, four-night minimum) in the Eastern Docklands, a residential area reclaimed from a warehouse district on the Amsterdam waterfront. 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.

The former freight barge boasts a 103-year past on the tumultuous waters of the North Sea. It’s also a new trick 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 skylit garden room festooned with model ships and souvenirs of Reijmers’ years in Greece and Turkey.

The Captain’s House doesn’t include breakfast. But one aspect we loved about renting was shopping in local markets for excellent local ingredients — a joy for people who like to cook. It’s one of those things most tourists don’t get to do.

Eat like a local

We foraged. The Schlagers directed 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 (others are half-devoted to cheap clothing). Two blocks of awnings shade a gauntlet of delights: pungent tapas from garlic-stuffed anchovies to sun-dried tomato tapenade, plump foccaccia sandwiches, fresh fish from mussels to Dover sole and ethnic treats from Vietnamese spring rolls to Turkish pizzas that reflect the city’s burgeoning immigrant population. For us, the market was an attraction on a par with the Rijksmuseum.

But for the itinerant foodie, no words about Amsterdam are complete without broodjeharing, 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 flavour, that's not at all fishy.

“Are you English,” a fishmonger in the Blue Wave’s neighbourhood asked us.

“Never,” I responded.

“Good,” said the fish guy ruefully. “The English hate broodjeharang. They think it’s undercooked.”

On the Blue Wave, we got to 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.

Red Light in daylight

Between meals, we wandered. First stop was a local tourist office to acquire I amsterdam packages (iamsterdam.com). Good for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours and the best deal in town, the all-inclusive packet includes a City Card, 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 and canal tours with two different companies, plus discounts at 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 hop-on, hop-off all day long.

This is a good year to be a tourist in Amsterdam. Although uncelebrated — no discounts, no free samples — it’s the 200th anniversary of legal prostitution in the Netherlands. The Red Light District continues to be one of the city’s stellar attractions. Seniors groups are seen negotiating the alleyways of red lights and window shopping cubicles. Men pass hurriedly, eyeballs riveted in the corners of their sockets. Wives attempt to hide discomfort with the natural inclinations of men. Canadians blush plaid.

The fee, a Dutch friend tells us, is €50 — about $70 — for 30 minutes. “The ladies,” he adds, “have 'em out in 10 minutes.”

It’s all very exotic and safe, but rumour has it local politicians would like to see it gone — a consideration having more to do with skyrocketing real estate than prudish sensibility.

One might reflect with some amusement that Amsterdam was once run by Calvinists. Aside from being one of Europe’s most hospitable cities, it’s now a very liberal burg: Xaviera Hollander, author of the autobiographical Happy Hooker and a Toronto celebrity in the 1970s, now runs a fashionable bed-and-breakfast here. Pot is sold like biscuits in the city’s coffee houses. Cannabis starter kits are for sale in the Flower Market.

It’s also environmentally progressive, a city of bicycles. Amsterdam has an estimated 600,000 bicycles, more than you’ll see in Beijing these days. A three-storey parking lot accommodates a mere 2500 bicycles, quite a sight.

Our last night arrived with indecent haste. I was tossing a salad of mache sprinkled with toasted pistachios and dressed with garlic, lemon and the last of the olive oil. We had wine, lots of it. There would be North Sea turbot, that pricey, princely whitefish my wife sizzled in butter. Our vegetable was 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 delivered a big crunch, followed by a briny rush in the mouth and a uniquely refreshing flavour. It was just the ticket for saying goodbye, on the water, deliciously.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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