Museums, check. Birds, check. Bikes, check.
It's hard to find a summer holiday destination that suits both adults and children, doesn't have a beach or theme park among its top attractions and isn't more than a six-hour flight from Abu Dhabi.
I wanted a holiday full of museums; my husband was keen on cycling; Calvin, our 11-year-old, said he'd like to spot birds. Who'd have thought Amsterdam would fit the bill?
And so we book a five-night, self-catering stay on a canal boat, buy museum tickets online in advance and excitedly mark bike-rental shops on the map. Arriving at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on a cold July evening, we quickly find a cab and get to our destination in 20 minutes.
Rembrandt Houseboat on Prinsengracht canal is a rectangular, one-bedroom affair, with a low, dark-green roof and flowerpots on each side of the gangplank leading to the glass-fronted door. Tiago, our contact from Apartments Unlimited, is already inside, and he smiles, hands us the keys, pockets the €150 (Dh728) refundable deposit and leaves.
The airy living room at one end of the boat has wide windows, a sofa, a king-size bed, a dining table for four and bookshelves. Colourful rugs keep the wooden floors warm, and there's free Wi-Fi. The bedroom is at the other end of the boat and has a queen-size bed, wardrobe and dressing table. The bathroom is mosaic-tiled and spotless, with a glass-walled shower cubicle. Beside it is the kitchenette, with windows over the sink so that you can watch boats chug past as you wash up. There also is a mini fridge, tabletop stove and a chintzy tea set. I feel like a little girl playing house and turn around to share this thought, only to find Calvin leaning out of the living-room window, my husband clutching his shirt.
"The ducks are asleep; they'll show up tomorrow," we tell him, and set out to rent cycles.
We are forced to abandon the idea of a cycle tour faster than we can say Amsterdam. Calvin's road sense has deserted him, and he struggles to get his head around the several lanes of cyclists, trams, pedestrians and cars that cover the city in an indecipherable grid. My husband concedes that giving our child a bike could only result in carnage, and so we opt for the next best thing: the I Amsterdam City Card (€21 [Dh102] per person, valid for three days) that allows unlimited use of the public transportation network. A quick look at the map reveals that we're only a few minutes' walk from Rembrandt Square, so we head there and find a small, cafe-lined quadrangle criss-crossed with tramlines and cycle lanes, with buskers playing guitars and tourists posing at the memorial in its centre.
Calvin immediately spots a Febo, the Dutch fast-food vending-machine chain, and it's with utmost happiness that he drops in his coins and brings us piping-hot burgers. We're less than impressed with the food, but happy enough to sit in the square, people-watching. It's 9pm but the sky is still blue, and after our meal we walk back to our houseboat. We keep the windows open to let in the cool night air and, despite the roar of the occasional boat full of revellers, sleep like logs.
We wake up early in the morning to what sounds like Amsterdam's entire avian population: Calvin is at a window, feeding an assortment of ducks and coots, throwing down bits of bread that he has saved from dinner.
Birds duly fed, we have breakfast at Onder de Ooievaar (Under the Stork), a restaurant by day and a pub by night. It's about 10 feet from our boat, and we sit at one of the outdoor tables, eating hot tosti stuffed with turkey ham, or goat's cheese and honey (€3 [Dh15]), watching the canal come to life.
Perusing our map, we discover that everything that we want to see is a 10-minute tram-ride away, and start our explorations with the Rijksmuseum, thrown open to the public in April and transformed after a decade of extensive refurbishment at a cost of €375 million (Dh1.82 billion). Among the structural changes, the most dramatic is the new atrium, a sunbeam-filled, church-like space created by merging the two inner courtyards; visitors instinctively talk in hushed tones, craning their necks to admire the architecture.
Inside, nearly everyone makes a beeline for Rembrandt's The Night Watch (pictured at the top of the page), Holland's most celebrated work of art, which retains its place in the Hall of Fame in the original 1885 building designed by Pierre Cuypers. We slowly drift by all the masterpieces on display: Vermeer, Hals, Steen, de Hooch, Rembrandt again, doubling back now and then, and losing ourselves in the galleries and rooms. A new wing houses the museum's "special collections" of porcelain, jewellery and silver, weapons and model ships. The library, previously inaccessible to the public, is open, and we stand inside in silence, dwarfed by four tiers of balconies and towering shelves of books. Even Calvin is quiet, overwhelmed by the museum's sheer number of treasures: more than 8,000 objects of art and history, all displayed chronologically. There's also a new, modern-looking Asian Pavilion with a glass and stone facade, the interior filled with an unworldly light reflecting off the water around the subterranean building. Our favourite exhibits here are the jewel-bright kimonos, both historic and contemporary, beautifully spotlit and displayed in a line behind glass windows, and we sit on a bench and gaze at them to our hearts' content.
I later discover that the total walking distance around the museum is 1.5 kilometres, but, going back and forth, we easily cover twice as much area, and finally exit in a daze.
Apart from one day of light rain, the weather is generally fine and sunny, and the rest of our stay goes by in a fug of happiness: we visit the Van Gogh Museum and return with aching feet and a large poster of The Bedroom; we wander around Dam Square and dine at Carne Argentina, a small restaurant serving delicious steaks; we make frequent stops at cafes for hot chocolate and warm stroopwafels (waffles with syrup); we try an Indonesian restaurant, one of dozens in the city and packed to bursting with customers intent on their food, and discuss Holland's colonial past and the stunning Surinamese dioramas at the Rijksmuseum; we take trams everywhere and become adept at swiping our cards and getting on and off in one fluid movement; we stock up on bread, milk, cheese and fruit every night at the neighbourhood Albert Heijn supermarket. And we return to our boat every afternoon for a rest and to feed the ducks.
On the second-last day, we visit the Anne Frank House. It is a sobering experience, and at one point I find Calvin in tears, unable to bear the sight of the boarded-up windows and stories of Auschwitz. He cheers up that afternoon at the Albert Cuyp Market, two tram stops from our houseboat and bursting with everything from hot dogs to antiques. We snack on chicken satay, Calvin buys a six-foot flag of the Amsterdam canton, and we return to our boat to hang out with the ducks and talk about the flower market, the last thing on our list before returning to Abu Dhabi the next day.
Bloemenmarkt is a busy length of shops selling touristy knick-knacks, seeds and potted bulbs. Even though it's late in the year, we spot a few buckets of overpriced tulips. But something else catches Calvin's eye before we leave: a small tin bearing the words: Grow your own Venus flytrap (€3.50 [Dh17]).
Then we hurry back to the boat, where Tiago is waiting for us. Impressed by how neat everything is, he promptly returns our deposit, we say goodbye, and go on our final tram ride to Centraal station, from where we catch a train back to Schiphol Airport (€4; Dh19). The journey takes less than 15 minutes, and soon we're at our departure gate, sipping coffee and sharing a stack of stroopwafels, Calvin sulking mightily, as he always does at the end of every holiday.
A month later, the Van Gogh poster is already up in our apartment and the Venus flytrap is growing alarmingly fast on my kitchen window ledge. The disappointment of not being able to cycle around Amsterdam notwithstanding, it's one of the best holidays that we've had in a long time. But we really miss the ducks.
IF YOU GO
Return direct flights with KLM (www.klm.com) from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam cost from Dh3,535, including taxes. The flight takes six hours
A night at the Rembrandt Houseboat (www.apartments-unlimited.com; 0031 84 870 2071) costs from €120 (Dh582) for four persons, including Wi-Fi and taxes
For information on museum tickets, visit www.iamamsterdam.com
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