My young daughter and I headed to Micropia and Nemo, two locations in the heart of Amsterdam designed to inspire and enlighten young (and old) minds in different, but equally spectacular ways. We’re going by ferry and unlike budget air travel where you’re herded around like cattle, watching the twinkling lights of England’s coastline disappear from a boat on the way to Holland is such a pleasurable experience that a holiday state of mind rises the moment we set sail.
On The Ferry
Stella Line cross the water from Harwich to Holland twice a day; if you’re like us you’ll be taking the 11pm overnight boat and arriving at the Hook of Holland at 8am local time. We caught the train from Norwich using an all-in-one ‘Sail & Rail’ ticket that is valid for travel from the UK to any Dutch station.
The Railway station at Harwich leads directly into the ferry terminal which means getting on board is hassle-free and there’s no liquid restrictions or luggage limits either. If you get the night ferry you’ll have to book a cabin, but prices are really good, especially at this time of year.
We head straight to our cabin to drop our luggage and freshen up for dinner. We’ve got a cool round portal window with sea view and enough space for 5 people to sleep. There’s a TV, fridge, tea & coffee making facilities and a private bathroom with toilet and shower (different berths are available). It’s really comfy!
For some, 11pm might be a late time of the day for a big meal, but you can get on-board a few hours earlier and eating at the Metropolitan Restaurant adds more than a touch of glamour to your trip. Worth trying is the melt in the mouth ‘Tenderloin Tornadoes’, and a ‘Chocolate Truffle Cake’, that is wolf-down delicious.
After a peaceful night sleep there’s an early wake-up call at 6:30 a.m. – it’s enough time to grab a buffet breakfast before disembarkation and we’re straight onto the train changing at Schiedam through to Amsterdam Central station and first stop is….
Micropia is a brand new attraction in Amsterdam and the only one of its kind in the world. Situated right next to the zoo it offers an amazing insight into a virtually unknown world of microscopic organisms, bacteria, viruses and algae spores. If you think that sounds boring you couldn’t be further from the truth and learning about the mysterious micro universe(s) that exist within our own is mind-blowing!
By using state-of-the-art interactive technology, microscopes and impressive visual displays, tiny things becomes spectacularly big at Micropia. It’s something of an eye opener when you realise how many microbes and bacteria live on your body and they’re a hugely important part of our natural eco-system.
Technicians are on hand to explain some of the more detailed aspects and all the exhibits are clearly explained on touch screen devices in Dutch and English. The kids (and adults) will love seeing the microscopic ‘monsters’ and you’ll come away looking at bacteria and quite possibly life and nature itself in a whole different way.
Micropia 38 40, Plantage Kerklaan 38, 1018 CZ
For more info visit www.micropia.nl
Zoos can often be strange places, I’m not particularly a fan of keeping wild animals in captivity, but there’s a feel good factor and vitality inside Artis that seems different. Maybe it’s a psychological thing as some of the animals aren’t actually in cages; the large enclosures they live in are surrounded by water so there is a sense of openness and freedom that can also be slightly alarming at first. Some of the giant toucans and flamingos seem to be happy just wandering the park with the visitors.
The Pancake Bakery
If you visit the wonderful Pancake Bakery at peak times during the weekend be warned, you might have to queue. Thankfully the food is well worth the wait. Obviously the main draw at this small, but cosy canal side restaurant on Prinsengracht, 5 mins from Anne Frank’s house are the dazzling variety of pancakes, both sweet and savoury. What’s cool is they seem to cook some of the ingredients straight into the pancake mix.
My daughter went old skool with just lemon and jam and I went for a Guacamole / Mexican pancake that was flippin’ (sic) great! Service is quick and prices start from around €8.50. They do great coffee too.
The Pancake Bakery
1015 DS Amsterdam
Like a half submerged tin bath, Nemo has been a distinctive landmark in Amsterdam since it first opened in 1997. Attracting over half a million people every year it’s one of those places I wish had been around when I was a kid.
Forget the ‘Science Center’ tag, the core to Nemo’s appeal is the way it stimulates young imaginations without ever patronising or talking down to them. Set over four floors, through hands-on play and discovery it very subtlety transmits positive messages about the Environment, Science, Growing up and it’s really good fun too! On a nice day you can sit on the spectacular roof with a picnic or grab lunch from the cafe at the top.
For more info visit www.e-nemo.nl
The Pulitzer Canal tour
No trip to Amsterdam would be complete without a tour of the canals. There are dozens of choices, but for a dash of grace and sophistication book the Pulitzer Hotels personal canal tour. You’ll be following some famous footsteps as Winston Churchill took the very same boat (now converted to electric power) when he visited Amsterdam, P.T. (Pre-Twitter).
The captain mixes a stimulating blend of information with casual openness and self-effacing humour. His obvious enthusiasm for the job makes it feel like it’s the first time he’s ever done it (he’s been doing it for years).
As for the tour itself, it’s a wonderful way to get a mental grasp on Amsterdam and its historical and personal perspectives. We took the tour during the day, but I can imagine night-time adds another exciting dimension. The price is €38 per person and worth every penny. As for the Hotel itself, they’re half-way through some major redevelopments that they’re somehow managing to do without causing any disruption to guests. The new rooms look amazing and the Hotel is being stripped back to an original feel that I think is going to make it one of THE places to stay in Amsterdam next year.
Prinsengracht 315-331, 1016 GZ Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 5235235
After a brilliant day of (legal) mind expansion in Amsterdam we go in search of sustenance and find it at Bazaar, a Moroccan delight of a restaurant situated on Albert Cuypstraat. Travelling on the trams is easy in Amsterdam, just remember to punch in and out each time you get on or off and visit the tourist information opposite Grand Central. They have tons of maps and info on everything, and of course they speak English too. At our culinary destination the decor is gloriously garish and the Middle Eastern feel is mixed with Christmas lights, high ceilings and chandeliers to produce an atmosphere that is kitsch and homely at the same time.
We order the crispy calamari with homemade hummus and fresh pitta straight from the oven for starters. The mixed meat Kebabs are excellent, so too is the tabouleh, couscous and roasted vegetables, all ingredients bought from the daily street market outside.
Only order starters and mains if you’re completely ravenous as the portions are very large and it’s only in the interests of investigative journalism that we’re able to share an oasis ground dessert with layered cake when our limits are reached. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
The place is bustling and the perfect place to meet up with friends, have a beer and enjoy some authentic Middle Eastern dishes without a big price tag. Apparently there is also another Bazaar restaurant in Rotterdam too so they must be doing well.
For more info and menu visit www.bazaramsterdam.com
Where to stay
Andaz Hotel, Amsterdam
After the recent explosion of Air BnB there is now a huge choice of accommodation in Amsterdam, everything from barges to cranes, however if you’re looking for something a bit different the Andaz is a funky, chic, tongue-in-cheek Hotel nestled in a quiet, but convenient location at the end of the 9 Straats on Prinsengracht. It wears its ‘pop-art’ desires firmly on its sleeve and the lobby area overflows with positive creativity and über stylish post-modern gaudiness.
The spirit continues in the bedrooms with two-way mirrors in the shower room and outlandish spoon-fish wallpaper. It’s impeccably clean too and the arty flashes would be all but window dressing if the beds weren’t so comfy and the breakfasts a destination experience in themselves. Fresh buffet options nestled between the Andaz chefs on hand make a contemporary twist on the usual omelette station and self-service.
Andaz Hotel, Amsterdam
Prinsengracht 587, 1016 HT
Phone:+31 20 523 1234
The next day we take our time and join the afternoon crossing back to Harwich. We catch a movie on the boat, have a lazy dinner and sleep it off in our cabin. As the ship enters Harwich Port we sail past thousands of freight containers stacked up like metal Jenga. Once on dry land the train to Norwich awaits, our minds suitably expanded and not a bad trip in sight.
Stena Line cross to the Hook of Holland from Harwich twice daily. For up to date prices visit www.stenaline.co.uk
Special Offer at the Andaz Amsterdam, stay 3 nights get one free, including breakfast (see website for special offers)
For more information on things to do in Amsterdam and Holland visit www.visitholland.com
Further Reading: Road Trip to Amsterdam (And Getting Around Once You’re There)