amster-daaaam, this place is cool

During our recent cruise onboard Azura, we had an overnight stay in Amsterdam. I went with my parents as a kid and still remember so much about it – how cool and chilled out the people are, how many sights there are to see in the red light district, and just how many cyclists there are to look out for when crossing the road!

The ship docked right near the city, so we could walk to the centre in 20 minutes.

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Walking around all morning calls for one thing – coffee. You have to be a little careful when searching for coffee in the morning in Amsterdam! A café as we know it in the UK is somewhere to buy coffee, but in Amsterdam many are actually bars that open later in the day. A coffee shop there will serve coffee, but an option of a “hash brownie”! Luckily, we found a pub we could sit outside and enjoy our coffee, just watching the world go by.

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One of the most well-known tourist attractions in Amsterdam is the Heineken factory. We paid €18 each to undertake the self-guided tour, thinking we’d be in and out within the hour. This place was a real surprise – you walk through various rooms to view memorabilia and videos explaining the history of the family behind Heineken. You can also get up close to the copper vats used for brewing, the horses used for promotion purposes and even taste barley water. What really made this tour great is the interactivity involved – there are lots of opportunities to get involved, including photos and videos sent to your email address for free, a simulator and an overview of the ingredients and process involved for brewing.

We could have a go at crushing the barley, pretending to pull a perfect pint, and have our photo taken “face-in-hole” style. We were even able to purchase a special edition Heineken bottle with our names on!

To finish, we were provided with a tasting session, and taught how to drink Heineken without losing the fizz. We learnt that when it comes to Heineken, having a head on the beer is a great thing, as it retains the taste and the bubbles within the beer. When drinking it, you should tilt the glass to a 90º angle, so you are drinking only the beer and not the foam. Who knew?! We thought that may be it (they had given us a half pint, after all) but when we walked through the factory from the tasting, we reached a bar! We were then given another two further half pints of beer each, all included within our entry cost. We were in the Heineken factory for nearly 2 hours and it was a fantastic experience that I’d recommend to anybody visiting Amsterdam. Not only was it interesting and interactive, but the staff were all fantastic and spoke English to a high standard. Although, the Dutch do generally speak English amazingly well – it’s almost embarrassing to visit a foreign country and automatically speak colloquial English, knowing that the other person will understand exactly what you’re saying!

After all of that walking around, it was time for one thing and one thing only: food. We had a walk around, and came across a small sports bar called Regular&Jack to stop in for lunch. The waitress was very helpful and was happy to let us take our time when ordering. The menu was typically American, but they did offer a daily Dutch special. I was starving, so I went straight for the hot dog and cheesy jalapeño waffle fries (what can I say, I’m 13 years old at heart!) with a cherry beer. Mr Greedy opted for the special – a Dutch hotpot of sausage, mashed potato with carrots and onion gravy. I had a taste and it was delicious. Definitely a sausage-fest!

We spent the afternoon walking around, taking in the sights and shopping. My new favourite type of shopping? Cheese shopping. There so many cheese shops dotted around Amsterdam, mainly featuring Gouda and Edam. Most have samples for you to taste with multiple different flavours, and some were rather fancy! Truffle, black garlic, pesto and champagne were just a few of the Gouda flavours we spotted. All different colours, they looked fantastic on the shop shelves. We bought a cheese but I couldn’t tell you what it was – a rich orange colour with a Parmesan-like rind, it caught my eye straight away and the sales assistant was excited to let me taste it. Rich and mature in flavour, it’s completely different to any cheese I have tried before, and he advised me that it had recently won plenty of awards. If anybody can let me know what this cheese is, please let me know! I’m embarrassed to say that we started eating it before I could take a photo!

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In the evening, we headed back to the ship to get showered and changed for the evening ahead. The ship was quiet, so we decided to take the opportunity to dine at The Glasshouse, a speciality restaurant onboard. The brainchild of TV wine expert Olly Smith (known mainly for his appearances on Saturday Kitchen), the restaurant offers specially selected wines and a varied menu. The meals hold an additional charge, but the cost depends on the meal, rather than a set cover charge like in the other restaurants onboard. I opted for a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to kick the night off in style!

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The menu was actually a little disappointing. The variety of starters and small plates was fantastic and you could choose any 3 for only £5. However, following our massive lunch shoreside, we decided to go straight for main courses. The options were diverse and could cater to many different tastes, but in my opinion the quality was no greater than that in the main restaurant where you can eat for free. I ordered the orange, honey and chilli chicken, with duck fat-roasted Cajun potatoes and vegetables. The chicken was cooked incredibly well, but unfortunately the potatoes were not crunchy at all – I think if you’re roasting your potatoes in duck fat, they should be incredibly crispy on the outside! Luckily, the sauce tasted great, but was it worth the extra charge? Probably not, when the main restaurant were offering similar specials. Mr Greedy was all pigged out from lunch (as always, he managed to finish mine off too) so chose the the salad of goats cheese, walnuts and grapes. He says it definitely hit the spot and tasted incredibly fresh.

We headed out in Amsterdam for the evening, and walked through the city until we reached an area of bars we’d seen earlier in the day, overlooking one of the cities many canals. Did you know Amsterdam boasts over 100km of canals? The vibe was chilled out as we sat back outside and watched people walking through the city, whilst drinking our beers (mine was cherry, of course).

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We headed out to look for a bar with a bit more atmosphere, and came across Café Zwart in the red light district. The drinks were pricey as the bar is within walking distance of the national monument, but I loved this place. Why? Because they had a pet mouse! Well, they call it a pet, but they have the tiniest little wild mouse living in the bar. Their customers have told them they’ll stop visiting if they hurt the mouse or send it out on its way, so they’ve allowed it to continue living there. I happened to notice it scurry across the floor by pure chance, and it popped its head up another couple of times. The bartender noticed I was staring it and came over to assure us that they know it’s there! They call it Stuart Little, and he had told us that the weekend before, it’d gotten so cocky it started running around on the bar! Sadly, I couldn’t get a photo of the little blighter as he was too fast for me, but I managed to take a quick snap of the bar. Again, it just confirms to me how chilled the residents of Amsterdam are – I can only imagine the uproar of a mouse running around a bar in the UK!

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The next day, we headed out early to make the most of Amsterdam. The ship was leaving early, for reasons we’re still not quite sure about, and we had to be back onboard for 11:30. We decided to grab breakfast while out and about, but I couldn’t help but notice how few places were actually open at 8-9 ish. We walked past a local bakery, and I couldn’t help but stop – just to give you an idea of how delicious their food looked…

I decided to be overly European and order a waffle with fresh strawberries, which absolutely hit the spot. Walking through the peaceful streets, I was sad to think of leaving so soon – but of course, food always managed to put a smile on my face.

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We decided to take a walk around Vondelpark, the largest urban park in Amsterdam and often recognised as the most well-known park in the Netherlands. The air was crisp, but with the sun shining it really was beautiful to walk around.

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Before long, it was time to head back to the ship and we headed straight up to the top deck for the sailaway party. Infamous onboard cruise ships, passengers gather onboard and wave goodbye to the port with live music and plenty of alcohol on tap. As P&O passengers are generally British, Union Jack flags were handed out for guests to flap over the side of the ship at bystanders. We were slightly late leaving as a few passengers weren’t back in time, but the decision was made to sail without them. Bon voyage! P.S. Can you tell how cold and windy it was?!

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We decided to see off Amsterdam in style, and our afternoon sailing out of port was spent lazing around onboard and enjoying a few drinks. Brodies, the pub onboard Azura, serves a variety of beers and ciders that are not available in other bars across the ship. I opted for an Orchard Pig Reveller cider, but Mr Greedy ordered Banana Bread Beer – it had a really distinctive banana taste without being too sickly, and was surprisingly pretty delicious!

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We loved our Amsterdam experience, and wouldn’t hesitate to visit again!

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