One of our last stops sailing with Abercrombie & Kent on a European river cruise was Amsterdam, the largest city in the Netherlands. Arguably a place that takes more than a day stop on a cruise itinerary to see, our small A&K group enjoyed two full days in the area, gaining full and complete immersion into the world-class destination. In addition to a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Amsterdam has a number of other claims to fame including a legal red light district and unique coffee shops, known for more than their special blend of java.
Actually a standard tour on most river cruise lines, stopping by the red light district where prostitution of sorts is legal makes for an off-ship experience like no other on the planet. Behind rows of clear glass doors, ‘merchants’ show off their ‘wares’, inviting passersby to buy what they are offering. As no photos are allowed in that part of town, I’ll leave readers to imagine the scene and note that whatever that image is in your mind, it’s far more bizarre in person.
More photo-friendly are the over 700 coffee houses in the Netherlands, 200+ in Amsterdam alone, licensed to allow the use of Marijuana products in one form or another. We (this is something everyone does) stopped by 17 Amsterdam coffee shops in one day, some of which you see pictured here, most of which were jam-packed with patrons in standing room only venues.
The rules are simple; those over the (strictly enforced) age of 18 can purchase Marijuana products of all shapes and sizes in a number of legal stores and shops located in the area. Those under the age of 18 will just have to stand outside and wait for a cloud of smoke to emanate from the shop. They won’t have to wait for long.
No prescription needed. Coffee houses allow/encourage the use but can’t sell the products. While I was sitting in one coffee shop, a number of tourists, obviously not familiar with how it worked, were explained the rules. Sent down the street to a store of the same name, minus the coffee, beer and food offerings to buy, they were encouraged to come back to enjoy their purchase. They could also have stayed in store that sold just the Marijuana products to partake but no coffee, bar selections for them. So there, in a nutshell is how it works, today.
That will change a bit in the future only because the number of registered coffee houses will be decreased for some reason not known by locals. But these are the same locals who protested when the government of the Netherlands was making a move to treat coffee shops more like a private club, eliminating the tourists from the mix. Approaching the matter from a “the government is trying to take away our rights” standpoint, that initiative never moved forward. Not surprising, life in the Netherlands includes living with a considerable amount of taxation, including my personal favorite that would never fly in the United States: Taxes on the balance of savings accounts.
Apparently tourists tend to jump in to their newly-found drug freedom a bit too quickly, making fools of themselves from time to time. But sensing that first it would be tourists then locals losing their rights, protestors won out. I gathered that local shop owners also enjoy watching over-served tourists stumbling their way around town. It’s a sport of sorts, I suppose.
The whole drug element aside, these coffee shops also an authentic and unusual ambiance created by a non-drug element that is undeniable. Coffee creations are unique and far from the Starbucks coffee shops of worldwide fame. Served along with local brews on tap as well as a variety of regional bottled beers, fanciers of a frothy glass can make a day of it, going from place to place to sample the offerings of each.
Count on most coffee houses to be a place for interesting cuisine as well. Arriving just after breakfast (a great time to go to avoid the crowds), I enjoyed a sandwich at Stone’s Cafe hat featured grilled breakfast sausages with a fried egg on top that was simply delicious. Standard ‘American’ coffee is always served with a ‘biscuit’ (think little cookie) and made of a potent blend (of coffee), many unique to each establishment.
The whole area has a neighborhood bar type of vibe too. Get a home team in a big game and the place turns into a sports fan mecca of delight. When we visited during the World Cup, all stores of all kinds were sporting Dutch-orange color, reminding me a lot of Kansas City Chief’s red days from when we lived in Kansas.
Regardless of your interests, stopping by the red light district and associated coffee house area should be a must-do activity on any first visit to Amsterdam. As our tour guide explained “Amsterdam is one of the safest cities in the world,’ and that made sense after spending the good part of a day in the area.
Never once did we feel threatened or unsafe, but that might have been due to walking through clouds of potent smoke that wafted into the street. Get past that (or get into it) and like any other place on the planet, there are good people here; most speak English and each has a story/hallucination to talk about.
Chris wrote this and other articles in this series on location, sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent touring Europe by river. On assignment with Porthole Cruise magazine, Chris covered a variety of topics along the way, testing Boingo Wireless connectivity and a variety of travel products that have been provided for him. As always, Chris provides the details to let readers decide what resonates (or not) with them in an unbiased, factual manner.
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