271. The Amsterdam Zoo

It’s literally a pile of cute

We’d heard the Amsterdam zoo was good, but how many zoos do you have to see in your life? Especially when you have seen The Cove, or you think too hard about what the animals are missing out on by being in captivity… Nonetheless, we pushed our ethical concerns to the backs of our minds and went for a wander, and I must say, we most definitely were not let down!

The Amsterdam zoo was actually quite the elaborate masterpiece. Housing an aquarium, planetarium, a butterfly room and beautiful sculptures all throughout the area, it really was quite a great site.

I made great strides in confronting my irrational fear of things with wings – I didn’t go running out of the butterfly room after being dive bombed by an enormous moth, and I didn’t panic at all the random, abnormally fierce peacocks strutting around and just waiting to pick a fight with visitors.

The absolute highlight though, that really put it above any other zoo, was the whimsical, magical room overrun with all kinds of wild animals and plants, like a scene out of a movie. The room was like a part of an old train station or something – huge brick arches, but completely overgrown with plants. When you entered (it was a one way door), there were birds flying round, monkeys darting out and almost running over your feet, huge green lizards crawling up the walls, brilliantly colourful flowers of all varieties and bats. So many bats. It’s like the place was just made to show you your imagination wasn’t good enough, and needed to step it up! It definitely felt surreal, like I was in a movie as I walked through. It reminded me of scenes from an old Batman film with Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. I did get a bit stuck at one point, when an enormous bird decided to block the entrance, and I was too scared to get close to it…

All in all, an excellent excursion, and I’d be surprised if there was another zoo that could beat that one!

Oh and did I mention the casual Astronaut, just chillin’

268. Amsterdam Flower Market

I’d heard the flower markets in Amsterdam were kindof a big deal, so it was definitely on the to do list. When I got there it was actually quite a let down. Perhaps it was because all the famous tulips weren’t actually in season and only bulbs were for sale, but even so it didn’t seem like there were that many stalls. The jury ruled overrated on that one, but perhaps it would be cool at the right time of year, or if you were in the market to buy a bunch of tulip bulbs…

267. Canal Biking Through Amsterdam

Not content to merely cycle around Amsterdam like all the locals, we wanted to canal bike. Which is just a fancy way of saying go paddle boating in the canals. When we finally got a break in the weather (well, almost – we made sure to get one with a detachable roof for the drizzly patches), we were away!

For €20 euro between the three of us we were able to hop in a paddle boat from one spot, and drop it off at another an hour later. It turned out to be quite the workout, but we managed to achieve quite a bit of distance in a the time, and it was incredibly fun.

Tip for any others – if you don’t have even numbers of people, balance is quite the issue! Also, the steering is all but useless, so expect to be stuck going round in circles after you oversteer and have to keep correcting. There were even a few moments where I wonder how they even allow people to roam free in the paddle boats, as we were fishtailing up and down the canals getting in the way of all the other boats. At one point one of the enormous tourist boats came along, and in a mad dash to get out of the way we managed to crash straight into an outdoor platform of a cafe (literally banging in to the deck less than a metre away from the poor unsuspecting but nonetheless amused patrons). There was no graceful exit to that situation either, as we rebounded off it and wound up spinning in a circle. It was a comfort to know that we weren’t the only ones having trouble navigating the canals. Aside from every other canal boater faffing around going in circles like a headless, floating chicken; the big, long, tourist boats themselves make quite the spectacle trying to get around a corner. Not being able to make a sharp right or left, they have to pull out a (kind of impressive) 3+ point turn manouvre, popping in and out from under the bridges.

Finally, one thing that did not and will not ever cease to amuse, was the “No Parking” signs along the inner walls of the canals. What a way to commute to work! Apparently owning a parking space for your dinghy is quite expensive, though it can’t be more expensive than owning land, as many barges along the canals have been turned in to floating homes.

266. House of Bols

In Amsterdam we were met with some pretty disappointing weather, so indoor activities were bumped higher up the priority list. Thanks to the wonderful iPhone app that is Tripadvisor Cityguides, we were able to download a guide to all the attractions, with map locations and reviews, and even a compass feature that points you in the direction of an attraction/restaurant/bar, all without needing to be connected to the internet. With that, our scavenger hunt began.

The House of Bols turned out to be quite the hidden gem, and probably something we wouldn’t have stumbled across if it weren’t for the bad weather, and the Tripadvisor app! Bols, creater of the Dutch spirit Genever, was an unfamiliar name to me, but once I arrived and saw the bottles, a realised I had seen them before, probably many times on the back walls of bars.

I had always assumed they were just another version of cheap and cheerful flavoured liqueurs used for cocktails. As it turns out, Genever is an apparently famous type of spirit, with a price tag to match, and careful effort has been made to create a range of different flavours.

The tour of the House of Bols goes through the history of its creation, gives an opportunity to smell all of the flavours, watch panoramic films and most importantly, try a few cocktails and sample shots.

The thing I liked the most about it, being a marketing geek, was how well designed the displays were. Given I was paying for a tourist attraction for a drink I previously thought was cheap, and came out knowing all about the product and realising it was actually quite nice and far more upmarket, I’d say it was a pretty succesful marketing campaign on their part. Now they just need someone to make the bottles less tacky.

260. Airbnb Disaster

When searching for hostel accommodation in Amsterdam I was pretty shocked to find some rooms were going for $50 a night! It was just ridiculously expensive, but I guess Amsterdam is pretty popular in July. We had a look around at some hotels, but it was for this stay we thought we would check out Airbnb.com, which is a site where people can rent out spare rooms/entire homes while they are away, and they can be booked as though they are a hotel. It’s like couchsurfing for people who want a real bed, or who think there is no such thing as a free lunch, or think they are less likely to get murdered that way.

After a bit of careful research we found a room rented out by a fellow called Dan Miller, advertising a “Centrally Located, Great Room.” It was one of the more detailed listings, and it appeared we had our own lockable rooms, it promised a large kitchen and laundry (having been backpacking for a while the laundry was a particular selling point) and most importantly it was in the centre of town. From reading the listing, and the back and forth emails, it seemed like one guy lived there and rented his spare rooms to travellers throughout summer to make a bit of cash. We quite liked the idea of staying in an actual apartment as a break from hostels and thought we would go for it.

Of course in a situation like this there are always alarm bells in the back of your head, but the comforting factor was that even though you book online with a credit card, the site holds your payment for 24hours so if it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, or you arrive and find you are at Charles Manson’s house, you can get your money back and get out of there.

Well, we arrived at the specified address, in the centre of town. The directions ended with:

“Spuistraat 56 , when you reach there just push on the top buzzer , or ask the bike shop right next door 🙂 ! My phone number is: +31645312665

As it turned out, that address belongs to someone completely different, so naturally when no one answered we asked at the bike shop next door. At this stage we were met with a barely coherent man, absolutely baked out of his tree, and took a wee while to ascertain what was going on. Once we had established who we were, that we had booked a room online and did they know where we could find Dan Miller, the story all came out. Dan Miller, is in fact a fake name, and the owner of the bike shop has rented out a bunch of flats around town, which he (most probably illegally) sublets to travellers via airbnb.com. A number of the travellers live in the flats more permanently, and work for him running pub crawls and bachelor parties and things. Luckily for us, one such traveller, a really nice Swedish girl, was there and was actually coherent. She was living in the apartment we had booked a room in and took us there. Although it wasn’t what we expected, we though there’s no harm in checking it out, and if it was awful we could use the wifi there to book in to a hostel.

It was a 30 minute walk from the centre of town, not 5 minutes and was not the “large, spacious apartment” advertised either. Infact, it was three very small rooms, one of which was stacked full of bunks and had 5 people sleeping in it. The couch also had a couple sleeping on it, which made for a very awkward moment at one stage where they decided to forget the lounge was a public place.

Worst still, there wasn’t even a kitchen, just a bar fridge with some plates on top. Our promised laundry facilities weren’t there either, which we learned as we sat there for one and a half hours waiting for them to take our sheets to the laundromat.

In defence of the place, we had two bedrooms all to ourselves, with lockable doors, and the people staying there were actually really lovely. So while it was pretty much the exact opposite in every way of what was advertised, we decided to stay, as it was four walls and a roof, and still cheaper than a hostel. The others staying there were all young travellers who had decided to stay in Amsterdam and work/party. They’d found the perfect job for it, by running pub crawls through town. After a day or two of staying there, reading between the lines of conversations and from certain things we didn’t have much of a choice but to overhear, it seemed like they too were getting a little screwed by this “Dan Miller” fellow – they get paid on commission for the amount of people they get along to the pub crawl, and I think they also had a discount for staying there, but I definitely got the feeling they weren’t too happy with their living arrangements (not too sure who would be, crammed in to a tiny room with bunks, travellers coming and going all the time and no kitchen) but the pay wasn’t really enough to get themselves out of the situation.

All in all we had a perfectly fine time there, and were safe, but the whole situation was definitely a scam, and has put me well off ever using Airbnb. If the ad had described exactly what the place was, we probably still would have stayed there, particularly with accommodation being so expensive in Amsterdam, but being so vastly different from what was advertised we felt pretty duped.

I contacted their customer service representative to let them know they had some false advertising on their site, and their response was that they would “follow up” and to offer us some credit to use the site again. Later on I responded once again, informed them that I would be writing about what had happened and would like to include a resolution of how they dealt with the situation to maintain the integrity of their site.

Their response was this:

“Hello Harriet,

Thank you for your followup. To ensure user privacy we cannot disclose the activity of another user’s account. However, please know our diverse team is actively working towards educating hosts and incorporating tools to better ensure future reservations go as smoothly as possible.

We appreciate your outreach and feel free to contact us again if you have any questions or concerns.

Warm regards,

Daniel G

Translation: ‘we sent them a courtesy email by aren’t actually going to do anything.’ “Dan Miller” is still advertising rooms on Airbnb, and when I clicked on the link from my original reservation, there a photos from another place, and although it now says that guests will be staying on a couch (thank god we weren’t) it still advertises the following:

“The flat is shared with one other tenant (and a very cute cat) and is located in the very center of Amsterdam, just a 5 minute walk to Central Station, and just 10 minutes to the Red Light District.

The apartment is shared with a newly renovated kitchen and a large bathroom with both a bath and shower.

The apartment is equipped with free wifi and a washing machine for all your laundry needs. Very clean fully refurbished apartment located right in the center of Amsterdam. Less than a 5 minute walk to Dam square and Red Light District, it doesn’t get more central than this!
Amsterdam central station is just a 5 minute walk away.”

Luckily we had approached the whole situation with a degree of scepticism anyway, but my advice for anyone in future, if you want cheap accommodation in Amsterdam and don’t care what it is, definitely contact “Dan Miller,” but just as hostels can turn out to be completely horrible, you run a much higher risk of that with a site like Airbnb, as hostels have thousands of people staying at them and providing reviews, where airbnb only has a few. It is definitely worth a look on booking.com for hotel deals, they can often be cheaper than hostels, and work out especially well if there are two of you who have no problem sharing a bed. Airport hotels can also be really cheap and some offer free transport to town. And finally, safety always trumps money! Always a better choice to get outta there and pay a bit extra for a night of accomodation somewhere else rather than regret being stingy while Mick Taylor chops your limbs off.