As a lowly freelance travel journalist, I often attend receptions for a gratis feed, but going dutch this party in a diamond factory in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, promises something more than limp vol-au-vents.
I’m shuffling nervously before a small desk while a wiry, white-coated jeweller examines the contents of my spent champagne glass. Through the optical loupe screwed into his eye socket, he has already scrutinized dozens of fake diamonds, clasping the gems between his shiny steel tweezers before returning them, like luckless lottery tickets, to their disappointed owners. As a lowly freelance journalist, I often attend receptions for a gratis feed, but this party at a diamond factory in Amsterdam promises something more than limp vol-au-vents. Each serving of bubbly has a fake gem nestled at the bottom of its glass – except one, which contains the real thing. I take great care not to swallow my potential pension-plan substitute before joining the long, avaricious queue. The first hint of success comes when the appraiser gently places my sparkly contender on a black cloth. The second is when he gabbles that the odds are “very much against” me. But the win seems assured when the restless line – a pack of loud, middle-aged travel writers – begins muttering its disappointment. Suddenly, a solicitous factory manager appears at my side. Order is called, congratulatory announcements are made and the tiny, brilliant-cut diamond is packaged and handed over. As I wonder which orifice I’ll deploy to smuggle it through customs, the narrowed eyes of 50 jealous journalists burn into me, several projecting naked contempt. I suspect a mugging is in the cards. Being a travel writer sounds like fun until you’re shackled together with dozens of them on a press junket. While I usually travel solo, this Amsterdam group jaunt seemed like a good idea until it degenerated into a convention of the usual old lags: spoiled, perma-tanned grouches who complain about everything from scratchy sheets (“I couldn’t sleep all night”) to menus written in Dutch (“Don’t they know I’m from the States?”). Stealthily breakfasting alone the next morning, I deliberately miss the tour bus to Amsterdam’s well-known visitor attractions and make a run for it to Oostelijk Havengebied (the Eastern Harbour), an up-and-coming city district where I’m sure to meet only locals. A run-down tangle of feral hovels until the 1990s, the area’s crumbling warehouses have been transformed into lounge cafés, chic galleries and stylish knick- knack stores. As I amble along the quiet streets, separated by canals still shrouded in morning mist, I find dozens of artsy designer townhouses, including one completely encased in a metal grid and another with an enclosed central indoor garden. The bridges here also have a futuristic twist, with one high-tech span arching over the water like a red, steel-framed cobra. Even the area’s old post office has been repurposed. An otherwise nondescript tower block, it’s now burbling with small tech businesses and is the temporary home of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam’s leading modern art gallery. After digesting the drip-drop Jackson Pollocks and wham-bam Roy Lichtensteins, I spend an inordinate amount of time poking among the clever intellectual trinkets in its smart gift shop. With lunchtime looming, I head up to the cavernous Club 11 on the building’s penultimate floor. With panoramic views across the dovetailed old and new districts, this former office space is a thumping club at night but a laid-back hangout during the day. Sliding onto a heavy wooden bench, I order a cold Heineken and a smoked cheese sandwich before surveying the murmuring clientele. But the air of indolent calm is abruptly shattered by a gaggle of familiar voices: the whingeing tour group has also found its way here. As I glance around for a hiding place, they spot me and stampede over, their latest gripes already tumbling out. ESSENTIALS Weather: Amsterdam’s blue-skied July can reach a languid 25 degrees Celsius, perfect for getting lost with an ice cream and a map. Can’t miss: World of Ajax Tour Local residents are crazy about their soccer. Soak up the game’s history with an atmospheric stadium tour of Amsterdam Arena, home of the legendary Ajax team. $14. amsterdamarena.nl Cool eats: Café-Restaurant Amsterdam This ultra-cool eatery – housed in an industrial-chic 19th-century power station – has 75-metre ceilings, old soccer stadium floodlights and a menu crackling with modern European delights. Tuck into the grilled swordfish or rib-eye Béarnaise, but save room for a regional cheese plate chaser. Entrees from $14. cradam.nl Best bed: Lloyd Hotel This historic former jail has been transformed into a boutique property showcasing Dutch design. Original art nouveau features remain, combined with a collage of eyebrow-raising contemporary swank. If you’re travelling with a harem, no problem: one room has a 20-metre-wide bed. Rooms from $114. lloydhotel.com One thing we need: Coffee shops. The city’s 300 registered dope joints offer hassle-free cannabis sales and a hazy, laid-back ambiance. Nibble on some space cakes for a change of pace. One thing we don’t need: Virgin red-light district revellers. Packs of young male tourists swarm the city centre on weekends, loudly trying to spend their pocket money on sexual shenanigans.