Amsterdam: Whatever you really want, it's all on offer in Amsterdam. Bu t is it really any fun? Tony Kelly takes a trip on the Dam Express
When Britain's next prime minister (whoever he is) visits Amsterdam for the European summit in June, it's safe to assume he won't be travelling on the Dam Express. "Our trips are for smokers, ravers, clubbers and coffee shop seekers," says the brochure, promising passengers "a dam good weekend". And they don't mean looking at Rembrandt or cruising the canals.

"Coffee shops", for the uninitiated, are those where cannabis is officially tolerated - you can smoke in them openly and even buy small amounts. This 20-year old policy is coming under increasing pressure from Holland's European partners, who want the shops closed before the summit. But for now Amsterdam, with its liberal attitudes to both sex and drugs, remains a magnet for hundreds of young Britons, who pour in by the coachload each weekend in search of not-so-cheap thrills,

I sit with two brothers, everyone calls them Manchester and Liverpool, and a group of students from Surrey. Behind us are a couple from New Zealand, in front of us two lesbians reading Loaded. At the back of the bus is a group of male Geordies, drinking, swearing and belching like a dozen Gazza lookalikes. We sail from Dover at midnight; two hours later, at Calais, a party of schoolchildren is stopped while the bus with the psychedelic smile is waved through. We reach Amsterdam, sleepless, at 7.30 and check into the Winston Hotel. Others hit the coffee shops for breakfast; all I want is a coffee.

As the sun comes up on one of the world's most beautiful cityscapes, a heroin addict crouches in a doorway. The first prostitutes appear in the windows, gesturing to me in their lacy underwear. I glance in the windows of the Prostitution Information Centre and see the reflection of Amsterdam's oldest church. Inside the Sex Museum, marble images of Priapus lead to erotic Japanese prints and a walking-stick with a penis- shaped handle. There is something unreal about standing next to a complete stranger staring at photos of bondage, bestiality and urolagnia (yes, you guessed). It's almost as odd as listening to respectable-looking couples outside the sex shops discussing dildoes and leather underwear as if they were buying a new sofa.

In the Sensi coffee shop at 11am, Manchester and Liverpool are getting stoned on Super Skunk and trying hard to remember the rules of backgammon. A notice on the wall gives the house rules: no hard drugs, no dealing, no violence, no alcohol. Dope cannot be advertised so you ask to see the menu; I order an espresso and a Jack Flash and before long the joint is jumping. "I want to see the museums, man," says Liverpool, and we find one across the road. Where else but Amsterdam would there be a Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum? It covers the history of the hemp plant from its uses in ancient China to the invention of "canvas" sails and relief from MS. Liverpool has his picture taken by the indoor growing room.

On the same stretch of canal are two more museums. First, the Erotic Museum, though erotic it ain't. You can engage in telephone sex and see the prints painted by John Lennon during his Amsterdam bed-in in the winter of 1969, but that's about it. More interesting, if you can take any more physical abuse, is the Tattoo Museum though by now tattooed breasts and penises have lost the power to shock.

Time to exchange low life for high culture at the Van Gogh Museum. Is it the Jack Flash, or are those roots and tree trunks really naked female torsos? Was Van Gogh on illicit substances when he drew them? Amsterdam is playing tricks in my head. The national monument on Dam Square looks like a giant phallus. Mind you, it still does the next morning. Back in the red light district, packs of British males are on the prowl. Steve from Sunderland emerges from a booth and his mates demand a blow-by-blow account. Curtains open and shut with alarming regularity, it is Saturday night and the women are doing good business. I search the coffee shops for Liverpool and Manchester, but there are more than 400 to try. Some, like Bulldog, have gone almost respectable, with bike hire and a souvenir shop, others are still seedy dives. I look in Stones and Smokeys (subtle names, these), Grasshopper and the Greenhouse Effect, Easy Times and the Tops Internet Coffeeshop. I get through an awful lot of coffee. Then I see Manchester across the road. "I want some space cake, man," he drawls. Midnight passes in Baba with cappuccino and cake, which is like a chocolate muffin with a kick, since you ask.

Dam Square on Sunday morning. A few people have not made it to the bus. Manchester has only been in bed for an hour. The Geordie lads read Penthouse and recount tales of exploits with Zara and Justine. Before the French border the driver makes an announcement: "If you've got any tobacco to get rid of, we're bringing round a bag." But nobody does and for the first time ever the bus is waved through. At Dover we are not so lucky. We all pile off, the bus is searched, two people are questioned but nothing is found. Funny that. Ten minutes later the air is thick with smoke once more.

We reach Victoria at 8pm, 48 hours after we left. The bus still has to go to Manchester and to Durham. The Geordie boys won't be home until the small hours. Two days and two nights on the bus for a day in Amsterdam and 10 minutes with Zara. A dam good weekend? Really?


Getting there

The Dam Express leaves London every Friday night after picking up in Manchester and elsewhere according to demand. The fare is pounds 39 return. Bookings: 0161-273-1234.

Winston Hotel, Warmoesstraat 123 (tel: 00 31 20 621 1380) has single rooms from 65 guilders (pounds 22) and twins from 85 guilders (pounds 29), The same street has numerous backpackers' hostels with cheaper rooms.


Sex Museum, Damrak 18.

Erotic Museum, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 54.

Tattoo Museum, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 130.

Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 148.




The Pulitzer, Prinsengracht 315-331. (+31 20) 523 5235/Fax: 626 2646.

The Ambassade, Herengracht 341. (+31 20) 626 2333/Fax 624 5321

Hotel Seven Bridges, Reguliersgracht 31. (+31 20) 623 1329.

Canal House Hotel, Keizersgracht 148. (+31 20) 622 51 82/Fax 624 1317.

Sunhead of 1617, Herengracht 152. (+31 20) 626 1809/Fax 626 1823.


Cafes/lunch places

De Jaren, Nieuw Doelenstraat 20: trendy, large with river terrace.

De Utrechtse, Poort Utrechtsestraat 113: pancakes and jazz.

Backstne, Utrechtsedwarstr 67: mad camp from the Christmas Twins.

Kapitein Zeppo's, on Gebed Zonder End, off Grimburgwal: easy-to-miss cafe in red light district, good food and live music. Open 'talent' (loosest sense of the word) mike on first Sunday of the month.

Dimitri's, Prinsenstraat 3: delicious sandwiches and applecake.

Vertigo, Vondelpark 3 (in the film-museum): good food & laid-back atmosphere.

T Smalle, Egiantiersgracht 12: food in intimate brown cafe surroundings.

Van Puffelen, Prinsengracht 375: brown cafe and adjoining restaurant.

Lisbreker, Weesperzyde 23: popular music cafe up the Amstel river.

Cafe Tabac, Brouwersgracht 101: corner cafe close to the Jordaan.

Brown/Dutch bars

De Oosterling, Utrechtsestraat 140: old-style bar.

Het Molenpad, Prinsengracht 653: popular traditional bar.

Hoppe, Spui 18-20: small, ancient beer-haven on tourist strip.

De Engelse Reet, on the Begijnensteeg: brown bar.

Twee Zwanties, Prinsengracht 114: frightening Dutch singalongs.

Maximiliaan Brouwhuis, Kloveniersburgwal 6-8: endless beer list.

Coffee shops

The GreenhouseTolstraat, 91/Waterlooplein 345: arty and candlelit, Tarantino's hang-out.

Lucky Mothers, Keizersgracht 665: mellow canal-house.

Kunst and Koffie, Laurierdwarstraat 64: gallery, backgammon and healthy food.

T-Boot, Oude Schans 143: smoky houseboat.

Dutch Flowers, Singel 387: central, small and friendly, serves beer.


Supper Club, Jonge Roelensteeg 21: always changing, eat recumbent!

De Belhamel, Brouwersgracht 60: Art Nouveau-inspired decor, gamey menu.

Borderwijk, Noordermarkt 7: European-contemporary, stark modern interior.

Beddington's, Roelof Hartstraat 6: excellent food, English-run. Urban atmosphere.

Le Zinc et les Dames, Prinsengracht 999: French food in beautiful canal- house.

Toscanini, Lindengracht 75: airy, contemporary Italian restaurant.

Hostaria, 2e Eglantiersdwarstraat: intimate Italian in heart of the Jordaan.

Alcantara, Westerstraat 186: Portuguese food, informal surroundings.

Kooning van Slam, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 42: large, authentic Thai.

Rakang Thai, Elandsgracht 29: small, trendy Thai.

Cilubang, Runstraat 10: best mid-price Indonesian.



The Odeon, Singel 460: different styles of music on three floors of canal- house.

Seymour Likely 2, Nieuwzijs Voorburgwal 161: trendy and packed.

Soul Kitchen, Amstelstraat 32: disco & soul; somewhat older crowd.

Roxy, Singel 465: cool and hip; once a cinema. Membership.

Akhnaton, Nieuwe Zijds Kolk 25: African & Latin American.

Music venues

Paradise, Weteringschans 6-8 (+31 20) 626-4521: small venue, once a church, but big names play here.

Melkweg, Lijnbaansgracht 234 (+31 20) 624 1777 ( melkweg/): old warehouse venue that used to be a dairy. Membership fee but diverse activities inside - gallery, bar, video, live music and films.

Bimhuis, Oude Schans 73-77 (+31 20) 623 1361 (http//www.xs4all. nl/bimhuis): jazz venue with bar and cafe. Evenings, Sunday afternoons.

Lisbreker - see restaurants

Cafe Alto, Korte Leidsedwarstrsaat 115 (+31 20) 626 3249: very small and crowded, central, modern jazz cafe.


Tuschinski, Reguliersbreestraat: original Art Deco cinema. You can book a box with champagne. Beware the "Pauze" - many films in the Netherlands are shown with an off-putting random break in the middle for ads, hot dogs and beer.


Sauna Deco, Herengracht 115: more Art Deco, this time original fittings were lifted from the 1920 Au Bon Marche in Paris and brought here 20 years ago. Massages, hydro-treatments also available but best is the sauna and plunge pool. Mixed nudity, not a pick-up joint.


Small shops specialise in anything from toothbrushes or condoms to pipes to antique spectacles, hand-made didgeridoos to jewellery, glassware to leatherwear.