When you arrive in Amsterdam there's no doubt some of the first things you'll see are the enormous, glass-topped canal boats, run by several different outfits, herding in tourists by the dozens to explore the waterways. While I realize these boats help in accommodating the thousands of people who want to cruise the canals -- and they should; this is my pick for the top activity to do in Amsterdam
-- I recommend a smaller, much more personal way to float through the city.
The St. Nicolaas Boat Club
is a non-profit group that restores old Dutch tuindersvletten
or "garden flats," boats originally used to carry vegetables and some animals between markets and farms in the Netherlands. Volunteer residents of Amsterdam captain the 80-year-old vessels through some of the tiniest canals and under the lowest bridges in the city, where the big glass-top boats can't fit. Before setting sail, captains ask the group of 10 for sightseeing requests, as the ride is entirely open-ended and up for alteration at any moment. The laid-back vibe also means you're free to bring your own wine, beer, snacks and even marijuana if that's your thing.
Cruises last 80 to 90 minutes. And because the boat is open (dress warmly!), the views are unmatched. I don't think I'll ever take another commercial-line cruise again. (See steps 2 and 3 below to learn about booking and cost.)