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Side Order: Seeing Amsterdam by bus — and boat

By Diane Daniel,

The orange personal flotation device stashed at my feet beneath the seat in front of me was the first sign that this was not a typical city bus tour. The second was the driver’s introduction: “I’m Renger. I’ll be your chauffeur and your captain.”

Indeed, our guide was proficient not only at steering the sky- blue 48-passenger tour bus from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to the center of the Dutch capital but also at driving us straight into the canal. On purpose.

The bus, cutely dubbed the “Floating Dutchman,” is the latest twist on the most popular way to see Amsterdam — from a boat on the city’s sprawling network of canals. Amphibian tours are nothing new in the United States and elsewhere, including DC Ducks in Washington, where visitors sit atop frumpy World War II amphibious vehicles that move on land like boats on wheels. There’s no such clunkiness with the elegant Floating Dutchman, which travels atop the asphalt at highway speeds and floats, half-submerged, as smoothly as a cruise ship.

For now, the 2-hour-45-minute tour leaves from the airport and is aimed at passengers with layovers of longer than four hours, but pickups in the city center are in the works. The rides, which started in July, also have attracted locals’ attention. On my tour of about 25 people, half were locals.

On the 30-minute drive into central Amsterdam, Renger narrated points of interest in Dutch and English. In town, he maneuvered the bus onto a narrow pathway between the waterside Science Center NEMO and the former 17th-century arsenal now housing the National Maritime Museum. As we neared the “splash zone,” curious pedestrians and bicyclists gathered to watch.

“This will take a minute as I prepare us for the water,” Renger said of the process that includes shutting down the diesel engine and engaging the $3.5 million bus’s 198 electric batteries. The batteries, charged during the highway ride, transform the motor vehicle into an electric boat capable of reaching a speed of 5.6 mph.

“Here we go!” Renger proclaimed as he motored us down a ramp toward the water. We passengers huddled near the front for splashdown while more spectators, cameras raised high, idled in boats on the canal to watch.

With a slight rocking motion and a collective cheer, we rolled into the canal, the water coming to a foot below the windows. A large wave broke on the front windshield; Renger cleared it with a flick of his oversize wipers.

For the rest of the 45-minute canal tour, we were treated as celebrities, with boaters following us along the canal to wave and snap photos and onlookers on land laughing and pointing.

The attention was a little unnerving for Mohamed Al-Alawy, who was taking in the sights during a nine-hour layover on his trip from Dubai to his home in England.

“It’s definitely weird having everyone looking at us and taking photos instead of the other way around,” said Al-Alawy, who had signed up for the only canal tour available during his wait, not realizing its uniqueness.

Jasper Veeneman, on the other hand, from nearby Amstelveen, was expecting the commotion.

“I’ve been seeing it around, and quite a lot of people in Amsterdam are talking about it,” said Veeneman, who was in town with a dozen family members celebrating his father-in-law’s birthday.

“It’s especially great for the children,” he said. “Well, grown-ups, too. I liked it a lot.”

Back at the splash zone, Renger pointed the boat toward the ramp and drove back out of the water as we applauded. After another quick engine reset, we headed back onto the city streets, dripping for the first few minutes.

After a forgettable stop at the Craft & History Experience, a cheesy tourist shop-attraction owned by the bus company — which makes this the equivalent of a museum exiting through its gift shop — I was dropped off near the central train station (I was staying in Amsterdam, not transferring flights) before the tour made its way back to the airport.

The next day, I couldn’t resist watching forthe Floating Dutchman on its morning run to witness just how odd we’d looked to passersby.

With my eyes fixed on the canal near the turnaround point at the Hermitage Amsterdam, I caught the improbable sight of a city bus bobbing in the water. As it slowly made its way past me, I waved and snapped my own photos. The smiling passengers waved back, reveling in their newfound celebrity.

Daniel is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C. Her Web site is www.bydianedaniel.com.

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