Art, parks, cafes and canals; Liz Light delights in the Netherlands' capital city.

The scene is post-apocalyptic with derelict docks, abandoned industrial buildings, empty shipyards, rusting boats, flaking trams, retired cranes and graffiti decorating flat places with patches of wild colour.

It's early and still on a vividly blue Sunday morning and the only sound is a suitably industrial clang of metal-on-metal. Someone, somewhere, is working steel.

NDSM Wharf, a 15-minute ferry ride from Amsterdam Central Station, is a different world from the cutesy heritage city across the water.

The area was a highly productive shipyard employing hundreds of people but it closed in 1984 when that recession made Dutch shipbuilding uneconomical. Nothing much happened for years then a city-sponsored arts community was given the go-ahead to take over the area.

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Artists control NDSM Wharf. They have taste, and they're Dutch, so they are practical. The wharf complex was cleaned up and mildly organised, cranes morphed into legacy industrial artworks, industrial buildings became homes to more than 100 artists' studios, a huge warehouse holds a rowdy skateboard hall and graffiti has become a lively art form.

In the early morning, much of this edgy area is admiring itself in still water, a weirdly reflected double of boats, cranes, trams and graffiti that sometimes does a shimmy when ducks paddle through.

Other than the ducks, someone working steel, industrial chimneys billowing steam in the background and a lone man walking a dog, not much is happening. The skateboard hall doesn't open until noon, the cafe, in a funky recycled-glass greenhouse, doesn't open until 11 and the artists living in mezzanines above their studios and in trams haven't woken yet.

My solitariness adds to the ambience, a post-industrial bereftness that is visually exciting in a big-scale, sparse way. This would be a great place to shoot a Matrix-type movie and it's no accident that MTV has chosen to put its European head office here.

I wander around and ogle at the way unwanted industrial construction has become art and how new art links with the area's industrial past.

A portion of a ship's hull has become a central sculptural piece and a massive bundle of steel reinforcing reaches the sky then opens like a wild flower.

Graffiti artists have selected areas on which to paint. Some of their work is truly beautiful. The rest is bright and joyful in a place that would otherwise be primarily concrete and steel.

In central Amsterdam, across the river, I have enjoyed fabulous Dutch heritage art. The Rijksmuseum, which is loaded with Rembrandt's paintings and has most of finely worked and elegant paintings by Vermeer, of The Girl with the Pearl Earring fame.

The Van Gogh Museum has hundreds of the bright and wild works painted by this sad and mad genius in the latter half of the 1800s and the Museum of Modern Art has a to-die-for collection of Chagall, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Picasso and more.

Amsterdam has a long history of being artistically avant-garde, of encouraging artists and treasuring art. It's inspiring to see the contemporary version of avant-garde happening at NDSM Wharf.

A ferry ride, a long walk and a few hours later I'm in Vondel Park on the south side of central Amsterdam. In contrast to the wharf, where no one was out and about, it feels as if all of Amsterdam is here.

NDSM wharf is a 15-minute ferry ride from the central city. Photo / Liz Light
NDSM wharf is a 15-minute ferry ride from the central city. Photo / Liz Light

The park is big, 47ha, and is peppered with lakes, paths, bridges, dells of trees, sports fields and children's playgrounds.

Lovers, eyes only for each other, picnic on plaid rugs, adolescents drink beer and share joints in slightly furtive huddles and couples enjoy sunny spring moments with their starfish-fingered toddlers who stagger gleefully between doting parents. Friends play cards, older people walk for health, a guitar player strums in the sun and a gay male couple saunter along arm in arm.

Tulips are sprouting in the gardens, daffodils and primroses are flowering and huge trees, hundreds of years old, have their first fuzzy hint of green. This is the first really warm day of spring.

I walk back towards the city centre and the cafes, after months of customers being cramped inside, have moved tables out on to the pavements and alongside the canals. The cafes, it seems, are all overflowing with trendy young folk drinking pale Dutch beer, Heineken and Amstel and baring their winter-white arms to the sun. Over-worked waiters squeeze between them but no one minds that the service is slow.

There is chaos on the canals. Everyone who has access to a boat, and that's lots of people in the watery world of Amsterdam, is out on it, cruising the canals.

The city is made up of 90 islands, separated by 100km of canals and linked by 1280 bridges. Most of the canals were dug in the 17th century, in a golden age when Dutch trade was thriving and transport was all on water.

At this time, when the medieval heart of the city was impossibly crowded, the city fathers designed extensions to make room for the many migrants attracted by prosperity, their houses and more industry.

The town planners had grand ideas, massive and visionary considering the times. Four large canals ringed the medieval city in concentric half-circles, allowing it grow in an organised way to five times its size.

As time passed, smaller canals, fanning out from the centre, linked to the main ring canals.

The locals love the canals. They provide transport, keep the city open and spacious, provide docking space for the thousands of people who live in the city's 2400 houseboats and the water soothes souls.

Plenty of Sunday soul-soothing is happening on this day. Groups of happy people sharing beer and wine, cheese, crackers and dips chug around the canals in anything that can be called a boat. I stand on a bridge where two canals intersect and watch the goings-on on the water below.

There are rich-looking people in polished vintage fizzboats, pretty girls puttering along
in a dinghy with a little outboard, a group of 30 in a big old lifeboat having a party, blokes on something that looks like a military amphibious vehicle and yachts with their masts lowered.

There is also the everyday canal traffic of cigar-shaped tourist boats and the hop-on-hop-off bus boats.

A fizzboat speeds too fast, its bow wave flooding a dinghy. There is fist shaking and shouting but the offender zooms off.

There are boat-jams to get under some of the bridges but might has right; smaller vessels defer to bigger ones.

But, overall, happiness reigns. The canals are silver, glinting in the sun, and people actually need to wear their trendy sunglasses. Folk in boats raise their drinking glasses to envious admirers, like me standing on bridges, and puddle-on along the canal.

What they are all really doing - the thousands of people in the park, the cafe crowd on the pavements, and the sailors in their assorted boats - is loving and lapping up the sun. There is a collective joy and a feeling that the long grey, damp winter is finally over.

FACT FILE
Uniworld's 10-day Tulips and Windmills river cruise travels between Amsterdam and Antwerp in March and April next year.

Cathay Pacific has daily flights from Auckland to Amsterdam via Hong Kong.