Four centuries after the Golden Age, a period of prosperity and artistic achievement that transformed Amsterdam from a fishing village into a wealthy hub of international trade, this delightful city is in the middle of a new renaissance. All three of its world-renowned museums — the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk — recently completed multiyear renovation and expansion projects. And a variety of events is planned to mark the 400th anniversary of the construction of the city’s famous canals.
During my recent trip, I found time to visit “The Golden Age: Gateway to Our World” (through August 31, 2013) at the Amsterdam Museum. The exhibit recounts the remarkable confluence of events that made this the most successful European city of the 17th century. These included the migration of Protestant merchants from the Catholic Hapsburg Empire, the arrival of Sephardic Jews from Spain and the founding, in 1602, of the Dutch East India Company, the forerunner of the modern shareholder- based corporation. (In addition to trading counters in Indonesia, China, Malaysia and Japan, it established the colonies of Cape Town and New York.)
Coinciding with the current cultural renewal, an emerging generation of young chefs, inspired by Amsterdam’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, is reinvigorating the city’s restaurant scene. And several dramatic new hotels now offer a type of modern luxury that is a marked departure from the established properties.
Typical of the genre is the new 122-room Andaz Amsterdam, which opened in November. Occupying a former public library building on Prinsengracht, one of the city’s loveliest canals, this is the second European address for Andaz, Hyatt’s new lifestyle brand. Andaz hotels offer a relaxed contemporary style of hospitality, which in practice means that there is no front desk and you check in with a young staff member on his or her tablet computer in an armchair over coffee. The brand also emphasizes a commitment to local food, amenities and architecture. Here, designer Marcel Wanders offers a sort of Mad Hatter take on the idioms of the Golden Age. The lobby-lounge features high- backed red tulip chairs, a blue-and-white map of the world on the carpet and a curious suspended planetarium meant to invoke the crucial role of celestial navigation.
Were it not for the warm welcome of a reassuring Dutch woman, we might have upped stakes immediately, since the place didn’t seem to have been created with us in mind. Curiosity got the better of us, however, and even though I’ll never learn to like such high-concept décor, our room proved quiet, well-lit and extremely comfortable. Service throughout the hotel was excellent, and the spa was exceptional. We also enjoyed a fine dinner in the hotel’s Bluespoon Restaurant, during which we discovered a Dutch wine from the Kleine Schorre vineyard in Zeeland that was a perfect accompaniment to fish. Overall, we found the Andaz to be enjoyable, but not enjoyable enough to merit an unequivocal Harper recommendation.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Convenient location; charming and helpful service; splendid spa.
DISLIKE: Over-the-top contemporary décor; smallish rooms.
GOOD TO KNOW: Gerda’s Flowers (Runstraat 16), the best florist in Amsterdam, is just around the corner if you wish to choose a bouquet for your room.
ANDAZ AMSTERDAM, Rating 88 Canal View King, $455; Andaz Suite, $960. Prinsengracht 587. Tel. (31) 20-523-1234.
Amsterdam’s two traditional grand hotels are the 79-room Intercontinental Amstel and the 111-room De L’Europe. I continue to recommend both properties to those who prefer the formal Old World style (but feel obliged to note that the De L’Europe has recently attracted one or two adverse comments from subscribers unhappy with “unprofessional” service and unimpressed by the new Dutch Masters Wing, with its curious modern furniture and unsuccessful reproductions of celebrated paintings). On this occasion, I decided to stay at the 177-room Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam, which is centrally located five minutes from Dam Square and occupies a set of handsomely restored historic buildings. The principal structure successively housed a convent, royal lodgings, the Admiralty headquarters and Amsterdam’s city hall before being renovated and converted into a hotel. Having read about the long and fascinating history of this property, I had hoped that it might be a European version of Sofitel’s Metropole in Hanoi, a wonderfully atmospheric old hotel animated by impeccable service.
As soon as we entered the lobby, however, we were treated to a theatrical chorus of “Bonjours!” by a half-dozen bellhops and doormen, a performance obviously meant to emphasize the hotel’s French- ness, but succeeding only in being embarrassing to all concerned. Coming from the Andaz, which studiously cultivates a local identity, we found this show even sillier. A dour and wordless porter escorted us to our accommodations. On reaching our room, I asked him to confirm that it was indeed a Junior Suite and, despite the fact that there was no separate sitting area, he assured me that it was. Increasingly, large hotel chains use the term “Junior Suite” promiscuously. On this occasion, the front desk explained that it referred only to our room’s square footage.
Even if it wasn’t a Junior Suite by my definition, the room was appealing and well-furnished, with a signature Sofitel MyBed. (These come with a duvet-like mattress liner and rank among the best hotel beds in the world.) The décor featured a mostly taupe and stone-gray color scheme, and amenities included an espresso machine. The bath was equipped with a stall shower and a separate tub with wall-mounted television, but only a single vanity and indifferent lighting. Although these were pleasant enough lodgings, they represented poor value for money. The property’s central location is undeniably convenient, but overall, the Sofitel lacks any conspicuous merit aside from its excellent spa.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Excellent Carita spa.
DISLIKE: Stagey service; my diminutive Junior Suite.
GOOD TO KNOW: The nearby Amsterdam museum offers a fascinating overview of the city’s history.
SOFITEL LEGEND THE GRAND AMSTERDAM, Rating 84 Luxury Room Canal View, $539; Junior Suite, $610. Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197. Tel. (31) 20-555-3111.
It was with considerable relief, therefore, that we arrived at the 130-room Conservatorium, which opened in 2011. It is invariably interesting to get a fresh take on a city by staying in a neighborhood with which you are unfamiliar. Located in the Oud Zuid (Old South), the Conservatorium is adjacent to Amsterdam’s Museumplein (museum square) and is also close to one of the city’s chicest shopping streets, P.C. Hooftstraat, as well as the lovely Vondelpark, with its fountains and open-air theater.
This magnificently restored 19th-century stone-and-brick neo-Gothic structure was built as a bank, but served most recently as the municipal conservatory. The striking atrium lobby with its glass walls and ceiling made a great first impression, and the front desk staff couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. The charming woman who showed us to our room gently mocked the robotic rituals of what those in the hotel business refer to as “rooming” when she said, “Since I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how to use a sink or open a window, you’re welcome to call me whenever you have a question.” She then briefly explained the hotel’s complimentary Wi-Fi system. She also noted that our welcome mineral water and fruit bowl were missing. Both had appeared when we returned from a visit to the Stedelijk Museum just across the street.
Our Junior Suite was attractive and well-thought-out. Situated under the eaves, it came with oak parquet floors, exposed beams, a soft throw rug and a long, linen-covered couch that was ideal for lounging. This delightful room was the work of Piero Lissoni, a talented architect and designer who works for many of the great names of Italian home furnishings, including Boffi, Alessi, Cassina and Cappellini. The bedroom was a separate area with an exceptionally comfortable bed and ample closet space, while the travertine-lined bath came with a Corian soaking tub, a separate stall shower and L’Occitane toiletries. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that nearly half of the hotel’s accommodations are duplex, which could be inconvenient for anyone with mobility problems.)
The hotel offers two restaurants, the Conservatorium Brasserie for casual dining in a spectacular glass-enclosed interior courtyard, and Tunes, for more gastronomically ambitious cuisine. Both are under the direction of Dutch chef Schilo van Coevorden, whose fine contemporary cooking we first encountered at the Finca Cortesin hotel in Andalusia. Tunes offers two eight-course tasting menus, as well as dishes such as veal with sweetbreads, dandelion salad, pickled onion and a red-wine gravy; and wagyu beef served with beets and a hazelnut sauce. Other amenities at the Conservatorium include a fumoir for cigar aficionados, a well-equipped gym and a pleasant spa with a lap pool, sauna and steam room. Throughout our stay, the service was excellent, with the warm and friendly staff creating a delightful atmosphere. Overall, the Conservatorium is an exceptionally fine new hotel and a significant addition to the city’s inventory.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Spectacular décor; outstanding service from an intelligent and charming young staff.
DISLIKE: Tiny bathrobes; the spa and pool are too small for a hotel of this size.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel has bicycles available to guests; the tramway that stops on the corner is an ideal way to get around congested Amsterdam.
CONSERVATORIUM, Rating 95 Deluxe Duplex, $505; Junior Suite, $625. Van Baerlestraat 27. Tel. (31) 20-570-0000.
Amsterdam’s Jordaan district lies just west of the city’s core and is a maze of quiet streets lined by gabled brick houses and sprinkled with tiny galleries, boutiques, pubs and cafés. The 23-room Canal House hotel, which opened in 2011, sits at the edge of the Jordaan overlooking the Keizersgracht canal. It comprises three lavish 17th-century merchant’s houses that have been completely renovated and redecorated by owners Jessica and Peter Frankopan, who retained historic features such as timber beams and ornate fireplaces and added the latest technology.
From the street, the simple black-painted front door opens onto a long, narrow marble-floored hallway lined with period art and leading to the reception desk within a clubby, dark-paneled bar. The “Great Room” that links the three houses contains a restaurant with a high ornate ceiling, gleaming wood surfaces and gilt-edged mirrors. Outside, we caught sight of the peaceful brick-walled garden.
We were shown up steep stairs — there are no elevators — to our Exceptional Room overlooking the canal. Heavy, plum-colored velvet drapes framed three tall windows from which we could watch boat traffic on the canal below. A dark oak-plank floor, walls covered in silk wallpaper, a leather sofa and ebony-stained furniture all helped to create a restful and stylish environment. A spacious bath contained double sinks and a large stall shower concealed by a pane of black-tinted glass. Amenities included complimentary Wi-Fi and a Bose iPod docking station.
A few caveats are in order. The old house’s windows are not double-glazed, so if silence is essential during the day, reserve one of the rooms overlooking the garden in back. Also, as is true of all old houses, some stairs creak, and you’ll occasionally hear footsteps overhead. I found this not unpleasant, but rather a reminder that I was staying in a charming, if slightly quirky, 17th- century house rather than a traditional hotel. For those who prefer smaller properties with strong individual personalities, the Canal House makes an excellent choice.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Gorgeous canal views; strong sense of local history; lovely garden.
DISLIKE: Noise-proofing could be improved; service can be absentminded.
GOOD TO KNOW: The bar offers an interesting selection of Dutch gins.
CANAL HOUSE, Rating 92 Great Room, $500; Exceptional Room, $605. Keizersgracht 148. Tel. (31) 20-622-5182.