My introduction to Amsterdam began on a sombre note. This seemed okay in a city cloaked in 50 shades of grey. Cold gusts of wind drew moisture in from the canals. The sun was a cursory presence. The tulips were late. Anne Frank House was just a short walk from my hotel, the Andaz Prinsengracht, past the church where Rembrandt lay in a pauper’s grave for 20 years before his remains were removed and destroyed. Museum curators in India could learn a thing or two—or twenty—from Anne Frank House, where sensitive and interactive displays bring alive the tragedy that has captivated the world since Anne Frank’s diary was published 66 years ago. Anne Frank House has just released new research suggesting that the arrest of the Franks by the Gestapo in a raid in 1944 may not have been the result of a betrayal after all, but rather the fallout of an investigation over ration card fraud. Now, there’s a twist in the tragedy.
Returning to the Andaz’s flamboyant embrace lifted my spirits instantly. It’s always nice to stay in a hotel which has multiple layers, aching to be peeled off. But then its creator and part-owner is Marcel Wanders, the dashing high priest of Dutch design, making it a nice showcase of his oeuvre. Indeed, so distinctive is the Andaz Prinsengracht that it’s easy to forget it’s also a Hyatt brand. But among the Hyatt hotels, the Andazes stand apart anyway—they’re quirky, individualistic, local, lavish. They’re cool too, trading in reception desks for iPad check-ins, and so on.
As the elevator whizzes you up to your room, its clear glass windows let you take in the ‘Observatorium-A Ride from Hell to Heaven’: constellations of glittering stars and, beyond, intricate blue images tracing the path from hell to heaven. The theme continues in the guest washrooms, so you might find yourself returning to the throne frequently for inspiration. The Delft blue basins in all the 122 rooms were painted by Marcel Wanders himself. (If I had known earlier, I would probably have nicked mine.). The silent garden between the hotel blocks is home to some arresting sculptures, intriguingly named the Princes of Dreams. There’s pots of video art as well, more than 40 works, ranging from young turks to international masters like Ryan Gander, Erwin Olaf and Mark Titchner. The video art can be seen in the public areas, in the hallways and even through a dedicated video channel on the in-room television. The half fish-half object fixture lurking behind my bed apparently represented the open mindedness and versatility of Amsterdammers. According to Wanders, this theme of “connecting polarities”, this joining of two unrelated elements into a new whole, runs through the hotel, Makes sense, right?
Since the Andaz credo is ‘arrive a visitor, depart a local’, I signed up for a canal tour by salonboot. I was surprised that our well-travelled captain knew his Connaught Place from his Daryaganj. But I shouldn’t have been. During the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was the nerve centre of a vibrant maritime trading scene and that’s when the dense grid of canals dates from. Its city centre hasn’t really changed its look since that time and the merchant houses with their distinctive stepped gable façades are instantly recognisable. It’s difficult to imagine this was a sleepy fishing village in the 12th century. And, as the name indicates, it was once a dam on the river Amstel (and you thought it was just a beer?).
Pioneering contributions in the fields of art, science and cartography reveal the Dutch to be an unusually inventive people. A random list: master mariners, orange carrots, atlases, wi-fi, compact cassette tape, the CD, stock exchanges, cocoa powder, yachts, doughnuts, Kolf (the predecessor of modern golf), the world’s first mega-corporation in the Dutch East India Company. They also gave us gin, called jenever here (that’s the stuff those delft houses that KLM doles out to its business class passengers is filled with).
Hell, before New York was New York, it was New Amsterdam. I could go on and on.
Amsterdam is different things to different people but it is one thing to all: it’s a city in love with its museums. Second to none is the Rijksmuseum, or the State Museum, which reopened in 2013 after a 10-year-long renovation that awed the world. With over 8,000 objects (drawn from a collection of over one million) on display, it can take days if not weeks to properly take in the museum. I opted for the crash course under the care of an excellent guide contracted by Andaz. Thanks to him, in minutes I was within kissing distance of Vermeer’s Milkmaid and Rembrandt’s Night Watch.
I can’t help repeating myself: Andaz is individualistic to the point of, well, individuals. Andaz Prinsengracht’s lithe GM, Toni Hinterstoisser, has turned his passion for running into an activity for interested guests. Sign up for the ‘Andaz GM’s Run’ and Toni will take you on his favourite jogging routes across Amsterdam on his 5km morning run at 7am every Wednesday. I opted to dine with him instead. Toni turned out be a warm host who keeps a fine table. I could well have been a guest at his home. The rustic seasonal dishes at the Andaz’s Bluespoon Restaurant were memorable and the jenever flowed freely from traditional clay bottles.
Indeed, I had a string of superlative meals in Amsterdam, so the urban legend that the Dutch have no cuisine to speak of can be safely laid to rest. Jansz, at the Pulitzer hotel, which is till gleaming from a recent makeover, had a simple lunch menu, deceptive beause the sole was sublime. For dinner, I went to one of Amsterdam’s most celebrated restaurants, Gebr.Hartering, which features a daily six-course changing menu using local produce. It’s run by two brothers who don’t shy away from using all the parts of an animal. The most plebeian place I dined at was Foodhallen, but even that felt like a posh people’s food court.
The grey patina that seemed to envelop the city couldn’t put me down for long. Amsterdammers were having fun and so was I. And the sun came out on the last day and I did run into a pot of tulips near the Oude Kerk. Dam good, I say.
Where to Stay
You couldn’t choose better than the Andaz Prinsengracht, a boutique property located in the heart of the city, on one of Amsterdam’s three main canals. The upscale Jordaan district is nearby, as is Anne Frank House. Apart from going running with the GM, you can also sign up for their weekly bike tour. Tariff: from €268. Contact: Prinsengracht 587, 1016 HT Amsterdam, Netherlands; +31-20-5231234; prinsengracht.andaz.hyatt.com
What to See & Do
Amsterdam is one of the great cities of the world, so you can’t possibly take it all in on one trip. Possible essentials: canal tour, Dam Square, red-light district, coffeeshop visit (note: in Amsterdam coffee shops are not really coffee shops, they sell cannabis; if you really want coffee, go find a café), excursion to the Keukenhof Gardens. Then there are the museums. Everything from sex to tulips, torture and cannabis has a museum or more devoted to it, so take your pick. But if it has to be just one, let it be the Rijksmuseum (although you should probably squeeze in the Van Gogh Museum as well, which is next door). Visit the Moooi design store for cutting edge Dutch furniture and home products (moooi.com). Don’t miss the life-sized horse lamps.