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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Casual Luxury Of Amsterdam

The city of Amsterdam has come a long way in recent years. Well known as a place for legal marijuana and legal prostitution, the city is undergoing a transformation as a luxury destination with new and renovated hotels, a restaurant renaissance and luxury shopping to go along with world-class museums, live theater and even more active endeavors like ice skating. 

Many in Amsterdam’s hospitality industry talk about “casual luxury,” which is attentive, comfortable and democratic. They proudly say that dignitaries and celebrities near and far are treated to the same level of hospitality as anyone would receive. It’s a compact city that can easily be managed by foot or its excellent public transportation system. It is tailored made for couples looking for a short respite from daily life while enjoying the stimulation of being in large, dynamic city.

The lobby of the Pulitzer Hotel

A great starting off point for a luxury adventure is the Pulitzer Amsterdam hotel (Prinsengracht 323, 1016 GZ), a complex of 25 canal houses in a quaint centrally located neighborhood. If you remember the hotel from the 2004 film, “Ocean’s Twelve,” you won’t recognize it as it underwent a full renovation completed in August, 2016, with central grounds, two new restaurants and a comfortable bar specializing in craft cocktails. If you’re willing to splurge a bit you can get one of the “Extraordinary Suites,” on the ground floor, most with their own private entrances. Each one has a design theme, music, art, books, antiques and the Pulitzer Suite for lovers.

The Arts Suite at the Pulitzer Hotel

Amsterdam’s flat landscape and scenic canals make it an ideal place for strolling year round. In the wintertime the shadows of quickly vanishing daylight and the reflection of lights off the water during the long nights adds a bit of romance and mystery to the canal-lined streets.

After a quick café latte and croissant at Pause, the Pulitzer’s bright and airy lobby café that extends into the hotel gardens, it’s time to head out to one of the best, though lesser-known, areas for shopping, the Nine Streets (De Negen Straatjes). Nine little streets divided by four canals make up a neighborhood of boutique shops, comfortable restaurants and simple bars and coffee houses, almost all of the businesses are locally owned, ranging from the highly refined and luxurious to the quaint and quirky.

The interactive displays at Otentic Perfumes

One of the first stores you’ll come upon is Otentic Perfumes (Keizersgracht 233, 1016EA), which specializes in women and men fragrances. The corner store contains a collection of 65 fragrances divided into eight “families” or “moods.” The idea is to determine your favorite fragrance based on individual scents. You can do this yourself through a grouping of eight interactive displays or guided by trained employees until you find the combination of scents that suits you. The concept was founded by Jean-Denis Saisse, an eighth-generation perfumer from Grasse, France (the center of the country’s perfume industry), whose family formulates perfumes for some of the world’s best-known brands.

A window display at the Amsterdam Watch Company

A block north is the Amsterdam Watch Company, which specializes in collectible timepieces. It is a seemingly small store but has an inventory of more than 40 watch brands, from Audemars Piguet to Zenith. 

One of the many locally owned stores at the Nine Streets

Keep walking north along the shops dodging the cyclists who quietly speed past in all directions and you’ll come to two very different looking buildings across the street from each other joined by a giant “W” on each. It is the W Amsterdam hotel (Spuistraat 175, 1012 VN). The one building was a former telephone exchange building and the other a former bank. On the ground floor of the bank building is the X Bank concept design store. The Dutch are known for minimalistic, experimental, innovative and even humorous designs. The retail space features the breadth of Dutch design, ranging from high-end furnishings and artworks to apparel and accessories. Prices at the store range from 8 to 80,000 euro. 

The X Bank design concept store

One jeweler whose work I recognized immediately is Bibi van der Velden, whom I met in the U.S. a few years ago. She produces hand-crafted fine jewels by combining traditional precious materials with ostrich eggs, scarab wings, 40,000 year-old mammoth tusk and other unusual materials. The jewels are precious, colorful and organic. 

Bibi van der Velden jewels in the X Bank store

Another jewelry collection of note is The Amsterdam Collection by Statement Jewels, which normally specializes in antique pieces. The collection is conceived and crafted by hand in Amsterdam. This effort is led by Mart van Drunen, the founder of Statement Jewels, and goldsmith Frederik Bakker. It mixes precious gems with wood, amethyst and other organic material to create one-of-a-kind pieces, which are signed and numbered and hand-engraved with a vertical triple-x; the symbol of Amsterdam.

The bar at The Duchess restaurant in the W Amsterdam hotel

Take a break at The Duchess restaurant inside the W Amsterdam. Open all day, the grand room with high ceilings, big, round chandeliers and dark marble was once where the vault of the bank was located. In addition to three full meal services per day it serves tea in the afternoon and features a large and wide dark marble bar with personable bartenders who are specialists at craft drinks. Try one of the three specialty punches with some light fare before continuing your journey. 

Bijenkorf luxury department store on Dam Square

The W Amsterdam is located on the edge of Dam Square, the historical center of Amsterdam and still the center of activity for residents and tourists. The Royal Palace is there as well as world-class hotels and stores. Outside of the palace, one the most impressive buildings on the square is the flagship Bijenkorf luxury department store. The name of the store means beehive, which is apt as it is constantly buzzing with activity. The multi-story retail building has all the international brands one would expect to find, plus brands well known within the Netherlands.

The Cartier boutique inside Bijenhorf

As the day turns to night, it’s time to relax by taking a canal boat cruise. It’s a touristy thing to do but it’s also a great way to see the city while sipping on a Jenever, the local liquor served in a distinct tulip-shaped shot glass. Opt for the flavorful oude (old) jenever as opposed to the Jonge (young) if possible. The designation has no relationship to the age of the product but relates to the brewing method. If you leave now you will still be able to experience the Amsterdam Light Festival (till January 22). Artists from around the world build large light-infused sculptures throughout the city, with many of the best and brightest along the canals. 

The "Lace" artwork, part of the Amsterdam Light Festival

Have the boat dock at the Grand Amsterdam hotel for dinner at Bridges restaurant. The transformation of Amsterdam to a culinary destination has been dramatic. In 1982, Amsterdam had only one restaurant with a Michelin star; today, there are four restaurants with two stars and eleven with one star. Bridges is an example of this boom retaining its Michelin star with an internationally inspired menu that includes roe-deer (a Eurasian species of deer), grilled oxtail and charred kohlrabi paired with Asian ingredients. 

The Grand Amsterdam hotel

The Grand Amsterdam is in historic building that once was a convent and served as Amsterdam's city hall. It recently underwent a renovation, without losing its old world charm and legendary service. If you’re nice they may allow you to view The Marriage Chamber, with its Egyptian themed depiction of the circle of life that surrounds the room on stained glass windows, wallpapers and doors. It was created by artist Chris Lebeau (completed in 1926) in an Art Deco style that would make Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, feel at home. The room is used for weddings, including royal weddings, and other private events. 

The Marriage Chamber at the Grand Amsterdam hotel

After dinner it’s time to return to the Pulitzer, on foot of course. Before returning to the room, stop at the comfortable and casual Pulitzer Bar for a nightcap. 


The next morning skip breakfast at the hotel and take the tram (or walk) to Beurspassage (Damrak 1012 LW). It’s basically an underpass between buildings that connects Damrak Avenue and Nieuwendijk street. It is a popular pedestrian passageway for locals and tourists. The space has been transformed into a block-long piece of site-specific art. Colorful mosaic glass covers the wall the ceiling and marble covers the floor, all of it designed with nautical themed images. Glass light scones depict fantastical animal designs. One of the focal points of the space is chandeliers made of used bicycle parts. Eat breakfast like the locals, grab a pastry at the Banketbakkerij van der Linde bakery (better known for its soft and creamy vanilla ice cream) and the coffee at liquid, which claims to have the largest coffee bar in Amsterdam, or the Netherlands, or Europe, or the world, or the galaxy.... It is long. 

The Marilyn Monroe exhibit at the Nieuwe Kerk

From there it’s a short walk to the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) (Gravenstraat 17, 1012 NL), a former church now used for exhibitions and church organ recitals. The church with its stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings is still used for Dutch royal installation ceremonies and royal weddings. There is currently an exhibition about the life of movie heartthrob Marilyn Monroe (90 years Ms Monroe) that runs till February 5. Pictures and artifacts are used to trace the rise and tragic death of one the world’s biggest stars.  

Inside the Royal Waiting Room at Centraal Station

The next stop is Centraal Station. Walk to the end of one of the platforms where there’s an unassuming brick building with a guilt wrought iron fence. This is the Royal Waiting Room (Koninklijke Wachtkamer) and it is now available for public tours when reserved in advance. The upstairs waiting room has parquet floors, oak paneling and painted representations of Aesop's Fables. The furniture, marble fireplace, lamps and rugs and bronze hinges and locks are all original. The room is still used a few times a year as the royal family occasionally travels by train to neighboring countries or to receive dignitaries who arrive to Amsterdam by train. 

The Butcher Social Club & Terrace in the Sir Adam Hotel

It should be lunch time and just past the Centraal Station is a free ferry to Amsterdam Noord (North). At the end of the quick water ride is the brand new Sir Adam Hotel (Overhoeksplein 7, 1031KS), which occupies first eight floors of the black A’DAM Tower. The large lower lobby with window walls and an outside terrace is where the Butcher Social Club & Terrace is located. This is a modern hotel created for Millennials with retro taste. Old fashion pinball and Pacman machines are located near the long bar area. Comfortable chairs are scattered about and at night a DJ works the room. Window walls provide views of the water and Central Amsterdam. The guest rooms are “rock ‘n’ roll” themed from different periods with Gibson and Fender guitars as wall decorations, portable record players and memorabilia from bygone musical eras. If you feel inclined you can order a guitar to play through room service. At the Butcher you can order a quick burger (I’d go with the Truffle Burger) with a beer and a view before heading back on the ferry. 

Inside the Van Loon Museum

Certainly Amsterdam is known for its world class museums but there is one little gem that is often overlooked: Museum Van Loon. It’s a 17th Century canal house with 18th Century furnishings and has been occupied by the Van Loon family since the latter part of the 19th Century. Family members still live in the upper floors of the house. The first two floors are open to the public and contain a history of the family. Their wealth was acquired when Willem van Loon co-founded the incredibly successful Dutch East-India Company in 1602.

The rooms contain paintings, fine furniture, silver and porcelain from different centuries. Behind the house is a garden, laid out in formal style, and is bordered on the far side by the classical façade of the coach house. The basement contains a replica of an 18th Century kitchen. The museum claims that it is the canal house that has survived with its garden and coach house in tact. 

In the gardens you can treat yourself to apple cake and coffee or tea. It’s where the locals go for a quick escape.

From there it’s a quick walk to the Rijksmuseum. The palatial building has undergone a full renovation and is well worth an hour or two to look at the collection of more than a half-million paintings and other works of art from Netherland-based artists. You can’t possibly see it all at one time so it pays to focus on a part of the collection that interests you, such as works by students of Rembrandt. You can explore the museum’s website to help set up your own personal tour.

The ICE* Amsterdam skating rink with the Rijksmuseum in the background.

Right outside the museum is the ICE* Amsterdam ice rink where you spend time skating or watching the skaters with a hot chocolate from the comfortable restaurant. Children just learning use chairs to keep their balance. At night the skating area glows in colorful lights with the Rijksmuseum as a palatial backdrop.

Restaurant Swych in the Amsterdam Doelen hotel

From there it’s a quick tram ride for a light meal at Restaurant Swych in the Amsterdam Doelen hotel (Doelenstraat 26, 1012 CP). The hotel is billed as the oldest in Amsterdam but you would never guess it when entering the hotel with its light-colored walls and carpeting and clean, crisp lines. The same is true for the restaurant with its bright color palette and large windows bringing natural light during the day and the lights from across the canal at night. The cuisine is modern serving what executive chef Rudolf Brand describes as “Flexitarian,” where proteins play second fiddle to vegetables that are the centerpiece of the meal. The Butter lettuce soup, Beetroots and spelt, Roasted cauliflower, and Jerusalem artichoke and truffle are all recommended—with a “side” of halibut. 

From there it’s another quick tram ride to the theater. There are two major theaters in the city and they are adjacent. The DeLaMar Theater (Marnixstraat 402, 1017 PL), is the larger and more modern of the two. Its stage is about twice as large as a normal stage and goes into the seating area. It’s designed to be open and flexible so it can accommodates a number of stage setting settings, particularly for modern plays. 

The Stadsschouwburg

With just one night to see a play, I would opt for the historic and more traditional setting of the Stadsschouwburg (Leidseplein 26, 1017 PT). It is an official national monument and is known to be one of the most beautifully preserved historic theaters in the Netherlands. I would try to purchase tickets in the box normally reserved for the royal family at the center- back of the center of the first balcony. It provides a perfect view of the performance. They obviously don’t use it every night and when it’s not in use the seats are sold to the public. There’s also a private waiting area for the royal family during intermissions. However, it’s not included with the seats. 

Both theaters accommodate a diverse offering of classic and modern plays, ballets and other types of live performances. 

Afterwards it’s time for a nice stroll back to the Pulitzer where you’ve earned a long well-deserved rest before heading home the next afternoon. 

Don’t forget the “do not disturb” sign. 

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