Both of us had visited Amsterdam before, but only for a few days and never together. We each had separate memories of the red lights and neon, the jostling crowds of young men on their bachelor retreats, the coffee shops and the smoke that seeped out and into the streets.
But this time, as we left the Centraal Station, we avoided the red-light district entirely. Instead, Mrs Smith and I turned and walked along one of the city’s many quiet canals, our suitcases ricocheting on the cobblestones. Bikes whizzed past us. We gazed down at the boats moored along the water, imagining our lives aboard them. It was threatening to rain, but Amsterdam looked beautiful in grey: tall open windows invited our gazes into warmly lit, perfectly decorated interiors.
As we crossed a bridge along one of the many criss-crossing waterways, we stopped at a herring stand. We ordered a plate each, and the woman slapped them down on the counter adorned with toothpicks. We ate standing up: thick slabs of creamy white fish, topped with pickles and raw onions.
‘I feel so alive,’ I said, as my body flooded with omega-3s. ‘I feel like a polar bear!’
Smoked fish and onions might not be the ideal thing to consume at the beginning of our anniversary weekend, but Mrs Smith kissed me anyway, in the middle of that bridge. I kissed her back, laughing. It felt wonderful to be in a city where no one blinked. Rainbow flags hung on nearly every street corner.
We wound our way across the canals and found ourselves in the Nine Streets neighbourhood, where Hotel Pulitzer is located. Here was an Amsterdam I’d never encountered before, completely unlike the flashing lights and dancing girls of the city centre. The cobblestone streets were lined with plant-filled cafés, minimalist designer shops, vintage stores glittering with sequins, galleries, and organic restaurants each more appealing than the next. The thick scent of pot was here replaced with the smells of coffee beans, freshly baked pastries, the luxurious creams of each all-natural, small-batch beauty shop. We came up short before the hotel’s magnificent entrance, and wandered, jaws dropping, into the lobby.
It was hard to know where to look: each eccentric detail had us nudging each other and pointing. The decor had the lushness and playfulness of a Wes Anderson film. A grand piano was suspended from the ceiling above the doorway. Dutch oil paintings in oval frames hung in the reception, the seriousness broken by one modern portrait of what I took to be Bill and Hillary Clinton. One alcove, by the window, was lined with Pulitzer Prize-winning books (the hotel’s original owner, Peter Pulitzer, is the grandson of legendary newspaper pioneer Joseph Pulitzer). The slate-blue carpet was adorned with baroque velvet chairs in an array of jewel tones: ruby, amethyst and emerald. And yet, though every detail was bold and playful, the whole hung in a precisely calculated, luxurious balance.
With 225 guest rooms, the hotel’s composed of 25 restored and interconnected 17th- and 18th-century houses. And yet it feels cosy, comprised of labyrinthine passageways and carefully chosen details. The hotel first opened in the 1960s, then re-opened in August 2016 following an extensive re-design. The creative director, young South African Jacu Strauss, spent one-and-a-half years on research alone. He steeped himself in the history of the Dutch Golden Age and imagined the decadent lives of the aristocratic elite who once lived within the hotel’s walls.
Inspired by those narratives, he created a series of collector’s suites: a music-lover’s room, with a wall strung with trumpets, a book-lover’s room, with a floor-to-ceiling archway made of tomes. No two rooms are identical; and as part of his process, Strauss spent a night sleeping in each. He custom-designed much of the hotel’s furniture to fit their proportions.
We rode the gold-plated elevator to the fifth floor and admired the eye-catching art in the hallway. Our room felt private and intimate. A huge arched window gave out onto a beautiful canal view, and a chair was thoughtfully placed before it. On the wall between the bathroom and the bedroom, there was a round portal window as if on a ship. Mrs Smith stood on one side and I on the other, making faces at each other, giggling like school girls, wide-eyed with joy.
We bounced on the enormous bed, tore open the free package of caramel waffles, and exclaimed over the neat tin placed thoughtfully on the desk: a complete bicycle repair kit. Our room had exposed brick and dark-wood beams and yet it felt modern and bright. The carpeting and walls were in the muted tones of a Vermeer painting accented with pops of bright pink, yellow and blue. It was eccentric yet luxurious, combining the location’s rich past with Amsterdam’s design-oriented present. A small panel on the wall informed us that we were in ‘the Mustard Jar’ — this building had once contained, in the 1700s, a mustard mill.
In the morning, we requested bicycles from the concierge. ‘With round tires or square?’ he asked, his delivery perfectly straight. ‘With triangular tires,’ I replied, and he beamed at me. ‘You wish to see the red-light district? What is that?’ he asked, feigning innocence (until I faux-glared long enough to make him laugh again), and drew us a beautiful sight-seeing loop on the map. In the afternoon, we took our tea in the hotel’s sunny atrium, sitting on dark-green velvet chairs as the light streamed through glass panels. In the building’s inner garden, adult-sized swings and giant rocking-horses awaited warmer weather.
Back up the golden elevators, back down the lavender hallway, back into the cosiness of what had quickly become our room. We fell into each other’s arms in bed, still noticing clever new details: the bright-pink tassels on the armoire, the powder-blue rotary phone. Outside the windows, the canal gleamed, the same as it had for centuries.
This review was first published in 2017 so some hotel details may have changed
Nadja is, in her own words, an ‘exuberantly-haired’ writer. She authored I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This – a memoir about her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – plus four graphic novels for children. She’s headed up both print (Blown Covers; Resist!) and online (The Paris Review) publications, focusing on feminism, poetry and the promotion of female artists. She’s currently editor-in-chief of literary magazine Astra, and the first issue Ecstasy is available now.