Travel: Amsterdam and Haarlem

Bicycles are the ideal way to explore central Amsterdam
Bicycles are the ideal way to explore central Amsterdam
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Canal life is a dream for visitors to the Dutch capital

Sitting at one of the outdoor canal-side tables that form part of the Pulitzer Amsterdam hotel, I enjoy a chance to put my feet up after browsing the nearby boutiques and embrace the city’s laidback elegance, as cyclists meander past at their own carefree pace.

Anne Frank House alongside the Prinsengracht

Anne Frank House alongside the Prinsengracht

My first visit to the city has me totally enamoured and starting to plot my return before I’ve even left, perhaps seeing it by bicycle next time – the city apparently has more bikes than people and can be crossed in half an hour on two wheels.

Should I do so, I could rent a bike from the Pulitzer, one of the hotel’s services that includes its own boat which brings the city to us over a glass of rosé as we pass vessels transporting relaxed couples and lively groups of students, and glide by luxurious looking houseboats.

I’m transfixed by the canal houses, and the hotel covers 25 such properties in a prime area of the city. It came about in the 1960s when Peter Pulitzer, grandson of Pulitzer Prize founder Joseph, seized the opportunity to create what would be Amsterdam’s first five-star hotel.

There are literary nods throughout the site, which is bookended by the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht canals, and it manages to retain a boutique feel despite its size.

Take a daytrip to Haarlem for a more peaceful slice of life

Take a daytrip to Haarlem for a more peaceful slice of life

Every bedroom is different, with my “Golden Eagle” lodgings in canal house and former warehouse Prinsengracht 315 named after the artwork that adorned the outside of the building. The décor includes mauve, grey and blues, as well as a flash of fuchsia in the tasselled handles of an elegant cabinet housing both a TV and cocktail-making equipment. The bathroom even has a heated mirror so it doesn’t steam up.

I’d arrived on an early direct flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam Schiphol with KLM – the airline also flies from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Inverness – and the first day includes us touring the De Pijp neighbourhood, which is trendy enough to have an all-avocado restaurant.

We then enjoy a cheese-tasting course, complete with certificate, at the Reypenaer Tasting Room. We progress through increasingly matured offerings with wine pairings and learn about the family firm’s history, including when cheese was used as a bartering system (a concept I’m keen to see return).

It’s then time to visit the Anne Frank House, which is just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel, with once long visitor queues now reduced with an online booking system.

The Pulitzer Amsterdam hotel comprises 25 canalside properties

The Pulitzer Amsterdam hotel comprises 25 canalside properties

Every aspect of the house is poignant, not least the bitter irony that its former inhabitants were in hiding – with members of both the Frank and Van Pels families, and Fritz Pfeffer, spending their time in suffocating silence in a bid to be as inconspicuous as possible – but it has since become one of the most famous attractions in the city, with more than a million visitors a year.

There are also extracts from Anne’s diary, while the house’s work to encourage people to think about the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination, and the importance of freedom, equal rights and democracy, is highly pertinent today.

After returning to the hotel, we eat dinner in its Jansz restaurant, named after 17th century craftsman Volkert Jansz. There I make light work of a delicious steak tartare with a quail’s egg followed by a Dutch custard dessert with toppings including chocolate chips. After breakfast the next day, we head to the city of Haarlem, a short train journey away. The cost of transport is included with an Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket, available for one, two or three days.

Haarlem offers some respite from the bustle of Amsterdam, and we meander through its picturesque streets, past attractions including St Bavo’s Church, with its distinctive 78-metre lead-panelled tower and organ, which has been played by Mendelssohn, Handel and a ten-year-old Mozart.

The church is where renowned portraitist Frans Hals is buried, and we pay a visit to his namesake museum that is spread over two sites and home to the world’s largest collection of his paintings as well as more contemporary artwork, where “paint strokes meet pixels”.

There’s a café and a gift shop, which sells items including tulip vases, and we certainly get our fix of the distinctively Dutch flower and many others besides as our visit coincides with renowned flower exhibition Keukenhof, described as “the most beautiful spring garden in the world”.

This takes place in 32 hectares of immaculately presented gardens punctuated with patchwork-quilt sections of blooms in a rainbow of shades grown from seven million bulbs. It’s open for eight weeks a year, set to reopen on 21 March, and along with food stalls and boat trips you could easily make a day of it. (You can also travel direct to the gardens from Schiphol with an Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket.)

Back in Amsterdam, our final evening sees us return to the water in the form of a dinner cruise run by restaurant Blue Pepper, which was set up by Indonesian-born chef Sonja Pereira. It aims to evoke a royal Indonesian feast while incorporating fresh Dutch produce, and the menu starts out with an oyster, but starts to test my bravery level with the next offering of deep-fried grasshopper – while the texture’s a little unnerving, I’m pleasantly surprised to find it tastes of crisp chicken skin.

As the sun slowly sets, the dishes keep coming, including a rich spicy beef slow-cooked, Sumatran style, in coconut milk. Warmed by the spices, and our tongues tingling from the potent electric flower served with dessert, our journey through the water is illuminated by lights both on and off the water.

The next day we stop off at the ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo, which dates back to 1838 and is one of the attractions included with an I amsterdam City Card. It’s a large and tranquil oasis in the heart of the city, letting you see animals from camels to comically laidback red ruffed lemurs at close range, and encourages people to treat nature responsibly. But after a quick lunch in the adjacent De Plantage, the trip sadly draws to a close.

All told, I discovered a city suitable for a range of visitors, from couples and families to groups, and it would also be an excellent first or last chapter to a long-haul trip given KLM’s route network.

Going Dutch is the way to go.

FACTFILE

KLM flies to Amsterdam from 17 departure points across the UK to Amsterdam. Passengers can enjoy a city break in Amsterdam or connect via Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to KLM’s network of worldwide destinations. KLM operates four daily flights between Edinburgh and Amsterdam. Return economy fares start from £80 including taxes and charges. Book online at www.klm.co.uk or call reservations on 020 76600293.

Rooms at Pulitzer Amsterdam start at £242 a night. Pulitzer Amsterdam, Prinsengracht 323, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, +31 (0)20 5235235, pulitzeramsterdam.com. For more information on the Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket and I amsterdam City Card, see www.iamsterdam.com.