During the summer, the front door to Canal House hotel in Amsterdam is kept wide open, revealing its narrow marbled passageway hung with a jumble of copies of Rijksmuseum masterpieces. There is no reception desk to spoil the impression of being invited into someone’s home. Despite a very 21st-century makeover, the spirit of these 17th-century buildings on Keizersgracht, in the heart of the Jordaan district, is respected.
There has been a hotel on this site for decades, but over the past three years it has been lovingly restored by new owners Jessica and Peter Frankopan (the couple’s Curious Group also runs L’Hôtel in Paris and Cowley Manor in the UK). Complex local planning regulations obliged the Frankopans to open in April before they had had a chance to landscape the enviably large (by Amsterdam’s standards) private walled garden, but the transformation inside is complete.
The hotel’s clever design seeks, in its use of dark hues and velvet furnishings, to recreate the look and feel of 17th-century Dutch paintings. It also incorporates pieces from the more recent past, including clusters of mirrors, now with painted black frames, that were rescued from the old hotel. But not all the relics work; I saw Jessica’s steely decisiveness when her husband tried placing a Tuscan urn on the mantlepiece in the chic bar overlooking the canal. The urn was rejected and elegant contemporary vases filled with tulips of a deep Rembrandt-like purple were approved instead.
Peter holds sway in the hotel’s choice of music. I applaud the desire to deviate from over-familiar classical favourites, and that the young owners care enough to provide their friendly, professional staff with a daily playlist. But some of the choices were a bit too robust and the volume a bit too loud – the trip-hop music at breakfast did mean that we raised our voices above the depressingly hushed tones found in most English B&Bs and beyond, but “throwing some shapes”, as my companion suggested, should not necessarily be front of mind over delicious eggs, rye breads and chilled juices.
All meals are served in the Great Room, which links the hotel’s three adjoining merchants’ houses. This black-furnished room is dominated by impressive Marcel Wanders’ lighting, which echoes the ceiling’s original mouldings. The food is beautifully presented and carefully made. To reach the guest rooms you have to walk through the immaculate kitchen at the heart of the hotel. (It’s disconcerting at first).
Many of the 23 bedrooms overlook the garden and expansive windows mean that even the smaller rooms feel airy. Open the windows and you’ll hear birdsong as well as the on-the-quarter-hour chimes of the nearby Westerkerk. In a city where most residents don’t own baths, even locals may wish to stay at Canal House for a treat. Here the baths are deep and luxurious – some are within the bedrooms. All rooms are provided with natural Green & Spring products (also owned by the Frankopans) and the commendable nod to conscience extends to complimentary bottles of Earth water (net profits go to charity).
Amsterdam has more great museums and cultural landmarks than great hotels. Canal House is only a few minutes’ walk away from Anne Frank’s house, where the queues form early. It is an easy stretch on foot or by tram to the Van Gogh museum and Rijksmuseum (more queues) and the temporary home of the Stedelijk – the city’s leading public contemporary art gallery (no queues).
The hotel organises excellent private boat tours of the canals. From a boat it is easier to enjoy the gabled houses – the perspective is better than from the street – and it also removes the risk to unwary pedestrians from Amsterdam’s over-confident cyclists.
In 2013 the New Rijksmuseum will open after a 10-year redesign and refurbishment project. It, like Canal House, has battled with planning regulations, but Taco Dibbits, its director of collections, told us the end was in sight. On a hard-hat tour, he proudly showed us how the building is emerging from the dust and upheaval that Amsterdam’s cultural crown jewel has suffered for too long. The museum’s re-opening will be an historic moment. Canal House should provide an excellent base from which to enjoy it.
Camilla Nicholls was a guest of Canal House, www.canalhouse.nl. Rooms cost €205-€700 per night, including breakfast.
CityJet flies to Amsterdam from London City airport. Single fares start at £58. www.cityjet.com