It’s easy to get lost in Amsterdam, ambling along a grid of peaceful canals straddled by bridges fading into infinity. But rarely is the route from hotel lobby to bedroom such a mission. It’s taken me several attempts to navigate the labyrinthine corridors of the Pulitzer hotel, a property made up of 25 Golden Age canal houses, all connected to make a sumptuous five-star maze.
Last month, the popular property reopened following a major renovation, positioning it as one of the most exciting hotels in the city; an additional 145 guest rooms have been bolted to the original 80, and a courtyard garden provides a contemplative escape from the jangling bike bells that soundtrack a city stroll.
Convenience and comfort have been drawing curious visitors for 45 years, but it’s the hotel’s colourful, character-filled past that will really appeal to future guests.
Merchants, musicians, art dealers and even pals of Rembrandt have swanned through the 400-year-old corridors, and their traces are reflected in the Pulitzer’s charming “old meets new” design. I imagine wealthy patrons commissioning portraits to hang on the walls, where similar works collected from antique shops and auctions are now displayed.
In the Art Collector’s suite, flamboyant, modern pieces include a golden stool sculpted as a cupped palm and a tongue-in-cheek reimagining of Frans Hals’ The Last Supper; in the Music Suite, one wall is decorated with rows of brass trumpets. Both rooms have private access to the canals and, although interior decoration is a riot of wacky furnishings, grand exteriors have been faithfully restored.
I wonder if original American owner Peter Pulitzer (who also happens to be the grandson of Pulitzer Prize founder Joseph Pulitzer) embarked on his 30-year flurry of property purchasing simply because he couldn’t decide which house he’d like to live in most.
Starting in 1960 with 12 elegant houses along the Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht canals, he opened Amsterdam’s first five-star hotel. Over the years, he continued to buy neighbouring houses, fuelled by the motto “Your neighbour’s house is only for sale once”, building up not only his empire but also a loyal following. Although Pulitzer bowed out in 1990, the hotel and its art collection are still in private hands.
Standard seems an unfair term to describe my own room, decorated in deep blues and robust greys that could easily have been brushed directly from Rembrandt’s palette. A triangular “sail ship” bedstead and portholes linking bathroom to bedroom cleverly play with a nautical theme – a reminder we’re never far from the water.
Creative director Jacu Strauss claims he slept in every room to determine its appropriate personality and design, and he’s given each individually shaped space its own accent.
Common to most rooms, an art deco drinks trolley looped with tassels and bicycle repair kit peeping from a desk drawer are typical of an endearing quirkiness that’s becoming Amsterdam’s signature style. (The concierge can even arrange a bike valet service, if you want to travel in the truly Dutch way.)
Another previous owner of these canal houses was 17th century copper smelter Volkert Jansz, after whom the hotel’s convivial restaurant is named. Echoing its past as a former apothecary, the entrance to Jansz is filled with brown bottles and large bell jars. Inside, guests can either sit on bronze velvet banquettes or take up a spectator’s pew opposite the open kitchen, ordering sophisticated dishes applauded for their flavoursome simplicity.
The neighbouring canal-facing bar is darker and more conspiratorial, and designer drinks include a fermented pineapple cocktail presented on a bed of hay.
Embedded in the centre of the city, the hotel offers storytelling sightseeing walks (25 euros per person for three hours), but I choose to explore on national treasure The Tourist.
Built in 1909, the small teak wood vessel has since been converted into fully electric but still retains her original grandeur. (Tours operate daily at 5pm, and also 11am from Friday to Sunday, and cost 38 euros for 75 minutes.)
While we float, eye level, past a hotchpotch of houseboats and peer inquisitively through their windows, Captain Tony reveals that Winston Churchill was once a passenger as a guest of Queen Wilhelmina.
Imaging tales of both near and distant past, I become entangled in my own daydreams as we drift lazily along the waterways sipping tea from china cups in the salon.
Once again, it would seem, I’m blissfully lost.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of Pulitzer Amsterdam (pulitzeramsterdam.com), where doubles start at £235 with breakfast.
easyJet (easyjet.com) fly to Amsterdam from London and various regional airports, from £16.99 one way.