As Mrs Smith and I approach the huge and age-blackened oak doors of Canal House on Amsterdam’s pretty waterway the Keizersgracht, we’re not sure what to expect. After all, the things that usually lurk behind such forbidding portals are liable to go bump in the night. Bracing ourselves for an encounter with one of Dr Frankenstein’s shuffling henchmen, we are relieved when welcomed by the altogether friendlier figure of the hotel’s concierge. After checking us into the hip 23-room hideaway, he leads us through the former 17th-century merchant’s house – all high ceilings, tastefully faded repros of Dutch Golden Age paintings, swathes of silk and velvet, and Gothic-luxe design touches – and up to our suite.
On the way, we glimpse a man who I will describe here as only an Incredibly Famous Rock Star (I'm not a writer given to, um, careless whispers). He sits contentedly sipping coffee the Great Room, a majestic space that functions as Canal House’s all-day restaurant and chill-out spot for guests, who can while away the hours leafing through an impressive range of kooky, and occasionally kinky, art, photography and design books, or simply staring (as the IFRS did) out of the windows into the large, beautifully tended back garden – a rarity in built-up central Amsterdam. Mrs Smith shoots me a look that seems to say ‘Well, if he is staying here this place must be pretty good’. She’s right: with its air of discreet decadence, Canal House is the kind of hotel that can make anybody feel like a rock star for a night or two.
As we enter our room on the hotel’s top floor, we almost have to squint to see the bed. Not, of course, because of its Lilliputian dimensions (it is vast and deeply comfortable), but because the room is so very long that it takes a moment to determine quite where it ends. Before we finally flop down on marshmallow-soft duvet, we pass a lounge area with a sofa and large LCD screen, a purple-tiled ‘wet space’ with a freestanding bathtub big enough for two and a shower cubicle that could take easily twice that number, a dressing table set with all manner of Green & Spring products (approving murmurs, here, from Mrs S.), and an entertainment station complete with board games, copies of GQ, Vogue, and Wallpaper*, and another even bigger LCD screen and Blu-ray player, on which we later watch one of the comfortingly trashy Hollywood movies available to hire, free of charge, at the front desk.
When we finally slot an iPod into the bedside dock and crank up – who could resist? – the IFRS's biggest hit, we feel pleasantly exhausted. Time to pour a glass of something great from the minibar, see just how bubbly a bath we can run using the complimentary unguents, and marvel at the huge and glossy Nicole Marnati photograph above the bed, in which a Nicki Minaj look-a-like poses in a gold Marcel Wanders gown, a cross between an 18th-century princess and a dayglo hip-hop queen. When the Canal House's design team said that their aim is to combine influences from the building's past with a 21st-century aesthetic, they weren't messing around.
Toes and fingers wrinkled from a long soak, and having watched dusk settle over the city’s gabled rooftops from our canal side window, we repair to the hotel’s bar. It’s a space that marries mercantile grandeur and darkly romantic styling with an atmosphere that a Dutch person might describe as gezellig – an untranslatable word that connotes something close to cosiness. Mrs Smith orders an excellent cucumber martini, while I plump for a ‘Green and Spring’ – not a cocktail of the Canal House’s excellent bath products but rather an enticing mixture of Grey Goose vodka, orgeat syrup, lemon juice and muddled pear. Mrs Smith takes a sip from my glass, and pronounces that it tastes like ‘a really delicious pond’. Our tipples are just what we need to put us in the mood for a night out with friends in Amsterdam’s hip de Pijp district, home to the city’s thriving young art scene. We return late, all too glad to sink into the great cloud of our bed and await another crisply beautiful Amsterdam winter morning.
After breakfasting in the Great Room on perfectly poached eggs, fresh fruit, and creamy jong kaas (young cheese), we hire bicycles from the nearby Bike City, and set out to explore the surrounding streets. Cruising along the canals of the Jordaan neighbourhood, home to everything from traditional brown cafes to world-beating design store Moooi, we get to wondering whether the IFRS is doing the same. Amsterdam, after all, is one of the world’s most famously relaxed cities, where even the spectacle of a pedaling music idol would do little to faze its easygoing inhabitants. Perhaps, though, he was still holed up in the splendid Golden Age meets Third Millennium fantasia of the Canal House. As Mrs Smith points out, when a hotel is this beguiling, why bother stepping out of the door?