Westcord Art Hotel (Amsterdam)
~Warning~ I hope you're sitting down. I hope you're not holding anything breakable because you're in for a surprise. Despite my reputation for being rude about Dutch hotels and restaurants, take a look at the rating I've given. At last - it's not a mistake - this is a 'nice' review about a Dutch hotel. Well, mostly nice. If ... you want to pretend I've turned soft overnight, skip what I have to say about the herring sandwiches.
We recently held a meeting and invited around thirty colleagues from across Europe to come and join us in Amsterdam for two days. The company's head office doesn't have a room that can handle that many people and it's not in a particularly nice area of the city. We looked for a hotel with meeting rooms so we could keep the accommodation and the meeting all in one location. After many weeks of getting quotes from various different hotels, the boss's secretary finally took the decision to go for the WestCord Art Hotel in the north west of the city.
I thought I knew most of the hotel chains by now but WestCord was a new name for me. A little research revealed that it's a Dutch family-owned company and my expectations dipped. I have a very low opinion of Dutch hotel chains but I tried to keep an open mind about this one. I've previously stayed across the road from the WestCord Fashion Hotel in Amsterdam and I recalled that when I looked out of the windows of my horrible Bastion hotel room (Bastion - another Dutch chain but one to be avoided) I looked with envy at the Fashion Hotel. I was optimistic that the Art Hotel might not be awful but realistic enough to not expect too much.
If you track down Art Hotel on the WestCord website, it's quite confusing. They list that there are two hotels - an Art Hotel which is 3-star rated and has 130 rooms and another with the same name with 4-star rating and just 60 rooms. It was only on our final morning at the hotel that a colleague solved the mystery. Both Art Hotels are in the same place, separated by a glass corridor which links them. We were sleeping and eating on the 3-star side and having our meeting in the 4-star part.
The hotel (or hotels, if you prefer) is located on Spaarndammerdijk in the Westerpark area in the North West of Amsterdam. This is not an area I've visited before but it's easily accessible from the city centre. Buses 22 and 48 run from the Central Station (look for bus stop F) and take around 10-15 minutes. Take care that only the 48 actually stops right outside so you'll need to ask the driver to tell you where to leave the bus if you're going on the 22. For the 48, you get off at the bus stop called Hempoint. If you go by car, there's a secure basement car park but one of my colleagues scared herself half-silly trying to get into it on a snowy morning. The Dutch are generally not good at dealing with steep slopes due to the absence of hills on which to practice hill starts.
~Check in and First Impressions~
I arrived by taxi with one of my colleagues at about nine in the evening. We could have taken the bus but we'd both already had a long day with flights and trains and taxis and working out the bus was just one step too far. From memory we paid around Euro20 which is ridiculous for quite a short journey but typical of Amsterdam taxis.
The reception area is rather striking for having some shockingly awful but very colourful large canvases hanging on the walls. That's OK, it's an 'Art' hotel, not a 'good Art' hotel. The check in desk was just inside the entrance and two receptionists came to check us in at the same time. They were friendly, keen to answer any questions and to explain where breakfast would be and where our meeting rooms could be found. They then explained that the room key was needed not only to get into the rooms, but also to get into the lift and into the corridors on our floor. This did seem slightly like a security over-kill and I wondered why it was necessary to get your key out three times over to get into your room.
Arriving on the 7th floor, I went through one security door and my colleague the other, only to discover when we stepped through them that the corridor linked the two behind so we really hadn't needed to use both doors. For a self-professed 'Art' hotel, I was surprised that there were no pictures in the corridors.
~Room with a view - of swimming pools and trains~
My room was on the back of the hotel, overlooking two outdoor swimming pools which I later learned are public pools but are free for hotel guests to use although the first week of February is not going to be a busy time. I also over-looked a lot of trains but there was no noticeable noise so I assumed they were just parked up there.
The room was a bit on the small size compared to the Novotel where I normally stay in Amsterdam. However, this is a more central location and space is at a premium in the city and I can't recall too many central Amsterdam hotels I've stayed in (and I've stayed in many) which could really be called 'spacious'. The Art Hotel room might have seemed a little larger if they hadn't been trying to squeeze quite so much furniture into the space. My first impressions were quite mixed. My first positive thought was "Hooray, there's a bath and not just a shower", though this was quickly balanced out with "Wow, where did they get that ugly industrial sink unit from?" So let's start with the bathroom.
The bathroom was small but not oppressively so. On a cold day, there's nothing I like more than warming up in a hot bath so I was pleased to have a bath with a shower over it. The sink unit was made of metal and whilst that might have been intended to look funky, it just reminded me of industrial sinks in factories and in low-maintenance public toilets (the type where the entire place looks like it could just be hozed down with disinfectant. The mirror over the sink was pleasant but not particularly well lit. I'm not a make up user so that's not an issue for me but would be for many. There was a hairdryer mounted on the wall and the usual shampoo/shower gel/body lotion bottles were lined up on the sink surround.
The bathroom is tucked to the side as you enter the room, leaving a corridor between the door and the main room. Closest to the door was a bag stand, then a sort of wardrobe unit with a hanging rail, a tea and coffee tray and a few shelves. Other colleagues said they had things from their minibars, but if there was one in my room, I didn't spot it. The presence of the wardrobe between the bag stand and the main room meant that the area was really dark. Whilst I appreciate a bag stand, I do rather expect to be able to see into the contents of my bag and that just wasn't possible. I couldn't even leave the bathroom door open with the light on to brighten things up as it would have been impossible to move. My bag found itself moved onto the bed.
The bed was two singles pushed together, each with a single duvet. That's not unusual although I found it a little chilly and would have preferred a larger duvet. I could have tugged the extra duvet off the unused bed if it wasn't held down by the suitcase that I'd moved from the bag stand. There were two noticeable and surprising things about the bed. Firstly was the astonishing fact that the bed was actually quite firm and comfortable - not to be expected in a Dutch hotel since national belief is that soft beds are good for your back. Secondly was the enormous canvas on the wall with a painting of the hotel's emblem who we named "SuperCow" and his friend, 'not quite so super cow'. SuperCow sits on the grass bank in front of the hotel and we debated which superpowers a SuperCow might have. Most of my colleagues came up with things relating to making ice-cream and yoghurt. Anyway, it's good to reflect that it doesn't really matter what a hotel sticks on the walls as you're going to have your eyes closed when you're sleeping.
Other things in the room included adequately sized bed side tables (no complaint there), and a small desk and chair. There was enough space on the desk despite the flat screen television being placed on it. I only found the one electrical socket by the desk which was enough for what I needed but would probably frustrate anyone with lots of stuff to charge up. In the corner of the room were two small armchairs and a small square table. I'd have preferred they chucked out all three items and replaced them with a single comfy chair as there really wasn't room for so much furniture. The carpet was probably worth of note, being a wide striped affair that seemed to be making some kind of statement though I've no idea what it was trying to say. If anyone thinks stripes make a room look bigger, then they should be aware that sticking too much furniture in the room has the opposite effect.
The lighting in the room was poor despite there being at least four different lamps spread around the room. When I checked out and they asked if everything was OK, I did pass on my comment that the lighting needed to be brighter and the receptionist said they've heard that many times. I can look the other way to strange cow paintings, striped carpets and even the ugly sink unit so long as the room has a good bed and free, easy to access wi-fi. The Art Hotel scored on both points.
~Eating and Drinking~
I ate two breakfasts and two lunches at the hotel and also had drinks in the bar. Service in the bar was very swift and our bums were barely on the seats before the waiter was hovering to take orders. The bar is a bit of a 'dark wood moody atmosphere' place with an unexplained centrepiece of a large motorbike plonked in the middle of the room. No explanation was offered and I chose not to ask nor to think too much about it.
The breakfast room was light and airy and looked out over the gardens. The food was a pretty standard 3-star mix of bakery items, cereals, fruit and cold cuts and hot dishes. The coffee came from a machine but was of pretty good quality. I was a little frustrated by the location of some of the crockery and cutlery - for example there are no plates near the hot food or the cold cuts and there are no spoons near the fruit salad. I'm not a morning person and I don't enjoy having to forage for my breakfast. I had fruit salad followed by a soft boiled egg which really was still soft (not an easy trick to pull off in a restaurant) and a pile of mushrooms which were so tasty that I went back for more.
For a fishitarian like me who's also going through the agonies of Weight Watchers the lunches were pretty dire. If you look up 'vegetarian' in a Dutch dictionary, it says CHEESE and that's as far as the Dutch chef's imagination can stretch. Even vegetable soup will routinely be made with meat stock which is really annoying. It's not like it's hard to use a vegetable stock cube. The hot food on offer was also meaty - quiches wouldn't be quiches if you didn't stick a bit of meat in them, apparently. On both days I had to skip the soup and go with tuna pasta salad on the first day and vegetable cous cous on the second day. On the second day I had a bread roll with herring in it - I had to take the herring out, it just turned my stomach to see, touch and smell it. Now of course it's good to offer 'local' food on a buffet but with a large international group, it's probably wise to remind the kitchen that very few people who haven't grown up with raw herring are going to love the chance to try that out.
The meeting room we had was quite pleasant with plenty of natural light and a superb pod coffee system. The downside was that acoustically it wasn't great due to being two rooms put together by removing a partition down the middle. This meant the shape was long and narrow and those at the back could hardly hear anyone at the front of the room. We also had horrible problems with the temperature which rarely crept above shivery on the first day. On day two they brought in some portable heaters which made life more bearable but there were still cold drafts in the room. All the audiovisual equipment went well and we were kept well supplied with food and drinks throughout. The breakout rooms were set up in rooms originally designed as the bedrooms for the four-star side of the hotel and were quite pleasant. One small grumble would be that there are no toilets anywhere near the meeting room so you have to go down two flights of stairs to the basement or down one set and along a corridor to find the loos by reception.
~Art is in the eye of the beholder~
I love art, especially modern art. I didn't, however, love the ugly canvases on display in the Art Hotel. My guess would be that what you see will depend on when you go and who's being featured but I wouldn't give houseroom to any of the paintings on display. I was mildly amused by the photographic exhibit on the ground floor which involved lots of cows and religious imagery. I can't swear I understood them, but they made me smile.
My invoice shows I paid Euro105 per night but I would suggest you don't pay too much attention to that as we may well have arranged for the room hire and lunches to be included. I'm not sure. A quick check on the comparison site Trivago suggests you can get rooms for less than £60 a night. If you can get a good price and you don't mind being less central, I would say this is well worth considering. It's a much quieter area to be than the city centre and you can reach the centre quickly by bus. A one day pass for the public transport is Euro7.50 so if you build that into your costings, it may well be a better option than a higher priced more central hotel.
I'm not a big fan of Dutch hotels but compared to its peers, the Art Hotel offers a decent quality room, free easy-access wifi, a fairly priced bar and a lot of (in my opinion) rather poor art to look at. The staff by local standards were excellent - which means I didn't get mad at any of them and none of them were rude or surly. Quite the opposite would be true. We had no hiccups on the administration of our meeting - everything was where it should be, when it should be, and the service was so understated that we barely noticed the staff at all. The Art Hotel gets a pretty enthusiastic thumbs up from me.
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H2O Agonda (Goa)
In January this year I went to Goa for a week with a friend. We knew we wanted to stay somewhere quiet as neither of us is interested in night life. After a lot of research we settled on H2O Agonda. We loved the look of the substantial beach huts just metres from the sea. We were also convinced by the positive comments we read on Trip ... Advisor.
Getting to Goa.
After much price checking we parted with just over £600 each for our return flights to Dabolim with Monarch air flying from Manchester. The flight takes around 10 hours. If you book with a budget airline as we did I would advise you to book and pay for an extra leg room seat! The airline is question is another review!
At the time of our booking we also requested that H2O collect us from the airport and agreed a price. I even phoned the day before we left to ensure this was in hand. However on our arrival there was no sight of anyone from H2O. A phone call established that we had been forgotten *so sorry *. This meant we needed to find a local taxi. This was easy as there were dozens of taxis trying to get us into their cabs! We agreed a price (£30) and climbed into the back. If you have never been to India then you are in for a culture shock! The Taxi had no seat belts and we were told they were not needed! The standard of driving leaves a lot to be desired! To say it was a one and a half hour white knuckle ride would be an understatement! I have never been so scared! After several near misses with cows, scoters and large trucks I asked the driver to slow down! In fact I insisted saying we would not be giving any tip if he continued! He seemed surprised but it seemed to work. The journey took us past humbling sights of people living under tarpaulins at the side of the road and real poverty at every turn. The sides of the roads were knee deep in rotting rubbish and stray dogs scavenged for food. There were also several dead dogs; obviously they had been hit by cars. This is how it is in India! When we booked our return taxi, I ensured I talked to the driver and told him we wanted him to drive slowly and no overtaking! I also promised a large tip! This worked!
We both arrived feeling tired, hot and stressed. However the beauty of the place blew us away! Compared with the sights we had just experienced Agonda beach was heaven! The main street is little more than a dirt road that runs parallel with the beach. It is lined with covered stalls selling all manor of tourist goods. However the place still retains the feel of a genuine fishing village. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants most with seating on the beach. There are also a couple of basic shops selling food and fruit plus an off licence. About half way along the main street is a large church and school. As someone who enjoys shopping I knew I would be spending several happy hours walking along the street.
The reception desk is just beyond the parking area and the staff were welcoming if a little inefficient! Our booking was found and we walked along through the open bar area onto the beach. Our hut was just passed the bar. There are both beach huts and garden huts available. We opted for a beach hut as we wanted a view and also thought the cooling sea breeze would be good! We paid 7,000 rupees per night in January (about £80) This is very expensive for India but as the cost was shared by 2 of us it was affordable. The cost does go down later in the season as January is the best time to visit.
The hut is access via a few wooded steps that lead to a private veranda with sofa seating. There was a low table on the veranda. The view of the sea was stunning! Inside the hut is a large bedroom area with double bed, bedside lights and a couple of tables. There were two bottles of water and these were replaced every day. There is a ceiling fan; although we didn't need it was never too hot at night. There is also a mosquito net over the bed but again we didn't need it.
Beyond the bedroom is a dressing area with hanging space (no hangers though) There is space for suitcases and a lockable safe. Another steeper set of wooden stairs leads down to the very large open air bathroom. The bathroom has a shower, loo and hand basin. There is also some useful storage. I loved being able to take a shower and look up at the amazing stars above me! The main sleeping area has doors that can be pushed right open giving a wonderful view of the sea as you lie on the bed! In the evening it was lovely to sit on out private veranda sipping a cocktail and watching the beautiful sunsets! I had packed lots of insect repellent, but we were pleasantly surprised at how few mosquitoes there were! The staff also provided us with mosquito coils to burn.
The main front door can be secured with a padlock (key provided).We always locked the door when we were not in the hut although Agonda feels like a very safe place to stay. The hut was cleaned every day and we were given clean sheets and towels.
Agonda beach is still unspoilt and when we were there in January there were few tourists. The beach is 3 Km long and backed by palm trees. There are fishing boats along the beach and some local fishermen offer boat trips to see the local dolphins. We took a trip on one of these traditional boats and saw several Dolphins. We were also taken to a few secluded beaches along the coast. The trip was really enjoyable and cost around £20 for several hours. I really enjoyed walking along the beach in the early morning before it got too hot!
There are several establishments along the beach all offering accommodation. There are also lots of places to eat and grab a cool drink. H2O provide covered sun loungers for guest and these were really comfortable with thick padded cushions. Sitting on a sun bed and sipping a cool drink really is the way to go!
The beach also has a large population of dogs; both stray and pets. The dogs all appear fairly well fed (thanks to the local restaurants) and were never any problem. During the heat of the day they all seemed to disappear to sleep! There are also lots of cows roaming the beach, adding to the character. The beach is kept clean by local women who sweep the sand every morning with branches.
We were approached by beggars most days on the beach although they were never aggressive. It is sad to see young children looking ragged and thin whilst we in the West live relatively pampered lives. I think it is a good idea to take a few sweets to give to the children.
The Arabian Sea is not the idea place to swim! The sea here is always rough with lots of surf. There are life guard patrolling the beach every day, but this is not a great place for children or weak swimmers! There are also strong currents to contend with. However the sea was really warm and if you could manage to avoid being knocked off your feet by the waves, it is lovely to be able cool off! There were several people attempting to surf and a body board would have been fun! These are available to buy in the town.
I really enjoyed lying in the shade reading my book and sipping a cool drink! Just remember to pack lots of sun cream!
Before we left home, I had been worried that I would get ill in India. However Goa is very used to Western stomachs and I was fine! In fact I tasted the best curries I have ever eaten and all for just a few pounds! There are several good places to eat along the beach and the hardest part was deciding where to eat each day. H2O serves food all day and we ate breakfast and lunch there on a few occasions. The breakfast menu included things such as porridge with fruit (delicious and creamy) pancakes and eggs. You can also eat curry for every meal if you want to! The lunch menu included fish, sandwiches and salads. The prices were low when compared to this country, although H2o is very expensive when compared to its rivals along the beach. The service is slow, but then you are in India where things often do not run smoothly!
We opted to eat most of our meals away from H2o as there were cheaper places with better food on offer. I loved the variety of curries and the fresh fish. Meals averaged about £2 each. There was always beer on offer and this too was really cheap! I would particularly recommend eating at Simrose's where there is live music on a Friday. Most places serve gorgeous cocktails and sipping one of these whilst watching the spectacular sunsets was real joy!
If you tire of doing nothing but soaking in the sea views, then there are lots of trips you could take from Agonda,. I recommend you don't book any trip through H2O but walk along the main street and find negotiate a price with a local taxi driver; you will get a much better deal and be able to see what you want! We visited Dudhsagar water falls (see separate review) and had a wonderful day. We also paid just a few pounds for the 10KM ride to Palolem in a tuk tuk. Palolem is far more touristy than Agonda and also more expensive.
If you want to venture further then there is a bus and rail station in Canacona about a 20 minute drive away.
The season in Agonda runs from October until March with June until August being monsoon season when the huts are all taken down for the season. It is recommended that you take malaria tablets but that is a decision for you!
H2o also offers various treatments and I opted for a neck and head massage. This was very relaxing and I loved the oils that were used. I think I paid about £20 for an hour.
The beach huts may not be suitable if you have a disability due to the steep steps.
In India there are often power cuts and water shortages. Goa is no different! We experienced several powercuts every day but luckily they didn't last long! At times there was no hot water or any water at all! Again this was soon resolved!
Finally a word on tipping. We found all the staff at H2o really friendly and helpful. They earn very little and really do rely on tips! Tipping also seemed to ensure we received great service! I would defiantly return to this H2O and would love to take my children!
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Sandals Royal Bahamian (Bahamas)
Stayed at The Royal Bahamian in February. The positives; a very clean resort and very beautiful place. We had the Butler service and got the exact room we wanted in the Royal Village, ground floor, with a patio, steps away from a mini pool; we loved being here. It's very quiet and relaxing with beautiful surroundings. There was always ... staff cleaning and up keeping the resort. There are a few mini pools around the village; one other larger pool and 2 other very large pools (Windsor and Balmoral). Almost all the staff were very friendly although it's hard to tell if they were all sincere as I am sure it is the rules that they must help and be polite to guests. In saying that even the gardeners or pool boy were very helpful; I have never seen such helpfulness to be honest. They also all seem to be happy people.
The Butler service is a must; it's very expensive, but all our Butlers were great; Corrie, Raynard, Diane and Yolette; we had a great service from them but didn't actually contact them that much; I think other guests may use them more. The Cricketers; great British food; the shepherd's pie was lovely and the hot wings were delicious. The Cabanas are lovely; if you get a shaded one; they are on the beach and island (you need Butler service to book these up as you will have very little chance of getting one without the Butler service).
Beach is lovely, top areas near beach lovely; pizza place, nice, good pizzas; hamburgers and hot dogs nice. Fire pits nice, but couldn't really get one; other people hogged them and it was a bit noisy at night; I went to one once, but not a good one, a small one and I nearly fell in the pit.
Some Negatives; Most of the food was awful; poor quality, sometimes tough meat, lack of choice in vegetables and potatoes. We went to Gordon's on the pier on several occasions; first time, quite good, 2nd time, tough steak, inedible, 3rd time the gas canister that they cook on ran out of gas; we had to wait about an hour for our main course but by then we had lost our appetite; also I ordered a starter that I was told was like Caesar salad, all it was, was a plate of lettuce with a tiny bit of mayonnaise! We didn't pay for this as we had Butler service; if you have to pay it costs a small fortune, so I don't recommend going there if you have to pay. However, the views are beautiful; the pier is lovely in the evening. Kimonos; the beef and rice and sauces are nice; the chicken poor quality; a group of you sit around whilst the chef cooks on the hot plate; it can be fun but depends on what the people are like around you.
The Crystal room; basically if you want to talk don't go there, everyone whispers; a cockroach was on the pure white table cloth; I screamed but no one even spoke or looked except the waiters; even the waiters whisper. I don't blame the restaurant for this; they can't get rid of every insect and it's nothing to do with dirtiness; I just have a phobia; can't really comment on the food as we never went there after that; but I don't get why you can't speak or have to whisper!
Baccarat; had 2 good meals there, fish and a decent steak; my partner enjoyed his duck; he didn't like the sea food in most places; said the lobster was terrible; Room service; not great; got the wrong things, once came with no knife; breakfasts; ok, but as usual crappy streaky, hard as rock bacon; hash browns that were not hash browns, just burnt griddled bits of potato; No Brown sauce (HP) lucky I brought my own. when I saw they had baked beans I thought great!; when I opened the lid they looked like something the cowboys eat in old westerns; brown and nasty; needless to say we didn't eat them; the omelettes were good but too much orange coloured cheese and it was like gooh; no taste, not at all strong.
The Island; we were given a cabana totally in the sun (not what we wanted) so we sat in the shade by the pool; steps away was the cafť place (basic foods); next minute waiters came up and put towels over our shoulders!! We were not sitting there naked; I couldn't believe it; I was very insulted by this; all they do is basics food; yet its ok for guests to stroll up to Gordon's on the pier (the supposed poshest place) in grimey jeans or shorts and t shirts; we made an effort to dress up where it was required; we never went back to the island.
Our room was nice but does need some updating; they are not luxurious like at say The Balmoral, but still, the only place we would want to stay in.
I think the cricketers should introduce a nice roast dinner to its menu with all the trimmings. I was very disappointed with the quality of the food overall and came back losing 6 pounds in weight. I expected far, far better food from a 5 star resort that costs a fortune.
The day before our departure we waited over 5 hours to contact a Butler; the phone they gave us was rubbish, about a £5 phone; it didn't work properly; eventually after over 5 hours Dianne turned up, she as very helpful; but this wait was unacceptable.
If you want noise stay at The Windsor; if you want a bit of peace stay at The Balmoral (plus better rooms I think); if you want a lot of relaxation stay at the Royal Village.
I was going to give 4 stars, but I'm giving it 3... mainly because of the food; ... they need a visit from Gordon Ramsay.
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Hotel International / Address: 4100 Paradise Rd. Las Vegas, NV 89169 702.733.7000
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